Poets write because we have ideas, passions, and impulses inside of us that demand expression. We are artists. That said, when placing your work you have to be a little more practical—one part artist, one part real estate agent.
Finding a lasting home for your poetry can be an exhausting and, unfortunately, expensive process. I’ve entered a hundred contests over the years, and submitted to dozens of open reading periods. I’ve watched small presses thrive and grow, witnessing while others have folded or imploded. I’ve seen poetry imprints at university presses change direction because of a turnover in editors or a top-down budgeting shift. Some poets buck the economic bias inherent to these systems, choosing a DIY or collaborative model instead. Some poets send you postcards. Some post everything online. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, periodically revisiting our vision for how and where we will be read. When I peruse the hundreds of full-length collections, anthologies, chapbooks, broadsides, and hand-editioned volumes on my shelves, the variety is stunning.
There is no one magical path, but there is the standing question: how do you find the right way to share your work? What makes for a good fit?
I was asked to contribute these thoughts about poetry publishers because this is a season of contests—deadlines are nigh. Hearing back from a trusted community of writers enriched my initial take, and I’ve incorporated a few of their ideas here. I mention this to not only give credit, but to encourage you to find your own co-conspirators in the publishing process. Whether cheering each other on or commiserating over a drink, I’ve always needed a community that is frank about this part of the process.
- The first step is to spend physical time with at least three books by any press with which you’re interested in publishing. Those titles should represent at least two different years or “eras” of the press’s management. This will give you a sense of their capabilities in terms of design and materials in a way that nothing online can. Does the paperback stock curl? Does the font look small or cramped to your eye? You will be living with this book for a long time. You should be happy with the print values.
- If you can, investigate the editors’ reputation for engaging with authors. Are they open to revisiting decisions about the cover? Are they approachable, or imperious? If you attend an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference where the press is represented, stop by their table at the book fair to say hello. Beware scenarios in which the editor believes, implicitly or explicitly, that they are doing their authors a favor by publishing them.
- Distribution practices should be obvious from a press’s website—a referral to an external company such as Ingram or SPD (Small Press Distribution), and perhaps a list of independent stores that carry the books with a link to IndieBound. Perhaps there is an online shopping cart or subscription option, which suggests a low-overhead, hand-selling model. If it’s not obvious from their website how to buy a book, see if their books are on Amazon, because they may be relying on that vendor. Consider it a red flag if you can’t figure out, within the first five minutes of searching, how to buy a book from the press. Sometimes great editors don’t want to deal with the business side of publishing. Their hang-up will become your problem.
- In terms of promotion, don’t romanticize what a “good” press does. Your editorial team should be independently enthusiastic about the book, and—ideally—independently active on social media. They should not undermine your efforts. But it’s on you, as the author, to do most of the work. That includes providing a high-resolution author photo with secured permissions, booking readings, and arranging radio interviews.
- The gold standards of service and support I’d look for from a press, in terms of post-pub promotion, are as follows:
– They should provide you a clean-crop, 300 dpi digital file of your cover;
– They should mail 20-30 galleys or PDF review copies at your direction;
– They should have a post-pub marketing plan that includes, if needed, a $50-100 budget for contest entry fees on your behalf, and they should be timely in submitting relevant nominations for contests;
– They should represent your book on their website and in any third-party sales spaces with accurate, professionally edited information;
– They respond in real time to any queries regarding your book, with a cc to you so you’re the loop, or forward such queries to you immediately.
- I will say that some good presses simply have no post-pub budget—even things like postage for mailing copies will come back to you. This is not a deal breaker, but it helps if press acknowledges that they are operating on a cooperative model. You may then be better off taking your advance or prize honorarium, if there is one, in the form of book stock that you are then free to distribute on your own behalf.
- If you’re trying to size up a press’s reach in terms of public consciousness, look at where their books have gotten traction already. Independent presses and pop up everywhere from Publisher’s Weekly reviews, to recognition by the National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle, and Kingsley/Kate Tufts, to the pages of the New York Times. However, it’s reasonable to say that the presses with the best odds of such coverage have a track record and credibility that makes traveling those routes more likely. Working with a university press usually goes more smoothly if they have established a boutique aesthetic, specific to poetry, inside their larger regional or geographic identity.
In poetry, as in real estate, there is no one hegemonic version of a “dream home.” There is only what’s right for you, in the context of what you’ve written and how you want to move it through the world. Whatever you choose, never lose sight of the immense accomplishment that brought you to this process. Accumulating a collection’s worth of poems takes innovation, bravery, wit, and a necessary stubbornness. Keep going.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections—Count the Waves, I Was the Jukebox, and Theories of Falling—and a memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and three DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities fellowships. She lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches with the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program.
Blog: “Chicks Dig Poetry” http://www.sbeasley.blogspot.com
Categories: Guest Blog Posts