Rachael Hanel
From the November/December 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This past summer Noel Black founded his new press, the New Heave-Ho, with a goal of publishing PDF-only poetry collections, available for free or for a small donation online. He launched it with a manifesto, developed with input from Anna Moschovakis, an editor at the Brooklyn, New York–based Ugly Duckling Presse, which published Black’s debut poetry collection, Uselysses, in 2011, and, at Black’s request, is now offering it at no cost in PDF format.

The manifesto states, in part, that “the new PDF press”—a term Black uses to encompass not just the New Heave-Ho, but future PDF-only presses—is “revolutionary in that it eliminates almost all barriers of entry to publication and readership for all people in all socioeconomic situations.”

Black, Moschovakis, and other publishers hope that the free-PDF approach will help make poetry more widely available, particularly to readers in geographically isolated locations, and grant more freedom to writers and publishers by working outside the traditional publishing system. According to the manifesto, the new PDF press also “seeks to bypass the MFA/PhD system as a gatekeeper/gentrifier of poetry culture and publication by making as many poems available to as many people as possible outside those gates.”

“I was hoping the manifesto would start an interesting conversation [about] how we can move forward and make things available in the poetry community,” Black says.

Moschovakis says her conversation with Black about the purpose and intent of freely distributing poetry was enlightening. “I learned a lot from his perspective,” she says, noting that Black, who lives in Colorado Springs, felt he had limited access to poetry because of his location. After releasing the PDF version of Uselysses this past July, Ugly Duckling launched an initiative to make PDF proofs of its other published books available for free, with each author’s permission, on its website.

A handful of presses, including Duration Press, H_NGM_N, and Publishing Genius, have made poetry chapbooks freely available in PDF format for several years, but a poetry press whose sole mission is to offer free PDFs is new territory. Black envisions a number of presses eventually joining forces to create an online digital library.

In the meantime, Black’s newest book, La Goon, and Time Pieces: A Cultivated Distraction as Post-Wave Feminism by Marina Eckler, are available for download through the New Heave-Ho. Though he hasn’t yet begun to solicit manuscripts, Black hopes to publish new work by others, and may republish books originally printed through his former chapbook press, Angry Dog Midget Editions. He’s also working on curating an anthology of avant-comic and satirical poetry that will be available online for free.

Like Black, H_NGM_N director Nate Pritts says he’s interested in breaking down the wall of traditional publishing. (More than three dozen PDF chapbooks are available at no charge on the H_NGM_N website.) He says there’s a mind-set in which people think of only the top journals or presses when it comes to publishing options.

“[Writers] get stuck in the mode that there’s only one way to go, that you submit to a journal or contest and that’s it. I want to help people understand there’s a gear behind the wall, there’s a machine we can use for the good of all poetry.”

The traditional route, Pritts says, made sense at one time, but with advances in technology that model has become outdated. “It doesn’t fit our contemporary culture or our contemporary means.”

Adam Robinson, founding editor of Publishing Genius, which began as a traditional press, has since made about thirty books available as free PDFs. The digital option gives Robinson the ability to publish more books than he could otherwise. “There are just some books I wouldn’t be able to do in print. It would be too expensive,” Robinson says, citing the cost of printing and the inclusion of full-color art as common financial challenges. “I realized I could just put them online as PDFs.” Robinson still makes some print copies for himself and his authors so they have a physical version to sell.

Robinson and Black say that because commercial prospects for poetry are so limited, the ability to publish freely online to a wide audience is a good option for poets—but not everyone in the poetry community is on board with such a model. Kathryn Kysar, a poet and the chair of the creative writing program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, says free availability represents a general undervaluing and misunderstanding of poetry in U.S. culture. Many different presses publish poetry for free, but rarely does a press offer an entire novel or memoir in the same way.

“If the author is making no money at all and she’s expected to subsidize her own craft, I don’t think that’s fair and appropriate,” says Kysar, who has published two poetry collections through small regional presses. “Consumers have a perception of value based on the cost. If you say that something is free, that devalues it.”

But Robinson says a PDF chapbook doesn’t necessarily represent the end product of a poet’s career; it’s often part of a longer process. “A chapbook is something I use to motivate myself when I’m not working on a longer project,” he says.

At Ugly Duckling, Moschovakis says the free digital proofs are offered only after authors are paid for their initial print runs. The hope is that the digital editions will spark more interest in the books, which would prompt an additional print run. Most of Ugly Duckling Presse’s authors have opted for the digital-proof offerings, Moschovakis says.

“Newer authors may be the ones to choose not to do it right away,” she adds. “How would it affect your book sales if you also offered a free PDF on the day the book came out?”

Black isn’t sure how audiences will receive the PDF-only format, and still wonders where the real demand lies—in the words themselves, or in the physicality of a book. “Will this even be a way that people want to read poetry?” he asks. “Maybe just a handful. But I don’t see the harm in doing it.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published earlier this year by the University of Minnesota Press.