How to get your poetry published

Having had my own book of poetry published, I’m often thought to be party to the secret handshake of publishers everywhere. When people ask me how they can get theirs published, I tell them it’s a tough road, full of complex choices and lucky turns. Actually, it’s a simple process. The tough part is writing poetry good enough for publication. Once you’ve got that sorted, it’s useful to know how poetry publishing works. Read what I’ve said here, and also read the Centre for the Book’s advice on publishing poetry.

Before you read the proper explanation below, this is the bottom line: first, find and read a few poetry magazines. Then send them about four poems at a time for them to consider publishing. Once you have had several poems published in magazines, then you can approach publishers who publish books of poetry. Now, here is how and why.

Very few people who write poetry know how to get it published, especially in South Africa. It’s just one of the drawbacks of growing up in a country where literature has not been a high priority. So the first thing is to understand the basics of how poetry publishing works. The principles are similar for short stories.

Firstly, there is a very big, important difference between “publishers” and “magazines”. Publishers publish collections of poetry by one or more people in book form. Magazines publish poems by different people (usually one to five poems per writer), and are published on a regular basis. Most magazines that specialise in poetry and short stories sell most of their copies to subscribers, who pay in advance and get their magazines in the post. Books and magazines both sell through bookshops, but they are usually marketed badly and stocked irregularly.

(There are also websites that publish poetry, and act as online poetry magazines. I’m not going to talk about them here, because they all have very different ways of working, and you can find hundreds of them online easily enough. In most cases, they are not as choosy about what they publish, because they are not limited by space. This means they have a reputation, sometimes unfairly so, for publishing poor poetry.)

It often seems as if no one cares about poetry. The simple reason for this is that there is no money in poetry. This is not a tragedy, it’s just the way it is. Really good, popular poetry is exceptionally hard to write, so it’s not surprising that there is very little of it, and that most other poetry doesn’t sell. A very successful collection of new poems in South Africa will sell about 500 copies. There are probably less than five publishers in South Africa who are willing to publish it at any one time, and their willingness to do so changes all the time, depending on their financial position. Those who are brave enough to publish collections of new poetry will publish about one a year. These will usually lose money and be cross-subsidised by other publishing.

There are more poetry publishers overseas, especially in the US and the UK. But they will almost always only consider publishing your work if you’ve already published a collection in your own country, and a few poems in magazines in their country.

Every writer starts by getting poems published in poetry magazines. No one ever, ever, ever starts with a collection. Well, unless they publish it themselves, but then you’re missing that stamp of approval, evidence of the quality of your work, that having someone else invest in it brings.

You need to find good literary magazines that publish poetry (and other forms of writing). If you’re thinking of submitting work to any of them, there are a few golden rules to follow. As a poetry editor, it’s very easy, and very annoying, to see when someone hasn’t followed these rules. Annoying the poetry editor is the best way to reduce your chances of getting published.

  1. Always read at least one whole issue of a magazine before submitting work to it. If you can’t find the magazine in a bookshop, write to the magazine and ask for a copy, or at least for the price and their bank account details. This will prevent you from wasting your time sending them the wrong kind of work. For instance, don’t send love poems in formal metre to a magazine that specialises in alternative theory and experimental literature.
  2. Don’t send too many poems. Each magazine has different guidelines about this. If you don’t know how many poems to send, don’t send more than five (or fewer if they’re longer than a page). Also, don’t include a long explanatory covering letter. The poems are what matter, they should speak for themselves.
  3. If the magazine does not take submissions by email, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). When you post your poems to a magazine, make sure you include a self-addressed envelope, and put a stamp on it. Poetry magazines can’t afford hundreds of stamps. Remember you want to make the editors feel good about you so that they take your work seriously. Remember too that the whole point of submitting your work is to get a response, so make that as easy as possible for the editor.
  4. If you’re submitting by post to a journal overseas, include International Reply Coupons instead of stamps. You can apparently get these from the post office, though you’ll struggle in many developing countries. And if you can’t find them, apologise profusely to the editor of the magazine, and try to make another plan. Even if it’s including a memento of your far-flung country by way of sentimental compensation, and an email address. Oh, and if you’re submitting overseas, mention how you know about the magazine, and that you’ve read it. Magazines with websites get thousands of submissions from people overseas whose idea of poetry-magazine research is quality time with Google or the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook.
  5. Be absolutely sure about the quality of your work. If you aren’t certain that it’s good, it probably isn’t. If you haven’t read a lot of other poetry written in the last hundred years (at least the equivalent of an entire 400-page anthology of different poets; what you read at school doesn’t count), then you won’t know how your work relates to modern poetry. If you don’t know modern poetry, it is impossible to write with confidence. Lack of confidence shows up easily (in clichés, a poor sense of rhythm, slavish adherence to rules or an adolescent ignorance of them, clunky rhymes, overuse or lousy use of line-breaks, archaic language, a tendency to moralise, and so on).
  6. When you receive a rejection letter, send another submission to another magazine as soon as possible. Everyone gets rejected at some stage, and the disappointment can stop you in your tracks. You need to keep moving.

Those are the golden rules. In addition, there are a few things to keep in mind about submitting to magazines:

  • Don’t expect any feedback on your poems, editors don’t have the time.
  • Don’t expect more than a standard, mass-produced rejection or acceptance letter.
  • Don’t expect to get your poems back.
  • Don’t expect to be paid anything (though you’ll usually get at least one free copy of the magazine in which you appear).
  • Expect to wait a long time for a reply to your submission (though feel free to inquire after about two months).
  • Expect it to take even longer from when you are accepted to see the magazine in print.
  • Don’t expect to see page proofs or to be updated on progress before publication.
  • Expect magazines from time to time to make mistakes when typing up your poems; it sucks but it happens.

49 thoughts on “How to get your poetry published

  1. Hi,I would just like to find out ,how I could go about publishing my poems…

    I write very similar to Rumi…

    I think there are too few poetry books like that and I think there is a need for healing and love.

    I would like to share this with others…

    Best regards
    roch

    • hi
      i would really like to publish some of my work. It’s not alot and i’m not sure if i fall under any category but i think it a natural passage for any artist in this case writer to move from keepin there work to themselves to sharing it woth friends to eventually having the need to share it with the rest of the world so i find myself at the edge of my sharing with friends and diving into the deeper waters of the world
      thank you for the advice

    • I Like to publish my poetry for my children to remember me by,and i love writing about pane in live thank u for this opportunity. your regards Rosalinda

  2. Aloha. I’m so in-love with poetry …
    I’m writting poems and short stories.
    I’m obssesed with writting love poems and i really need a publisher or magazine…. I’d appreciate a feedback as soon as possible. on napsterous@gmail.com

    • I av been writting dis poem since the day i av been move by corruptive habit in my country nigeria by our leader i will like u to assit me to publish the poem to let the whole world know about the illegal act of the ‘corrupt master of economy”that we call leaders

  3. I found this article very informative and extremely helpful.

    I intend to follow your advice to the letter, however I wonder if it would be posible for you to give me point me in the direction of someone who could help me with editing the poems I have written so far.

    Yours gratefully
    Martel

  4. good day.

    i to have been curious and wonder what it would be like to be published.
    i think that its a great idea to have works released in a magazine.

    ….baby steps to finding if you are good enough….

    thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight.
    your page has been helpful..
    warmest regards
    nischelan naidoo.

  5. HI THERE I HAVE BEEN WRITING POETRY EVER SINCE I WAS IN GR.3.I AM NOW IN MY TWENTIES AND WOULD LIKE TO PUBLISH MY POETRY,PHILOSOPHYING,INSPIRATIONAL SHORT STORIES AND PRAYERS.I WOULD LIKE TO FIND A PUBLISHER WHO WOULD REALLY BE COMPLETELY MOTIVATED TO PUBLISH MY TALENT,BECAUSE I REALLY ARE QUITE EXEPIONALLY GOOD.EVERYONE THAT HEARS IT OR READS IT SAYS IT IS FANTASTIC.PLEASE HELP ME TO GET TO THE PUBLISHING PART IN SOUTH AFRICA.

  6. Heya!

    Thank you so much for this advice, it makes alot of sense, and I will certainly follow these guidelines.

    Regards

    Michelle

  7. I HAVE WRITTEN FOUR POEMS SO FAR, I AM WILLING TO MAKE TEN OF THEM, I JUST WANT TO KNOW HOW CAN I MAKE IT KNOWN. AT THE SAME TIME I HAD AN IDEA OF SAYING MY POEMS PLAYING A GUITAR BUT I WILL HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE GUITAR FIRST DO YOU THINK ITS THE BEST WAY TO PUBLISH THEM.

  8. Heya people,

    I see there is a lot of interest in this field and I have been trying to get hold of people to work with for a while now… I am looking into publishing a book (+/- 100 pages) where I would like to feature different styles of poetry and different age groups! So about 30ish people and 2-3 poems each! However,like all of you I have the material and quite a few poets but no publisher! So if one of you do manage to win and would like to collaborate,let me know! wkmuhammad@gmail.com

  9. hi i would really like to publish my poems please can you help.
    thanks
    Louren Pillay you can contact me on the above email address [email address removed—Editor]

  10. hi! I feel very well with the website. I was thirsty with information but now i drink your water. Also find some publishers to us

  11. Pingback: Blog interview no.190 with poet Kerry Hammerton « Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog

  12. i am a young 20year old poet interested on publishing some of my writting so care to give me tips on how i can do that and i am very inspired by things around me challenges youth face ..love.social.and emotional challenges.

  13. Hi

    Thanks for sharing with us your experiences, I am also one of the aspirant poem writers, I would also like to have my own book of poems one day. I write about my feelings whether its on love, death, fears, motivation etc.

    I can be contacted on kgolokwe@webmail.co.za

  14. hi I am 18 years of age and i would like to see my poems published.how do I make that possible? even if it wont a big offer.s

  15. Hi there

    thank you for the advice. some pretty interesting comments and i will be looking into contacting some magazines for establishing some of my poems.

    most people dont know the difficulty of getting noticed and established in our country and the rejection can really get to some. i guess the idea is to persevere.

    God Bless

    Risha

  16. Hi guys.
    Personally I think you all should put your poems on facebook under notes and ask your closes friends to read them and like them.
    You will get your responses.
    Don’t try to make money of it because it is a fantasy and not a career unless your the next big thing.
    I study creative writing at UNISA but I also study IT at a other place so I’m always keeping my options open. Add me on facebook che erasmus and you can read my poems its under my notes. Depressed poetry most of the time but that’s my style.

    Caio guys
    Keep well

  17. Hi there I’m also a 18 year old aspiring poet, and would love to some day see my work in a book, although I am not sure of the quality as I don’t let a lot of people read it, but would love to know how I can get it published, and or checked for its quality. Please get back to me [email address removed — ed.]

  18. how would you help a someone to publish her poems to be seen by the whole world /I’VE GOT NO COMMENT

  19. Hi…i’ve searched all over and cannot find the right website/publisher to publish my poems. I’ve written 92 so far and would like to go for at least 150. I’m looking for a reliable publisher to publish my book and who resides in South Africa. if you can assist me please do…thanks and God bless

  20. I started writing poems at the age of 9.Now I am 14 years of age. I have written more than 100 poems , but many of the poems I lost deu to my carelessness. So please any one could say me good ideas about how can I publish my poems.
    So please contribute you valuable thoughts to me.

    • Keep reading this site to find out how, Lungisani. It’s hard work, but if you keep trying and improving you can get there.

  21. I am young writer of 17 and I would love to see myself touching the lives of people with my work. I have not been able to publish my poems in the past but I dearly need a stepping stone of some sort to anchor me and inspire me and the people around me. I would humbly like my work to be published. I believe I have all the necassay tools to work my way up. Thank you

  22. Hi.

    I ran onto this page while doing research and I like how brutally honest Arthur is with the details. I have to say, it made me revisit my work and make sure I do not bore some poor editor. Thanks a mil for this.

  23. Hello! we go by the name of “DA POETS”, A group from newcastle currently in Majuba college where all and everything around us is poetry and we would love to get our work published as we would hate to see so immense talent go to waste unrecognised, and we would also hate to see all the undiscribable feeling brought to life and in words go by each and every intellectual that is in the orbit of “DA POETS”. Anyone who develops an interest in helping us achieve our goal to give the world what we consider as the missing link, please reply to Vusumuzi Z Gama @ 0787030332

  24. Hello

    My name is Ismael and I’m a deaf person. I had been doing sign language poetry performance for Green Heart City. I’ve completed my poetry book and Í’ve been looking for someone who can open the door for me. I’ve contacted some of publishers but some of them doesn’t interested without checking my poems, and some of them said poetry books are not popular selling in bookshops.

    If you know a way that I can be able to publish it I sincerely will appreciate it.

    Many thanks
    :-)

    • Ismael, unfortunately, we can say with relative certainty that no publishers in South Africa currently publish poetry. Perhaps two or three collections come out each year, but they are never the result of someone proposing a poetry collection to a publisher. As far as I can tell, they are all without exception published as a result of an understanding between the publisher and the poet that has developed over several years. The poet has been published in some magazines, perhaps, or self-published their work before, and the publisher found the book and became a fan of their work. Or the publisher saw the poet perform at an event a few times. So your best shot is

      (a) to self-publish your poems (see here for some posts on this http://howtopublishpoetry.co.za/category/do-it-yourself-publishing)

      (b) to continue to perform, and build relationships with other poets and literary people through events like readings, book launches, literary festivals, and community forums online.

      Good luck, and keep us posted.

  25. Afternoon evryone im looking for publishers im a strict love poet and motivational writer. I’ve shared my poems with family,friends and strangers over the net. I believe in changing the world tru poetry tht chats to da soul. Salute!!!!

    Contact me at;
    prokingunivs@gmail.com

  26. DEAR SIR / MADAM

    I WOULD LIKE TO PUBLISH M POEMS . I DO NO KNOW STEPS AND PRICE

    KINDLY REGARDS
    MLUNGISI KUNENE

  27. Hi
    I would like to publish my poems one day and touch the lives of people with my work. but the worst part I don’t know where to go or start to publish my book. please help guys, my book I think is more than ready.

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