Expect things to keep changing and developing. New markets for your work are opening up all the time.
Good luck with it!
—Neile Graham, April 24, 2011
One Final Word
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—by this I mean someone willing and able to do more than simply admire it—and take their suggestions seriously.
Revise revise revise but don't kill the poems' energy. Check again—are they the absolute best you can make them?
If you want to try an online poetry workshop, I have heard good things about Eratosphere though I personally have not participated in it. (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.)
Typing: Type your poems clearly (that means using dark ink with crisp characters—no printing when you're running out of ink or toner) and with correct spelling and punctuation (if you use any), without typos.
Page Formatting: Have at least a 1-inch margin all the way around your page.
Put your name, address, and email address in the top corner (most people use the left corner). Space down a few lines for the title (your poems all have titles, right?), then space down a couple of 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).
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, the plainer the better—no script or anything fancy or it will attract the wrong kind of attention. I now use Courier or Times for everything, but all you need is an easy-to-read font in a legible size that prints clearly. 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
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, the traditional way is to use underlining to indicate italics—it's easier for the editor to spot it on the page—but now many people simply use italics. If the submission guidelines don't specify anything in particular, use your own judgement. 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 few years ago someone asked about 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 By Email: Read the market's submission guidelines, carefully note any submission requirements (such as submitting as attachments or not, in a particular format (DOC or RTF are the most common) or in the text of the email or not) and follow them carefully. It's a good idea to turn off any automatic graphics (such as in a fancy signature) before sending a poetry submission by email.
For Poems Submitted in the Text of an Email Message: Be very careful not to use formatting that may not arrive as you sent it. For example, I recommend indicating italics with an underscore at the beginning and end of where italics begin as italic formatting may or may not appear the same in someone else's email program. Make clear where each poem begins and ends (I use a few dashes in a row—there is no standard here).
Geographic areas often have their own directories: add your country to the search terms above.
I mostly research online now, but in the past I used print directories like the Directory of Poetry Publishers and The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, both annual publications from Dustbooks. Writers Digest's directories may be carried in your local library and be easier to find. Friends also recommend the Directory of Literary Magazines published by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
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 site.
So browse the internet. For print-only magazines (most magazines will have a website to promote themselves), go to your local public library, college or university library, bookstore, and newsstand. Find all the magazines that seem to be sympathetic to poetry like yours. Look at back issues and current issues. See who they have published and see if you can find that writer's work. Check whether they have submission guidelines available online as most places do now. 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 or information 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 a print 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 to them or donate when they have fund drives. 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 are currently open to submissions. 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 time and postage if you can help 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.
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.
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, and I don't want any editor to be distressed by finding a poem of mine s/he published in an archive somewhere.
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 (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.
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 CD-ROM or any other electronic format 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 text-only formatting or rich text format (RTF) are currently the most universal formatting languages (most word processors will change to these formats using "save as RTF" or "save as text").
I keep a log on Excel (I like it because it's easily sorted) that simply includes: the date I send the submission out, the name of the place I send it, the poem's title, the date I get a response, what that response is, a place to note if the editors have taken so long to respond that I have sent them a query to see what's up, and a place for short notes (for example if the editor says they would like to see more, I note that here). 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.
If one or two of the poems from your submission group 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 plan 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 140 poems in various Canadian and American literary magazines, been in about 16 anthologies, placed in a few contests, and have also published two chapbooks (small collections of poems) and three full-length collections of poems, but that's many 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. 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.
Most lists 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 if you're doing this in a paper letter, include an 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.
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.
First, double-check that you're clear on exactly what the publication has bought and what the terms are, and if that's all okay with you.
I don't recommend ever paying 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.
A few rare places may ask for copyright on the poem. I recommend never agreeing to sign over your copyright unless the publication pays with a lot of money and/or prestige—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 print magazines may also 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. Some writers feel that publishers take advantage of writers by putting material online or in other electronic formats, without giving additional payments; others don't mind. I'm fine with magazines putting my poems on the web for promotion for their journal, especially if they're willing to link to my website.
Pay attention to when the magazine expects to publish your poem.
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.
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 requires patience and persistance, but the only way to run across the right editor who has some money to publish a book right when your manuscript is ready is to keep trying. I've been lucky. Three times so far.
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, email, and a fax number if you have one.
Recently I've been thinking a lot about re-issuing one of my out-of-print books through POD.
As with any form of publication, do read e-publishing contracts carefully.
There is beginning to be less prejudice against e-publishing poetry, 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. Electronic book publishing for poetry still is not quite as advanced as for prose because of formatting issues, but there are a lot of experts working on this.
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.
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 instead be putting into your writing.
While there is still a prejudice against self-published work in the poetry field, 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.
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.
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 (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.
Payment for poetry books vary. Most 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.
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.
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 © 1998–2012 by Neile Graham. It may be copied for personal or classroom use as long as this copyright notice remains attached.
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