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Publishers Weekly Editor Finds Egregious Formatting Problems In Poetry E-Books

Last week, Craig Morgan Teicher, the editor of PWxyz, Publisher's Weekly's news blog, heralded the beginning of "a Ginsberg-y kind of season," punctuated by the release of Howl, starring actor James Franco, and a handful of new Ginsberg-themed books.

Teicher was particularly excited about one in particular: Ginsberg's Collected Poems 1947-1997, which is more than twelve-hundred pages in length, as an e-book.

Apparently, it didn't live up to his expectations:

Much to my dismay (but, sadly, not to my surprise, given that so much poetry is wrongly formatted when it goes digital), the liniation of the poems in the book was all messed up.

Even from a distance you can see the difference. Ginsberg broke his poem into what he called "strophes," those long lines that hark back to Whitman. The indentations you see above are meant to indicate that the line keeps going beyond the end of the page, until the next left-justified line. Ginsberg was careful in his liniation, and part of the poem’s impact is in seeing that "who" sticking out again and again on the left side of the page. The digital version pays no mind to this whatsoever. What we get is not the poem itself, but a kind of poor transcription of it.

According to a few readers, this is a problem with other poetry e-books. Ellen Hopkins said this:

Same problem with Billy Collins… oh yes, and Ellen Hopkins novels-in-verse. Not the same experience at all, and something that definitely needs addressed sooner rather than later.

"E-books will be huge for poetry, as soon as we can solve this problem in a way that indie publishers can take advantage of," Teicher writes.

So here's my big question -- and this is a serious question that I address to someone who knows about these things: is it so hard to code the e-book to create those indentations?  Doesn't a trade publisher as big as HaperCollins have the money to pay a professional to do a bit of extra work on an e-book for a figure as big as Ginsberg, especially when there's a movie about him in theaters now? What's going on?

Another reader, Troy Tradup, dissents:

Heresy to poets, I know, but as a "casual" poetry reader I often find poetry formatting distracting anyway. Give me the words and regular paragraph breaks as needed. To those of us who enjoy poetry but are unschooled in its formal schematics, the strict and often odd formatting means absolutely nothing.

Update at 9:15 a.m. ET, Oct. 11: Teicher e-mailed to tell us he's done a follow-up post about some of the solutions to the problem. And he suggests that the Poetry Foundation might be able to "devote some energy to building some tools publishers could use."

(Also, our apologies to Teicher for misspelling his name in one reference earlier. It should now be correct in all cases.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.

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