Getting Published: Poetry
Are You Ready to Submit?
When you have about fifty poems that represent a balanced selection of your best work, you can begin to think about approaching publishers with your first collection.
Submitting Your Work
Unlike novelists and authors of non-fiction, Poets rarely have literary agents. If they do, it is generally because they also write fiction or memoir. Generally, Poets need to contact poetry publishers directly.
Poetry differs from most other areas of publishing in that publishers tend to accept unsolicited submissions. Some publishers are always open to new work, while others may have a specific submissions window for receiving unsolicited work.
Poetry publishers receive huge volumes of submissions but publish very few books. A large poetry publisher may publish twenty to thirty new books a year and receive as many as one hundred submissions a week. Added to that, the majority of the collections they publish will be by poets already on their lists, backlist titles or anthologies, so the opportunities for new poets are very limited.
A large poetry publisher may publish twenty to thirty new books a year and receive as many as one hundred submissions a week
Many poetry publishers are considerably smaller and equally swamped with submissions. Small, independent poetry publishers can offer an alternative route to publication and good publishers can produce excellent books. These publishers are usually under-resourced, with small budgets and few staff, but can compensate for this by a committed approach.
Most poetry publishers are subsidised in some way and often reliant on funding. Poetry is rarely a financially profitable art form, for either poet or publisher. Don’t expect your poetry to make you rich – or even moderately well off – though it will enrich your life in other ways.
When approaching a publisher, ensure that you’re familiar with the books they publish. Poetry imprints can vary strikingly and you need to ask yourself if your work will fit in with what they publish and if you want to be published by them. The same is true for magazine publication and you need to be certain that you’re aware of the kind of writing individual editors are looking for.
When writing to a poetry publisher, you should adopt a similar approach to a general manuscript submission, including a cover letter, Writer’s CV (with a short author biography) and a writing sample. If you’ve worked with a more experienced poet – such as through a mentoring scheme or while on a university course – you might want to ask him or her to write a short endorsement of your work. Quotes from established names help your work to stand out from the crowd. The poetry world is very small, so it’s not unlikely the editor you’re writing to will know the person who has given an encouraging quote about your writing.
Do not send poetry submissions by email unless you’re invited to do so and never email more than one publisher at a time. A poor approach in this way may end up with publishers blocking communication from you.
It’s acceptable to send a short sample of your work, between six and ten poems, along with a covering letter and SAE to a number of publishers simultaneously. You should receive a response within three months but if you’ve heard nothing back after five or six months then send the publisher a reminder letter or email. You might want to include a self-addressed postcard so the publisher can acknowledge your manuscript has arrived and is under consideration.
When a publisher has registered interest in your work and asked to look at your complete manuscript, you should then not send your poetry anywhere else until you’ve had a response. Etiquette is important in publishing and editors can be quite sensitive.
Remember that you are on a very long road. It can take years of trying before you have interest from a publisher and even when you’re offered publication, poetry lists are so saturated that it may be another year, even two or three, before your work is in print. You’ll experience times when your confidence is low and this is when support from your peers, such as through writing groups, can be essential. Try not to lose heart and remember that though publication is a great goal, it’s not necessarily the only goal and does not have to happen immediately.
Developing Your Work
Build a Portfolio
You should build a portfolio of publication in magazines and anthologies before you begin to think about approaching a publisher with a longer collection of work. Not only does previous publication in magazines help to make your submission stand out, it also demonstrates your commitment to becoming a published poet.
You should build a portfolio of publication in magazines and anthologies before you begin to think about approaching a publisher with a longer collection of work
Before writing a first collection, you may want to try to get a pamphlet or chapbook published. Pamphlets are shorter pieces of work, either self-contained sequences that can stand alone or individual poems representing a particular stage of a poet’s development. Typically, a pamphlet will consist of about twenty or twenty-five poems.
Read as Much Poetry as Possible
If your main interest is in contemporary poetry, be sure to return to the past to broaden your understanding of where poetry comes from. Likewise, if you haven’t read anything written after the Romantic Period it’s vital that you familiarise yourself not just with poetry today but with the entire 20th century. Explore poetry from different cultures and poetry in translation, and try to learn about different forms and techniques. One way to do this is by reading as many poetry anthologies as you can.