money for writing? score!
December 3, 2012 8:57 PM   Subscribe

How to get a book of poetry published?

Say I have ~100 decent to great poems. How would I get them all published at the same time? Is it more or less mandatory to have individual poems published? Since I don't know anyone in the industry, do I just get Poets Market and search/pray/unsolicited send stuff? And, even better than being published, how does one get paid? (So no vanity publishing, thank you!)
posted by Jacen to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have had several jobs related to fiction and non-fiction publishing, and it is a tough game. The market for poetry (especially the paid market) is relatively small and tough to break into. Querying publishers is one route that you could take, but I would be ready for a long road.

Another route would be to self-publish a book of poetry. I would say the any stigma related to self-publishing has changed significantly in recent years. If you are motivated, you can get a lot of cheap/free publicity through local event listing, newspapers and alt-weekly magazines. Hold readings at coffee shops, connect with other poets, be at events on local campuses. There are lots of opportunities to get yourself out there and to self copies of your poems. There is a good chance that you can make as much money (or more) publishing your work this way than by going through traditional publishers.
posted by Nightman at 9:30 PM on December 3, 2012

You might take a look at first book prizes - these are contests run by presses that pay a small honorarium and publish the poet's first book.

There's pretty much no way to get paid publishing poetry. The best-selling poets in a given year sell 40,000 copies of a book if they're nationally famous and lucky (think Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, etc). Most poets are fortunate to sell a couple thousand copies of a book.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:32 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you ever been published before? If not, I would focus on getting individual works published in journals that you like/admire. I've been paid a few times for individually published works... And I seriously doubt anyone would publish your book if no one has ever even heard or read your poetry before.
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:36 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you have access to people who can help you market your work (a mailing list of fans, friends with connections, etc.) and/or an easily-marketable theme? There have been a number of poetry books successfully funded and distributed via Kickstarter - I'm thinking primarily of this chapbook of poems based on @Horse_ebooks tweets, but there are lots of similar projects - here's Kickstarter's poetry category page. The idea with those projects is to cover your costs so that you're not losing money on the project, while getting your work to people who want to read it (so I don't think of it as vanity publishing).

I'm also thinking of this author's experience with publishing one book via Kickstarter and later getting another book project picked up by a traditional publisher. If you have an existing audience of any kind, self-publishing can be a way to build on that audience and get your work noticed by even more people.
posted by dreamyshade at 9:37 PM on December 3, 2012

Some book distributors have a pretty respectable list of poetry publisher clients - Consortium comes immediately to mind. You might want to check out their website, find the names of some publishers that publish poetry (and as has been mentioned, they are few and far between), and investigate those.

You'll have to do a lot of self-promoting, no matter what route you take. I wouldn't worry about getting paid anytime soon.

Good luck!
posted by lyssabee at 10:02 PM on December 3, 2012

First book contests are the way new poets are published. Here's a list of contests. Unfortunately, the contest route usually costs money in the form of entry fees--$20 or so an entry, usually. I would look into poetry markets on duotrope for publishing individual poems, certainly.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:11 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are a few ways. However it is very unlikely that any of these ways will make you money right off the bat, if at all. If you're engaged with contemporary poetry--reading it, writing it, noticing the trends and getting your hands dirty appreciating & analyzing a few newish books/poets every month, you've got a head start in terms of knowing how your work compares, in terms of craft and aesthetic and form to what's out there, i.e. you know (kinda--subjectively) which presses are your realistic dream presses, and you're also engaged enough in the writing and revision process to have a developed eye for how your own work fits into, or doesn't fit into, the 'world' of contemporary poetry. That you're asking this makes me think you need to back up and spend a year reading and also paying attention to the professional/publishing end of things, just to get a feel for how it works.

So first, I'd start by familiarizing yourself with the types of journals (print and online) that you're interested in publishing with--just to get a toe in the water, so to speak, and as a more realistic method of professional engagement en route to publishing. Get a sense of the ones you like, and try to classify them according to your own taxonomy. You can get started via New Pages & Duotrope's Digest. If you have 100 good poems, do a trial run of submitting to 20 journals, submissions of 4-6 poems per packet (these submissions can have overlap with one another, or be identical even, depending on where you'd like to submit to). Choose your best work. What you send to Tin House will probably not be what you send to jubilat, for example (and if you write poems that Tin House might take, there's also a good chance that jubilat won't be interested), and you need to be able to make these distinctions about every magazine you submit to. Those, btw, are both top-tier magazines within the literary world; outside of it, they're relatively unheard of and "top tier" is probably limited either to the New Yorker or Poetry, "and if you want to be famous why are you trying to publish poetry, anyway?" When I send out submissions to 20 journals (spanning, for example, a few "tiers": Tin House, the Nashville Review, Sycamore Review, A Public Space, Zyzzva, the California Quarterly, & Diagram) I know that a couple of those are enormous longshots and a few are relatively quite possible for me. If I submit to 20 top-ish tier journals, I'll get one or two personalized rejection notes back, and once a year, an acceptance (if I've actually been very proactive about submissions and the 20 top tier submissions thing is true!). Remember that some journals, even ones that aren't publishing phenomenal poetry, get hundreds if not thousands of submissions. So even if your work is great, it'll get passed over time and time again--because the screeners don't like your aesthetic, because something about it doesn't "click" on first read for them, right then, because it's not perfect for the aesthetic of that particular issue, whatever. Some people take rejections very personally; most folks take it as one of the hazards of the job. Regardless, it's proof that you're professionally engaged.

(I've read the slush pile for literary magazines before, and accepted quite a few poems from it. But I could almost always tell without a doubt who'd seen the name of the magazine in Poet's Market and submitted without reading an issue--not just because they, like, made some faux pas in the cover letter or anything, but because they seemed to be utterly unfamiliar with the conventions of poetry submissions and often of contemporary poetry in literary magazines at all. Period. We would get sonnets full of "thee" and "thou" when the most cursory of glances at our website, much less at an actual issue, could have saved us all the time--there are markets for those kinds of poems, and ours wasn't one of them. The absolute worst was when people used those submission services advertised in the back of Writer's Digest or whatever. When we got submissions from folks who read contemporary poetry and current literary journals (even if they weren't reading ours regularly), I could usually tell that engagement because their work, more or less, fit the aesthetic of the magazine. Even if we weren't crazy about the work itself, it was contextualized and relevant, part of the 'conversation' of poetry--or striving to be, regardless of whether it was successful.)

Okay, but onto the question! Now cut to 2014. You're reasonably aware of the situation of poetry publishing. Folks upthread have mentioned self-publishing via print-on-demand, crowdsourcing a self-published project, etc. I don't know much about this, and there are plenty of other folks who do. What I do know something about is the 'traditional' world of contemporary poetry publishing, more or less. You can submit to open reading periods, you can query publishers that don't have open reading periods, you can enter first book contests (in which you pay them to read your manuscript, but if you win it comes with prize money ranging roughly from $1k-$5k, with some higher & lower outliers, the (varying) prestige of having won that particular contest, and extra publicity), or having a friend/professor with literary connections recommend your work to a press they're connected to (aka nepotism). In the meanwhile, you can also submit to chapbook contests, many of which have prize money attached to them as well. FWIW, I've mostly gone the first book contest route, and have been submitting a manuscript to "competitive" presses/contests since 2008. I've been a semi-finalist a couple times, a finalist once, and gotten some lovely rejection notes. I know I should be working harder because the manuscript isn't quite good enough yet--I can feel it in the way that some of the poems interconnect, and how the overall arc behaves, though I'm pretty solidly proud of, say, 35 pages of it. It's the other 15-20 that aren't working.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:24 PM on December 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

Also, I want to explicitly mention that my response above is focused on [some of] the pragmatic, professional engagement aspects of poetry. But that's not the heart of poetry as a practice, a craft, a serious creative pursuit. So while it's reasonable to talk about tiers, slush piles, nepotism, whether the fees for first book contests are fair, whether self-publishing is the wave of the future (as it was of the past) or foolish, etc... those things are all a much different kind of engagement than the studied practice of making a poem, to the extent that they barely belong in the same conversation. And it's the conversation & practice of making that you (and I, & any of us) should be consistently prioritizing in order to have any hope of being successful at the other side of it.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:37 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother and aunt are both reasonably successful poets, in the sense that they win prizes and appear in national publications and "best of" anthologies. (Neither of them is making much money from poetry, of course; they both also teach.) And while I love both their work, and would like to think that they are where they are on merit alone, I think it is no coincidence that they were mentored by poets with established names and reputations -- Billy Collins, David Wagoner, Richard Kenney, Colleen McElroy, Heather McHugh -- and that through those connections they know a lot of the people in the right social and professional circles. It's not necessarily nepotism, but certainly networking is a component of the market they work in.

So, in my limited experience, one route to publication as a poet is to attend a well-regarded MFA program with faculty members whose connections you can mine.
posted by hades at 12:35 AM on December 4, 2012

Poetry is a bit of a pyramid scheme, and paid contest entries/MFAs from people like you are the base of the pyramid, keeping a few lucky people in actual paying jobs.

If you want to be taken seriously by anyone who might be able to publish you, knowing people does help.

At the very minimum you need to get published by relatively reputable poetry journals (knowing people helps there too, which I'll get into). What journals are "reputable"? One easy way to find out is to grab the Best Poetry 2012 or 2011 or whatever and note the journals that the poems come from, especially poems that are similar in style to yours. Those are journals that you know have at least some measure of legitimacy in the eyes of many, although their prestige will vary considerably.

Then look at the submission requirements for those journals and do a little research. Some of those journals are going to be more open to new writers than others. Those are not generally the journals that pay.

To get your name familiar with those journal editors, you can try submitting other pieces, like reviews. Some of them take unsolicited reviews, others don't. You are reading other poetry being published currently, right?

Once you get two or three poems published in reputable journals, then you can consider submitting to fee-based chapbook contests or first book contests. You can also consider trying for an MFA, ideally funded, at which you will work desperately hard to make contacts and polish a publishable chapbook or book.

Then if you do get a chapbook or book published, you can continue being published by journals and start to be possibly doing some readings (these do not pay well unless you're a bit of a star--think "a few drinks"--but you ought to try to do them anyway for practice and to promote sales of your book/chapbook). You can also look for a teaching job. With only one book/chapbook in hand, unless it's the darling of the glittering intelligentsia and you're lauded in a few NYC-based national publications, you're looking at low-prestige, low-pay gigs in shitty areas of the country. You might also qualify for a writing grant of some sort, which means you get paid to write or go to a retreat. You'll be expected to do just enough to keep you from keeping a 9-5 gig but it won't pay all your bills for any significant length of time unless you are a rare superstar, in which case you might get a major prize, which is often the equivalent of one or two years salary at a normal job but without the health insurance, workers comp', or stability.

There you go! You're now making money from writing.

Source: my prof of creative writing, a successful poet. He has a job as a college professor at a not horrible school, gets regular reading gigs, and has had 6+ award-winning books published). My ex mother-in-law, a successful poet and author. She gets gigs teaching poetry as a yearly guest at middling colleges and universities, gets regular reading gigs, has 6+ award winning books published, and has family money.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:44 AM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Self publish either by going the e-book route or shelling out the money for paper printing. Both will require you to market and sell which is actually very useful experience. For paper printing it is as simple as finding a good local book printer and shelling out a few grand. If you are good at marketing you can recoup your costs and then some.

As a beginner, most other ways of getting some poetry published are scams.
posted by JJ86 at 8:41 AM on December 4, 2012

As a beginner, most other ways of getting some poetry published are scams.

This is not true. As a twenty-year-old undergraduate, I had poems published in e-zine venues. I wasn't paid for them, but they were publication credits and got my poems a few more eyes.

Book length publications are another story.

Then if you do get a chapbook or book published, you can continue being published by journals and start to be possibly doing some readings (these do not pay well unless you're a bit of a star--think "a few drinks"--but you ought to try to do them anyway for practice and to promote sales of your book/chapbook). You can also look for a teaching job. With only one book/chapbook in hand, unless it's the darling of the glittering intelligentsia and you're lauded in a few NYC-based national publications, you're looking at low-prestige, low-pay gigs in shitty areas of the country.

This is no longer true for up-and-coming poets. The ubiquity of the MFA means that it's almost completely impossible to get a foot in the door for a teaching gig (even adjuncting) ANYWHERE without a master's credential, either MFA or MA. Things are very, very different than they were even ten years ago, and unless Jacen wants to go through the MFA system, even with one or two books out, teaching is unlikely.

I knew I had this on my computer somewhere. This is a basic, nuts-and-bolts guide to submitting poems to magazines that I wrote a few years ago when I was teaching undergraduates about poetry. Keep in mind that I'm a somewhat dated source already (I've only had poems published through connections over the last few years, and am pretty much no longer a poet myself), but it should be helpful: Phoebe's Guide to Publishing Poetry: Because You COULD Write for No One But Yourself, but Where's the Fun in That?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:21 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're Canadian, and you haven't previously published a book (or have only previously published a single book), you can get up to $12,000 (more if you are an established writer with more books to your name). The path to this requires 10 previously published poems (i.e. journals).
posted by juv3nal at 11:03 AM on December 4, 2012

This looks like it is the equivalent American thing and the requirements are more stringent and it alternates every other year with prose, but again the way to get eligibility is to get yourself published in literary journals.
posted by juv3nal at 5:20 PM on December 4, 2012

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