The time has come to think about publishing. You have at last, a "body of work", which represents many hours of writing, revision, submissions, acceptances, critiques, rejections, more revisions, editing- blood sweat and tears. You've been published on sites esteemed or obscure, your church bulletin, or Paris Review. People have started to ask "Have you written a book?" And you believe the time has come, and you must consider the route you will take toward that end.
Perhaps the foremost question is whether you will try the traditional path of submitting to established publishers who have a history of publishing poetry and a reputation for quality volumes and good sales. It should be acknowledged that poetry is not considered to have high profit margins or sales. Add to that the very fierce competition to be chosen for publication. Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks in the traditional route is the time involved in the process. You may submit your "masterpiece" to a publisher who does NOT accept simultaneous submissions and wait many months to receive a form rejection letter. And then go through the whole process again, with no guarantee of a better out come. These are only the initial drawbacks to this line of attack.
Once accepted, and after the thrill of success, you will realize that much control is out of your hands. You may have little to say about the choice of your cover, the grade of the paper and binding, the publication date. Since you are not a best-selling fiction writer you may receive little or no marketing on behalf of the publisher. It will be up to you to sell your book and connect with your readers. Some publishers, though not described as vanity presses will still require you to guarantee a certain number of sales. And while this choice may appeal to a poet's vanity I think we could consider the alternative course.
As a writer, you have probably met, and read, the poetry of a number of authors who chose self-publication. There is a grand tradition in literature of self-publication: Edgar Allen Poe, Margaret Atwood and E.E. Cummings etc. It starts with belief in one's own work, and the willingness to invest in it. But it also has advantages that should not be discounted: no long waits for an editor's response; control over everything from cover design to purchase and sales price. The burden will fall on you for marketing, but that will be part of the process. A major publishing house, no matter how well-intentioned is unlikely to put an announcement of your new book in the latest issue of your college alumni magazine, or your church bulletin. They don't know about the local book fair and are unlikely to do the leg work necessary to get you a reading at your local independent bookstore. That will be up to you' and it would have been up to you even with a major publisher. So why not consider self-publication?
Surprisingly, it may not be as expensive as you expected. A local poetry organization has just printed and anthology of ekphrastic poetry with 96 pages, including color pages with the art works in question. The first run of 100 copies ran $700. Seven dollars per copy. Your local printer may charge even less. Services like CreateSpace offer low prices, but charge for added services which may be worth it to you. And while you may make a very significant investment, I believe that going the traditional route you would also be very likely to buy many copies yourself, to take to readings and for the friends and family who will be your natural buyers. Remember that the traditional publishers would have made the decision to publish your work because they believe that it is salable' and that they can make a profit in doing so. Remember that they are in business, and that although they may have the greatest respect and love for poetry, they are looking for a profit. Why shouldn't that profit be yours? Basically our local printer, who does a beautiful job, is happy to be "print on demand." After the initial run of copies they have our manuscript on a disc and will gladly print additional copies at or close to the same price.
Of course we must admit that self-publication is more work in many areas: the research to find a printer and to make the selections of cover art, paper and binding. Do you want an ISBN (that will cost you more). How many pages/poems? Is this a chapbook or a full length manuscript? Most Libraries require that the spine of a full length manuscript be wide enough to have the title on it. Would you like to have blurbs on the cover? A traditional publisher may send out copies to established poets hoping that they will be willing to blurb for you, but within your own network of poets there may be many whose work you respect who will do the same.
I would caution you, too, to remember that your book is a product. Whether traditionally published or not, you will face the temptation of giving away your work, to family or friends. I would advise against that. In the role of publisher you should not forget that publication is a for profit business. Poets, as well as all authors have every right to be paid for their work and as I've said, I think that one of the great appeals of self-publishing is that the profit goes to the poet themselves. It goes without saying that all of us would love to win a poetry competition that includes both a cash prize and copies of our book, but competition is fierce and the waiting for results is formidable. Once in the hands of a publisher’s, our control is limited and our profit even more so. It certainly would be worth our while to explore the alternative and give serious thought to its several advantages. It may be time to invest in ourselves.
Here are a couple of related blog posts to help get you started:
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Kathy Lundy Derengowski is a native of San Diego county. She is an active member and co-facilitator of the Lake San Marcos Writer's Workshop. Her work has appeared in Summation, the ekphraisis anthology of the Escondido Arts Partnership, California Quarterly, Silver Birch Press, Turtle Light Press and the Journal of Modern Poetry. She has won awards from the California State Poetry Society and been a finalist in the San Diego book Awards poetry chapbook category.