I've posted many times about how wonderful all the staff is at Winning Writers and what a great resource it is for writers at all levels. It was a pleasure to speak with Jendi about her experience during the publishing process of her new book of poems Bullies in Love.
Interview with Jendi
As the Vice President of Winning Writers, you must be well-versed in all the markets available for poets to pursue to have their work published. How did you come across Little Red Tree Publishing?
Little Red Tree advertises its contests in the Winning Writers e-newsletter. The press has also published books and individual poems by some of our subscribers. As you know, we like to receive news of our subscribers’ honors and publications, and talk to them about their experiences with their publishers. So I had those opportunities to find out what style of writing Little Red Tree enjoyed, and what it was like to work with them.
I won Little Red Tree’s contest for individual poems in 2013 and was published in their annual anthology. Unlike a lot of small presses, whose contests focus on discovering different writers every year, Little Red Tree looks to develop an ongoing relationship with authors. The press typically invites the anthology winner and several runners-up to submit a full-length manuscript. This is a nice two-for-one perk of entering that contest.
What did you learn during the process of finalizing your poetry manuscript with Little Red Tree Publishing?
For me, organizing a manuscript is harder than writing it! I rearranged them several times to tease out potential “conversations” among the poems. What finally worked for me was to identify four or five recurring themes; group the poems by theme and discover the narrative arc within each group; and then braid the narratives together, so that the beginnings of each arc are in the first section of the book and the conclusions in the final section.
During the roughly 5-year period when most of these poems were written, my life developed its own dramatic arc, encompassing the birth and early childhood of my now 3-year-old son. That enriched the book by allowing me to write the final poems from a place of greater joy and personal strength. Parenthood also gave me a more mature perspective on my family’s abuse history, detailed in other poems in the collection. Putting the pre- and post-parenthood poems together showed me what a transformative journey this has been, and continues to be.
Bullies in Love includes several photographs by Toni Pepe. Can you tell us about that collaboration and how the photographs tie in with your poems?
I’d never thought of producing an illustrated collection because most poetry publishers don’t have the budget for it. When my editor at Little Red Tree said that their books usually contained artwork, it prompted me to conceive of my work in a whole new context. His aesthetic is beautiful in a more traditional way, while my writing leans toward the grotesque and surreal. So we needed art that had elements of both. I definitely didn’t want the kind of sentimental clip art of sunsets, et cetera, that people think of as “poetic”. On the other hand, art that was too bizarre would overshadow the writing. The ideal artwork would complement the archetypes and emotional tone of my writing without being too literally an illustration of the images.
In 2010 I had won a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for poetry. The MCC has been wonderful about publicizing its awardees and building community among us. I asked MCC staffer Dan Blask to recommend some MCC grantees in the visual arts who’d be a good fit for my book, since he was familiar with my poetry. That’s how I found Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer whose gorgeous images appear on my book cover and interior pages. Toni was kind enough to work within my publisher’s budget. I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator!
I was drawn to her work because we share some common themes: mothers and sons, fairy tales, the ocean, books, and domestic interiors that are mysterious and emotionally charged.
What advice would you give to emerging writers looking to publish their first book of poetry?
Once you’ve identified a press whose aesthetic seems similar to yours, do some research about their business model and marketing strategy. You will have to do most of the publicity yourself, so choose a press that is set up to work well with the promotional channels available to you.
For instance, my first full-length book was accepted by a publisher that switched from a traditional inventory model (500-copy press run) to print-on-demand after I accepted their offer. This model could work for poets who are university professors and can assign their book to their students. Such writers may be more interested in simply having a book publication credit than in selling a certain number of copies. And indeed, a lot of fine poets publish with them still. But for me, it didn’t work too well because my main promotional channel 10 years ago was to enter awards for published books, and POD books are ineligible for those.
If, like me, you rely a lot on social media promotion (Facebook, Twitter, the Winning Writers newsletter, and blog interviews), make sure your publisher has a modern-looking, regularly updated website. Presses that have their own e-newsletter, Twitter feed, or Goodreads presence are the gold standard. I have purchased many good books from a venerable small press, which shall remain nameless, but I would never send my manuscript to them because the editor refuses to list their books on Amazon for financial reasons. A book that isn’t on Amazon is basically invisible to writers’ social networks like Goodreads, and deprives the author of the chance to solicit reviews that would boost the book’s online visibility.
If your first book launch isn’t all you dreamed of, don’t despair. Keep writing and keep studying the market. You will have many chances to build on what you learn from each publishing experience.
Jendi Reiter is vice president of Winning Writers, editor of The Best Free Literary Contests, and oversees the Winning Writers literary contests. She is the author of the poetry collections Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) and A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), and the award-winning poetry chapbooks Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). In 2010 she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists’ Grant for Poetry. Other awards include the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, first prize in the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction, first prize in the 2009 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize from Quarter After Eight, first prize for poetry in Alligator Juniper’s 2006 National Writing Contest, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Iowa Review, The New Criterion, Mudfish, Passages North, American Fiction, The Adirondack Review, Cutthroat, The Broome Review, FULCRUM, Juked, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Alligator Juniper, MARGIE: The American Journal of Poetry, Phoebe, Best American Poetry 1990 and many other publications.