The publishing gap can be seen as the major contributing factor to poetry’s biggest liability: the size of its readership. People cannot read what they cannot buy (or find at the library), and so, if no poetry titles are made available on a ready basis to the public, the public’s interest in them will begin to decline. In 2002 the National Endowment for the Arts engaged in a sweeping study to catalog and analyze American reading habits in a variety of aspects over the years 1982-2002. Their first conclusion was that less than half of American adults read literature (fiction and poetry). The NEA found that while 45% of reading adults were enjoying novels and short stories, only 12% of those surveyed indicated they had read a book of poetry in the past year. “During the 1990s, the growth and popularity of live readings, poetry slams, and other forms led some to speculate about a revitalization of poetry in America. If such revitalization is occurring, it is not apparent in the figures from 1982, 1992, and 2002 Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts…. The percentage of people reading poetry or listening to poetry decreased substantially, from about 20% of adults in 1982 and 1992 to 14% in 2002.” (NEA) While a variety of factors have probably contributed to the decline of poetry by the general public, it seems clear that the changes in the publishing industry have contributed to the problem rather than working to correct it. Furthermore, by publishing standards, the reduction in the amount of poetry produced isn’t even a problem: it’s business, pure and simple.
For practitioners of poetry, however, this is clearly a kind of crisis, or, as Marjorie Fletcher wrote, “The situation is untenable for authors. We must have alternatives.” With all its negative transformations in the last half of the Twentieth Century, there have been an equal number of changes that have set the groundwork for a new revolution among poetry publishing. Through philosophical shifts, technological advances, and increased arts funding, poets in particular have identified means and methods of publishing and distributing their work despite the lack of participation by major publishing houses. This “alternative industry” is couched in the nonprofit philosophy of service to mission before profit, which clearly plays a critical role in preserving an unprofitable art form as we move into the Twenty-first Century and beyond. “No commercial publisher has an obligation to preserve our culture or to lose money to preserve the works of fine writers for whom there is not a huge market.” (Feldman 4) But this is precisely the kind of obligation upon which the nonprofit sector bases its operations—in this case, the publishing industry is less a commercial venture and more a service to American culture, American writers, and the preservation of our national literary heritage. “Nonprofit and other noncommercial independent presses now publish a disproportionate amount of the contemporary poetry…in America today.” (Harris)