When I had been writing poetry for a few years, had a decent sized bank of poems built up and felt ready to share it with the world, I turned to the internet to find out how one went about being published.
Google was not kind to me.
What my limited research told me was that my dream of being a published poet was just that – a dream. That there was very little point in trying, as only people who were already famous stood a chance of getting published. And even then, it was a small chance. “No one reads poetry,” said one reply.
Well, that was that then. Or so I thought. I accepted my findings and, although I kept writing poems, I gave up on the hope of seeing them in print.
It didn’t occur to me that the research might be wrong. That I, in myself, was proof that it was. I mean, I must have known that at least people read poetry, because I was one of them.
But the people of the internet seemed convincing and I took them to be experts. Before I joined Women Aloud NI, I didn’t know any other writers. I didn’t have their experience to compare with what I’d been (wrongly) told.
You might ask why I was misled in such a way, and I think there are a few reasons for that. Partly, it was because what I was told wasn’t entirely wrong. Like any good lie, there was an element of truth to it. Matched with other’s anecdotal evidence and my own insecurities, it seemed like a closed case.
So, what’s the truth? You can get published – it is possible – but it’s also difficult.
To make it just a little easier, I’m going to outline how it’s (usually) done. I say usually because everyone’s path is different. The steps will vary for everyone, but they seem to follow a general pattern. It’s what I wish I knew, way back when. What I ended up doing, in the end, was skipping the steps I had no idea about and self-publishing poetry books mostly for myself, mostly before I was ready. But that’s a blog post for another day. Let me not digress any further.
How To Become a Published Poet
- Get Good – You might think this goes without saying and, really, it should. But, sadly, too many people try and share their work before it’s ready. I know that because, as I said above, I was one of them. How you know you’re ready is a tricky thing, and you will keep getting good (and getting better) throughout the other steps, so it’s not a clear process. At least if you’re doing it right. Practically, I suggest attending poetry workshops and/or getting a mentor.
- Get to Know the Market – don’t do as I did and take the word of just anyone on the internet. Go beyond the first page of Google. If you spend enough time researching, you’ll discover which sources are reputable, and if you join a community such as Women Aloud NI or the Poetry Society – or even if you start to follow others in those communities on Twitter – you will soon see submission calls for journals and anthologies. You will hear about competitions.
- Submit work to Journals, Anthologies, and Competitions – some of these will incur a fee. Unless the publication is particularly good, I personally have a general rule against paying them, especially if the winners/those accepted do not get paid back at the end of it. Start small, and focus locally. Some publications will have much higher standards than others. Do yourself a favour and aim low at first. The bottom is where everyone starts. You’ll get higher, but only if you put in the effort.
- Keep Submitting – You will get more rejections than you’ll get acceptances, but that’s normal. Don’t lose heart. Keep trying. It’s often more about the number of people you’re submitting alongside and not a reflection of the quality of your work. I recommend keeping a spreadsheet listing details of every submission you make. I know it sounds excessively organized, but when you’re on your hundredth submission and all the emails start to look the same and you’re not sure if you’ve already submitted an earlier version of the same thing to the same journal, you’ll wish you kept a note. If you’re at the end of a hundred submissions and you haven’t had a single poem accepted, it might be a clue that you need to review step one and take a class or read a book on craft. Even so, don’t give up.
- List Your Publishing Credits – whether on your website, blog, or in a Facebook note, you should keep a list of everything you’ve had published alongside a link to where that said work can be found or bought online. As well as your spreadsheet of submissions, this is another thing you’ll need to come back and revisit. And take it from me, it’s hard to remember all of the details even a few months down the road. Save yourself a headache and start the record when it’s fresh.
- Put Together a Pamphlet/Chapbook – once you’ve got a few publications under your belt, you’ll probably start to see themes emerging in your work. These themes can be anything from the sea, to the political situation in Iran, to grief, or the colour green. It’s now time to group a few of these poems together and submit them to a poetry publisher as a pamphlet. Pamphlets are relatively small and are basically a stepping stone to having a poetry collection. You’ll want to prove you’re up to the challenge of both writing and selling a collection, and this is how you do it. The publishers you’re submitting to will want to see that list of where you’ve had work previously accepted.
- Make Your Poetry Collection – after this step you of course have the option to write a second and third collection, but this first one is probably the goal you have in mind if you’re reading this guide. Realistically, it will take years to get to this point. There’s a good reason for that, and that is that you’ll need the interim experience to be good enough to do this stage right. Do not be foolish (like I was) and try to skip the process and just try for a poetry collection right off the bat. This, I think, is what the good people of Google were really trying to say with their discouragement. If you’ve never been published before but are hoping to get a collection commissioned, it’s unlikely you’ll get very far. Publishing is a business, after all. Signing an author is a business decision. Unknown, inexperienced authors are unlikely to sell very many books. Why not give yourself the best chance you can and make yourself a safe bet?
Okay, you’ve got this far. Hopefully, I’ve instilled some sense of the level of work that’s involved, and hopefully you’re still willing to try. Here’s a final piece of advice for nothing: go for it. There are very few things like holding a book you’ve written in your own hands. You now know how to make it happen.
For fiction, I’m afraid things are much more complicated. If I were to put it in a single step, though, it would be: read ‘Write to be Published‘ by Nicola Morgan. It’s a goldmine of info right there, and I stand by all of it.
Follow Up Post: On Impatience and Self-Publishing