On-Line Publishing and the Literary Gift Economy

    A paper presented by Jennifer Ley at E-Poetry 2001 --
    organized by Loss Pequeno Glazier and the Poetics
    Department at SUNY-Buffalo [April 21, 2001].

I first encountered the concept of a literary gift economy in an editorial by William Slaughter, publisher  of the online poetry publication, Mudlark.  By way of introduction to this topic, Id like to quote that source:

"The mudlark's job description, if he had one, would likely read: scavenger. His survival, outside the political and economic systems that governed the official life of his time, depended on whatever he could find--"empty bottles, sandwich papers, / silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends"--that the river had left behind. Anything on which he could put a price, anything that had value on the street.

Editing a poetry magazine on-line, singing "the body electric" at the end of the 20th century, is like that. In the language mud of the World Wide Web, one occasionally finds something that has value on the street and deserves to be called by the name poem. I take my mudlarking seriously. What sustains me in my work is knowing that the real thing is down there, beyond metaphor, and that I will find it if only I dig deep enough. But when I do-- I don't put a price on it, I give it away. In Mudlark poetry is free. What is the coin of poetry's realm? Poetry is a gift economy."

It should come as no surprise to the literary world that despite the new reach and scope the Web has given to writing, the publication of many literary works still depends on the kindness of strangers.  In the case of poetry, this has historically often been true.

For poetry, more so than narrative literature, seems to thrive best outside what we tend to think of as the traditional writers' economy, where advances and royalties, book sales and more recently, licensing fees, support the efforts of writers and their publishers.  Publishing poetry has always been more a labor of love than one of economic reward; poets have become accustomed to working in a field where success rarely equals outstanding sums of cash.

Many would say that this is as much a blessing as it is a curse, in that poetry, freed from the possibility of generating large financial rewards, concentrates its legal tender in the areas of aesthetics and technical craft.  Poets and their editors write and publish for the joy found when words are well rubbed together.

When poetry first met the World Wide Web ... it seemed a match made in heaven.  Finally, a distribution medium existed where for a minimal (compared to print production) cost, the poetry of a large group of people from all over the world could be presented to possible readers.  Thrilled to find a new, cheap distribution medium, quite a number of editors and publishers established original online publications.  With the obsessive behavior that new technology often generates in its users, these editor/publishers worked happily without pay.  Server space was free or relatively cheap, text files taking up little space, and the creative challenge of learning new coding techniques as html language became more sophisticated more stimulating than odious.  Everyone wanted to play with the new toy.

But as transfer rates -- aided by DSL and cable -- increased, many web writers started using graphic files and other electronic enhancements in their code, and the space required to house all this work began to grow exponentially, both within current issues and their archives. For on the Web, with its spider/keyword aided search engines, the old job of cataloguing published literary works has found a dynamic and cooperative partner, thus enhancing the value of online archives of electronic works.

But the sustainability of this literary gift economy does not rest solely on the willingness of publishers to pay for server costs and code the work they publish gratis.  Historically, other institutions, most notably libraries both public and private, have contributed to the preservation of literary works.  However, the model whereby a library might subscribe to and archive a literary periodical such as Ploughshares still does not exist for electronic publications.  Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that web published works have still not been granted 'official' literary status, or because libraries, historically versed in the preservation of text on paper or microfiche, have been slow to invest in the technology necessary to archive digital literature.  However, as libraries shift practice towards storing more literary information in digital format, what better format to emulate than html? [I know some of you will have something to say about this]

SUNY-Buffalo has, through the creation of the Electronic Poetry Center, begun to address some of the issues inherent in archiving digital literature, as has organizations like the non-profit   But other institutions one might look to to aid in this process are being notably silent.  In the area of, ever more closely aligned to digital literature as the line between visual art and literary art becomes increasingly blurred, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts most recent exhibit does not include in situ computers where the online work can be viewed.  Visitors to the exhibit are given urls for the works, commissioned by the museum, so that they can view them at home.   Thus the Museum, which could have put electronic arts archiving on the map by an investment in technology has instead chosen to side step the need for archiving completely.

A parallel issue exists which further complicates archiving.  As electronic publications have developed, the model by which a copy of a magazine or book is "owned" has changed vs traditional print publications.  In the past, having paid for a subscription to Ploughshares, a library or university could archive the work indefinitely.  Copyright laws prohibited republication or reproduction of the  magazine and its individual works, thus protecting the copyright of the authors.  But with the ease by which digital work can be reproduced and redisplayed, the concept of the 'copy' blown to bits by the technology itself, protecting author copyright while promoting competent archiving becomes more problematic.

The short term solution to this problem, made more accessible by the new availability of write-to cd/roms, is to burn a cd/rom copy of individual works and the web sites on which they appear as they go live on the net.  But this is truly a short term stop-gap, not a real solution, as cd/roms made this way are usually platform dependent, and best viewed on browser versions current to their publication.  This is especially the case with more recent electronic literature, where authors utilize unique plug-ins and browser specific code to achieve the effects they are after.

Plus, it seems contrary to the spirit and reach of the Web to create an archival situation which mimics old single volume storage print practice, when one of the most striking things about Web published works is the ease of their accessibility all over the world.

It seems clear that online publications have been an essential component towards building the environment in which electronic literature now flourishes, a topic I plan to further explore this summer in an NEH program led by N. Katherine Hayles.  Organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization are working to raise public awareness of the work, shows at the Whitney and the Guggenheim continue to place the work on the cusp of writing and art.

However, with the exception of EPC and a handful of other university and collegiate based publications, it has been my experience that many of the people who are working to publish electronic poetry and literature are what we could best call independents.  By this I mean online magazines which are not tied to a former print incarnation or funded by a university, many of which have been quick to embrace new forms of electronic literary development.

The fact that many of these publications are run by individuals, again not unlike many of their historic print counterparts, means that in most cases, one or two people provide all the labor and capital to continue publication.  And, while some publishers have been able to get grants for their work and some  accept advertising, no model really exists at this time to generate capital to help all these independent publications continue to exist, offer payment to the authors they publish, or reliably archive past published works.  The concept of a literary gift economy may be poetic, but in actuality, online publications need help to deal with these issues.

In hopes that there can be strength in numbers, several editor publishers banded together several years ago to form ILEF - the Internet Literary Editors Fellowship.  Unlike former electronic web ring alliances, ILEF has been able to offer its members streamlined communication with the archive service,, a forum to discuss issues like archiving and copyright, a common web site to announce publication news and a gateway for the public to the many online publications its members produce -- giving the Web reading public access to a wide range of literary content and editorial perspective.

In preparation for this paper, I asked ILEFs members to answer several questions as to their concerns for the future.  Typical responses include this from John Kusch at Bluff Quarterly:

Our concerns have become less about money and more about time.  Regularly publishing any kind of web content is an investment in time, energy, and creativity.  Because we all have our own private creative endeavors, we  have to budget our time more aggressively to make sure that Bluff gets our best efforts.

Asked to relate their own experience to the concept of a literary gift economy, James Cervantes of the Salt River Review said:

Without the "gift economy," The Salt River Review would never have gotten off the ground.  I think the "gift economy" will persist simply because of public demand for access to existing information.  Literary work is a part of the collective memory and the internet is the closest thing we have to a manifestation of that collective memory.  Who would *not* want to access that?

Is it enough to hope that, as in the past, the literary world will continue to encounter kind strangers willing to spend their own time, money and effort to promote and publish the work of others?  That future software will be smart enough to interpret older code?  That someone, or better many someones, will rise to the occasion to professionally ensure the archiving of this work for posterity?  As Johanna Drucker stated in Riding the Meridian's most recent roundtable discussion:

I've had the opportunity to see some of the research initiatives in this area shaping up. Mellon Foundation, Cornell University, the University of Virginia, and a consortium of libraries, museums, and archival organizations with professional commitments to this question are working on the technical issues. John Unsworth is about to (all forces willing) launch a serious research and implementation experiment here to take seriously the problems of durability, robustness, and exportability in a long-view approach to this question. There are many more technical obstacles than folks realize, and one of the biggest myths of electronic technology is that it is a good storage medium. Wrong. Not in its present form. Data are vulnerable, mutable, unstable, and unlikely to last. This will change, but the issues are complex.

And though, as Mark Amerika states in the same roundtable discussion:

Some of the institutional models innovating preservation programs are the organizations mentioned above in [question] #6, (SUNY-Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center, Arts Wire, the AltX Network) but also, for example, The Rhizome ARTBASE and the wonderful work Steve Dietz is doing at the Walker Art Center's Gallery 9 project. Museums and other organizations are also going to have do more than collect the data, that is, they are going to have to start archiving the hardware and software the work was intended to be displayed on (yes, a PowerPC running Mac OS 8.0 and Netscape 3.0),
I think we want to be careful not to relinquish archiving to one group of publishers, in the electrosphere.  We would never want our libraries to offer books produced by only six or seven publishers.  Whatever archiving system develops, we need to assure that it represents a wide diversity of editorial choices, and this needs to include work published around the world in a variety of languages, not just in English.

The issues that will effect the sustainability of the online literary gift economy are complex -- involve immediate as well as long-term concerns.  We are unlikely to find a new model to generate income from literary work, thus our focus might best turn to preserving the work we have translated and will continue to publish in Web viewable code.

No doubt, at some point in history, a group of monks looked in dismay at a leaky roof and a mildewing pile of parchment manuscripts.  As they pondered how to preserve such fragile things as hand penned books produced on and with natural, decaying organic material, they couldnt begin to contemplate how they would do this in a national arena -- could not conceive of a global literary environment. We are mudlarks on the banks of an extremely rich data stream.  That gift already has been given to all of us.