Though POEMHACK is on extended hiatus – oh, life! – I recently had an email exchange with a friend who had just given her first public reading and was wondering about the road to publishing a book. In school a lot of the advice I got on this matter was a couple decades out of touch, and a lot of the advice I see online is like, “Uhh, I dunno, follow the directions? Or self-publish maybe?” In any case, my friend found my spiel helpful, so I thought I’d pass it on.
There’s two main routes to a book, with some major overlap between them: contests and open reading periods. Entropy has a good bimonthly list of both, as well as journals currently accepting subs.
As for the actual process of making that .docx into something at Powell’s, some thoughts:
1) There will be lots of rejection. Lots and lots.
2) Getting a book out is a numbers game. Regardless of how GREAT (like GREAT) a manuscript is, there is still plenty of chance involved. Chance that the person sorting through the slush pile is drunk or hungover or just got dumped. Chance that the editor hates one of the words in the title and it makes them wanna puke. Chance that your manuscript is sitting right next to the God of All Books Manuscript and though they sincerely want to publish yours, the editors must obey the Book God and publish it instead.
3) You only have control over your poems and sending them out. You can’t control anything else, and so the sooner you get over worrying about anything else, the more energy you’ll have for writing poems and sending them out.
4) Save yourself some rejection (and reading fees) by sending to presses that publish books you dig. While fiction and music and like everything else has defined genres and poetry is just as aesthetically diverse as everything else, a book from FSG is right next to a book from Fence is right next to a book from YesYes at the bookstore, and though they all publish excellent poetry, they usually wouldn’t be interested in the same manuscripts. The buying of lots of poetry books to figure out who’s doing similar stuff is a cost that can only be defrayed by borrowing from friends, as most libraries don’t keep up on small press poetry (which is where like 95% of poetry happens).
5) The organization of a book matters a lot, and is worth addressing every month or two. Shuffle up your poems and come up with the best groupings you can think of; imagine how your ideal reader will feel from poem to poem. If you still like the organization you’ve got, all the better.
6) At least two of my teachers recommended: “Put the best poem first, then put the second best poem at the end, and from there it doesn’t matter.” I didn’t buy it, but it’s a place to start.
7) Get your friends to read and comment on your manuscript. Friends can be great or awful readers of your work, but whichever the case, listen closely to what they say when they read your manuscript and don’t argue with them. It’s a lot of work reading a whole manuscript with an eye towards revision, and even if their opinion is totally stupid you owe them for that work.
8) Similarly, both contests and open reading periods usually have an entry/reading fee. Budget for this. A reading fee isn’t a bad thing (unless it’s a scam or something; make sure the press publishes stuff you like and scams won’t be a problem); it’s just a little thank-you for their time and energy, and often makes up a decent chunk of their operating budget.
9) Having a lot of poems published in journals is a real help on both contests and open reading periods. First-round readers at some contests will pass a manuscript to the second round automatically if the poet has a good record of journal publications, and it’s easier for a publisher to have confidence that the book will actually sell a few copies if other editors have vouched for their work.
10) Items 1-4 apply to submitting to journals. (Bonus note: if your poem has been rejected four times, it’s not working! Sending out a poem more than that is not showing respect to the people who’ve got to spend their evenings reading it. Put it away for a year, and if you still like it then, you get another two chances. This does not hold true for manuscripts, though I’d certainly recommend doing substantial revisions before sending again to a press that’s rejected it.)
11) The title of your book should be something that will make someone want to read it. Make lists of possible titles regularly. Google to make sure someone’s not already using your title du jour.
12) Be nice to people. Don’t send anything but a heartfelt “Thanks for reading my poems!” back to an editor after they reject you. Don’t badmouth presses, journals, or poets. Don’t think that because someone hasn’t given you the opportunity you think you deserve that they’re awful. One Ultimate Truth of Poetryland: Basically everyone is working for free.
Is there ever an instance where you recommend sending a physical copy of your manuscript? The couple of places I’ve submitted to in the past work via electronic submissions — are you more likely to get noticed if you send a physical copy?
I’d guess that 98% of the time sending a physical copy would be a tiny mark against you – oftentimes editors and readers aren’t located in the same city, and who wants to mail someone else’s manuscript to other people? – but, as these are real, live humans reading your stuff, and being that humanity is notoriously diverse, it could be that you find an editor particularly charmed by an unusual approach. And this goes for any unusual approach. 98% of the time people are going to think colored text is sophomoric, or a refusal to use page numbers is inconvenient, or the explanatory note at the beginning is redundant, or your use of an 11″/16″ page just straight-up prohibitive – or whatevs – but poets are also at least 70% more likely than your average reader to like weird shit. I guess my best advice is to try to figure out of the weird thing you want to do is a necessary weird thing for your project, or if it’s weird just to stand out. If it’s the latter, don’t. If it’s the former, well, somebody’s got to do all the new weird things, right?
Reb Livingston : “Submit Like a Queen”
Kelli Russell Agodon : “Submit Like a Man”
Poets & Writers : “Publishing Your Book”