Monday, April 5, 2010

I've moved

In an attempt to put my various web presences under one roof, I've discontinued this blog and exported it to a wordpress site. My new site (for now) is http://brianspears.wordpress.com and I've been blogging there fairly regularly this month at least. No promises as to whether that will continue.

I'll take this site down eventually, so you may want to update your bookmark.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Poetic Lives Online

Congratulations to Rae Armantrout for winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection Versed.

This post by Al Filreis made me send him a Facebook friend request, just so I can find out how the conversation ended. (If you friend request me, I'll probably say yes--I'm a bit of a whore.)

Jessica Smith has more on her series about women in poetry and poetry-blogging.

The Washington Post covers split This Rock.

Google has reached a deal with Italy to scan books. Older books, mind you, out of copyright, but still, it's a start.

I really enjoyed this poetry lecture featuring five Muslim American poets: Raza Ali Hasan, Ibtisam Barakat, Fady Joudah, Kazim Ali, and Khaled Mattawa. It's 45 minutes long and that's only part one, but it's worth the time.

This week's Twitter recommendation is Katrina Vandenberg. She's one of the poets we'll be featuring during our National Poetry Month poem-a-day project. More on that soon.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The New Math Doesn't Really Add Up

What does one do with an essay like the one David Alpaugh pennedfor the Chronicle of Higher Education on the current state of poetry publication? As an editor who publishes about 50 poems a year here on The Rumpus (all directly solicited), I feel like I have to respond, since I'm contributing to the noise that seems to bother Alpaugh so.

Others have already responded. John Gallaher says of Alpaugh's claim that he doesn't know who the best poets writing today are, "In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it."

Mark Scroggins replies to Alpaugh's claim that the potential loss of a contemporary Blake or Dickinson would be the "most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable" this way:
That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, "What if Beethoven's mother had aborted him?": We wouldn't have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn't be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn't have them, we'd be living in a different culture. It's an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That's the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.
My problem, though, is with Alpaugh's math. Let me start by conceding that the arenas for publication have exploded in number in the last ten years with the rise and mainstream acceptance of online publication. But I'm not sure Alpaugh is comparing apples to apples in his construction. First of all, he gets his numbers from different sources.
Len Fulton, editor of Dustbooks, which publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, estimates the total number of literary journals publishing poetry 50 years ago as 300 to 400. Today the online writers' resource Duotrope's Digest lists more than 2,000 "current markets that accept poetry," with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months.
Hold on a second--"literary journals" doesn't necessarily equal "markets that accept poetry." For example, Thrasher Magazine fits into the latter, but not the former category today, and I have my doubts as to whether Fulton included independent 'zines (the equivalent, in a way, of online journals today) and magazines that published poetry as an afterthought in his count of literary journals.

Alpaugh also fails to take population growth into account. In 1959, there were about 177.8 million people living in the US. Today, that number is closer to 309 million, and the last decade showed a larger raw number increase than any of the last five. More people=more writers=a larger potential audience, it seems to me.

And finally, growth rates are rarely, if ever static. Alpaugh doesn't take into account either the number of journals, online or otherwise, which cease publication (yes, it even happens online) or the possibility that the growth in publications will slow over time, perhaps due to their replacement by a new venue for poetry.

There are other problems with this essay, but I'll leave those to other writers (and I'll probably link to them as I see them). That the math doesn't work is enough for me to dismiss it.

Crossposted at The Rumpus

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading update

Even though I've been busy as hell with the semester, I've managed to get some reading done in the last few weeks. Almost two months ago, I took a page from Mark Scroggins and other to think about just how much I read. Since then, I've finished George Witte's Deniability, W. S. DiPiero's City Dog, Stacy Lynn Brown's Cradle Song (which I plan to review for The Rumpus soon), and I've reread Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Apocalyptic Swing, largely because I'm teaching it in my Poetic Forms class this term.

I've also made it my goal to read things I probably should have read in graduate school but somehow missed, so I've just read Spring and All and I'm working my way through Robert Creeley's Pieces at the suggestion of a close friend. Both of those will require multiple readings, certainly. And I've reread some fun stuff from my youth, thanks to my Stanza app--The Three Musketeers and The King Arthur stories. I'm also working my way through a version of Inferno done by twenty different translators lent to me by my friend Becka McKay.

So I guess that brings my completed total of new (to me) books this year to 7, and total to 9, with many more on my list. Next up (for now): Ann Carson's Oresteia, Heather Hartley's Knock Knock (in part because I named my own manuscript that for a contest or two) and Nick Lantz's We Don't Know We Don't Know.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do What Now?

So I'm hunting around for links for my weekly Poetic Lives Online post over at The Rumpus, when I come across this gem of a post from the London Review blog. I couldn't give it the full attention I thought it deserved in that column, so I'm putting it here instead. The blog post begins this way:
A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’
What do you do with such an obviously ludicrous statement? What's worse is that the blogger, Jenny Diski, rolls with it as though it's so obviously true that it's not worth challenging. Seriously, that's the kind of claim I'd smack down one of my first-year students for putting it into the introduction of an argumentative essay.

Let me use my own experience as an example here. Got a minor in Creative Writing as an undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University, and my poetry teacher there, Jack Bedell, never once suggested that a poem needed to have a redemptive close. Got my MFA at Arkansas, which is a pretty traditional school, and none of my teachers there--Miller Williams, Michael Heffernan, Enid Shomer and Davis McCombs--suggested that a poem needed to have redemption in it. I can't remember if Miller had redemption or something similar in his long list of closing moves that he gave us in Form and Theory class, but if he did, it was one on a very long list. And Michael might have punched me in the throat if I'd tried that. (Not really--he was a great guy.)

Move forward to Stanford--Ken Fields, Eavan Boland and W. S. DiPiero. Never a peep about a redemption requirement in poems. And none, I might add, from any of the people I was ever in a workshop with, many of whom are teaching in universities across the countries. And while I'm not on the MFA faculty here at FAU, and I've never sat in on any of the graduate workshops, I'd bet money that Mark Scroggins doesn't tell his students to put a moment of redemption or uplift into their poems, and I'd be surprised if Susan Mitchell does either.

Neither do I, and I teach undergraduate poetry workshop nearly every semester. In fact, I find myself very often telling my undergrads to be a bit more daring in their closings, because they tend toward that moment of uplift on their own, when they're not going for out-and-out explanation of what they were trying to say all along.

Look, it's obvious that Gardner and Diski have their doubts about the university creative writing industry that's springing up in Britain, and the one we have here certainly has its flaws (though I don't think they're as dire as most detractors seem to suggest), but be a little skeptical for crying out loud. All you have to do is access a poetry journal, even one as mainstream as Poetry, and you'll find poems written by poets who've gone through that system which disprove that thesis. Just don't look in The New Yorker.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Poem Flow

Poets.org, the online home of the Academy of American Poets, has just released an iPhone app called Poem Flow. (No idea on just how well that link will work, for the record--you can access the description through the Poets.org home page as well.) I downloaded it because, well, I'm a sucker for apps, and it's free. I've been fiddling with it a little, and here's what I find interesting about it.

It changes the way you perceive the poem a bit. Here's what I mean. The first poem that loaded up for me was Yeats's "The Second Coming." Here's a screen grab of what it looks like in standard view.
Scroll down the screen and you get the whole poem--the lines are broken to fit the screen, but the indentions make clear where Yeats broke his lines. Here's the traditional way of viewing the poem for comparison's sake.

But when you go landscape, well, that's a whole different story, because now you get the flow effect--there's a play button at the bottom of the screen, and the words appear and disappear as you work your way through the poem. Notice I didn't say lines--that's because lines aren't the units now. Here's a screen grab from the landscape view:
This view seems to have done away with much, if not all of Yeats's capital letters, but the big change, for me, is that they've completely changed the way one approaches the poem now. You can't get the sense of movement from the screen grabs, but the rate at which the words appear and disappear limits the speed at which you can read the poem (in a good way, I think) and it emphasizes moments of tension in the poem. It creates dozens more line breaks than Yeats included or arguably intended. In a way, you're no longer reading Yeats's poem--you're reading the programmer/designer's edition of Yeats's poem.

This also means that the programmer/designer can have some fun with the poem. I was grabbed by this moment the first time I saw it.
Combined with the previous line "a waste of desert sand;" these lines make me think of the Sphinx, and by extension, the Valley of the Kings, and while it may be coincidence that these three lines form a pyramid of sorts, it certainly reinforced the image for me.

The poems all appear to be older, public-domain poems--you get twenty for downloading the app, and then you have the option of buying another hundred for a dollar, or a year's worth for $2.99, using the new inApp option iTunes has set up. I spent the three bucks and I'll see how I like it. I hope that the AAP is using the public domain stuff as a teaser and that we'll see newer poems in the subscription model. It would also be nice if the AAP would allow poets to collaborate with designers in the translation of their works into this new format.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Poetic Lives Online

Philip Pullman writes about Blake's poetry, and argues that it can be appreciated separate from the illuminations.

Thermos interviews Katy Lederer, who we reviewed nearly a year ago.

Anindita Sengupta on Indian English Poetry.

Inferno, the video game. It's Dante in the same way "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is Homer. Except it's a video game. And Beatrice is in hell.

More on gender, race and poetry in this post at Harriet. And some good advice as well--advice I plan on taking as Poetry Editor here.

And on that note, would you like to write about poetry for The Rumpus? What was the last book or poem you loved? Send me a write-up, no length requirements, and I'll publish the best of them. poetry-at-therumpus-dot-net.

Brian Spears

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Poetic Lives Online

It's Saturday night and it's poetry time. Who else is excited?

I always figured the Irish got excited about poetry. Roddy Doyle says otherwise.

I'm late to the game in discovering the Poetry Foundation's podcasts, but I'm having some fun listening to them. I liked Ron Silliman's discussion of writing a poem with an eraser, as well as Carmine Starnino's "Are Poets Lazy Bastards?"

41 popular moves in contemporary poetry.

I'm double-dipping a little here, as Elisa Gabbert helped on the above link, but I really liked this piece from her website on publishing the poem, not the poet.

John Gallaher asks what it means to be a careerist in poetry.

Twitter recommendation for this week is January Magazine. They do more than just poetry--sometimes they just tweet news story links--but they're very active and informative.

Brian Spears

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Monday, January 18, 2010

An Arundel Tomb

Twice now, in the last couple of months, I've come across media pieces on Philip Larkin's "An Arundel Tomb" (which is on my Interpretation of Poetry syllabus for this week), first on BBC4 radio, which is sadly not available online at present, and then today on the Poetry Foundation website--they tweeted it and I followed the link because I really, really like this poem. The funny thing is, neither piece talked about the reason I like the poem, namely, the statement I think Larkin makes about nostalgia.

Let me start by saying it's perfectly possible that the reason none of these other people mention nostalgia is because it's so obvious and they're interested in other matters. I haven't read any Larkin criticism; for all I know, there's a book on the way Larkin dealt with nostalgia. But I'm going to blather on about it anyway.

The poem begins with a description of the tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor in Chichester Cathedral. The Earl and the Countess are side by side atop the tomb, holding hands, he dressed in armor and she in what looks like a nun's habit, and there are dogs beneath their feet. Larkin describes the effect of seeing the hand-holding as a "sharp tender shock," an unexpected display of affection given that noble marriages from the medieval period weren't typically romantic affairs. (Larkin later mourned that he'd gotten this detail wrong, that these two by all accounts did have an affectionate relationship--doesn't matter, though, since the surprise is the important thing.)

He plays on this a bit in the following stanza:
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
Larkin is punning on the word "lie" here; the whole idea of an elaborate tomb is to make one's name last far into the future, so he can't be talking about their physical bodies. No, it seems to me that, because he distrusts the image of the two as a loving couple, he assumes that their hand-holding would be "just a detail friends would see," and they would write it off to "a sculptor's sweet commissioned grace" and nothing more. The important information, from the Earl and Countess's point of view, would be the "Latin names around the base," not any memory of the romance (or lack thereof) between the inhabitants of the tomb.

Larkin moves this "lie" forward in time and shows how it becomes a truth of sorts, as "succeeding eyes begin / To look, not read." Future observers who were unable to read the Latin names or were unable to contextualize them would only see the lie of the loving couple. Tourists would visit the cathedral, "Washing at their identity" until all that was left was the image itself, a man of war and his wife, his ungauntleted hand holding hers in this unusual moment of tenderness.

So when Larkin opens his final stanza with the words "Time has transfigured them into / Untruth," he's talking about how we look back into the past and see only the rosy parts. We wash away anything disturbing (whenever we can) and so this medieval couple, who one would assume married to unite powerful families or consolidate land gains are now a symbol for love that lasts through time. That's what Larkin is getting at in his final line, "What will survive of us is love." The Latin names didn't make it (in the sense that they don't signify anything to most people who see the tomb), nor did any stories of what their relationship truly was like. All that was left was the statue. What survives of them is love, whether it really existed or not.

But that's the thing about memory and nostalgia. It's completely unreliable. It washes away the ugliness, the grit and crap, and makes things seem prettier, simpler than they ever could have been. The love that survived, that will survive us, will be a lie, not because it isn't love, but because it will be devoid of context and strife, of any of the dirt that has to be part of any relationship. The notion that we should not speak ill of the dead is one manifestation of this phenomenon. We remember only the good parts, only the beauty, only the love.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wow

So I've been blogging at The Rumpus and Incertus about the Haiti earthquake response, instead of prepping for classes tomorrow like I ought to have been--it's too early in the semester to get behind, after all--but about midway through my marathon session, I was forwarded this incredibly wonderful post from Don Share at Harriet. If saying it didn't automatically negate it, I would say I am humbled by his words.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Poetic Lives Online

Happy Saturday everyone.

So Missouri Governor Jay Nixon wants a Poet Laureate for the state who doesn't have anything in his or her background that might embarrass him. I take it he doesn't know many poets.

Connecticut is looking for a Poet Laureate too. No word on embarrassment restrictions.

Did you miss the off-site MLA poetry reading? You can get an .mp3 of it here.

Catherine Halley reports from the Key West Literary Seminar, which is experiencing, I'm sad to say, the least Key-Westian weather in recent memory.

And my Twitter follow recommendation this week is the poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing. I've been interviewing Gabrielle for The Rumpus and Twitter is a big part of it.

Brian Spears


Crossposted to The Rumpus

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

First Impressions: George Witte's Deniability

I should have loved this book, I think. I agree with Witte's politics, and my own writing tends toward the metrically formal, which Witte does quite ably throughout Deniability.

And yet...maybe I would have loved this book three years ago, which is when I suspect most of the poems were written, or at least inspired. The cover image is Fernando Botero's "Abu Ghraib 66" and the second section is made of poems about rendition, torture, and the various justifications the nation's leaders made for the actions our military took during that time frame. The third section deals with surveillance and an allegorical figure named "Suspicion."

I'm sure the issue is one of fatigue for me--I've spent more time on political blogs for the last five years than is good for one's mental stability--and I don't want to ascribe this to Witte's poems, but when I read "Failure to Comply," about a set-to at an airport security checkpoint, I find myself not caring, not about the subject nor the poem itself. And that's not fair to Witte or his art.

There are moments where Witte's poems transcend the immediate subject matter--the first section is full of them, and I really enjoyed "Likenesses," which contained this moment:
"So much of who we are," he said, "depends
on markers humans recognize as us."
I recalled our daughter Helen
shying from my stroke-strange mother's kisses,
two years enough to discern alien
in familiar guise.
Even though the poem begins with a specialist who helps repair the faces of people harmed in war, Witte makes the poem more familiar here, and his decision to move away from the strict iambic pentameter he'd been using really brings this moment into focus--the two year old who saw something not-quite-human in her grandmother's face and shied away.

I won't be reviewing this for The Rumpus--I'm passing it on to another reviewer, and I hope she can give it a better chance than I did.

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Poetic Lives Online

First thing: Chinese poet Lu Xiaobo has been sentenced to eleven years in prison. There isn't much people can do, but you can register your opinion on this via the PEN American Center website.

Mark Scroggins has inspired me to keep better track of how much poetry I read. Not sure if that's what he was going for, but that's what happened.

Gary Barwin comments on what he calls the cage match of Canadian poetry and wonders "why we can’t have both approaches as part of a vital and active poetry world." Other than "both" buttressing a dichotomic view of poetic options, I agree with him. I think of myself as a poetic populist--room for everyone in the pool.

Alex Beam suggests libraries could help kill the e-book by lending them out. He couldn't be more wrong.

My Twitter follow recommendation for this week is @rattlepoetry, the feed of Rattle. It's a journal which is using the web as an addition to their print journal, and they use it well.

Crossposted to The Rumpus

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Tracking my Reading

For a long time I thought I read a lot--and I did, compared to the people I was an undergrad with, and among my friends while I was a Witness. Then I got to grad school, and even though I was reading more then than I ever had before, I came to realize that I was a piker, at least when it came to the subject I was studying.

I was reading Mark's post on bulk-reading and beating myself up over my lax habits when it occurred to me that I don't really know how much I read in a given year. I'm not in Mark's league, not by a long shot, but I probably do a better job than I give myself credit for, especially since I started getting books as part of my editor's gig at The Rumpus.

So since I've been looking for ways to use this blog more, I'm going to shamelessly jack an idea from Michael Kelleher and modify it--I'll post what I'm reading and keep count of it. This will be my New Year's Resolution, to keep track of how much and how varied my reading is. And I'll be glad to take suggestions from anyone who passes by and leaves them in the comments.

So right now, I'm in the middle of a couple of books, not counting the two I have to reread in order to review soon. The first is City Dogs by W.S. DiPiero, his latest collection of essays, and I've been at this one for a couple of months, reading a snatch here and there and then ruminating on it for days. I love DiPiero's writing, and have ever since I worked with him at Stanford, and I did some scanning and conversion to text work for him when he was putting this together, so I have a closer connection with some of the content than I would normally have.

The second is Seamus Heaney's new translation of The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables, which I've been reading occasionally before I go to bed. I could just blow through this one, but again, I've been taking it a fable at a time. Heaney's translation is fine, but not inspired, or maybe it's the subject matter--morality tales get a little heavy-handed at their best, and when I read them one after another, I start to feel like I do when I read Very Intense Bloggers Writing About Very Important Things, and I tune out. The rhythms of the lines don't vary enough to counteract the occasional creeping numbness, which is why I don't read much of it in a sitting.

So that's two, and I'll update when I finish one and get into another.

Book count: 2

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Stealing Books

Via The Rumpus, Margo Rabb has a funny piece in the NY Times about book theft. As anyone with a wry sense of humor might expect, the Bible is the most-stolen book around, even in Christian book stores (where it might be the only thing worth reading).

These paragraphs near the end got me thinking a little, though, in large part because my own book is being published (fingers crossed) in 2010, and though I doubt there's going to be much of an issue with digital piracy--I can only hope that I'm in demand enough that people would want to steal it--I am interested in using the web as a marketing tool for my work.
Many publishers and authors fear that piracy, and the general transition from print to digital media, will cause irreparable harm to the book industry, as it has in the music world. The writer Sherman Alexie, who has refused to make his fiction available in digital form, agrees. “The open source culture is coming for us,” he told me, “and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

John Palfrey, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the author of “Born Digital,” is more optimistic. “The way young people enjoy music is very different from the way they enjoy books, and I don’t think that we’ll see the same pattern of piracy emerge that we’ve seen in the music industry — at least not in the near future,” he said.
There's little doubt in my mind that the transition will force the publishing industry to evolve, and that the companies which currently dominate the landscape will mostly fail to do so. The companies will survive in some form or another, but they'll be the IBM's of a generation ago--once-powerful, now an afterthought.

Palfrey is correct--for now--that the way young people (and middle-agers too, for the record) access music is different from the way they enjoy books, but that's going to change, and I think the switchover will come when e-book readers become textbooks for schoolchildren. Adult readers stick to books now because that's what we're comfortable with. Read the arguments against e-books and one place they always hit is the tactile sensation of turning pages, of the smell of the paper and ink, the must of age in the cover. You lose all that with an e-book, absolutely. But if you've never really had it? If your first book was a child-proof Kindle or Nook or Tablet? Then a paper book will be a curiosity, but it won't evoke the same emotional attachment it does for us.

And once that's the expected way of accessing books, then piracy will grow quickly. We have a generation of people who are adults now who may have never accessed music other than via a computer, and we're getting that way with movies. The DVD has a top end life span, I'd wager, of ten years, even with the introduction of HD versions. Streaming delivery is the model of the future. So why not with books?

That's why I'm interested in making my book available in digital format, even if I never sell a copy that way. I'd like it to be open-source, though my publisher will no doubt have objections to that--but whatever agreement we come to, I want it to be available on as many readers as possible (so no Amazon-proprietary format no matter what happens). For the current generation of young people, and the ones that follow them, if it's not online, it doesn't exist. Writers have to acknowledge that--Sherman Alexie is right when he says open-source is coming for all of us, and that we can't stop it. The question is how we engage with it.

One thing publishers need to do in order to survive this evolutionary moment is do a better job of selling the costs of publishing. The music industry failed badly in this respect because it allowed the frame of "a blank CD costs pennies; why does a music CD cost 17 bucks?" to become the focus of the debate. The fact that the record companies exploit new artists horribly and that they were raking in billions of dollars while churning out some of the least interesting music ever didn't help much, but where they really failed was in making the case that producing songs is expensive, even if you don't see it in the end product.

Publishers need to make the same case. Right now, the argument goes that a digital download costs next to nothing compared to a printed book--therefore, a digital download ought to cost next to nothing. And for some books, namely, those in the public domain, I agree completely. But making books--and I'm not taking about the physical making here; I'm talking about the writing and editing and formatting and selling of books--is expensive. But most readers don't get that, because the costs are hidden, and because they haven't actually tried to do it themselves, they have no idea how hard a job it is. I've never done a job as tedious as copy-editing, and I worked in a grocery warehouse pulling cases for 3 years.

Publishers have to pay people to do these jobs, and those of us in the industry would like to earn a living wage doing it. And in order to do that, publishers have to set a price point for electronic books that's higher than the average person might expect. Amazon hasn't helped matters with its Wal-Mart-esque bullying of publishers, but in the end, it's publishers who control the content, and right now, the market is malleable enough that they can still exert some control if they're willing to fight for it. And one of the ways they can do that is by making the case that there's value in the book itself, regardless of the format. Don't ask me how--I'm not a marketer. I don't even expect to make more than beer money off this book. But I know this is where we're heading, and if publishers want to thrive, they'll have to find a way to convince people to buy their books.

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