Considering the Value of a Book

Kevin Larimer

During a recent trip to New York City, Joseph Bednarik, the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press, noticed something while riding the subway that got him thinking about the ways in which poetry is distributed. “I watched an elderly man read one of our Antonio Machado translations off a PSA Poetry in Motion placard. ‘How wonderful,’ I thought. ‘Machado’s readership is growing before my eyes.’”

Bednarik has thought a lot about what it means to have a book of poems published. After all, Copper Canyon publishes sixteen of them each year. But watching the man read the poem on the subway reminded him that a book is not the only way to deliver poetry to readers. “The root of publish is to ‘make public,’” he says. “And books are only one way to get work out into the world.”

So he began an informal survey. He asked poets whether they would prefer “a beautifully produced physical book, with the guarantee that it would find two thousand engaged readers” or “no physical book, but the guarantee that, through various means of publication—anthologies, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and so on—the poems would find an audience of twenty thousand engaged readers.” Bednarik included the following caveat: Either choice has equal effect on job security and advancement, review attention, and financial rewards.

“To be honest, the results were startling to me,” he says. “Everybody I talked to early on wanted a physical book and was content with a finite readership. I simply couldn’t believe it, because my impulse is to expand readership.”

For many in the book publishing industry, these results are promising: Most poets want what publishers have to offer. But the poll also raises fundamental questions about the value of getting a book published and the importance—or not—of cultivating the widest possible readership.

Signing a book contract is generally considered a crowning achievement for any working poet. Many are so eager to get a book published that they spend hundreds of dollars in contest entry fees each year. But isn’t it possible, perhaps even likely, that just as many people will read a poet’s work in a literary magazine or, as Bednarik witnessed, on a subway placard? Has the importance of readership been overshadowed by the book as status symbol? What is a poet’s priority?

We thought our readers might like to weigh in.

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.