Want to be published? Four painful facts and a morality tale

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Want to publish your poetry?  Go for it.  But first read my Four Painful Facts and a Morality Tale.

This article hopes to elucidate a few of the more world-weary truths around the publishing of poetry in 2012 (almost 2013) with various bits about Robert Frost thrown in for good measure. First, the Painful Facts.

 Painful Fact 1

According to that source of all wisdom Wikipedia, the American poet Robert Frost was paid today’s equivalent of about $400 for his first poem.  With respect, it’s not gonna happen.  If it’s money you’re after, choose another art form/profession.   Write commercials, take up banking, invent the iPod.

Even the few known names that can reliably expect to get their work into high street bookshops (Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Sean O’Brien) have to do the lecture circuit and appearances at Southbank/Hay/Aldeburgh and judge endless competitions in order to put food on the table. Being lauded and applauded on a series of  literary festivals around the country?  So exhausting!  But that sort of suffering we can do.  Bring it on.  

Painful Fact 2

There are comparatively few readers of poetry and therefore the “target audience” is very small.  It follows that there are only a few small press publishers and their lists quickly fill up.   Mostly they operate on a shoestring budget and what they really need – and would love beyond anything -  is more people to buy their existing books before they worry about taking on new poets. There are a few big boys in the poetry publishing world: Faber, Carcanet, Enitharmon, Bloodaxe. If you get a collection published by any of these guys, let me know your secret.

Painful Fact 3

Assuming that someone agrees to publish your work (you lucky thing) most publishers will only publish original work.  That means that no matter how carefully you have crafted your Keats-ian sonnet – even if the work is indistinguishable from that of the deceased master himself, with not an iamb out of place – once it has appeared in print, that’s more or less it.  However, poems that have been published in individual magazines may still appear later in another publisher’s full collection.   

Which brings me to publication on the internet. In theory, this should be easier.  However, it’s worth remembering that poetry appearing on a website is still considered published; if you put poems on a personal blog etc most paper publishers will not want them, because the work is no longer considered original. Nor will the poem be eligible for entry into competitions. This is fine if you have dashed off your masterpiece in five minutes, but less so if you’ve spent two years working on something. On the other hand, if your personal blog has thousands of readers then your poem will be seen by many more people than would ever see a paper copy.   It’s all a question of balance.

Apply to those publishers who interest you, and whose work you like to read. Do read existing publications from a particular press before applying to send your own work.    There are two very good reasons for this – well, hundreds of very good reasons – but two main ones. There are many different types of poetry, and publishers tend to lean towards particular categories.  The poetry that you connect with as a reader is likely to be kin to the poetry you are writing.  This is important when seeking a publisher. Take our perfect Keats-ian sonnet (indistinguishable from the work of the deceased master etc ) mentioned above.  There is no point in sending this to a magazine that publishes edgy, post-modern work.  Similarly if you have a piece of installation poetry which has moving parts and requires a space the size of Southbank … you get my drift.

Painful Fact 4

All these poetry mags and publishers need our support.  If you can’t afford a regular subscription, buy one copy of something.  Usually it’s the same price as a cup of coffee.    Next time you’re walking past Fifty Shades, keep walking and buy a book of poetry instead.   Think of giving poetry books as Christmas presents. 

For lists of ezines and magazine publishing opportunities and contact details, the Poetry Library is the place to start. The Poetry Kit  is a great resource, too.  Between these two you can find all the information you will need about small press publishers as well as magazines.  Remember you need a record of publication in paper magazines before you will have a snowball’s chance of getting a collection published.

It is fair to say that most people who write want to perform and/or publish their poetry.  It seems logical to want to do that rather than just writing for oneself.  Most poets dream of winning a prize, be it money, recognition or publication - or preferably all three.   Remember that it’s the art form itself which matters. The rest is just stuff. 

Cue the morality tale of the title.  (This story first appeared in an essay by Maitreyabandhu in Poetry Review (Vol.101.1, Spring 2011, p. 51).

The story concerns our Famous American Poet Robert Frost, the gentleman of “the road less travelled” fame. During his lifetime Frost received over 40 honorary degrees for his writing, including ones from Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge. He won the Pulitzer prize four times and was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal.  Yet according to a biography  “he had always secretly hoped for more recognition than he ever received”.

Go for it and good luck!  But bear in mind that the law of diminishing returns says that, eventually, even the Pulitzer won’t be enough.  


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Tom Chapman

Wed 19th Dec 2012 08:37

Just a few thoughts from a newbie. Since retiring I have been writing poetry on a wide range of topics, and with a wide range of styles. I suppose, like many others, I have my favourites though. I have self published a few anthologies which have almost paid for themselves. I have found a printing company which will 'print on demand', so I don't have to outlay a large initial amount.
I have two main methods of achieving sales.
1) Supply copies on a consignment basis to a local bookshop who are happy to give me a few inches of shelf space. The next part of the exercise is to place copies in professional waiting rooms with a note in the fly leaf that copies may be purchased at the said bookshop.
2) Find places to perform and have books for sale sale.

I am in a rural town in New South Wales, Australia, and our local library agreed a few years ago to put on a poetry evening with myself and another local poet. Recently we had the fourth annual evening with, yet again, an encouraging attendance. I sold enough books to cover the cost of the few I had printed for the occasion.
And an anecdote from the night: One lady, a stranger to me, said afterwards, "I don't agree with all you say, but I like your poetry, so I want to buy a book. Would you sign it for me?"

One thing that I think is important is the presentation in performance. It is possible to have an audience on side and listening to every word, or bore them to death and lose them. If anyone is performing with the added boost of making sales, practise your performance.

But I think I am almost embarking on a new topic.

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Frances Spurrier

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 15:32

Dave - thanks very much for your comment. I fervently want to believe you but I'm not sure that people get 'noticed' in open mic sessions. It's not like Don Paterson is going round looking for clients for Faber. A lot of publication is by invitation only.

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Frances Spurrier

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 15:24

Cathy. Thank you for the Duotrope reminder. You're right. Peter - sorry. I don't use spellcheckers generally but just thought there should be a hyphen. Mea culpa.

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Frances Spurrier

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 15:21

Anthony - 100% agree with everything. Love the 'tablets of stone' and 'Icarus' scenarios. What great metaphors for the process of trying to become a writer. No doubt you are right, too, about the non-paper generation. Does that mean we are headed the same way as the libraries of Alexandria? How depressing.

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Frances Spurrier

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 15:16

Sorry I've been off-line everyone. Catching up with the comments. Isobel - I agree. Freda - thanks for this. I suppose I wasn't meaning self-publishing but it is an avenue that many poets are going down. I think as Isobel says beware of being asked for money for things which are researchable on the internet or in a library for free.

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Mon 3rd Dec 2012 14:42

£45? Oh what a snip ;) Maybe I'm the world's worst cynic - but might that not just be another money making spin off?

Why not research it on line then go buy yourself a cheese sandwich?

Bah humbug!

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Freda Davis

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 14:14

I see from MsLexia that there is a conference on self-publishing on Sunday March 24th 2013 9am - 5pm at the Gilbert Murray Conference Suite Uni of Leicester.
What is more it costs only £45 to register and that includes lunch. Sounds like a good event. www.selfpublishingconference.org.uk

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Anthony Emmerson

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 12:53

I think you’ve planted a minefield here Frances. Is publication everything? I guess it’s a good feeling and an ego boost to be able to say “I’m published”, but, given that most of us accept that there’s really nothing in it as regards economic return, and that most readers of poetry are other poets, with their own egocentric viewpoints, what, exactly, is the real benefit? It may look good on a CV, but if that CV is taking you nowhere anyway then it seems to be all about self-gratification.
Frankly I feel being “published” is perhaps a diversion; surely, published or not, it is better to be “heard” or “read?” By that I mean read by a wide audience, such as that provided by sites like WOL; (OK, I know that’s mostly other poets too!) but it’s a very diverse audience, not limited to one particular style, genre or form.
Since most poets seem to self-publish, the epithet “vanity publishing” seems to be well chosen. This “mirror, mirror on the wall” syndrome means anyone, regardless of quality, ability or popular demand or appeal can get anything into print. What does this do for the overall image and reputation of poetry? I might be tempted to suggest that this phenomenon has a cumulatively negative effect on the public’s perception (I’m digging my trench as we speak!) This might go some way to explaining your “Painful Fact # 2.“

Of course any praise or recognition from your peer group is (or should be) worthwhile. Isobel makes some good points re the performance scene and its non-monetary rewards, but a career as a poet can only ever be (for the vast majority at least) an (opium filled) pipedream. Those that make any money from poetry are doing so not by writing it, but by writing about it, teaching it (if one can teach poetry?) talking about it or exploiting other various sideshoots off the main trunk.

So what are the real lessons here?

Apart from other poets very few people buy books of poetry.
There is a very limited chance of ever getting published in the mainstream.
Lots of people fancy their selves as poets.
Competitions seem to be cliquey, especially when judged by – poets.
There’s no money in it.

Having said all this, even restricting the market to other poets, judging by WOL’s fairly healthy membership, there is an outlet for decent and varied poetry. Could that market be expanded? Well, I guess that also depends on what the product is – and how it’s presented. To a large extent we are still talking in terms of the good old “words on paper” format here. Maybe this isn’t the most up-to-date or accessible way of presenting poetry. We now have a public equipped with smartphones, e-readers and tablets who probably don’t consider buying, let alone carrying round a book or pamphlet of any kind, let alone poetry; yet we are still attempting to sell to them in the equivalent of tablets of stone!

I think the grass-roots performance poetry scene is important for its social and networking benefits as well as being a potential launchpad for new talent – but, if there is no real destination after that launchpad it’s simply the Icarus crash and burn scenario.

The poetry “establishment” is such a fragmented beast (witness the following article)


that, in terms of leadership and vision it is directionless and engaged in the insular pursuit of navel-gazing – and that only when it can be roused from its Mogadon and Claret induced torpor.

I guess it all depends on where “we” want poetry to go and what “we” are prepared to do to get it there. Several well-aimed kicks up the poetry establishment’s flabby and corpulent derriere wouldn’t be a bad start; followed by a swift frogmarch into the twenty-first century - unless we are all content with it continuing its well-established practice of banging its bruised and bloodied (yet unbowed) brow against a wall of 5000g/sm papyrus.

Contrast/compare the two following statements:

Poetry is not widely popular because it is largely unread.

Poetry is largely unread because it is not widely popular.

Are both of these statements accurate? Maybe not; but if they are, is there the slim chance that the status quo could be changed, or at least challenged? If so, how do we go about challenging that? If we compare poetry with the music scene how many people still buy (despite the “vinyl revival”) their music on records or cassettes? Even the CD is now being consigned to the skip of history in favour of YouTube videos, Spotify and the MP3.
Would poetry benefit from a similar professional and more commercial presentation? Could we ever see a poetry video/audio/ mass-market “top 10”? Who knows – but surely it’s worth a shot?

I will now don a bomb-disposal suit and retreat to my lead-lined nuclear bunker . . .

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Cathy Bryant

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 11:19

Frances, I disagree with most of this, except for the fourth point, and the first if it's qualified. The publication of individual poems isn't that hard if you persevere with submitting and resubmitting (why don't you mention Duotrope?); many of my friends have got collections published by publishers who see them performing at many events and know that they will take the time and make the effort to sell their books (same for me too - and my book made a profit); you don't get a lot of money but you will get some if you submit to paying markets (again, thank you Duotrope) enough, and enter the free poetry competitions enough. See my comps and calls on the WOL Community Page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Write-Out-Loud-Community/260122457345775?ref=ts&fref=ts .. Submit everything you have to somewhere appropriate, re-submit it somewhere else when it comes back and (if proofed properly) the chances are that you will be published and paid for it. Too many fine writers believe this negative list of 'facts' - that's why they don't submit enough, and therefore don't get published and paid. None of which has anything to do with art, but is relevant to the desires to publish and be paid.

Peter Daniels

Mon 3rd Dec 2012 10:47

"Keatsian" is a very well established adjective, formed the same way as many other standard ways of forming adjectives with endings like -ish and -ic and -esque, but everywhere these days hyphens are coming in. Why? Is it spellchecking software objecting? Please just override and it and use the creative resources of English to form adjectives!

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Sun 2nd Dec 2012 22:24

I'd disagree with you there Dave - or just alter slightly what you are saying.

The implication is that by not doing everything possible to get your poetry published, you are admitting that you don't believe in yourself as a true poet or capable artist. That's not so for me and for many who choose not to go down the 'scrabbling to get published' route. I'm quite confident that some of my poetry could get into certain magazines and anthologies, if I chose to submit it. I choose not to because I don't think there is a serious market for those publications - or at least it's a false market, created by the joint contributors. I just can't be arsed with that. Unless someone's beating at my door begging for my life and works, then I'm not interested.

I AM happy to be part of the live poetry scene though. Poets are a great quirky bunch of characters and I enjoy their company - also their performance, particularly when it is funny or passionate. Non poets don't buy many poetry books because they can't connect with a lot of the poetry. They can enjoy live performance poetry though - if they get to hear the right kind.

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Dave Bradley

Sun 2nd Dec 2012 22:05

Two views -

One - that the ideal is that others notice poetry worthy of publication, or a poet with potential and provide the necessary help and encouragement? Poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas and Cavafy come to mind. There must be many others who either depended on the encouragement of others or who were published because of the efforts of others.

If one feels impelled to write, one does. One then typically shares it informally - WOL, an open mic, whatever, wherever. It's fun and interesting. If one is writing stuff of enduring value which really ought to be published, then other people will notice, encourage and enable. If one is having to push very hard for publication then the poems may not be of enduring value

Two - If one believes in what one is writing, then one will do everything in one's power to get it into print. Bombard editors and publishers, network, pull strings, enter every possible competition etc. If one doesn't have that sort of belief in one's poetry, why bother?

While respecting the determination of those with the second view, I could never inhabit that frame of reference. The first is more attractive, albeit possibly often unrealistic.

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John Coopey

Sun 2nd Dec 2012 21:02

This is how it is.
I do lots of stuff for friends/relatives birthdays/ weddings/ funerals/ bar mitzvahs etc. People say to me "That's really good. You should get your stuff published".
I say to them, "When did you last buy a book of poetry?"
They get the idea.

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Freda Davis

Sun 2nd Dec 2012 19:54

Being published in a magazine or a book with an ISBN number means you end up in the British Library so you are there for posterity I suppose. If the magazine or collection doesn't run to an ISBN number you might as well have printed it yourself. There is no one arbiter of taste in poetry. F.R.Leavis set himself up to say who were the famous poets of the first half of the 20th Century, and I believe he produced a poetry magazine. If you do set up a magazine you do get swamped by offerings and become blase after a short time, I think. My only experience of this was editing the university poetry mag. My experience of open mic has been much healthier. I do think reading work aloud allows people to get a feel for writing and I do think people improve in what they produce. I am sure my poems have been heard by far more people through poetry events. Thats what I write them for.

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Julian (Admin)

Sun 2nd Dec 2012 18:06

There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money, either
Robert Graves
Mind you, he did all right, and was perhaps saying that to put off the competition.
Frances' article is interesting to me in that I do wonder why so many amateur poets (by which I mean those of us, the great majority, who do not make their living from it) try to get published. I see it as a bit of a myth that 'you are not a poet if you are not published'. What does 'published' mean? Accepted in one of the abundant poetry mags? Any of them? Any at all?
I have heard so many people rail against live poetry, performance poetry, or whatever we should be calling this movement of people having the courage to share their work in public. The accusation is often that it allows anyone to get up and read their work, thus it does not discriminate between 'good' poetry and some alternative, presumably 'bad' poetry. now, if you were 'published'...
Well, let's take a closer look at this.
How do you set up a poetry mag, thus becoming an arbiter of poetic taste? Well, anyone can do it. You don't need poetry qualifications to do so. Just start your own magazine and get the desperate-to-be-published-poets sending their stuff in.
Of course, there are quality magazines and there are... well, you know what I mean. But if you are published in a magazine, you're a poet!
Nonsense, I say. It's the illusion of the emperor's novel raiment.
To stand up in public and share your work is a legitimate form of publication. So ner!

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Sun 2nd Dec 2012 09:20

Yes - this just confirms what many of us already know - there is very little money to be made out of poetry and a lot of competition out there.

Poetry allows people to get up there and perform though, is a way of having a voice and grabbing attention. On a stage it can give you that taste of success you may not have had in other areas of your life. It's when that success goes to the head that things go pear shaped - when we see ourselves as the next John Cooper Clarke or Carole Ann Duffy.

That's when poets stop posting their poetry on sites like this, stop sharing their vision of the world - unless someone is prepared to pay for it; and very few people are prepared to pay for that vision, unless they are included in the anthology...

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Greg Freeman

Sat 1st Dec 2012 11:13

It sounds very tough out there, Frances. And in my experience, too, it is. I’d just like to mention two places in particular – one print, one web – where I’ve found a more welcoming response. South magazine is beautifully produced, with a lovely black and white cover showing a scenic spot in the south of England. They pick their poems “blind” – they don’t know who the poet is - so it’s no good trying to impress with a CV of previous hits in other mags. They published my first poem in any magazine a few years ago, and what a thrill that was; that first bit of encouragement can make a big difference. They also hold very convivial launch readings twice a year, in places like Dorchester, Chichester or Salisbury, to name but three. Of course, the web offers far more flexibility and chances of publication. The Screech Owl is one I’ve recently come across. In recent weeks it has published a fresh tranche of at least a dozen poems every week, each one appearing with remarkable artwork. There is also a print magazine version coming out in the new year. It’s true that even South is now making clear that it won’t accept poems that have previously appeared “in open access areas of the internet”. But I wonder if such rigorous rules will have to change in the future as the boundaries between print and web begin to blur.



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