Ten Years Learning How To Be A Poet – Part One: Submitting And Publishing

2022 marks ten years since I first read my own poetry in front of a live audience. I was lucky enough to be invited to respond to the displays at the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery in Shropshire. My poem ‘The Boats’ was perhaps one of the shortest pieces on the launch night, and I was also horribly late due to a misread signpost, but it was a fantastic experience and one that pushed me towards open mics. I will not sure share the bio that I wrote for the Shrewsbury Museum, as quite honestly, I reread it and cringed. I was far more confident as an eighteen-year-old than I am at twenty-eight, which raises the question of what else may have changed about me and my poetry since then. What have I managed to learn over ten years of writing, performing, and publishing? More importantly, would it make a good series for my blog? Somewhat wonderfully, I have poetry on display in a museum again this year, this time in Nantwich, Cheshire. It seems like a very good point to pause, and take stock.

Submitting And Publishing

When I first started posting my poetry to this site, I had no idea about first publishing rights, or submitting to literary journals and magazines. I simply wrote poems, and posted them online. There isn’t anything wrong with this method, but it does limit what you can do with those poems.
If you want to publish your poems traditionally, such as with a magazine like Granta, Bath Magg, The Butchers Dog, or The Rialto, the work cannot have appeared online or in print anywhere before. They can also ask for accepted poems not to appear elsewhere for a period of time following their publication. After that window ends, they may ask for reference to them as the original publishers to be made in any future publication. For example, if I were to post my poem ‘Newborn’ I would include the note reading “first published by Ink, Sweat & Tears in February 2019”. One of the mistakes I made when self-publishing my first collection was to miss this in the collection notes. I won’t get in trouble for it, but it’s a curtsey I should have extended. In the flyers I made for the collection, I made sure to correct this.

The part where first publishing rights gets complicated, is the definition of published. As I said above, some venues consider any work posted online (including personal blogs, social media accounts, or even recordings of performances) as published. Other venues will make allowances depending on where the poems have been posted. A few places even accept previously published work where the original publishing press or journal is no longer a going concern. The trick is to make sure you read a journal’s submission guidelines, and if you’re uncertain you can often drop an email requesting clarification. Ignoring guidelines is the quickest way to put yourself on the wrong foot with an editor, so don’t worry about seeming foolish by asking the question. If the journal comes back with a snarky, mean response, then you know that their most likely not worth your time.

Three years ago I realised that my entire poetry catalogue was considered published by many places, I had to change my writing process. I still post poems to this blog, but I focus on responding to groups such as DVersePoetsPub, and The Weekend Writing Prompt. These allow me to write poems, interact with other writers, and improve my craft. I then keep back the poems I write outside of these prompts to submit to journals. For events such as NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), I make my decisions on which poems to post, and which to keep, on a day by day basis. This method allows me to build a following for my work through WordPress, while also creating a catalogue of poems I can publish in traditional settings. I also make sure to only record performances of poems that are already online or printed.

Journals will also specify if they accept simultaneous submissions, but I have always been hesitant to make use of the option when it presents itself. It can get tricky managing them, which is part of the reason I keep a spreadsheet for submissions. If a journal accepts simultaneous submissions they will normally ask that you let them know if the poem is accepted elsewhere. Sending your poem out to multiple outfits increases your chance of getting it picked up, and can also help reduce the sting when a poem that’s been out for months gets rejected. The longest wait I’ve had for a response was eleven months, at which point I withdrew the poem out of sheer frustration. Patience is required when it comes to publishing poems, but lines do need to be drawn somewhere. If you have the organisational skills for them, then simultaneous submissions are a good way to get your work in front of plenty of editors in a smaller timespan.

Aside from publishing individual poems, there is also the matter of chapbooks, pamphlets, and collections. The difference is that chapbooks and pamphlets generally contain fewer poems, and run along a single theme. A poet will normally publish a chapbook first, and a collection later on when they’ve accumulated a larger reservoir of poems. Often the bulk of these poems will have been published as individual poems in various magazine and journals. One press that I looked into asked for two thirds of a manuscript to be published work which is where the publishing of a collection diverges significantly from publishing a single poem.

Since so much of my poetry was ‘published’ on my blog, I decided to self-publish my debut collection. I’d put out a pamphlet called ‘As I Stand…’ around eight years ago, and another mix of flash-fiction and poetry called ‘Before The Words Run Out’ a couple of years after that, but neither project is still in print. This time round I had friends in poetry circles to help edit the manuscript and feedback on the poems going into it. As I’ve mentioned already in this post, I still missed a few bits in the process, but overall I created a book that I love and I am incredibly proud of. However, it’s a book that I alone am responsible for marketing.

A benefit of traditional publishing is that there is a level of marketing support from whichever press picks up your manuscript. It still varies from press to press, and many will expect writers to help promote their own work, but tackling marketing alone is a huge task and one that many poets struggle with. You are responsible for your launch event, for the printing of the books if you choose physical copies and fulfilment of orders. Most poets will make the bulk of their sales at their launch event. After that, it’s a matter of attending in-person readings to sell copies, and hopefully gaining enough Amazon reviews to bump the book up through their algorithms.

Side-note: self-publishing is not the same as vanity publishing, or hybrid publishing. Both hybrid and vanity publishers will charge a writer to publish their work. From what I’ve seen, the easier way to tell the different is clarity. A hybrid publisher will set out exactly what you are buying from them (it’s usually marketing/editing/formatting), whereas a vanity publisher will generally do little more than print your book and charge a large upfront fee for your first bulk order of copies. Vanity publisher will then continue to pester you with offers regarding their services, without being very clear about what those services are. They are out to make money over everything else and as a result you end up with anthologies such as the ones marketed to the parents of school children. Some of you may have come across these. Child comes home with a note saying that their poem has won a competition and will be published as part of the prize. An anthology is published and retails around £20 a copy, but when you open it up it seems as if every single poem submitted has been crammed in. When I was in school I had two poems scooped in by this tactic, and what I didn’t know at the time, was that I was probably signing away all future publishing rights to those poems. I was young, I trusted that the school knew what they were doing when they signed up to the scheme, and I was excited to be published. The lesson I learned was to read through contracts carefully, and always do my own research.

Reaching an anniversary like ten-years, is a good excuse to look back and weigh up everything I’ve done to see what worked and what didn’t. While submitting and publishing have perhaps been the biggest learning curve I’ve meandered my way through, there are other elements to poetry such as style, editing, and responding to rejection. I was going to tackle everything in one post, but seeing as we’ve crept across the 1,500-word mark I’ll wrap things up and save the rest for another day. For those of you who have read all the way through to the end of this post, thank you, and I hope you found it useful, if not enjoyable. Please feel free to throw any questions you may have my way in the comments below. In the meantime, I’m off to write some more poems and hopefully update my spreadsheet with some new submissions. Happy reading, and for 2022, the best of luck.

Part Two: Ten Years Learning How To Be A Poet – Part Two: Editing and Redrafting

13 Comments

  1. Wow it’s so interesting that you read your poetry in public. We have similar events here in Malaysia but I don’t believe I’ve ever been, since it’s not really my genre. But I’ve read my fiction before (online) and that was an interesting experience. Can’t imagine what it’d be like live.

    Congrats on your 10 years, and here’s to decades more!

    Reply

    1. Poetry live can be a wonderful experience, I would certainly recommend checking the events out even if you don’t write poetry yourself. A lot of professional writers recommend reading poetry to help with crafting prose.
      The online readings have been interesting as you say, and in some ways they’re not much different to the in person ones, though you don’t get the same opportunity to connect with the audience after the readings finish when it’s through a screen. Are you hoping to do more readings with your fiction?

      Reply

  2. You as so right about the difference between Vanity and Hybrid publishing! As a Hybrid – or ‘Collaborative’ – publisher myself (Coverstory books), I know the work that goes into trying to get the best possible result for the poet / author. It’s a tremendous feeling when you see their books come to fruition – and when you get their thanks for all the effort you’ve put in.

    Reply

    1. Thank you for the input Ian, I’m glad I got the explanation correct. I’ve not had any personal experience of the hybrid publishing world but I wanted to try and write a post which would give a good grounding for anyone just starting out on their publishing journey. I’ve seen a fair few comments in Facebook groups that offer very brief, and often quite judgmental explanations of various publishing paths, so I hoped this post would offer something more balanced.

      Reply

      1. Marketing’s a challenge, Carol. I have wholesale distributors in place and on publication my books are immediately available worldwide through e-retailers and on order from bookshops. I’ve tried small scale marketing but with negligible impact, and suspect that without the big marketing budgets publishing behemoths have there’s little that can be done. So I have to rely on word of mouth, good reviews, social media etc.

        Reply

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