Although prose writers will argue otherwise, poetry is, in many ways, more difficult to get published than short stories and novels. For one thing, poetry is far more subjective than prose. For another, the market, i.e., demand, is much, much smaller. Finally, and very honestly, good poetry is hard to find. A lot of people think that they are poets (about as many people who think that they are novelists), but if pressed they couldn’t tell you the difference between a haiku and a ballad, or if they prefer internal rhyming over rich rhymes. They like the idea of poetry and they often flood poetry magazines and publishers with their work, making it much harder for true poets to be heard.
Still, it is possible to be heard, but you need to be tenacious and have skin so thick that elephant shot would bounce right off.
What are the options?
- Poetry magazines
One of the main aims of poetry magazines is to find and publish new talent. They may run competitions with prizes that include being published in the magazine, or even inclusion in an upcoming anthology. Some magazines also have sections devoted specifically to emerging poets, wherein they publish unsolicited work.
Like the poems themselves, however, there are good and bad poetry magazines. Some, like Poetry are well-known and respected. Others are considerably less so.
Online poetry magazines are also an option, but again, you want to look for good quality sites. The last thing you want is to submit your work for review only to see it pop up elsewhere under someone else’s name.
This is an important warning: Even if you’re submitting your work to reputable magazines and websites (and publishing houses), ensure that you understand and agree to their terms and conditions.
Here’s another very important tip: Know what type of poetry the magazine publishes. It’s no good submitting your romantic ballad to a magazine that caters to an audience of surrealist poets. You should have bought and read (from cover-to-cover) at least one edition of the magazine concerned.
Also, you need to ensure that you fully understand the submission requirements. If the magazine only accepts hard copy submissions, don’t spam the editor’s in-box with your poems. If they only accept electronic submissions, don’t send bundles of poems via registered mail. If they only accept one poem per submission, don’t try your luck with two. Submission guidelines are there for a reason. The easier you make it for the people concerned to read your work, the better it will go for you.
Self-publishing is just as useful for poets as it is for fiction and non-fiction authors. It cuts out the middle-man and removes the frustration that builds up after years of dealing with dozens (or hundreds) or editors and publishers, reworking and resubmitting your work until you no longer recognise it as your own.
Self-publishing gives you a way to retain complete control over your work. You have two options:
You can work with a self-publishing company, which may give you advice regarding certain technical elements of the process. These include design, especially cover design, layout, and marketing. Some companies offer these ancillary services themselves, or they may have referral relationships with specialists that they can recommend. This is usually the best route if you’re determined to see your work in print.
Or, you can use self-publishing software and do everything on your own. This is great if you’re a control freak, but it is a lot of work and you will have to become something of a Jack-of-all-trades (design, layout and marketing, remember), if you want your book of poems to succeed. This is often used by poets who want to self-publish e-books.
- Publishing houses
Writer’s Relief recommends that your approach small presses (independent publishers) rather than major publishing houses, like Random House or Harper Collins. There is less chance that you’ll get buried beneath countless other aspiring poets. And, small presses tend to be quite niche, so you could just find one that specialises in baroque poetry, or even limericks if that’s your style.
Before you approach publishing houses, however, you should do your best to prove your credentials. It helps if you’ve had a couple of poems published in a couple of magazines, and if you belong to a credible writer’s association.
It’s a good idea to have a website that supports your self-published book, no matter which route you try (magazines, self-publishing, or publishing houses). It doesn’t need all the bells and whistles, but it should look clean and professional. You can use it as a blog to publish some of your poems, and to write interesting articles on poetry in general. It’s a good marketing tool for you to advertise your book, and can also be used as a way for people who want to buy your book to contact you.
Finally, don’t forget the power of social media. It doesn’t matter if you have struck gold and have signed an amazing, all-inclusive deal with one of the most reputable publishing houses in the world, you will still need to do a little self-promotion. These days, social media is the best way to promote yourself. However, ensure that you know how to do it properly; otherwise you’ll come across as a self-aggrandising hack.