Getting your poetry published is a tricky business. Hundreds of years ago it was easy. You just needed to be posh, get sent down from Oxford, wear a frilly shirt, party your way around Europe and Lord Byron was your uncle. Byron was brilliant btw. Now it’s different. Well, actually it isn’t, but at least us ordinaries do have an outside chance.
Since the war British poets have had a slowly increasing choice of outlets. There has been a huge rise in independent publishers, we now have plenty of poetry venues and literary festivals plus interest in the arts seems to be growing year on year.
Poetry contests are everywhere now, although the judging can be quite hit or miss in some of them. There are hundreds of small magazines and of course more recently we have the Internet, with it’s numerous outlets: blogs, websites, online e-zines etc. We also have open mic nights in pubs up and down the country, we have Instagram poets and even self publishing is now deemed completely acceptable.
As far as traditional poetry book publishers are concerned though many aspiring poets push for publication way too soon. Many writers, look back and feel their first books weren’t as good as previously thought and many small press poets would probably have succeeded with the bigger publishers if they’d just waited a bit longer.
Publishing facts and figures
There are thousands of poetry collections published each year now. Most are small scale though: some from local presses, many in pamphlet form and hundreds via print on demand services that produce good quality paperbacks and e-books on Amazon kindle.
The better-known, traditional poetry publishers (Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, Cape, Picador and others) only publish about 200 books a year between them, of which the majority are the ‘established poets’ from the UK and overseas. So how do you break in? Can you even?
OK, let’s get real. Debut books are about as common as a pork chop in a synagogue. Bigger publishers don’t care about art, they only care about the bottom line – i.e. turning a profit. Therefore space for a new poetic voice usually comes at the expense of an older poet, who either dies and is forgotten or is just not selling well. It is difficult to promote a new poet – bookshops want books that make money too.
So how do new poets get published then?
Well, the simple answer is that you must jump through the hoops, learn your craft and prove yourself before considering an approach to a publisher. You must have at least 50 poems, usually more. Publishers will want you to have a substantial publication record in good magazines and journals.
When submitting to magazines assume you’ll get far more rejections than acceptances. This is pretty normal for many reasons: space, style, editor, subject, length, theme etc. Once you start getting a few acceptances though, then you know you’re on the right track. Build these poems up into your first collection.
Eventually you’ll feel confident enough to know what magazines are after and what makes a good poem.
Once you feel you are ready to approach a publisher, you must find out their current submissions policy and adhere to this precisely. Remember, all decent publishers get far more submissions than they can even read, so any excuse they get to reject manuscripts they take. If they ask for double-spacing then give it to them. If they ask for Times Roman don’t use Arial. If they want coffee stains on the top left-hand corner of each poem then spill away!
Some publishers won’t even consider unsolicited work. Yep, they really are that arrogant that they can afford to turn down the next Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot or Barry McSweeney. Some prefer sample submissions of half a dozen poems only, some want an entire book.
Email submissions are rarely allowed and they expect a SAE with full return postage. Always keep your covering letter short and to the point. Say where you’ve been published before but only mention the top quality magazines. They don’t want to know about your auntie’s blog. Even then you may not even get a reply. If you do it’ll take months.
You’ll probably still be rejected and will be sent your work back (suitably creased so you can’t reuse it) with a standard, typed slip which says ‘Thanks, but your work wasn’t quite what we are looking for but good luck elsewhere”. Like they really mean that!
So is it really worth it?
Financially it isn’t. Unless you are lucky enough to get an exam board / school to study your work for GCSE and then they’ll buy thousands of your books. No, the only real reason is so you can tell your friends that you’re a ‘proper’ writer and have a contract where you don’t get all the royalties. And you may see your book tucked away in a dusty corner of Waterstones that nobody ever visits.
OK, you should be depressed enough by now so here’s how my own journey has gone:
As a poet whose written for over forty years and been published in various magazines I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t say no to one of the big publishers, but living in Wales, where the literary scene is ‘complicated’ shall we say, I decided to self publish my work. Why? Well, simply because I’m a chatterbox. I have lots to say, hopefully my work means something too and I’m too impatient to wait months for a yes, no or maybe. I write, I publish myself and hopefully enough people will read and enjoy it.
OK, if you’re still not convinced then these are the steps you must follow, in no particular order:
Take your time
Join a writing group
Submit to magazines
Take a creative writing course
Build up a good reputation / collection of published work
Become a performance poet
Enter (and preferably win or get shortlisted) in poetry competitions
Consider self publishing a collection
Don’t give up
Repeat all the above