John Tranter

The Left Hand of Capitalism

Jacket is a 100- to 200-page full-color illustrated quarterly literary magazine distributed to every town, city and country in the world via the Internet and given away for free. Its publisher, Australian poet John Tranter, muses on the contradictions of the brave new electronic world.

I think they’re right when they say that middle-aged men shouldn’t have children: they’re too old to manage the sleepless nights and the effluent disposal problems. But here I am, well over fifty, father to a demanding baby who turned one a few months ago.

The cute little feller is called Jacket magazine, and I’m as proud as any dad. The other day, the counter on the front page ticked over to 230,000. That tells me that over two hundred and thirty thousand separate visits have been made to the magazine’s Web site on the Internet (http://www.jacket.zip.com.au/welcome.html) since the first issue in October 1997.

This is not quite like having thirty thousand subscribers for a print magazine - a buyer has to buy the magazine, whether they want the whole thing or just one article, whereas a “visit” to Jacket might consist of a few minutes worth of browsing, say looking through an interview and a few book reviews in Issue # 4, or a whole evening spent reading through a number of issues.

Many of my readers come back often for a regular literary hit; a few land there by accident (scanning the Internet for something cute in dinner jackets, perhaps) and leave immediately, never to return.

There’s another difference: magazine subscribers subscribe; that is, they pay money. My readers get Jacket for free. I guess I’ll never get rich that way.

But it sure beats trying to edit, print, publish, distribute and sell a print edition of a literary magazine. I’ve been there, and done that.

In fact I've been involved in editing and publishing poetry books and magazines for over thirty years, on and off.

That was in the Age of Print: now, most of what I do ends up on the Internet.

The shift to the Internet is the most significant change that publishing has seen this century. An earlier change, the move from metal type to photo-lithographic reproduction, was also important, but it wasn’t what the trendy pundits call a “paradigm shift”; the Internet is.

The Way We Were: Most of the poetry magazines that were around when I began writing in the early 1960s were printed using metal type and stereo plates on large and costly rotary printing machines weighing a couple of tonnes. In effect we were still in the age of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented moveable metal type over five hundred years ago. The processes were the same: all we had added was a degree of mechanisation.

It is costly to get things done like that. The skills were difficult to obtain, the machinery was expensive. It was also noisy, dirty and dangerous. The Linotype machines that were used to set type for most books and newspapers took a crane to shift them, and the type was cast from vats of poisonous molten metal: a mixture of tin, lead and antimony.

Then in 1961 the IBM Selectric golf-ball typewriter came along, and in 1964 the IBM Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter followed, a relatively high-speed, automatic typewriter that had a magnetic tape data storage unit and retrieval device. It was small, clean and quiet, and a tenth the price of a Linotype machine, and anyone could learn to use it in half an hour. I know: I did. Fitted with a carbon-film ribbon and a changeable type-ball that gave a range of typefaces in different sizes from eight to twelve point, it produced razor sharp output that was ideal for use on the new photo-litho offset printing presses that were becoming common.

By the middle of the 1960s small versions of these presses were even appearing in many large city offices, replacing the office duplicator. The Multilith 1250 litho press, for example, was inexpensive and relatively compact, and gave high-quality output on foolscap paper. These machines didn’t need metal type; they could reproduce anything that you could photograph or photocopy, including drawings, snapshots, a page of typed letters, or a page of handwriting.

So by the second half of the 1960s the equipment for producing a poetry magazine was fairly easy to get hold of, and simple to use. The process was inexpensive, yet the output looked professional. In Australia, as elsewhere, this helped to start a flood of little magazines and gave a new generation of young poets a place to be heard, a venue for argument and experimentation, and a shot in the arm.

But it didn’t solve the main and the perennial problem of poetry publishing. This is the cost and difficulty of distribution. You can solve all the other problems, but that one is intractable.

Or it was, until the Internet.

Contemporary literature is not a profitable market anywhere in the world. Sappho, Callimachus, Catullus, Li Bai and John Donne all had a small audience for their poetry, and any serious poetry faces the same situation today. Bookshops now stock hardly any but the more popular verse. Canadian bookshops can’t afford to stock New Zealand poetry, and vice versa. Few Australian poets are found in the bookstores of Brooklyn; Scottish poets despair of big sales — any sales — in Normal, Illinois.

Enter the Internet: it's relatively cheap, it reaches everywhere there’s a telephone line (or a satellite drifting overhead), and it costs the distributor almost nothing. In effect, the purchaser does the work of accessing the material and paying for its delivery.

Get this: in the first issue of Jacket I published an interview I had recorded with the British poet Roy Fisher, and received an enthusiastic e-mail from a fan. The fellow was grateful for the chance to read an interview with his favourite poet, he said. It was hard to find material on Roy Fisher, up here in Nome, Alaska.

Nome, Alaska? Excuse me?

Video and stereo sound are still difficult to send or receive on the Internet because they need a lot of bandwidth, and the telephone lines the Internet uses (the same lines that your telephone uses) don’t have much bandwidth. We still don’t have video-phones, for that reason. But for simple text – poetry, or prose – it’s quick, cheap, and ubiquitous.

Okay, until a few years ago the Internet was hard work. You needed a degree in computer science to get a handle on it. Now, it’s easy to browse the Internet. Believe me.

The latest Windows and Macintosh systems, with their graphical interface and easy “click and do it” modus operandi, have made a tremendous difference. The Internet was designed to be cruised by browsers, and current browsers like Netscape (now given away for free) are designed to be logical and easy to use. Most contemporary word processors even come with a built-in program for constructing Internet Web pages. A child can do it; in fact, as most parents know, children are more at home in cyberspace than most adults.

Are there problems? Of course.

For the consumer, the first problem is quality, or rather lack of it. You walk into a bookshop and go to the poetry section: the hundred or so books you see have each gone through a long process of selection and editorial fine-tuning. Most of them are likely to be of reasonable quality, personal taste aside. But on the Internet, it’s not like that. Most of the mass of  poems you find on the Internet are bad. I mean, really bad: uninteresting, unedited, and definitely not fine-tuned.

The attraction the Internet has for the wild, free spirits among us is that anyone can publish anything at all, and broadcast it all around the world, without the bothersome interference of censors, style police, or cantankerous editors. Cool!

But as it happens, the bothersome interference of editors is what most readers want. They don’t like having to wade through some amateur’s first draft. They would much, much rather read a finely-polished final draft by a hard-working writer, someone who’s spent years learning their craft, and who’s willing to incorporate an editor’s professional advice.

Then from the other side of the screen, as a magazine editor, how do you find your audience? They’re all out there, but where? How do you reach that poetry fan in Nome Alaska and tell him about the Roy Fisher interview, when you don’t even know he exists?

You have to depend on word of mouth, mainly, and hope that your magazine is so good that people will hear about it, and look for it using one of the many free search engines, programs that trawl the Web looking for sites that contain a key word or words that you instruct the program to search for. That’s how Jacket snares the occasional reader who’s looking for dinner jackets.

The third problem is money. The sad fact is that apart from selling pornography, no small organisation can make any money on the Internet; not even enough to pay the phone bill. For a magazine to be successful on the Internet, it has to be free.

What was that, again?

An aside: I’m an Australian. Our usual mode of discourse Down Here is the Laconic Mode. Let me talk about irony for a moment.

Tranter’s First Law of Internet Irony has to do with parent/child relationships. Years ago it was common to see parents who couldn’t handle the generation gap between themselves and their children. A retired bank manager and his wife, say, decent people with conservative views and a sound superannuation policy, watched in horror as their kids grew their hair long, smoked dope and indulged in Free Love. Only a few years later (it seems to me) you met their children’s children: middle-aged hippies whose long hair was turning grey, and whose kids hated Leonard Cohen, loudly despised their parents for taking drugs, and were ashamed that their house didn’t have dishwasher or an indoor pool.

The Internet’s like that. It was set up by US military types with short back-and-sides haircuts to facilitate scientific military research among a string of US universities, and it was cleverly designed to be impervious to damage from Russian nuclear attack.

A few well-placed cruise missiles can wipe out most telephonic communications in the United States. A few years ago the north-eastern US suffered a three-day blackout when a power station blew a fuse and the power failed.

These old phone and power systems are hierarchical: knock out Central Control and the whole thing falls over. That spells finito to the US defense system.

The Internet was designed to be different. It’s built on democratic, almost anarchistic  principles. The electronic messages that are the red corpuscles of the Internet are designed to find their own way to their destinations without the help of any Central Control; they route themselves through the network of computers that make up the Internet. There is no Central Control. There is no one in charge. Knock out half the computers and half the phone lines, and things slow down a bit, that’s all. As long as there are two or more of you sending messages to each other, the Internet’s alive.

But this lack of central control meant that as well as the biological weapons researchers and nuclear physicists, other people in US universities — long-haired hippies, for example — could set up virtual communities of like minds on the Internet, and exchange recipes for marijuana cookies and terrorist bombs, and no one could stop them. Ironic, huh?

So a culture of free exchange and mutual help has come into being in cyberspace, an economic model based on the hippy ideal of the barter of intangible goods. If you have a problem understanding a computer program, say, and ask for assistance on the Internet, you’ll get a hundred replies, with no strings attached, except that you’ll feel an obligation to help others in the same way. As ye give, so shall ye receive. An anthropologist might call it a “gift culture.”

Conversely, it’s costly and bothersome to set up credit-card payment mechanisms on the Internet. I feel if I asked for payment for Jacket, my readers would simply go elsewhere. There’s plenty of free stuff out there, and it’s useful to remember that all the successful news and weather sites and the best reference and search engines are free.

And this leads to Tranter’s Second Law of Internet Irony: Weird Things Happen to Capitalism on the Internet. Think of one of those pink rubber kitchen gloves. If you pull a (pink) right-handed kitchen glove inside out, you get a (silver) left-handed glove. That’s what the Internet does to capitalism: it pulls it inside out.

In the so-called real world, you have to make sure your revenue is greater than your expenditure; what’s left is your profit, and the measure of your success. On the Internet, it’s the other way around.

So Jacket is free, and thus — sadly — the contributors don't get paid.

At first I thought that would be a problem, but so far it doesn't seem to be. The following are among the many kind souls who have given their work to Jacket for no tangible reward: John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Carolyn Burke, Tom Clark, Alfred Corn, Elaine Equi , Roy Fisher, Mark Ford, David Lehman, Harry Mathews, Ron Padgett, Bob Perelman, Marjorie Perloff, Carl Rakosi, John Redmond, Peter Riley, Ron Silliman, Nathaniel Tarn, Shamoon Zamir, and Eliot Weinberger.


John Tranter edits Jacket, and is the author of Late Night Radio (Polygon, 1998).

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