So I’ve got this poetry manuscript …

Once you’ve published a book of poetry, or helped others self-publish theirs, you get a lot of questions about how it’s done. Usually, I am asked by writers in South Africa how they can publish a poetry collection. Here’s the simplest answer I have.

These days, I think self-publishing poetry is the best option 99 per cent of the time, and this tends to cost an average of about R12000 in total with a good self-publishing services company (design, proofreading, and print-on-demand distribution). The service my company developed (and from November 2009 will be run by another company, but under the same banner) is Mousehand. Other South African services include Crink and New Voices Publishing (sometimes a little cheaper, but distribution works differently; make sure really understand each service before deciding what’s best for you!). Of course, this gets cheaper if you only distribute as an ebook, or only pay for design and proofreading and handle distribution yourself, perhaps printing in small quantities (say, 50 copies at a time) directly with a digital-printing company like Megadigital.

If you want to keep costs really low, try publishing first in ebook form only. For a how-to, start with EBW’s practical advice on self-publishing ebooks.

Beyond self-publishing, I’m afraid I don’t really know of other options these days. The poetry collections published occasionally by established houses are almost always commissioned (that is, they don’t come from unsolicited submissions). It’s really a question of funding, and having the time and energy to promote the book enough to break even on sales. I’m yet to find a book of poetry that made a profit. Poetry in South Africa and, I suspect, elsewhere is very much a labour-of-love industry from what I can tell, a craft and a contribution to the undergrowth of letters that’s so important to a national literature.