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John Tranter: Prose

The Left Hand of Capitalism (about Jacket magazine)

Jacket is a quarterly literary magazine distributed to every town, city and country in the world via the Internet and given away free. Its publisher is the poet John Tranter. Here he muses on the revolutionary changes publishing has gone through in the last few years, the contradictions of the brave new electronic world, and why he decided to publish Jacket in this format.

This piece was first published in print, in a slightly different form, in the Poetry Review (London, UK) Spring 1999 issue, and in an abridged form in the Australian Weekend Review, 22 May 1999.


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 two-year-old.
     The cute little fellow is called Jacket magazine, and I’m as proud as any dad. The other day (September 1999), the counter on the front page ticked over to 140,000.
     That tells me that over one hundred and forty thousand visits have been made to the magazine’s Web site on the Internet (http://jacketmagazine.com/) since the first issue in October 1997.
     [Note: by mid-2007, when Jacket was almost ten years old, that figure had increased to over six hundred thousand.  — J.T.]
     This is not quite like having one hundred and forty 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 a few book reviews in Issue # 4, or a whole evening spent reading through a number of issues.

‘Give the dog a bone’ — Graphic from Jacket 1

‘Give the dog a bone’ — Graphic from Jacket 1

Many of my readers come back often for a regular literary hit; a few land there by accident (scanning the Internet for something smart 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. Obviously 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.

Australian poet John Forbes (1950-1998)

Australian poet John Forbes (1950–1998)
Jacket # 3 is dedicated to the memory of John Forbes
photograph copyright © John Tranter 1999

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 printing, 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, with a magnetic tape data storage unit. It was small, clean and quiet, and a tenth the price of a Linotype machine, and a competent typist could learn to use it in half a day. 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 appearing in many large 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 an inexpensive poetry magazine was fairly easy to get hold of, and simple to use. 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.

New York poet Frank O'Hara, from Jacket 6: photograph copyright © Renate Ponsold Motherwell 1999

New York poet Frank O’Hara, from Jacket 6
photograph copyright © Renate Ponsold Motherwell 1999

Sappho, Callimachus, Catullus, Li Bai and John Donne all had small audiences for their poetry, and any serious poetry faces the same situation today — it’s not a profitable market anywhere in the world. Bookshops can only afford to stock 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.
     Here’s an example of the reach of the Internet. 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, and went on to explain: "It’s hard to find material on Roy Fisher, up here in Nome, Alaska."
     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 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.
     Some older people find the technology daunting. And it’s true that 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 with computers than many adults.
Are there problems? Of course.
     For the consumer, the first problem is quality, or rather lack of it. You walk into a good bookshop and go to the poetry section: the books you see have each gone through a process of selection and editorial fine-tuning. Most of them are likely to be of reasonable quality, personal taste aside. But on the Internet, most of the poems you find are awful: uninteresting, unedited, and definitely not fine-tuned.
     Anyone can publish anything at all on the Internet, 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 rather read a final draft by a writer who’s talented enough to attract the interest of a publisher, and professional enough to listen to an editor’s 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.
     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.
     Most sites are funded by advertising banners, those irritating, animated slabs of imagery that sit at the top of each site’s homepage and slow down the loading time. Advertising is so pervasive on the Internet now that it’s hard to remember how different things were in the early days.
     The Internet was set up in the 1970s to facilitate scientific research among a string of US universities. Initially it was a black and white, text-only thing, about as interesting as a blackboard in a lecture room, or the message board in the hall outside — which is basically what it was.

New York City: graphic from Jacket # 2 photograph copyright © John Tranter 1999

New York City — graphic from Jacket # 2
photograph copyright © John Tranter 1999

But though it depended on telephone connections to link itself together, its structure was essentially different to that of a phone network, and this was the key to its future. It’s built on democratic, almost anarchistic principles. The electronic messages that are the nerve impulses of the Internet are designed to find their own way to their destinations; they route themselves through the network of computers that make up the Internet. There is no supervisor in charge of the message board.
     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.
     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.
     Even Microsoft with its millions was unable to buck that trend. It set up a magazine titled Slate. It was free for a while, to attract readers. When its circulation was healthy, it started to charge a modest subscription fee. Hardly anyone subscribed, and eventually they had to revert to giving it away.
     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.

British-born poet Mina Loy, Paris, circa 1905; from Jacket 5; photograph courtesy Carolyn Burke

British-born poet Mina Loy, Paris, circa 1905; from Jacket 5; photograph courtesy Carolyn Burke

     At first I thought that very few writers would want to publish in Jacket without being paid, but so far that doesn’t seem to be a problem. 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.
But if Jacket is free — and it carries no advertising — where do I get the money to do all this?
     Let’s look back to the days of Gutenberg for a moment.
     A conventional literary quarterly usually has about three primary staff (say two editorial and a typist/office assistant), as well as having to pay for the work of a typesetter, layout or pasteup artist, platemaker, printer, binder and warehouse staff. That’s say ten people. You need to rent an office. Postage costs are a nightmare. The annual total cost — salaries, expenses, printing costs, postage — has to be minimum US$30,000 up to say a maximum of $100,000. You certainly can’t afford to print in colour; that adds another $20,000 a year at least. Then you find it’s almost impossible to get the magazine into New York or London, let alone into say Nome, Alaska.
     Jacket has one staff — I’m it, there’s no one else — and no office. My own writing desk is the office. The main cost is my time; which means I don’t get much poetry written these days.
     I pay around $1,000 per year for Internet access and fax and phone and stationery and postage et cetera. Those are my total costs — $1,000 instead of $100,000.
     So, it’s cheap. But it takes up most of my waking life. Why do I do it?
Jacket is hard work, and I like hard work. I enjoy editing the poems and articles and taking photos of people and designing the pages, and I even enjoy writing the HTML (hypertext markup language) typesetting code that underlies the pages. Jacket exercises all my various talents — and it’s fun.
     It has also enlarged my circle of friends by a factor of about ten. And I feel I’ve enabled a lot of writers to find a wider international audience for their work, especially younger poets. I received a lot of generous support and assistance when I was a young writer, and it’s good to be able to give something back.
     To me, that’s what the Internet’s all about.

Photo of John Tranter by Alec Bolton

Photo of John Tranter by Alec Bolton

JOHN TRANTER has published twenty collections of verse, listed in detail in his bibliography on this site. His life is outlined in his biography, also available on this site.

Jacket magazine can be found on the Internet at http://jacketmagazine.com/

The Internet address of this page is
http://johntranter.com/prose/lefthand.shtml

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in the johntranter.net site is copyright © John Tranter and the individual authors 1997 et seq. and is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, or reproduced for group or class use or for any other purpose.