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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.