Ugly Duckling Presse Transforms Into a Digital Swan

In Digital by Amanda DeMarco

Brooklyn indie poetry publisher Ugly Duckling Presse has turned to e-books as a means of re-issuing out-of-print poetry chapbooks, which has doubled readership for the books.

By Amanda DeMarco

BROOKLYN: At first glance, Ugly Duckling Presse seems like an unlikely candidate to offer e-books. The tiny non-profit publishes mainly poetry, often chapbooks in small hand-made letterpress-printed editions. But Ugly Duckling found an e-book solution that fits its publishing vision. As part of a new initiative, Ugly Duckling is making its out-of-print chapbooks available for free, readable only on their website.

Ugly Duckling wanted to draw traffic to their site and give the books a second life online, but they weren’t comfortable with the loss of control entailed in offering the books for download. “We were concerned that people would download them as a PDF, print them off on 8-1/2 by 11 office paper at their job and read them that way, and that just isn’t really in keeping with our approach toward the total book,” commented James Copeland, Ugly Duckling’s Managing Director. After one abortive experiment offering a chapbook as a PDF, Ugly Duckling switched to Issuu, a Flash-based digital publishing platform.

Ugly Duckling Presse

Many will be familiar with publishers using Issuu for catalogs or sample chapters, in the hope that the viewer will buy what’s being presented in another format. Ugly Duckling’s project differs in that Issuu is the book’s final format. The interface is impressive: slick, intuitive, and aesthetically pleasing. It makes you want to read online.

Though files already exist for the books, preparing them for Issuu is a time-consuming process; scanning special production elements (like those letterpress-printed covers or interior illustrations), altering typesetting for online readability, and adding changes and corrections all add up. Also, Ugly Duckling is incorporating “bonus material” such as author interviews into the online editions. All in all, it’s a good deal of effort.

Chapbooks were a natural place to start because their short length mitigates some of the laboriousness of preparing an online edition. Also, Copeland noted, “Chapbooks are usually handmade so when they go out of print they usually stay out of print, unlike a full length book where the printer still has the files and you can just send them a check and they’ll print more. It’s not that easy when you run out of an edition of a chapbook.”

The digitization and republishing efforts are supported by a $2,500 grant from the New York State Literary Presenters Technical Assistance Program, though Copeland is quick to emphasize that Ugly Duckling is committed to pursuing the project regardless of outside funding; the grant increases the speed and and broadens the scope of books that can be included.

Contractually, the status of these online editions is still in a developmental phase, proceeding on a case-by-case basis. Since chapbooks are often reprinted as a part of longer works, the potential for complications involving other publishers (or, viewed more sunnily, the potential for partnerships with other publishers) is high. Similarly, works in translation where the original language rights lie with another publisher would be difficult. Luckily, Ugly Duckling’s intimate relationship with its authors has allowed things to proceed smoothly thus far.

As a mission-driven non-profit, making the works of its authors more accessible made sense, though the goals of promoting authors and increasing site traffic are certainly common to commercial and non-profit publishers alike. “The reason that we are doing it and are able to do it is because it fits in with our whole mission and our operation…It’s a noncommercial enterprise, so putting books online for free is actually completely in keeping with our normal [laughs] non-remunerative efforts,” said Copeland.

Still, the benefits are tangible. Rolling out the online editions in April, in conjunction with a new website design, resulted in a doubling of traffic to Ugly Duckling’s site. Following the initial spike, each book now gets about 100–150 visits per month. That may not sound like a lot, but considering they were originally published in editions of 400–500, it’s safe to say that they’ll soon have more online readers than they ever did in print. These ‘out of print’ books are in many senses more accessible than when they were ‘in print.’

There are some drawbacks to working with Issuu. As a Flash application, it can’t be viewed on any Apple mobile devices. And though Google has long promised better Flash indexing, its content also isn’t searchable. So while a Google search for “Regan Good” and “The Book of Nature” will come up with the tags for the author and chapbook of that name and direct you to Ugly Duckling’s site, if you try to look for the poem “Aluminosis” or if you’re searching for a specific line, a search won’t lead you to Ugly Duckling’s website, but to Issuu’s website, where all Issuu-based publications are available and fully searchable. Since drawing direct traffic is often a publisher’s main motivation for implementing Issuu, then favoring Issuu over the publisher for content-related queries seems like a major flaw.

“We’re not necessarily married to using Issuu or to having it look exactly the way it does now,” said Copeland in consideration of some of the application’s limitations. “We’re just trying to keep as much of an open mind, and as much flexibility and curiosity about new methods of publication as possible…Fortunately our organization is more of a speed boat than an aircraft carrier so when something isn’t working we just turn the steering wheel really fast and we’re fine.”

TO READ: Ugly Duckling’s free offerings powered by Issuu are online, or else browse down to the “online reading” section on the Ugly Duckling home page.

DISCUSS: Flash E-books: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Limitations?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.