eBooks Mess With Poetic Intent

eBooks continue to receive a lot of press, particularly when James Patterson becomes the first to sell more than 1 million ebooks and Kindle ebooks have outsold hardcovers.  But are ebooks the best option for all genres and will they translate into sales for short stories and poetry.

One poet — Billy Collins — has taken issue with ebooks.  The recent translation of his book, Ballistics, into an ebook was a disaster.  In one poem, a word was pushed onto a new line, creating a four-line stanza rather than the three-line stanza of the original poem.  According to a recent Associated Press story, ebook distributors and publishers cannot guarantee that the integrity of poems will be maintained once in electronic form.  Large indentations and other styles will likely lose their integrity in ebook form, creating new poems that are different than the poet envisioned or than the originally published poem.  These changes do not only apply to new poems, but also for the poems of older, dead poets.  Think of what [raise the shade] by e.e. cummings would look like in an ebook.

Collins says, “The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into to. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break.”  He’s right, and there are many other poets who are wary of providing their books electronically, even though it would behoove them to do so if they hope to sell more books.

Poets by and large do not earn a lot from their work, but the integrity of each poem is highest in their thoughts and actions when they produce, read, and sell those poems to the public.  However, poetry is available electronically across the Internet from online literary journals to other resources.  The question is how long will it take ebook publishers to get the poems right, especially when other online poetry magazines are ensuring the integrity of poems.


  1. I hadn’t even thought about how poetry books would be affected by eReaders. This is has got to be so frustrating for poets. I was thinking about something similar when it comes to books that have pictures or are more interactive. I was thinking specifically of the Griffin & Sabine books and I’m thinking the whole experience of those books is based on being able to open envelopes, looking at the colors, etc. and how obviously an eReader wouldn’t serve those books. Very interesting stuff and definitely curious to see how things will change (or not) going forward.

  2. This is fascinating! Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I still don’t own an ebook and think it will be a long time before I do. I just don’t see the allure for me yet. I love traditional books far too much but far, far beyond that, how painful for poets to have their work misrepresented like that. Interesting to see how ebook translators respond to this.

  3. I had never considered this issue before, but it makes sense. I think if I were a poet, it would probably be incredibly frustrating to know that it might damage my work to be translated into e-book format. I think publishers have a responsibility to the poets and to the readers to get it right the first time. Very interesting post!

  4. Beth Hoffman says

    I can’t imagine reading poetry on an e-reader. Even novels lose formatting on an e-reader — a poem would be destroyed.

    I love the feel, the smell, and the weight of a book in my hands. Though I own a Kindle (a gift from my husband), I rarely use it. Call me old fashioned, but there’s nothing like seeing shelves packed with books, it makes me feel happy.

    • I agree. I don’t have an ereader, but the loss of formatting is astonishing to me…even with novels, which I had no idea about before I posted this on poetry.

      • Beth Hoffman says

        Yes. And one of the joys of reading is (for me) the visual of perfect formatting and the publisher’s selection of typeface. Sadly much is lost on an e-reader.

  5. I hope they get the poetry issue resolved. I would’ve never thought about that but I can see how it would be disconcerting for the author involved!

    • I cannot imagine seeing your first ebook of poetry for the first time and wondering what the heck happened to your poems.

  6. I figured that…

  7. I don’t have an e-reader, but how can it be so different from a computer screen? Wouldn’t it be similar code?

    • I guess the code work is different somehow. I’m not really that technically savvy, so I don’t know the details, but there must be some differences for this to be a problem with ereaders and not Internet magazines.

      • From what I understand from the tech stories I read at work, the size of the screen really plays a role in how things appear. Many sites aren’t configured to work on mobile devices, so they either don’t show up at all or look really funky. That’s why I wonder whether online poetry magazines look right on handheld devices.

        • I honestly don’t know how they look on handheld devices, but it seems to me that if you are making ebooks for a handheld device that you would have worked out these kinks beforehand, since they are not being distributed on Web sites like literary magazines and are actually downloadable files for ereaders specifically.

          • I agree; I was just explaining what I knew about how websites translate from big screens to smalls screens.

  8. I haven’t heard of this issue before but yikes! I’ve noticed a time or two that an ebook will mess up a regular book (sometimes mushing words together and stuff) but this would be much, much worse.

    • I don’t have an ereader, so I hadn’t heard about the mushing or words together in regular books. Thanks for the heads up. Seems like the ereader market is expanding too quickly to think about quality…which is odd given that Internet journals seem to have it down…at least for the most part.

  9. This seems to me to be another case of how speeding products to the market is not really a great idea…due diligence failed here. But then again, it doesn’t surprise me that the impact on poetry wasn’t even thought of when ereaders were being marketed given that the genre tends to get the short shrift from many publishers and readers.

  10. The only thing that appeals to me about e-readers is that I don’t need to get a bigger place to live to store my books, but that’s not enough of an incentive for me right now. Nothing will replace the feel of a book in your hands or the smell of the pages, etc.

    I can understand how the integrity of the poem would be difficult to preserve with e-readers because they are handheld devices, and it makes me wonder how the poems featured in online poetry magazines look when the sites are viewed from a handheld device. Still, it seems like this is something they should have thought about beforehand.

  11. I do hope books in the printed form will continue for awhile. Its going to be a very very long time before kindles are going to be affordable for the average person in countries other than the West!

    • I can’t even afford the Kindle or the other ereaders…trust me…I hope books are here to stay…plus I tend to prefer them.

  12. J.T. Oldfield says

    And yet I feel that this is something that should be fixable. I know that putting a book into ebook format is not as easy as it seems, but it seems like this was laziness. Surely there should be some procedure or quality control specifically to take care of this sort of thing? Maybe there will be in the future.

    • Amazon says that they have a team working on the problem, but I would have thought they would have made sure before making copies available to consumers.


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