Recently, I received an email from a local writer, asking for advice on how to publish a book of poems. I’ve never read her poetry, so I could only give general advice, and since I get this kind of question a lot, I thought I’d post my reply here.
Publishing a book of poetry can be a long and arduous process, so be patient and don’t give up! Poetry publishing in the U.S. is not extremely lucrative for publishers or for the poet, so it is hard to find a publisher who is willing to take on an unknown or little-known author. But there are are ways. There is a lot of competition and it can take awhile to get noticed. Here are a few ideas and resources that might help.
Before publishing a book, most poets publish in magazines. That gets your name out there and helps develop a readership. Publishers also look for evidence that other editors have approved of your writing when they evaluate your work (at least if the work isn’t submitted anonymously, which is sometimes a requirement). So seek out good literary magazines and send the individual poems to them before you start shopping the book manuscript around. Once poems are published in a book, they usually can’t be republished in a magazine, but poems published in a magazine often end up in a book. So you want magazine publication for a good number of your poems before they are accepted in a book.
Poets & Writers is one of the best resources for information on poetry magazines. I’ve also found that Lit Line, New Pages, and The Poetry Resource Page have good indexes of literary magazines with links to the magazine’s websites. Research many of them, read what they have online, and subscribe to some. This will help you get a sense of what is being published and where it is published. In a small way, you’ll also be supporting the industry you want to be a part of.
But you may already be doing this. Another thing to do that will help you know whether your writing is publishable (yet), is to join a writing group. If you have friends who read your writing now, that is great. If those friends also publish, even better. If you want to go to the next level, then consider attending a summer workshop or other writing seminar (or taking a class or going to an MFA program). There are many opportunities for week or month-long writer’s seminars or colonies. The sites I mentioned will have lists of these opportunities. Though it’s not required that you earn an MFA or go through a seminar to publish, it can be an invaluable experience, where you learn more about your craft, but also learn about the publishing process and make new writer friends, possibly even network.
Finally, to actually publishing your book. Many first poetry books these days are published through a contest. The entry fee helps fund the publication costs, and the reputation of the contest helps guarantee an audience for the published book. It’s nice to be able to say you won a prize (though frankly, publishing a book is prize enough for many of us!).
Just beware about the prizes that are out there. There are many legitimate ones and many scams. A legitimate first book prize will usually have an entry fee that is anywhere from $10 – $50 ($25 seems to be about the norm, though, so I’d look carefully at a much more expensive one). It will pay a prize and publish your book — often you get some copies as part of your prize. Many will publish more than just the first-place manuscript. You will enter with your whole book manuscript, and you often get a copy of the winning book or a subscription to a literary magazine along with your entry fee. A legitimate first book prize will also usually announce the name of the judge, and will follow guidelines aimed at keeping the judging legit (no friends or former students may submit, for instance). The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has a code of ethics for contests. if a contest follows this, that is a very good sign.
Contests with no entry fee are often scams (the costs pile up later). Some are notorious for accepting anything sent to them, no matter how ridiculous (and people have tried to get rejected). There is no fee, but you are expected to purchase an expensive anthology, then flattered and offered an expensive conference and other perks that come at a price. If you’re not familiar with the source of the contest, do some searching to find out if it is legit before you send them your work.
You can also query publishers directly. You should know a lot about the publisher before you do this, though. Read their books to know whether your work is likely to be a good fit for their readers. If you feel you’re ready to go this route, then read their submission guidelines to be sure they will take ‘over the transom’ submissions. Usually you would send a sample from your manuscript, about 10 pages, along with a cover letter. If they’re interested, they’ll get back to you. If they aren’t, you’ll likely get a polite form letter. Don’t feel bad, though. Any press that will accept unsolicited manuscripts likely receives hundreds of query letters. Agents generally won’t work with an unpublished poet, either. Which is why contests are the first avenue for many writers.
Note that there are chapbook contests (for manuscripts of 24-48 pages, as a general rule), first book contests (48+ pages, though more than 80 is probably getting too long), and open book contests (open to any poet and not any poet who hasn’t published a book). There may be some other types of contest guidelines, but those are the most frequent. Obviously your chances are better in a first book competition, though that doesn’t mean you might not win an open competition. It’s all up to the judge, especially when the entries are anonymous, as they often are.
So how can you win a contest or get a publisher to notice your book? The obvious response would be to write really good poems! That may not always be enough, however. It is also important to craft a good book. The order of poems and structure of the book is integral to its success. Revising and polishing poems between submissions and reordering and rethinking the thematic structure of the book can lead to a stronger manuscript. Don’t just print them in the order that you wrote them, in other words. Look for recurring themes, emotions, ideas. Consider a structure that ties these together. Be willing to cut the poems (even published poems) that don’t fit the book — maybe they’ll make it into your next one!
As you read books of poetry, look for patterns the poet may have used to order the manuscript. Though it may not be obvious, I used a seasonal pattern in Time Capsules. Think about possible models or read about the process of composing a book. Though I haven’t read it, a good friend, poet Anna Leahy, has recommended Ordering the Storm by Susan Grimm for its thoughts on moving from manuscript to finished book. You might enjoy Anna’s conversation with three other poets about their first book experience, published on Bookslut.
Publishing a book can be a long, drawn-out process. If approached with the right attitude, it can be rewarding and not just frustrating. But it will be frustrating, more than likely, so do have a support group of friends who write and encourage each other. There is nothing better for your self-esteem when the rejections come back (and they will) than knowing that there are people you respect who respect your writing. If you don’t have a group like this yet, then seek one out. Good luck!