Advice On How To Sell Poetry

Contents

Preparing Your Poems
  • revision
  • manuscription preparation
Finding Your Markets
  • agents
  • directories of poetry publishers
  • market information periodicals
  • researching online magazines
  • investigating markets
On Multiple Submissions
  • submitting to more than one market
  • sending more than one submission at a time to one market
  • sending sequential submissions to a market
  • previously published poems
Mailing Them Out
  • cover letters
  • your submission package
Keeping Track Of Your Submissions
  • submission logs
Waiting It Out
  • how to wait
  • writing a submission status query letter
  • editor's revisions
Publication and Payment
  • acceptance letters
  • contracts
  • payment
Book Publication
  • book preparation
  • manuscript formatting
  • researching book publishers
  • sending your manuscript out
  • self-publishing
  • "vanity"/subsidy publishing
  • e-books
  • agents
  • publication and payment
Chapbooks One Final Word

Preparing Your Poems

Revision

First revise your poems till they are the strongest, most individual, clearly written poems with the best imagery and language you are capable of in the form that best suits the subject and language. Put them away for a few weeks or months. Check again. Show them to some intelligent friends (people who read a lot, not necessarily poets or even writers though that may work best for you) who will be honest with you about your work and take their suggestions seriously. Revise revise revise but don't kill the poem's energy. Check again--are they the best you can do with them? If you want to try an online poetry workshop, I have heard good things about two of them though I personally have not participated in either: The Gazebo at The Alsop Review and Eratosphere. (I include this information here after receiving multiple queries. While I do believe workshops can be useful for poets they are by no means mandatory.)

Manuscript Preparation

Typing:Type your poems clearly (that means using dark ink with crisp characters--no light dot matrix or old typewriter ribbons) and with correct spelling and punctuation (if you use any), without typos. Page Formatting: Put your name and address in the top corner (some people use the left, I use the right). Space down a few lines for the title (your poems all have titles, right?), then space down a few lines again and type the poem. About 98% of poetry markets are perfectly happy if you single-space lines within the stanzas of your poems. The other 2% insist on every manuscript being double-spaced. Personally, I single-space my poems because I can't stand the way they look double-spaced unless I know that the market demands double-spaced poems (see investigating your markets, below). Have at least a 1-inch margin all the way around your page. If your poem goes on to more than one page, make clear if the page break conceals a stanza break or not (I simply put "[stanza break]" or "[no stanza break]" at the bottom of the page). Some people put ".../2" to indicate the poem goes on to a second page at the bottom right of the page. At the top of following pages, put your last name, the poem's title, and the page number of the page of the poem. Do not put a copyright notice on the page or on your cover letter--your poems are already copyrighted the instant you write them down, and putting a notice on suggests that you think the editors might be tempted to steal your poetry. Besides that being insulting, editors get so many poems they don't need to steal them, so many editors see a copyright mark on a poem as the sign of an amateur who doesn't understand copyright law. Typeface: Use a readable typeface--no script or anything too fancy or it will attract the wrong kind of attention. I now use Courier for everything, but poetry editors don't seem to be as picky about typefaces as prose editors need to be, since poetry is generally easier to typeset. All you need is an easy-to-read font in a legible size. Remember, editors have to read a lot and the easier you make it for them the better. If your poetry might be difficult to typeset and the precise placement of the words and characters on the page affects the poem, I highly recommend using a non-proportional typeface (where each character, even "w" and "i", have the same width) like Courier. Character Formatting: You can type your title however you prefer: in all caps, underlined, boldface, as plain text, whatever you like. The only key here is not to get too fancy. In the text of the poem, use underlining to indicate italics--it's easier for the editor to spot it on the page. Unless your poem plays with typography, you shouldn't need boldface or other fancy formatting. Paper: Use 8.5 x 11 inch paper in North America, or A4 paper elsewhere in the world. Use regular weight plain white typing paper (meaning not tissue paper or cardstock, and it's best to stay away from textured or specially finished paper). Line Lengths: A year ago I got email from someone that I lost before I responded to it (many apologies!) regarding including line lengths for each poem at the top of the page. I had never heard of this (beyond making certain that a poem wasn't too long for specific contest or magazine requirements) and so I asked on several poetry and writing lists. No one on any of those lists does this or particularly recommends doing it, so my advice would be not to include this information. Submitting To Online Markets: Read the market's submission guidelines, carefully note any submission requirements (such as submitting as attachments or not, in a word processing program or in ASCII or not) and follow them carefully.

Finding Your Markets

Agents

I have never heard of an agent willing to handle submissions of individual poems. Occasionally, for a famous person, an agent will be willing to handle book publication, but this is rare.

Directories of Poetry Publishers

I personally use the Directory of Poetry Publishers and The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, both annual publications from Dustbooks. I'm not wildly impressed with the Writers Digest's directories, but they may be more easy to find. Friends also recommend the Directory of Literary Magazines published by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. For Canadians I highly recommend Poetry Markets for Canadians, published by the League of Canadian Poets. A new edition of this came out in spring 1999. I know secondhand of one recent UK directory, The Small Press Guide 2000, which includes contact details and editorial requirements for over 300 publications/presses with UK addresses (Writers' Bookshop, Remus House, Coltsfoot Dr, Woodston, Peterborough, PE2 9JX, UK). Also, apparently there is The Writers Handbook is an annually published directory for the UK. There is also Small Presses and Little Magazines of the UK and Ireland by Peter Finch (1997, The Stationery Office Oriel Bookshop). Marie Savage, editor of Poetry Markets for Canadians reports Small Presses and Little Magazines of the UK and Ireland provides only the most basic information, such as publication name, contact name and address followed by a one-line description of the publication. She says the annualWriters' & Artists' Yearbook (A & C BLACK, London) also has brief listings, but has additional info on British copyright laws, contests, etc. and lists writer's groups in the UK (many of which are accessible on the web) and it therefore provides a great jumping off point for researching literary magazines. She also recommends OzLit online, an Australian literary site with many links. I would appreciate if writers from outside North America would let me know what other directories they would recommend for people from their geographic areas.

Market Information Periodicals

There are ads in Poets and Writers for various magazines and anthologies seeking submissions. Also recommended is The Gila Queen's Guide to Markets which is a general guide to all kinds of new and obscure publication opportunities. Each issue contains some general information, and also has a theme; poetry is frequently one of their themes.

Researching Online Magazines

Browse. Check links from one magazine to another. Use the various search engines. The only registries I know of right now is The E-Journal Site Guide: A Metasource (and here is a list of Literary Magazines Reviewed for Fiction Writers), but any search engine should be able to find you a bunch. If you find of other sites like this metasource, please let me know. Do beware of scam sites which exist to publish anything submitted to them and charge hefty fees to the authors to get copies of these publications. They're making millions off their anthologies, recordings, and conferences. Stay far away. For more information on this, see SFWA's Writer Beware Vanity Anthology information and Wind Publications' Poetry Contest Caution site

Investigating Your Markets

Despite the usefulness of directories, it's best to see the magazines before you send your material off to them blindly--the directories aren't good at letting you know what the magazine physically looks like and whether they truly would like work like yours. Friends of mine have horror stories about having work appear in magazines that they were later embarrassed about, simply because they hadn't any idea what the magazine was about or what it looked like before they sent the editors their work. So go to your local public library, college or university library, bookstore, and newsstand and find all the magazines that seem to be sympathetic to poetry like yours. Look at back issues and current issues. Check whether they have submission guidelines mentioned anywhere or if they suggest sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for their writer's guidelines (this is not that common in the literary field). Write down the name of their current poetry or literary editor and be certain you have their current submission address--which may differ from the subscription address. If you're checking out issues in a bookstore or newsstand, buy the ones that interest you most; not only will you be supporting the magazine and store but you'll have a chance to read the issues cover to cover so you can get a stronger feel for the editors' tastes. Many magazines now have samples, guidelines, and/or promotional information available online on the web that can teach you a little about them. Use your favourite search engine. As a starting place, here are Yahoo's list of magazines and Yahoo's list of poetry magazines. If you can't find a copy of the journal you're interested in, I recommend writing to them for a sample copy. Most directories include a sample issue price. Beyond this, when you find magazines that interest you--subscribe. Literary magazines are expensive and time-consuming to produce and they only way they will survive is if they have a strong subscription base. If you think a magazine is good enough to publish your work, it is good enough to subscribe to. Thus you help ensure that the magazine lives long enough to print your work. It can be a good idea to start with local magazines and anthologies--they can be more open to work by a local writer. Remember to check the directory entry or magazine guidelines to see if they have a specific reading period. Many magazines don't read over the summer, and others may have a specific time period which is the only time they will consider submissions--don't waste your postage if you can help it.

On Multiple Submissions & Previously Published Poems

Submitting To More Than One Market

Some magazines don't mind multiple submissions; other insist that they won't look at material submitted to another market at the same time that they are considering it. If a magazine says they don't mind, go ahead and submit your poems to them and to another market that also allows for multiple submission, but note on your cover letters that they are multiple submissions. If the magazine says they don't accept multiple submissions, don't do it. If you're that sure they won't accept your poems that you feel safe multiple submitting even though they ask you not to, maybe you should be sending them elsewhere in the first place. If the magazine doesn't say whether or not they accept multiple submissions, assume they don't. Some writers say that they aren't willing to put up with long response times and take their chances, even with markets that won't accept multiple submissions. However, if a poem is accepted in two places you have a dilemma--who are you going to disappoint and perhaps make an enemy of? I don't want to be in this situation, so I simply don't double submit. Other people have lived dangerously for years and never been caught. They have either been lucky or their acceptance rates are low enough that they feel safe. My guess is that they haven't found the right magazines to send their poems to. The writing world is small, and I'd rather not risk losing future potential sales and friends, myself.

Sending More Than One Submission At A Time To One Market

Unless the magazine specifically says they don't mind, don't do it. Wait until one submission comes back before later sending a new, different submission.

Sending Sequential Submissions To A Market

If one submission is rejected it is a good idea to wait a few weeks or months before submitting to the same market unless the editor has specifically requested that you send them more of your work. Unless the editor requests you to, don't ever send the same poems back unless they're revised to the point that they aren't recognizable as the original poem. If you have an acceptance from a publication it's a good idea to wait, at the least, until the work appears before sending another submission unless, of course, the editor has asked you to send more work sooner. A few places now specifically request that you wait a certain period before resubmitting; it's a good idea to follow the magazine's guidelines on this as well.

Previously Published Poems

Never send out work that has been previously published in any form, whether it's "only on the net" or "only in a limited-edition chapbook/small local magazine and the editor will never know any better", unless the publication specifically allows that. For example, some magazines will specify that they want First North American rights--thus if the poem has been previously published in England, that would be fine. I would note that previous publication in a cover letter, however. There's an article on the net by a lawyer, Ivan Hoffman, talking about whether posting poems to the net constitutes first publishing--the answer seems to be maybe. Myself I never post previously unpublished poems on the net unless it's in an e-zine that buys first rights. I want those rights available for sale, and I don't want any editor to be distressed by finding a poem of mine s/he published in an archive somewhere.

Mailing Them Out

Cover Letters

Some people say it's best not to include a cover letter until you have some publication credits. I have heard of a few rare editors who will not look at a submission that includes a cover letter; I have also heard of editors who won't look at submissions without them. Check the guidelines if the publications has any. I always use them--your choice. The most important thing is to keep the letter brief and to the point. Cover letters should be addressed to the poetry editor or magazine editor, as appropriate, by name. Offer the editor the poems for publication in their journal. List up to three recent publishing credits if you have them. Thank the editor for his/her time. That's all. Don't explain your poetry or ask for critical feedback, or use any attention-getting devices as they'll likely draw the wrong kind of attention. Don't apologize for or boast about your work. Keep your letter clear, simple, and professional. If the editor has previously rejected your work but included a personal note (not just something in the publication's form rejection saying to try them again sometime) saying s/he would like to see more of your work, by all means mention this in your cover letter. If you're resubmitting work with changes suggested by the editor (n.b. do not otherwise resubmit work) tell him/her that you're doing so and thank the editor for the suggestions. If you are sending poems for a specific issue of the magazine, do say so. For example, if the magazine has announced plans in a previous issue or a market report or press release that they're accepting submissions for a special issue on beekeeping and you're sending a submission of poems about beekeeping that you want them to consider for that issue, tell them.

Your Submission Package

In your envelope you should include:
  • your cover letter (if you have one)
  • your poems (about 5 poems or pages)
  • a stamped self-addressed envelope (SASE) with enough postage for the return of your poems (alternatively, you might send a letter-sized #10 SASE and tell the editor in the cover letter that the manuscript material is disposable, though personally I'd rather not put that idea in their heads). Remember if you're sending submissions to a foreign country that you either need to include International Reply Coupons (IRC, which you can buy from your local government post office, though usually not from substations) or enough stamps in that country's postage to get the package back to you. For example, if you were sending a submission from the U.S. to Canada, you would send the package out with U.S. stamps on it and your SASE would have either 2 (or more) IRCs attached or enough Canadian stamps to get the material back to you in the U.S.
  • a paper clip to hold the previous items together (optional, but DON'T staple your poems together)
Your exterior envelope should be addressed to the poetry editor by name or to the publication's editor if there is no specific poetry editor. Fiction writers are advised never to fold their stories--it does make them harder to read. I suggest either sending poetry submissions flat in a 9 x 12 manilla envelope (or the appropriate envelope for A4 paper) or in a 4 x 6 envelope with the poems folded in half rather than using a regular letter-size (#10) envelope and crunching your poems inside it. Make it easy on your editor. Remember to put enough postage on the exterior of your envelope, too. You don't want it to arrive postage due--if that happens don't be surprised if your submission comes back to you with the envelope unopened and marked "Refused--Return to Sender". Don't use a return label or stamp that has a cute design or saying on it--it will draw the wrong kind of attention. Make sure everything you're sending looks professional. Plain return labels or stamps are, of course, fine. Do not email poems unless the editors specifically say they accept email submissions, even if their guidelines list an email contact address. Sometimes even webzines prefer to receive their submissions on paper. Check the guidelines. Do not send your poems on diskette unless the editors specifically request that you do so. If they do, try to follow their formatting requirements as closely as you can. And if you can't, remember that ASCII is the universal language (most word processors will get to ASCII using "save as text" or "save as ascii").

Keeping Track Of Your Submissions

submission logs

Do keep track of your submissions. There are some computer programs for this, but I've never found my submissions difficult to keep track of so I've never investigated these programs. You can easily set up your own in database or word processing programs. Do whatever works for you here, but do keep track. I keep a log on paper that simply includes: the date I send the submission out, the name of the place I sent it, exactly what I sent, the date I got a response, and what that response was. You might want to add the market's usual response time to this to help you keep tabs on that. Keep especially clear track of when your work has been accepted for publication. You might want to expand your submission log to include when you expect the published works to appear or keep a separate listing of acceptances.

Waiting It Out

Patience

Then be patient and above all, keep writing. If one or two of the poems from your submission are accepted, rejoice and send the rest out with replacement poems (and you might want to take a look at the publication and payment section of this document). If they all are rejected let yourself be sad, but put on your writer's secretary hat and send them out again as quickly as you can. I try to do it within 24 hours. Remember that the editors are snowed under with poetry submissions and it's all a matter of taste and how much space the magazine has for new poems right now and whether the editor is trying to cut back on caffeine and whether their children kept them up all night. Or maybe they've published so many poems about beekeeping they're tired of them. Or maybe they just don't "get" your kind of poetry. Do more research on poetry magazines, but don't give up. Many people find it useful to already know where they're going to send the poems out next. Some have lists where they send their work out in order of preference. Once it comes back from their first place, they send it to their second, and so on. If you are patient, persistent, and the poems are good they will eventually be published. I have published over 80 poems in various Canadian and American literary magazines, been in about 10 anthologies, placed in a few contests, and have also published two chapbooks (small collections of poems) and two full-length collections of poems, but that's 15 years of slow writing, drastic revising, and keeping my finished poems out in the mail. Persistence in submitting your work is more important in getting poetry published than nearly anything. If you have some money to spend on sending your poems out, you might want to consider some of the various poetry contests. Check out Poets and Writers magazine for the best listings of these. Do beware of entry fees and what you get for them. You might also want to check Wind Publications' Literary Contest Caution page for ones to avoid. Most of these contests have specific guidelines for submissions--get copies of those guidelines and follow them carefully. Keep writing and sending your poems out.

Writing A Submission Status Query Letter

Some magazines are slow to respond to submissions. Many are incredibly slow. Most literary magazines don't pay their editors, many are run by graduate students, all editors have many things to do besides read your submissions, and almost all magazines get way, way more submissions than they can read through quickly. And submissions get lost--either on their way to the magazine, at the magazine's offices, or during a change of editor, or on their way back to you. Most books of guidelines include a "response time" section. If I haven't heard back on a submission, I generally wait twice as long as the response time listed for the publication before querying them to find out what happened. In your letter don't ask them if they lost the poems, simply ask if they received them, and include a SASE for their reply. If you don't hear back from them, you can either send a letter withdrawing your work, or simply assume that you're not going to hear from them. They could surprise you, but that's unusual. You could include a note in the query letter to the effect of "if I don't hear from you within three months I will assume you did not receive them and will resubmit them." You don't need to say that you will be resubmitting them elsewhere, which is what I would do if I didn't get my poems back or a response from my query letter.

Editor's revisions

Sometimes your poems will come back either provisionally accepted or rejected with some suggested revisions. It's entirely up to you whether you make the revisions. Sometimes it means losing the sale if you don't, but that's your choice. If the editor rejects your work but suggests some revisions and says s/he would be happy to see the work again if you revise it, again it's up to you whether or not to make the revisions, and then whether or not to re-submit the work. If the editor suggests revisions but doesn't indicate any interest in seeing the material again, don't send it back, whether you revise it or not.

Publication and Payment

Acceptance Letters

So you've received an acceptance letter! Congratulations! Now what? First, double-check that you're clear on exactly what the publication has bought and what the terms are, and if that's all ok with you. Remember never to pay to have your poems published, and if the publication doesn't pay you with either money or copies, for goodness sake don't buy a copy of the publication just to see your name in print. There are several places out there that make a whole heap of money by printing every poem that comes to them and getting the authors to buy their expensive publications. While they don't require the authors to buy the book for their poem to appear, enough desperate authors will pay the price to see a copy of their words typeset and bound and their name in print that the publishers make a tidy profit. Don't be one of them, or if you want to be, be sure that's what you want. No one is going to be impressed with that publication credit, except maybe your mom.

Contracts

Most literary magazines won't offer you a contract, but many will. Some won't even outline their terms in their acceptance letters. However, if a publication offers you a contract or "agreement to publish" check it carefully to make certain you agree with the terms. I recommend never agreeing to sign over your copyright to a publication unless they pay you a lot of money--this means if you later want to include that poem in a book you will have to write the publication for permission and may even have to pay them a permission fee to publish your own work. However, most places that ask for copyright will grant you permission in their agreement with you for you to use your work later in a collection. Still, I personally would rather keep my copyright. Never sign over moral rights to anyone--this means they can alter your poem, publish it under someone else's name, turn it into a banner and hang it on Main Street--do anything they want to it and you have no legal recourse to prevent them. More and more magazines now ask for the right to publish your work on the web or in other electronic forms as well as in their paper publication. Be certain what they're asking for and whether you want additional payment to appear in other media or not or whether you're just as happy to have the additional exposure. Many writers feel that publishers are taking advantage of writers by putting material on CD-ROMs, etc., without giving additional payments; others don't mind. I'm fine with magazines putting my poems on the web for promotion for their journal, but I'd ask for extra payment to appear on a CD-ROM--after all, the journal won't be giving them away, will they? Pay attention to when the magazine expects to publish your poem.

Payment

Few small literary magazines pay in actual dollars; some do, but don't expect to get rich off them. Most pay their contributors in copies. If the magazine does pay real money, most tend to pay at the time of publication rather than on acceptance. Most literary magazines pay per page, some pay per poem, and a few pay per word or per line. Contest prizes can vary from tens to thousands of dollars but nearly all of them require entry fees, which can add up pretty quickly--for them and for you.

Book Publication

Book preparation

Once you've published a significant amount of poems in individual magazines, you might want to consider putting a book together. Trust me, this is a process that takes several years of work. First you get your best poems. Then you start trying to see what ties them together, and arranging them in an order that makes sense of them. Then you see what you've got. You tear it apart several times, change titles hundreds of time, show it to lots of people all of whom suggest different things.

Manuscript formatting

Formatting a book manuscript is like formatting individual submissions, so please check the general advice offered there. Remember to leave big margins, use a clear font, plain white paper, etc. I was taught to put a blank sheet wherever one would appear in a real book, though I feel certain this is not essential. Do remember to have a running header on your pages, with your last name, book title, and page number. In the past I have put poetry book manuscripts in a binder or report folder for submission, but now I use a binder clip or rubber bands, as there is a strong feeling in the fiction world that you should not bind a manuscript in any way, and I'd rather not put off poetry editors who might feel the same way, especially when no one minds if you don't bind it. This makes the running head particularly important, though, because the possibility of your manuscript coming apart is stronger. Remember to include an acknowledgements page, listing where the poems in the manuscript have previously appeared--not only does this thank the magazine editors who have published your work along the way, but it also shows a book editor that you have readers out there and that your work is known.

Researching book publishers

Once your manuscript is ready, you start researching publishers. Find out who actually publishes poetry still. Then which of those publishers might be sympathetic to your work. Then you search the web or your research books or write the press for guidelines. You will be amazed at the publishers who say they're booked up several years in advance and aren't going to be looking at manuscripts for a few years. You will be amazed at the number who are no longer publishing poetry, or those who only publish one book a year, or those who only publish books through contests. Once you locate those few who are open and reading, you start sending your manuscript out. Make certain that particular publisher wants to see the whole manuscript right away--a few out there want to see a sample first. It's also a good idea to look at a few books published by that press to see what their general editorial slant is, and of course if it really is a press you'd like to appear with. Publishing collections of poetry is difficult. There are few publishers out there because books of poetry just don't make much money (how many books of poetry did you buy this year?), and there is a lot of competition out there for those publishers. I know of several poetry manuscripts that were I a publisher I would have published in a minute, yet the manuscripts have not yet found a publisher who feels the same way. There are lots of book contests. Check out Poets and Writers again. Be careful to find out (guidelines will often appear online or you can write away for them with a SASE) and follow specific contest rules regarding formatting and anonymity (you probably need to take your name off the manuscript wherever it appears). If you do try contests, be sure to log the submissions, returns, and contest fees to be sure it's worth it to you to continue doing this. The whole thing is a lottery, but you might luck out and run across the right editor who has some money to publish a book right when your manuscript is ready. I did. Three times so far.

Sending your manuscript out

Always write a brief cover letter addressed to the poetry editor or editor of the press as appropriate. You don't need to be elaborate here, but simply offer the manuscript for the editor's consideration, list a few of the best-known places where the poems included have been published (not them all, you have the acknowledgements page for that), list any awards the poems have received or any important poetry-related awards that you have received (not that you got third prize at the county fair, but that your previous book was shortlisted for a major regional or national prize, that sort of thing). Always include an SASE, either for the return of the entire manuscript or tell the editor that the manuscript may be recycled and ask them to respond using a #10/A4 SASE that you enclose. Again, remember to thank them for their time, and be certain that you have given as much contact information as possible--best to include phone, fax, and e-mail if you have them.

Self-publishing

Self-publishing is possible, but you won't get much respect for it in the poetry world--people assume that you did it because you weren't good enough to get a publisher. Unfortunately, that's because it's true of most self-published work. If you do decide to go the self-publishing route, remember that you're taking on several more time-consuming jobs besides those of writer and writer's secretary: book designer, financier, distributor, and promoter. This is a lot of work and unless you're only publishing the book to keep in boxes in your basement or to give away to friends and family, they'll absorb a huge amount of your time and effort. Self-published books are occasionally successful, but I don't personally know of any successful self-published poetry books. That doesn't mean you can't be the exception, just that it's going to take an awful lot of work to get your book in the hands of readers--work that you could be putting into your writing. There is a prejudice against self-published work in the poetry field. People tend to feel that the reason books are self-published is that they're not good enough for a regular publisher, and that is true often enough that it's hard to get past that. That doesn't mean that an excellent book couldn't! There's a long tradition of self-publishing by writers who are now considered classic authors and given the difficulties in the publishing world right now, the prejudice could change.

"Vanity"/subsidy publishing

Vanity/subsidy publishing is when you pay a publisher to publish your book. There are a variety of arrangements that can be made from options where you and the publisher share the financial risk of the publishing the book to those where you pay the whole shot. It's buyer beware out there with such publishers, so be careful that the deal is one you can live with and that the publisher really does follow through on promises. Again, you will be fighting against prejudice here, just as with self-published work, since most vanity publishers will accept any manuscript that the author is willing to pay to have published. There are exceptions, though, and publishers out there who are willing to edit and promote books the author helps pay to publish. Things are changing out there.

E-books

There are more and more e-book publishers out there, and I'm sure more will emerge in the next few years as more readers (both the machines to display the words and the humans to look at them) for electronic books are developed. Personally, I don't think the technology is at a stage where I'm ready to e-publish--for me there's something about paper and the scent of ink and the convenience of paper book formats that I'm not willing to give up, but it's your choice, and certainly there are some exciting things happening in this field. As with any form of publication, do read e-publishing contracts carefully. There is some prejudice against e-publishing, but as mainstream publishers are starting to offer electronic versions of books they publish on paper, and more e-publishers are carefully choosing, editing, and designing books this is diminishing. There is also a growing interest in reviewing electronic books, though as far as I know they still don't get much respect with mainstream reviewing publications.

Print-on-demand publishing

This is another new form of book publishing, one that is growing rapidly. If I were to go with a print-on-demand publisher, I would definitely want to have some serious plan for book promotion, as people couldn't just walk into a book store and pick up and fall in love with my book. I would still be worried about binding and paper and print quality--at least until the industry is a little more adult.

Agents

Only rarely will you find a legitimate agent who is willing to submit poetry books to publishers on your behalf, and then generally only if there is some particular reason that your poetry book is definitely going to make a big splash, for example if you have had a platinum-selling pop album or you're in a hit tv series or you're a former U.S. president. There are many writers who have agents for their fiction but sell their own poetry. There's just not enough money in poetry for a small percentage of it to be worth an agent's time. If an agent offers to handle your poetry for you and you're not famous, be suspicious and check the contract carefully. Never pay an agent to handle your writing for you--a percentage of your income (10%-15%) on the materials they represent is the standard arrangement. For more information on agents, see the Association of Authors' Representatives page. The UK business Writer's Service has offers a listing of UK agents.

Publication and payment

Always get a contract for a book publication, so that both you and your publisher are clear on what you both have agreed. Most writers' groups have sample contracts for you to look at as do many writers' books. Payment for poetry books vary, more literary publishers offer a straight royalty of 10% of the cover price for each book sold. Some small publishers offer you 10% of the print run to sell yourself.

Chapbooks

Chapbooks are smaller collections of poems, usually around 24 pages, though this varies. They range from inexpensive photocopied booklets to elaborate finely printed works of art themselves. Writers generally use them to put out preliminary collections of poems, longer poems that don't fit in a book manuscript, smaller thematic collections, or simply to have something special to give to their friends. and sell at readings. They generally get poor distribution, so you only find local ones at bookstores. To submit a chapbook manuscript, treat it as you would a miniature book, and like books, there are a large number of chapbook contests out there you might want to try.

One Final Word

Whatever you do, do it because you believe in your work and you love writing. If you're doing it for recognition and glory you'll burn out fast. Above all, keep writing and loving it. Good luck out there!
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me. Please do not send me your poems and ask my advice where to send them. Instead, I recommend re-reading this document and following the advice offered here. You might also be interested in reading my essay, "The Making of Poetry: Form and Free Verse." This work is copyright © 1998-2000 by Neile Graham. It may be copied for personal or classroom use as long as this copyright notice remains attached.
Other guides to marketing poetry: