Much publicity has surrounded the record prices fetched for poetry manuscripts at an auction held by Bonhams in London as part of The Roy Davids Collection of Poetry, Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets. The sale made a total of £750,000 ($1,141,550). The draft of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember me when I am gone’ fetched £33,650 ($51,217), almost ten times its presale estimate and over twenty times the previous record for her drafts. Modern Brit Philip Larkin’s ‘Love’ fetched £7,500 ($11,415) in his first outing at auction.

The news aired on—the website of what was once the Seattle Post-Intelligencer daily newspaper—under the headline ‘Digital Backlash’: “If we need any further proof that the art of writing is endangered, have a look at the astounding results,” declared the post.

Maybe as “the first major metro daily newspaper to go online-only,” is overcompensating, but I don’t see record prices necessarily translate into an endangered species. And with touchscreen tablets driving PCs into the dustbin of history, digital ink and HWR arguably have never been more popular. All the same, this lets me jump back on to one of my favorite hobbyhorses: the difficulties of rendering poetry into e-book formats.

I had to struggle with this for weeks recently while preparing my first poetry collection, The Golden Age, for reissue on Kindle. I went with Kindle in the first place because of recurrent difficulties in getting EPUB to render verse breaks correctly. The advent of EPUB 3.0 might put this right, but I see no signs of it yet. Perhaps this is just a standardization issue—I get better results reading poetry in some EPUB readers than in others—but Kindle/.Mobi at least keeps things legible, plus all the other usual benefits of easy self-publishing, unparalleled exposure and distribution, etc. etc. Despite all those, though, I still would have gone with EPUB if it could do poetry consistently. It couldn’t.

Maybe this reflects the limitations of my coding skills and I’d welcome any advice from better experts than me, but you can Google post after post on the problems of formatting verse. I plugged away mostly through trial and error to reach the final (more or less) stable result. Yes, the job got done, but only by going far beyond the GUI basics of the available content creation tools, and dipping into the raw code.

Should I really have to do that? Couldn’t the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) have come up with a more robust solution? I’ve read time and again that poetry just isn’t suited to e-book formats, because its need for fixed line breaks, stable layouts, etc., militates against the e-book advantages of resizable, reflowable texts. And I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. Yes, there is PDF. Yes, there is plain HTML or even TXT. But our current most popular e-book standards have won out over those file formats for good reasons.

Poetry is one of the genres I am more or less compelled to buy rather than downloading from free resources like Project Gutenberg, because at least publishers put the effort into proper layout and formatting. And if they can do it on a commercial basis, is it really so hard to enhance the existing tools to allow authors and small presses or the giants of literary conservation like P. Gute to do it easily too?

Verse, never let it be forgotten, constitutes the greater majority of all human literature prior to the early modern era, and a large percentage of it right up until the steam age. It certainly predates writing, never mind print. Bonham’s big prices show that this stuff, and how it looks on the page, is taken seriously enough for people to pay serious money for. Perhaps e-book content creation toolmakers, and digital publishing standards bodies, should get serious about it too.


  1. Agreed, Marilynn, you could. But once again, why use formats that can’t reflow, can’t resize and generally lose most of the advantages that ebooks have in the first place? In that event I might as well just leave them as HTML pages.

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