(On a side note, my Grandma Fisher kept a journal pretty much every day of her adult life, but she was very much in the camp of people who have no publishing plans. In fact, she was so adamant that her work wasn’t meant to be read that she instructed us to burn all of her journals the moment she died, because her sister, who was the family genealogist—and if you have one of those in your family, you know exactly where this is going—would have transcribed the entire set of journals and put them into her genealogy books, much like she had the fifty years’ worth of journal entries by my great great grandfather which mostly boiled down to, “AM: worked in garden. PM: wrote sermon for Sunday.” My Grandmother’s journals weren’t much more interesting—she recorded the high and low temperature and if anyone had stopped to visit that day, but some things you just don’t want to share with generations to come.)
So as you’re writing and thinking about publishing, it’s a good idea to be thinking about what makes your work publishable. My goal here is to share with you some tips that will help you get your poetry published, as well as some of the “heads up” moments that may be useful to know in advance.
Posting on Your Facebook or Webpage
In short, if you want to publish it at some point, DON’T post it on the internet. The vast majority of journals and magazines consider anything that has been posted on the internet to have already been published, even if you’re just sharing it as a Facebook status. This is not to say you should never post your work on the internet, but limit what you post to work that you have no intention of submitting to a magazine or journal. When I first started writing, I made the mistake of posting many of my poems on my Facebook page, and as a result there’s a fairly sizable number of poems I can’t submit anywhere because they would not be “first time publication,” which is what most journals are looking for. There are some journals that will re-publish poems or are willing to take poems that have been posted online, but they are very few, so if you have that poem that you think is your ticket into print—save it. If you feel the need to have some friends read it, then email it to them, but don’t post it online.
That said, some people will warn you that posting online negates your right to your own work. This is not true. Your work is your work, and you hold the copyright on it, even if you post it in a public forum. If you do post online, ALWAYS attach your name and contact information with it so it is clearly designated as your own work. You do open yourself up to the possibility that someone may attempt to steal your work and pass it off as their own, but that is a risk we run in many situations. A web presence can be an important thing to have.
When I post poems online now, it’s usually under the following circumstances:
1) It’s just kind of a silly poem I wrote for fun and I don’t have any intention of submitting it anywhere.
2) It has already been published in a magazine or journal. If you have something accepted to a journal or magazine, they (in almost all cases, and we’ll discuss this in more depth in a moment) accept it for “first time North American serial rights” (if the publication is based in North America). This means they hold the right to be the very first publication of the piece in North America. Once they have printed it, the rights to the piece revert back to you to do with as you see fit. It is a courtesy to not publish it online until their next issue has come out after the one in which your piece appears in, as it is good to have the journals receive as much business as possible. (Remember, they are frequently the ones who break us into the business and help us make a name, so let’s play nice with them.) If you are posting something that has appeared in print elsewhere, you should always provide credit to the magazine or journal for being the first place it appeared, once again, as a courtesy.
3) It’s something that, for a personal reason, while I don’t mind sharing it and having people reading it, I don’t feel right sending it to a magazine. My recent poem that I wrote for Robin Williams fell into that category. It was something I cared about very much, and I wanted other people to be able to read it, but I didn’t want to send it out to a magazine because I felt like I would be trading in on the sadness of someone else’s personal tragedy for my own sake. I know that’s just a personal quirk on my part, and some people have no problem doing that kind of thing (and it’s not necessarily just shameless self-promotion or a cash grab either, so I don’t mean to cast aspersions on anyone who would submit a poem like that). I personally just would have felt awkward doing it, and there are some people who do take those opportunities to just cash in. (I am reminded of an artist who walked into his backyard the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and painted a rather simple and bland portrait of his flag, made prints, and sold them at $300 bucks a pop as his “tribute” to the victims of the terrorist attacks, though his tribute made him a hell of a lot of money that he wasn’t donating anywhere.)
Don’t let any of this stop you from posting some of your work online though. In this increasingly digital age, it is important to have a presence on the web, and many publishers may even ask if you have a web presence. It is a very good idea to have a Facebook, web page, or personal blog that you use to promote your own writing, and having samples of it available online may help you find more readers, so don’t become a “web ghost” just because there are some strictures to observe—just keep them in mind and keep yourself in the position that you have your strongest material available to submit to publications.
It’s Not Just About Print Anymore
When web publications first began, they weren’t held in high regard, but now they are just as viable a medium as the print journal. For some of us who are still traditionalists, there is something about having that hard copy in our hands and being able to flip through the pages and see our work in with so many other wonderful writers, but the web has become an important part of publishing. It has reached the point where many print publications now have a parallel internet component. Others run an extended or alternate web version of their publication, which features titles not included in the print version. Some publications that were once print are now online only. This has become the reality of publishing in that online publication is much less expensive to carry out and maintain, and some journals are choosing to opt for electronic distribution simply because it allows them to stay in the black. It’s become a necessary part of doing business. If you have a piece accepted for the online component of a journal, such as The Kenyon Review, which has recently launched an online only version with content that is different from their print publication, don’t belittle the fact that you’ve made it into The Kenyon Review. They hold the same standards for their literature that makes the online version as they do the print version—their name is built on both, and they have a reputation they want to preserve.
Additionally, publishing in online journals is all part of building that web presence. As such, you should take the same care and maintain the same quality of the work you submit to online publications as you would traditional physical publications. I was in workshop with someone recently who mentioned she had made a mistake when she began submitting for publication in that she saved all her b-level material for online-only publications, thinking they were less worthwhile to appear in than the more “legitimate” print media. As a result, what she has found now is that her web presence is defined by poems that she feels are much less than her best, and when publishers do a web search for her name, they are pulling up the work she would prefer to not be represented by. It’s not that these poems are not good; it’s that she feels they don’t represent the best of her. If she could do it again, she cautioned us, she would make sure that she was sending the same level of quality work to every publication, whether it was online only or not.
Don’t Send Crap Out
Why be tactful about this? You have some work you know is not your best. Don’t bother some poor editor with it. Keep it, revisit it, revise it. Make it polished and then send it out. Don’t waste the editors’ time with less than your best. Yes, you might luck out and get someone who takes it because maybe your b- and c-level stuff is better than other writers’ a-level game, but that doesn’t mean you should flood the market with it. Take chances, but when you know a poem isn’t working yet, let it stay home from school—give it some chicken soup and allow it to be its best before you send it out there. The other side of being “lucky” is that, when something you know isn’t your best gets published, it’s out there, and your less-than-best is now part of the public representation of your work. Don’t attach your name to that.
You Will Send the Wrong Thing Out
This is the corollary to the last bit. You may obsess over what you send out, make sure that all you’re sending is you’re a-level, and then look back on it in six months and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?” There is some poetry that I’ve sent out that I was completely in love with when I sent it, and was ecstatic when it was accepted, but when I read it now, I look at it and think, “Oh, I should have fixed that line. And this ends too abruptly. And that’s a terrible transition. And I strived too hard to make this end on an up note that it didn’t earn.” Don’t worry about that. It was, if you’re doing this right, the best you could do at the time, and, if you’re doing this right, you are continuing to grow and develop as a writer, so you will have a body of “juvenilia” that rests in your past that you may not always want to have out there. But it’s a part of breaking into the business, and someone obviously thought it was worthwhile and worth making into print. There is a huge difference between sending out what you know is not your best and sending out what you think is your best and being able to achieve better later on. If you look back on something that was accepted and now wish you could make it better, then make it better now, and put it in your collection. This is why some books have an acknowledgement section that says things like “appeared in a slightly different form” or “appeared as an earlier draft in…”
You’ll Be Rejected
By now you’re thinking, “Wow, this guy is on a bummer streak today.” But it’s true. You’re going to be rejected, and you’re going to have to face that. A good acceptance rate when you are first starting out with submissions is 1%. This means you’ll send out 100 submissions and publish 1—this is good. Anything above 1% is spectacular. You’re working toward building your reputation and name, and the more you publish, the more you will build on that reputation. In the process, you’ll be rejected.
Don’t take it personally. Even the smaller lit magazines receive far more submissions than they can publish. They also have reputations and names to build as well, and they will take the very best of what they receive.
Also keep in mind that just because you are rejected doesn’t mean your work is not good—extremely good even. Publications are built not only on the material they publish, but on the tastes of their editors. If you send a free verse narrative poem to a publication that specializes in formal verse, you’re not likely to get in. If you send something extremely surrealistic to a journal that specializes in more narrative or confessional work, then they are not likely to take you. Maybe you wrote a heart-felt poem about the death of your mother and the editor who reads it doesn’t like poems about mothers. It doesn’t mean you didn’t write a spectacular piece of poetry. It means you sent to a magazine that doesn’t appreciate that kind of work.
Research Your Journals
This builds on the last one. You’re far more likely to get an acceptance if you are sending in work in line with the publication’s niche. Find out what they like. Read several issues—and make sure those issues are relatively current, because editors change over time. Make sure you’re not reading an issue with a one-time guest editor, because that will likely not give you a good example of what they publish.
At the same time, send your best work, even if it may not fall right into their regular guidelines. Editors are looking for quality work, and they are not all married to their preferences. Some are much more flexible in what they will take, while others are more rigid. So use some judgment. If a journal seems to only publish the big names—you open it up and it’s all Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds—then you’re playing in a pond that’s probably a bit stocked against you. (But try anyway—we should all aim high.)
If a publication seems like a bad match, look into it again a year or so later. Editorial staffs change frequently, and the tastes of that publication will change to reflect that as well. If a publication is a bad match right now, that may just be a sign of the editorial philosophy, and a new editor can completely revamp what a magazine is looking for and willing to accept.
Send to many magazines. Don’t just send to the big journals. Send to smaller ones, mid-sized ones, and the “dream team” ones. Spread your work across the platforms and you’ll begin to find your way into other places that you may not have expected. When you’re sending out submissions, choose one or two that are your “long shot” publications and give them a try. Everyone has their first time at some point.
I keep my records as a database. I have several hundred poems now that I feel comfortable sending out, but I also have no head for keeping track of things if they aren’t carefully and concretely organized, so I keep track of what I sent out, where I sent it, when I sent it, when I heard back, and what the response was. This keeps me from submitting something to a magazine that has already rejected it once. It also gives me an idea of what they have or have not taken in the past so I can try something different when I send it out this time. Because I hope to someday publish a collection, this also helps me keep track of what publications I will need to acknowledge as having previously published any of the poems that are included in the book.
Don’t Harass the Editors
Editors work on heavy schedules, often while also working full-time jobs that actually pay the bills. Don’t start sending emails saying, “Have you had a chance to read my submission yet?” Almost every publication I know of specifies what their typical response time is and when it is appropriate to send them that type of query. Yes, sometimes submissions are lost, and it is appropriate to enquire after a certain amount of time, but you’re not going to endear yourself to an editor by being pushy or needy.
A simultaneous submission is any work that you submit to two or more publications at the same time. Always make sure that the journal is OK with this. Most journals understand that writers will make simultaneous submissions because they are trying their best to get published, but there are a few that specify that they do not want any simultaneous submissions.
If you do submit simultaneously, it is your responsibility to notify any place you have submitted to if another magazine has accepted the piece and pull it out of their consideration. You should do this immediately upon your acceptance, and you should never, under any circumstances, tell a magazine that has already accepted you that you are pulling the piece from them because another (ie. “better”) magazine has accepted the piece. Editors talk to each other. If you become “that person,” you’re not going to be getting accepted for very long.
Personally, I don’t do simultaneous submissions because I worry about keeping track of everything. I’m also in the fortunate position of having enough poems at this point that I can rotate through them and wait for a response on one before I send it somewhere else. Simultaneous submissions are completely acceptable in the business (with the exception of those few magazines that will not permit them), but you need to be committed to keeping track of what you have submitted where and withdrawing your submissions when they are accepted elsewhere.
Read the Submission Guidelines.
Seriously, READ THEM. If they say “no simultaneous submissions,” then make sure that’s the only place you’re sending those pieces to. If it says to put everything in a single file, put it in a single file. If it says no cover letter, don’t include a cover letter.
Most editors are working heavy schedules, and most of them are doing this in addition to the full-time jobs that actually pay the bills. If something comes into the submission box from someone who obviously did not read the instructions for submitting, then eventually that becomes an easy way to thin the editing load down—rejected. Demonstrate your respect for the time that the editor is spending reading your piece by giving them what they want in the way they want it.
In your cover letters, thank the editors for their time and consideration. If they ask you a question or make a suggestion for changing your work, seriously consider it and response appropriately and in kind. Sometimes you may not be comfortable with a change they propose, and that is your priority—it’s your art and your statement after all. Some editors will specify that they will not publish the piece without their suggested changes (I’ve never encountered this, but I have heard of cases where it has occurred). In those situations, it is completely appropriate to pull your submission (politely and graciously) from their publication if you are not comfortable making those changes. If you are comfortable with the changes, then make them. But consider them carefully—don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to the suggestion that you will regret later.
Promote Your Success
When you are published, announce it on your social media. Post it on your webpage. Link the online content. This is not just shameless self-promotion. This is providing traffic to the publication that has accepted you. Most of these journals do not have massive marketing budgets that allow them to advertise on broad scales, so it is up to you to help promote the publications that have accepted you. You don’t need to become their PR manager, but you should be willing to at least make the announcement. This also helps direct attention to your work, so it’s a winning situation all around.
It’s Not About Money
If you think you’re going to get rich from poetry, reconsider. Yes, some people do, but that’s very, very, very few people. Don’t write this because you want money. That will equal shitty poetry, and there’s enough dreck out there in every art form done by people who just want paychecks without foisting more of it on the world. Write because it is your passion. Write because you can’t help it. Write because it fills you and has to spill out on paper or you will explode. Write because it is what you love to do. Beyond that, publishing is icing. Write because it is what you do to live, not what you do to survive.
There are plenty of entities out there that would love to take advantage of your quest to be a publishing author. That place that has accepted your poems and will proudly present you with a beautifully bound collector’s edition of their book for only 40 bucks—they’re ripping you off. Your poetry may be wonderful, but they will take just about anything for their latest edition, because they know most of the people who buy it are going to be either the people who are in it who will be ecstatic to see their work in print, or relatives of those people. You won’t be able to list it as a legitimate publishing credit (at least not if you want people to not laugh at your publishing credentials). Legitimate publications that accept your work will likely provide you with, at the very least, a complimentary copy of the issue you appear in. It may only be in pdf form, because they are trying to reduce their overhead and stay in business, but they shouldn’t be asking you to pay an exorbitant full-price in order to get the book you’re in when they don’t even offer you an electronic copy. At the very least, you should be able to receive some sort of discount on the issue you appear in.
Additionally, keep an eye on what you are committing to when a publication accepts your work. Most legitimate publications accept you on the basis of “first time North American serial rights.” This means the poem remains your, and the rights to it revert directly to you upon their publication of it. There are a handful of publications out there that will ask you to sign over your rights to your work to them. That is, of course, your choice, but a very bad idea. This means you will never have the opportunity to print it in a collection or a chapbook or a retrospective of your work without having to go to that publication and ask them for permission to publish YOUR OWN POEM. They’re likely to expect some money from you at that point.
Reading fees, on the other hand, are becoming fairly standard. At one point in time, they were one of the sure signs of a scam, but those days are over. Publishing is becoming increasingly difficult to work in and keep the doors open and the lights on, so many journals and magazines, as well as large publications, have turned to charging reading fees for contests and sometimes even their standard submissions. In addition to providing some money to cover standard operating costs, reading fees also serve as a primary filter of sorts to stop people from just sending in any old thing. If you’re going to kick five bucks toward the opportunity to have someone read your work, then you’re more likely to be submitting something that you think has a chance of being accepted. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1) Don’t pay more than you’re willing to pay. This isn’t worth going into debt for. Set your budget for monthly submissions, and don’t go over it. There are still many places out there that accept free submissions, but there are also many worthwhile publications that are charging a small fee.
2) Don’t pay more than it’s worth to you. For the most part, most magazines that have reading fees currently charge between 3-5 dollars to look at under ten poems for consideration for publication in an issue. If there is an associated contest, the fee is more likely to run between 15-30 dollars—the larger the prize, the higher the fee, as the money for the prize needs to come from somewhere. Reading fees for an entire manuscript may run from 20-50 dollars. Generally, the more you are putting on the line and the more you stand to gain, then the higher the fee is likely to be. These submissions also tend to be more work-intensive too. Judging for a contest is more complex and takes more time than just reviewing standard submissions. It also likely involves several readers as opposed to only one or two. Reviewing a manuscript is more time consuming and also tends to involve more than one reader.
3) Factor in what you are receiving in return for your fee. Many of these journals include a subscription to their publication as part of the reading fee, or don’t charge a reading fee for subscribers. If you’re paying 30 dollars to have a standard submission considered, but you’re getting a full-year subscription that is worth 20 dollars, then you’re only really paying 10 dollars for the reading fee. If the magazine charges reading fees for non-subscribers, but allows subscribers to submit for free, consider getting a subscription. Over the course of a year, you’re likely to have more than one submission, and you may save money in the long run, plus you’ll be able to read the journal and get an even better idea of what they are looking for.
4) If you don’t want to pay a reading fee, then don’t. No one is forcing you to submit to places that charge, and when you’re first beginning to submit, it may be best to stick only with publications that do not charge a reading fee as you’re getting a sense of what is more marketable. There are many, many worthwhile magazines that still charge no reading fees, so choose those ones and work with that list.
I hope some of this information will be helpful to you as you’re going through the process of seeking publishers and placing your poems. If you look under the tab for resources for writers on this page, you’ll find a page that includes links to databases with information on various publications and their submission information. Alternately, pick up a copy of Poet’s Market, which is an invaluable resource (though the online database at Poets & Writers is just as useful). While Poet’s Market can sometimes be a bit pricey, you can frequently find the edition from a year or two before for much less, and the information is still relevant enough to be useful. Just verify on the web that the contact information has not changed and the publication is still in print.