KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 5: Spring 2016
Craft Essay: 1,000 words

Online vs. Print: A False Dichotomy

by Jack Cooper

I recently applied for “poet in residence” at a prominent East Coast university. Among the qualifications for consideration: “proof of 25 poems published in print journals during the last five years.” Technically, I had more than that, although one was a broadside on newsprint, some looked more like staple-bound Xeroxed chapbooks, and at least two copies never arrived and the publications subsequently went out of business. In general, how many examples of each journal were actually printed, and where they ended up beyond the mailboxes of contributors, remain a mystery. So, why is print held in such high esteem and online publishing so often considered second rate?

The standard arguments against online poetry come down to two points:

1) It’s too easy for the writer.

True, anyone can throw things up online, starting with social media (though most publishers consider posts to chat groups and anything else that goes cyber to be published), and some websites will take anything. The original would accept any coherent piece of writing if you signed up for the print version at $29.99, which, in the end, was just ephemera, destined to become a doorstop or tucked in behind The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay on your bookshelf.

2) There’s too little financial risk for publishers.

In electronic publishing, nobody’s money is on the line compared to print, goes the thinking. An editor, if there is one, is more like a webmaster and, as often as not, works as an impassioned volunteer. At best, his or her function is to organize all the material; at worst, simply to make sure there’s enough server bandwidth for that material. He or she doesn’t have to sell books, attend readings, aggressively market, schedule media time, or submit books to libraries, bookstores, and reviewers—because, after all, online publishing does not constitute real product.

These arguments are valid to a point, but they don’t consider the new reality, starting with the fact that people read fewer books than they used to, bookstores are a fading business model, and libraries are scrambling to stay open in a world of budget cuts. Then there are publishers like Kindle and Nook, which make e-books that mimic print, gaining a wider distribution at lower cost. Underscoring the false dichotomy of Online vs. Print, most prominent print journals now publish electronic versions on their websites, and many electronic journals anthologize in print, usually on an annual basis (like KYSO Flash).

On a practical level, online publishing delivers several editorial advantages, of course. With standard printing, the final product is relatively unchangeable. After you’re done at the press and bindery, you cannot go back to fix typos. With online publishing, however, if a name is wrong, a word misspelled, or a tense out of whack, the file can be corrected easily and the whole issue updated electronically.

More intriguing, though, are the newer developments in the digital dimension: many websites today have experienced and active editors and attract top writers in multiple genres (KYSO Flash comes to mind again). They capitalize on the flexibility and practicality of the new medium in all its permutations—global distribution, virtually unlimited word counts, and marketing links to social media and the worldwide web. Plus, more often than not, reader access to the material comes free. Many sites also archive electronically, a huge improvement over print, which gets boxed up and stored for the silverfish. Some digital publishers offer videos, podcasts, MP3s, and other multi-media arts, as well as live links to author websites and scholarly references. And nearly all reject snail mail and require online submissions through services like Submittable or Scribendio, demonstrating a respect for natural resources that would have pleased Wordsworth himself.

Still, despite the convenience and practicality of online publishing, many of us cherish the off-the-grid heft and feel of an old-fashioned book. Websites like Poetry Daily ( and Verse Daily ( post one poem every day, but they don’t take submissions from writers. To be considered, poems must be sent in for consideration by book publishers or journal editors. Presumably, if readers like a poem enough, they will click on the link that allows them to buy the book. Such an arrangement seems to represent the best of both worlds, which is apparently where the market is moving. “Research...shows that over 50% of millennials [want] print to remain a significant factor in their lives, even in the face of ever-increasing digitization,” writes Katherine Halek at Millennial “They love printed pieces because physical media are more conducive to deep reading.”1

Following that logic, requiring that 50% of a writer’s portfolio be in print seems a reasonable confirmation of legitimacy. So, why does that East Coast university still refuse to acknowledge e-credits, including books published by print-on-demand, another related, low-cost, and low-risk publishing phenomenon? I suspect that they cling to their traditions because the new formats come uncomfortably close to vanity publishing, the bane of the book industry and academia. It’s probably not fair to point out that Walt Whitman printed his own material, as did Ben Franklin because, well, they were Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin.

Truth is, most universities and government programs are beginning to embrace the online option for economic and practical reasons, if not for aesthetics. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, now accepts digital credits in considering eligibility for its coveted literary grants, “provided that such publications have competitive selection processes and stated editorial policies.”

The next few years could end the controversy. Good works transcend their mediums. I agree with George Orwell, who famously wrote, “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”2


1. Katherine Halek. “Digital vs. Print: Which One Will Save Your Marketing in 2015?” Millenial Marketing, April 2014.

2. George Orwell. “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” in George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose, 1946-1950. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968.

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