Problems of “Previously Published” as it Pertains to Poetry, Plus a Possible Panacea

The following will describe a portion of the current state of matters related to “previously published” within the poetry community, point out a profound flaw that is a contributing factor to a host of other problems, put forth a theory of how it happened, and suggest a simple and effective fix that could change the face of poetry publishing.

Today, the overwhelming majority of poetry publishers will not even consider for publication work which has been previously published. Why is this? I have spoken personally with many publishers and have heard a wide range of reasons, but they all generally fit into several identifiable categories of answer.

The first, and most compelling if you follow news of copyright law and litigation, is that the small publisher is at real (and increasing) risk of being destroyed by copyright litigation. Poetry publishers, by and large, lack the money to even apply for bankruptcy, so the prospect of defending themselves against any claim (valid or not) from someone in Big Publishing is unthinkable. The only possible defense available to most small presses would be to shrivel up and blow away.

Another is that the administrative cost (in time, effort, and actual monies) associated with securing reprint permissions is prohibitively high. Since most small presses are made up of, at most, a few people responsible for wearing a large number of hats (typically simultaneously) and may not keep regular business hours, this is certainly a valid concern.

There are also several variations on the theme of prestige/pride. If a publisher is going to invest the time and money to publish a poem, the publisher is justified in wanting to eat a fresh meal, and not get stuck with leftovers. Reprinting is seen as something somehow less than first printing. Despite the fact that being “widely anthologized” is seen as a good thing.

This all seems reasonable on the surface, and makes a certain kind of sense, in isolation. But by looking at what comes before (goals) and what comes after (unintended consequences) this middle point it becomes clear that “no previously published” is a less than ideal solution. It is, in fact, so badly suited to the realities of the situation that these suggested reasons begin to read like justifications after the fact of acceptance of the terminology. When people are hypnotized and told to do something silly, such as hop on one foot, and are then asked to explain why they did it they consistently fabricate similarly plausible reasons: “My foot itched” or “It just feels good” or “I do this all the time.”

The primary goal of a publisher of poetry does not need to be “avoid prosecution”, “spend your resources on reprint rights”, or “disqualify based on previous success.” The primary goal of a publisher of poetry needs be “to publish the best possible poetry.” The trouble here is how the problem has been defined. Small presses have mistakenly adopted terminology from, and subsequently the practices of, Big Publishing which simply do not apply.

There are exceptions, of course, but in broad general terms, Big Publishing buys–practically by default–”all rights”. Small Publishing, on the other hand, more often than not, buys “first time rights,” and after publication the remaining rights revert back to the author. This is the crucial distinction.

In a world where the rights holder for any given previously published piece is almost certainly Sony or AOL/Time-Warner or Microsoft Press (and aggressively enforced by their lawyers with the support of current copyright laws) a policy of “no previously published” makes total sense. It’s the prudent business decision to make in that world.

However, in a world where the rights holder for any given previously published piece is almost certainly the author themselves, “no previously published” ceases to make the same kind of sense. The ramifications of this ill-suited policy are subtle but far-reaching.

The flipside of the “no previously published” coin is “one shot, goodbye.” Poets recognize, when submitting, that this poem has only one shot at being published. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that if a poet only has one chance at having a poem published they’re going to tend towards submitting to the markets with the most perceived value. This is the upward/downward spiral of the blockbuster mentality which currently drives Hollywood and mainstream publishing, and runs counter to the notion of publishing the best possible poetry. As a trend, it tends towards publishing the most likely to succeed, which puts the emphasis on conservative sameness rather than on quality alone.

“No previously published” also results in an imbalance of submissions, such that publications like The New Yorker and Poetry are the only markets attractive to both new and established poets–because regardless of where you are on the ladder the motivational thrust of “one shot, goodbye” is away from reaching an ever wider range of markets, and towards consolidating into fewer and fewer markets. Instead of researching markets for a match of material to mission, poets will research as far as circulation numbers and stop there.

“No previously published” leads (logically) to “no simultaneous submissions” which ends up being untenable when you have writers submitting to publishers who are, after all, human and taking care in their reading of submissions, and thus have slow turnaround times. It is not uncommon, at all, to wait over a year for a reply from a publisher of poetry.

The sum total of these factors is an economy that is inherently conservative, rewards quantity more effectively than quality, and jerks good poems out of circulation faster than necessary.

A good poem should have the chance to be widely circulated–in fact, this can be one of several metrics for quality judgment. The more widely published a poem is, the more literary journals who’ve seen value in publishing it, the better it is.

Instead of asking “is it previously published?” we need to be asking “is it any good? what rights is the author able to offer?”

If the poem is good, AND the author owns the rights to have it printed again, all of the problems that have been argued as reasons for “no previously published” evaporate. There is no copyright being infringed, no additional resources need to be expended to secure rights, and the publisher has the pride of publishing the best possible poems, instead of settling for the best of whatever’s left after everyone else is done removing their slices from the pie.

Tags: ,

One Response to “Problems of “Previously Published” as it Pertains to Poetry, Plus a Possible Panacea”

  1. John Says:

    I concur with a lot of your argument - a possible flow on from it could be for a poetry rights brokerage, as such a beast could provide a valuable service to poet and publisher. For poet you might offer end-user functions - create account / send submissions / track submissions / selection of varying degrees of sensitivity to aspects such as what rights are to be offered etc. For publisher you might offer verification functions - a one-stop rights status request which would cut administrative headache for small presses especially - i.e. what works from poet do you have on file able to be offered - or otherwise which are already exclusively held by publisher y - in given jurisdictions?