Sunday, October 12, 2008

They Don’t Look Like Real Books: Taking A Stand on Print-On-Demand.

( Rebecca Wolff: Founder of "Fence" magazine

They Don’t Look Like Real Books: Taking A Stand on Print-On-Demand.

* With Rebecca Wolff at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (Lowell, Mass.)

I was at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival on Oct 11, 2008 to take part in the Small Press Festival. There were a number of presses and magazines represented there, such as: Godine Publishing, Cervena Barva Press, Ibbetson Street, Boston Review, Fulcrum, Zephyr Press, Zoland Books and many more. I got the chance to speak to many folks, both publishers and the general public. Ed Sanders, legendary poet, and founder of the 60’s political/ folk/art/rock band the “Fugs,” as well as “Fuck You: The Magazine of the Arts,”( to name just a few accomplishments), was there. He was in Ibbetson Street 23, and I interviewed him recently for The Somerville News, so it was nice to run into him.

As I wandered around the tables, I stopped off at Fence Books, an offshoot of the hip and influential literary magazine “Fence” I spoke to the founder Rebecca Wolff, who I met briefly years ago at the Boston Alternative Poetry Conference. Since then she has come along way and Fence has received recognition from the literati, and is now housed at the University of Albany in New York, where they are the recipient (no doubt) of institutional largess. I admired the Fence books that were on the table and innocently asked if any were “Print-On-Demand.” Well Wolff was like a wolf on a meat truck, and replied: Never! “I never saw one that looked like a ‘real’ book.”

Well perhaps Rebecca works in a rarefied atmosphere, far above the banal masses of the small press. But as an editor and reviewer myself, I see a slew of poetry books each year, review my share: good, bad and indifferent. I certainly can determine what a “real” book looks like. And these perfect-bound collections coming from Print-On-Demand printers are “real” books, and books to be proud of.

I invited Wolff to come by the Ibbetson Press table to take a look. She did after I called out her name as she passed my table. She looked over titles and said: “ Oh, I don’t know, the covers look like pictures of pictures.” Whatever. She did allow; “ I suppose they are comparable.”

There was a small press panel during the festival, and I situated myself in the front row so I could partake in the Q and A. On the panel were Ed Sanders, Geoffrey Young, Anna Moschovakis, Rebecca Wolff, and Kyle Schlesinger. Somerville, Mass. poet Joe Torra, a neighbor of mine, moderated it.

I asked the panelists about the “elitist” attitudes I face when I tell people we now publish Print-On-Demand books. I used Rebecca Wolff’s comment as an example. I talked about the history of the small press and its role in fostering new talent, its job of getting worthy poets on the margin out there and heard. For many of us, without the largess of the academy, foundation grants, big lips for ass kissing, etc…the only affordable way ( especially in the economic straits we have now) is Print-On-Demand. Because of low and non-existent start up prices, and printing geared to exactly how much we need at a given time, we don’t have books sitting around collecting dust. The books are quality productions, our own have been bought by university libraries, bookstores, for classes, and we get regular commissions. We are lucky if we break even, but you go in this for the love.

Anyway the panelist seemed to agree that Print-On-Demand is a viable option. Sanders, a veteran of the Mimeograph Revolution on the Lower East Side of NYC in the 60’s reminded us of the importance of printing poetry, even if it is a simple broadside, and has a press run of 2 or 3 copies. Another panelist said if he had Print-On-Demand in his day, all the books decaying in his garage would not be there. Wolff made some comments about her advocacy of poets and her efforts for the best presentation of their work ( as if we don’t!). At the end she said: ” I am intrigued…” or something in that vein, well, you know the drill.

Whenever a new technology, or new approach, is around there is always a lot of resistance. But now publishers like David Godine Jr., and others are starting to experiment with Print-On-Demand. We must remember what Jerome Rothenburg points out in his preface to “A Secret History of the Lower East Side” ( as noted in the program for the festival:

“American poetry, the part by which it has been and will be known, has long been on the margins, nurtured in the margins, carried forward, vibrant in the margins…”

Perhaps, now that Wolff has joined the ranks of the literati, she has lost sight of the fact. Let’s encourage not discourage.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update


  1. Here's an idea, instead of print-on-demand: form a viable book publishing business and print books that are worth reading. Stop the Lulu B.S., please (the Walmart of publishing), and stop using Lightning Source, Book Surge, et al. Just look at the names of your "printers"! POD is not only low quality covers and text, it's often just as low-quality content. The technology allows presses who could not afford to publish crap, to publish crap. That's not a revolution, just revolting. As an editor sick to death of being inundated with crap POD review copies, I say again: form a real company, make some real books, and then send them into the world. Not one at a time, but as if they are worth publishing in that olde time tradition of print runs. Otherwise, please, just stop.

  2. Yeah-- I looked this guy's profile up and of course it is not available to the public. Our books have been picks in the small press review, written up in The Boston Globe, blurbed and favorably reviewed by Puschart Prize winners,
    bought by major university libraries. Now you can go back to bed with Fence magazine. I doubt you have read any of our books... I just think you are afraid the status quo will be upset. It's your job to review books. I review hundreds of them myself, and many of them are POD, and many of them are very good. Why don't you go back to school and become a real editor?

  3. Anonymous4:23 PM

    this is terrific writing, supportive and all the tive i can think of. doug please try to publish this in every magazine and on line venue you can find. it made me feel proud that you could speak for us. thank you thank you.
    irene koronas

  4. Anonymous4:26 PM

    It took a while for snobs to accept on-line journals as a viable (and tree-saving) alternative to print journals too. Get with the 21st century, people! (...and maybe learn some old-fashioned common manners while at it. That was stone-cold rude as well as dumb!)

  5. Anonymous7:26 AM


    Great piece here! I was resistant to Pint-on-Demand too, but gave in last issue. Lulu does such an amazing job and I too have hundred of copies of each issue over ruling my apartment. It is kind of cool to see the aged newsprint of the old issues, but I would never trade it to go back to printing 1,000. However I did run 500 of this issue. A lot of it was from a small $20.00 monthly transfer from my checking account into my printing fund, subscriptions and etsy sales the larger portion of the print run.

    Off to china again soon.

    I wish I could have made the festival.

    Take care,

    P.S.: the hardcopies will be going out to you next week.

  6. Anonymous7:27 AM

    Doug, I love this post. Good for you, and I what a wonderful way to end it!

    Coleen T. Houlihan

  7. Anonymous7:31 AM

    well ain't that just dandy. the bloger's insults do more to bolster my ego than deflate it. most great creative movements were called by derogatory names. i guess we must be doing something right to warrant such dislike. 'nice head' is showing bias and an elist attitude and smells of fear. i'm one of those 'low quality' writers. i'm being accused by someone who has never read or seen any of my books.

    the bloger needs to look up the word, 'low,' it has several meanings and she needs to let us know which meaning she is refering to. is it 'low' as in: humble, not to tall, sad, moo, falling short, or unfavorable.please clarify so that we who print on demand may know your real intentions.

    i love the phrase, "who died and made you God."

    irene koronas

  8. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Bravo for you Doug. I went to stop by at the small press festival, but many tables were already gone. Sorry I missed you, and thanks for the sticking up for our real books.
    Also, it was nice to read with you and Molly at James Gate. Elizabeth

  9. Anonymous11:10 AM

    I don't understand all the snobbery about POD. Do you think that a kazillion crap books weren't and aren't still being published the old-fasioned way? And didn't our moms tell us not to judge books by their covers? It's quality of the WRITING that counts, folks, not whether they "look like real books." Looks aren't everything, as everybody in the world knows - or should.

    The main drawback to POD books is that many bookstores won't stock them because they may be unreturnable.

  10. Anonymous2:13 PM

    I'm sorry, indie press friends, but I am positively sick of Lulu. I can almost understand the idea, however poor the business sense, behind The Great Satan Amazon's POD branch--but Lulu? Please! The books look like crap, the cost per book is ridiculous, and Lulu publisher are, well, Lulu publishers--folks publishing books along with my neighbors, students, dogs, and their dogs' uncles' third cousin twice removed.

    Am I elitist? Hell yes. If you really think that everyone's book is worth reading, then you've never been an editor or publisher. Let me repeat that, for all you go-lucky self-published & POD folks: If you really think that everyone's book is worth reading, then you've never been an actual editor or publisher.

    Try it, for real, not via POD, and tell me I'm wrong.

    And yes, I can tell a Lulu book from across the room. Never mind that when I receive review copies via Lulu, they arrive from the company wrapped in foam, then wrapped in plastic, attached to cardboard, taped to a box that is three times the size of the book and secured with plastic straps.

    As if we have unlimited resources.

    As if one book is worth twice its weight in waste. (Oh, blasphemy! I know: we writers are worth all the waste we can produce, blah blah blah).

    Please, stop!

    Small presses take note: when you use Lulu, or Amazon's POD programs, you are killing other small presses. Presses that actually make books. Or that employ non-gigantocorporatemoloch printers to make books.

    Please support printers that print books for publishers that support authors whom the editors care enough about to publish in quality editions.

    Please make books worth reading. If you don't think you can eventually sell 1000 copies, or even 500 copies of a book, then why are you publishing it? Instead, just use your office inkjet to print the 25 you would have sold through Lulu, and then give them away, for crying out loud. Or just let the author print their own and give them away.

    Please make Lulu and their horrible books go away. Please give your money to a printer in your neighborhood. Please support authors that you are willing to put your money behind. Please stop creating a world in which no one will know an indie press from yet another Lulu press.

  11. Sorry my friend our books, that are now mainly POD, have been blurbed by Afaa Michael Weaver, ( Pushcart Prize Winner) praised by Martha Collins ( Field's editor at large), X.J. Kennedy, Fred Marchant (Graywolf), and the list goes on. Many of our poets are quite accomplished university professors,poets with many publications and from topshelf magazines. Our books have been profiled in The Boston Globe, The Small Press Review, Rattle, and the list goes on. Many University libraries have purchased our books. I bet you haven't even read one... but like to make generalizations. I advise you to go back to school. And please, accept new technologies, And please don't get histrionic and call LuLU the Great Satan, and stop making comments taht are ill informed. I have done both types of printing for probably longer-than-you-haveen alive..