On Blogging and Publishing

Is a “blog,” which is what they call these items I post on this site, a “publication”? In confronting recent discussions of this question I began to wonder if there is a clear-cut line between “published” and “unpublished.” As usual, a little historical perspective might help us. It seems to me that our concept of “publishing” emerged with the printing press, which superseded the painstaking manuscripts of monks and clerics, and became the sole means for conveying a written text to a “public.” Indeed, these books, broadsides, and tracts created the “publics” which read them. Thus, the printing press and the rise of republican government augmented each other.

This model of printing press and public, enshrined in our First Amendment, persisted as long as the sole means of reaching “the public” was through printed text on paper, that is, the “press.” For this whole period publics were constrained audiences or congresses, limited by geography and education. Except in large cities, a single press was linked to a single public. This was the model of publishing we inherited at the dawn of the media age. In the twentieth century publics proliferated and so did the media for creating and reaching them – radio, movies, television, and then the internet.

It seems to me we now have to ask what it means to “publish” something. Consider these types and levels of “publication:” handing out fifty copies of a text at a workshop, placing a text on a blog that reaches sixty people and leaving it up indefinitely, doing the same and removing it in thirty days, putting an audio reading of the text on a blog, and issuing a text as print-on-demand (such as my own Red Clay, Blood River). And there are probably many other variants, with different scales of “publics,” different modes and degrees of accessibility, and different lengths of exposure to “publicity.”

One of the reasons this is a vexed question is that we associate the legal protection of “copyright” with the act of publishing. However, they are two different types of action. Indeed, there is a soft copyright protection to every kind of publication, including this blog, as well as a hard legal degree of protection that comes with formal registration of a publication with the government. What is at stake in these legal concerns is how and to what degree writers, publishers, and retailers can make money off the transmission of an author’s work to a public. Here, as everyone knows, the stakes can be very high (Harry Potter) or very low (my poems).

It may be time to define more precisely what we mean by this act of reaching a public in a world of many media and many publics, that is, the act of “publishing.” Otherwise we are forced to choose between hiding a text in our study and putting it on a paper product for general distributed, usually by an independent entity. I’m not sure we really want that. What we need is a more nuanced conception of the various stages of “going public,” from preliminary sharings with small publics to wider and more permanent deposit of our work in a limitless public sphere, whether through paper, internet, audio, video, or clay tablets.

This discussion affects me personally, because some publishers of poetry consider the trial runs of poems on a blog site like this to be “publishing” and do not accept such submissions to their print journals. Others are more flexible. To deal with this confusion in the industry, I am considering establishing a special circle of subscribers who would receive my poems by email and could comment on them. They would be matters of correspondence rather than blogging or publishing. Let me know what you think of this. Meanwhile, as the old hymn says, “How can I keep from singing writing?”

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4 Responses to On Blogging and Publishing

  1. Ah, remuneration! That is certainly part of the pie, closely tied to copyright. However, since income is barely in the picture for most publications, especially poetry, these days, it’s more about primacy in “the” public space. I think i’m seeing this variety of small and large publics as being crucial. Thus, some blogs are for sharing, as you say, and others are much more general and diffuse. This muse may turn into a little article. Thanks!

  2. Tim Bachmeyer says:

    Doesn’t the issue with the publishers involve remuneration? And as long as you receive no payments for your blogs, no matter how large the “public,” are they technically “publications?” And what is the publishers’ case then based on? When you write professinally, you run drafts past colleagues. Sharing blogs it seems to me runs in the same vein, whether informally or by formal agreement.

  3. Glenda Beall says:

    I think this is a very good subject for discussion. I also think some publishers of journals take into consideration whether the poem has been widely published on a blog, or read by just a few in a newspaper or blog with a small readership.
    I wish there was a way to differentiate between published and blog-published to small readership.

    Thanks for keeping this discussion out there, Bill.

  4. Charles Reeves says:

    Can publics become so small that they at some point cease to be public? Or can we have republican government (on the national level at least) without some commonality in the media we read or hear?

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