Guest Column: Lapwing and Google

Lapwing LogoLapwing Publications is a poetry press based in Belfast. It was founded by Dennis and Rene Greig in 1988. Since then it has published some of Ireland’s best known authors. IPN contacted them because they have been partners in Google’s Book program for some time. They have kindly agreed to allow us republish this piece by their co-founder Denis Greig.

In the late eighties I laughed at a man in a writers’ group I was associated with. Now I eat my words, everything he spoke about in terms of technical development in regards to books has come to be a reality. Likewise when I applied to the Northern arts council in 1999/2000 to develop the internet use and CD formats, I think they had a bit of a laugh and seemed more interested in what we could provide for ‘young’ people. Well, perhaps to be expected when they still used an old Amstrad dot-matrix printer. Not willing to run a brothel, become a drug dealer or do cars with go-faster stripes I put almost everything to do with technical development on a back burner.

So it was back to the failing conventions. One bookshop keeper informed me that ‘we don’t stock pamphlets’ – that was our main output form then. ‘Odd’ I thought as we chatted beside a mountain of poetry pamphlets. Then there was the hide them under the table trick.

I had a great computer programme but the business of setting up a website was torturous. Yes, with a bottomless pocket of cash I could have got ‘someone’ to do the business.

Then along came Google Booksearch Partners project.

Even in the earlier years, we were attracting hundreds of ‘hits’ a week. That meant up to 500 people a week were browsing our listing. Last year 14,000 plus Lapwing publications were browsed and 56,000 plus pages on Google. That is a lot of people reading a lot of poetry. Some titles have been ‘browsed’ between 1000 and 3000 plus times. And although the number of pages that can be accessed is very limited, the Booksearch has become a ‘virtual library’. Necessary now that the barbarians are threatening to close libraries in the UK and the Blackening North.

The Google site also links to major booksellers and resellers. What’s more, it is universally available, it is a worldwide shop window.

Britain and Ireland are feeling the effects of cultural changes, possibly linked or related in GB’s case to the deconstruction of education for the less wealthy children and young people. Related to that is the rise of commercialism where it is a case of quantity counts instead of ‘quality’. Oh yes, the dumb and ghost-written stuff is well produced as machine-made ‘products’ but the literary commercial culture seems to be all about cooks, crooks, tarts and old farts bumping up their pension plans. So ‘kiss and tell’ will sell. Fine, as long as it lasts. The problem is one of confusing public opinion with ‘taste’. Then again a recent study suggests that 5% of poets actually buy poetry books and of those 65% tend to be Heaney titles followed by Simon Armitage. I wonder how ‘they’ worked that out.

However, some 800 bookshops closed in the UK last year alone. Stalinist central buying and high discount levels demanded worked both for and against publishers. For, when people happily added gunge to their lifestyle bric-a-brac, against when the public stopped or cut buying. Why bother when the remainder shops will have the £20 stodge a a few quid a copy. The other pressure has been the simple cost of occupancy. Employers can impose impoverishing regimes on their staff but when it comes to rents, rates and other forms of official robbery, they have no option but to put up or close up. Hughes & Hughes in Ireland seem to have fallen foul of a complex of problems related to occupancy. A certain chainstore in Britain – with an Irish presence – seems to be suffering as well and if rents escalate some places will become unviable.

With Google, the shop window is lit up 24-7 as the cliché goes.

As it is, poetry is a non-commercial venture. Almost 100 years ago, Ezra Pound helped print his own 200 copy edition of Il Lume Spento in Italy. Des O’Grady did likewise!

The market saturation point in Ireland is about 200 to 300 copies and usually a lot less. So, without state grant aid, there would be a lot less published. Granted the overseas market – not Europe I must add – may subsidise the home based business. Gains can be made by farming out work to India and China. Still, it is essential that traditonal publishers continue to be subsidised even if it means the perceived great and good get the lion’s share – at least it is a form of tokenism, a veneer on the masses who don’t read poetry or ‘fine’ literature and the embellishment of icons emerging poets may aspire to emulate.

Distribution tends to be in a few hands so independent bookshops throughout Ireland cannot obtain what distributors do not have on their shelves. The only other alternative is to use the internet to acquire books on order from customers. Yes, the big shops can do that and yes, a Kindle or iPod ebook reader can give access to a load of titles. That is another kind of distribution, the ins and out of which are still wriggling on the floor. Postage and distribution costs are high, so Lapwng offers titles that don’t need toys for boys and girls, simple PDF files and each title at a fraction of hard copy prices.

Finally, which is only a deferred finality, along came freewebs and Adam Rudden, a bright and brilliant young man who put together my attempt at site building, trimmed and polished and continues to develop the Lapwing ‘presence’. He also is making the best use of Google. The changes around us are happening whilst we sleep, ‘measure our lives with coffee spoons’ to paraphrase T.S.Eliot. In the meantime, in the parallel universe of corporate literary culture, retrenchment and a closing of doors is very evident by the cuts in ‘arts’ budgets and the continued Philistine philosophy around literature, if it doesn’t sell dump it. That is what is happening with ‘fine’ literature. It is not a matter of state organisations flooding the ‘industry’ with cash – it is obvious that small publishers and para-literary publications will be ignored. It would be simply a case of the same old song and same old singer blinged up a bit for the modern market. It will certainly not be a case of liberty, equality and fraternity for the establishment’s barricades are well and truly up already.

Dennis Greig