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Approaching a poetry publisher

Roddy Lumsden outlines the route to getting a volume of poetry published and advises poets on when and how to approach a publisher.

If you follow the perils and pleasures of British poetry via the newspapers, you are excused for thinking things are in a bad way. The media rarely misses a chance to tell us how little we are selling or to report incidences of cronyism and infighting.

Since any article on getting published contains bitter pills, let’s start with some optimism.

Poetry is, whatever you hear, doing very well these days, thank you.

Tales of woe about falling sales tend to rely on sales figures gathered only from high street chains such as WHSmith, which carry little poetry other than popular anthologies and big (often deceased) names.

Large bookshops are stocking less poetry, alas, but many poets said to be selling only a few hundred copies per year are shifting several times that amount, thanks to smaller chains, specialist outlets, academic, library, overseas and online sales, and sales through poetry readings and courses. Although few can make a living from royalties and readings alone, there are certainly a few hundred British poets who make a comfortable, if far from lavish, living from poetry – universities, schoolwork, reviewing, residencies, editing, etc – or who combine this with other part-time employment.

Given the unexpected rise in creative writing courses (there are now more than 600 full-time degree courses in creative writing in the UK) which require experienced writers to pass on knowledge and techniques, there is now little need for poets to scrape by in an attic on a diet of lentils and divine inspiration.

The changing face of poetry publishing

Yet, poetry publishing is a tricky business. Time was when a young chap had his mother type up his sheaf of poems – 20 or so would do – and sent them to the publisher, along with his note of recommendation from a mutual acquaintance at Cambridge and a list of a hundred friends and relatives who had vowed to purchase the slim volume. Things have changed. Until recent decades, few working-class or women writers would have considered attempting to publish. In recent years, at last, poetry books by women outnumber those by men, reflecting the fact that far more women write.

The post-war decades saw shifts in the ethos of British poets, but changes affecting them in the century’s latter decades were about ‘infrastructure’ – the rise of independent publishers, the creation of a circuit of poetry venues and literary festivals, Government-backed subsidy and promotions, the stiffening of poetic factionalism, the confidence (and sheer numbers) of small magazines, the liberty/tyranny of the Internet (with its bookselling and blogging, communities and catfights), the demise of ‘broadsheet’ interest, the desire for voices from outside the white middle class, the spread of residencies, commissions, fellowships and teaching opportunities.

In his 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture, Picador editor Don Paterson commented on the abundance of writers who, wanting a slice of these opportunities, push for publication before they are ready. Many writers, with hindsight, feel their first books lack cohesion. Another editor told me that many small press poets would have had a strong chance with bigger publishers had they been less impatient.

Publishing facts and figures

How much unpublished poetry is there? Let’s look at some rough numbers. A late 1990s survey suggested 8 per cent of the UK adult population had recently written a poem of some sort (of which two-thirds were women). Discounting the many who scribble in a diary or pen a quick verse in a card, we’re still left with over a million writers who harbour some hope of publication.

A few hundred poetry collections by individual writers are published most years. Most – admirable though they may be – are small-scale, from local presses, in pamphlet form, in small print runs. The better-known independent poetry presses (Anvil, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, Seren and others) publish over 150 books between them, while the few commercial presses (Cape, Chatto, Picador, Faber) venture around 50 between them. However, these mainly comprise books by established poets from here or abroad (and new editions of work by deceased writers).

Debut collections

First books are few and far between, especially from bigger publishers. If I started naming poets who deserve a debut collection, you’d probably stop me after a minute or two and say, OK enough now. And yet, having spoken to most poetry editors, and having done freelance editorial work too, I sympathise with publishers. Space for a debut sometimes comes at the expense of an older poet not selling well. It is difficult to promote a new poet – bookshops want anthologies, promoters want ‘names’; despite all the opportunities listed above, poets have to work hard even after publication to make themselves known. Most first-timers are disappointed to find their collection is not met with a raft of reviews, shortlists and reading invitations.

What publishers are looking for

So how do poets get published these days? Well, rarely from what is perceived to be the standard approach of simply submitting a manuscript to a publisher.

My advice (and all editors and established poets will concur) is this.

You must go through the hoops and tasks of learning your craft and proving yourself before considering an approach to a publisher.

And no, you’re not the exception, even if you are a brilliant young thing, or a late starter expecting short cuts. A first collection will contain 40–70 poems, and most poets will have written a few discarded efforts for each one that makes the cut.

Publishers will expect you to tell them where you have been published in magazine form. Broadly, your work should have appeared in several places. This should include well-established publications: vital though the little magazines are, you are frankly unlikely to be published in book form if the better-known periodicals are consistently turning down your poems.

Publishers want you to have a substantial publication in good magazines and journals and the primary reason for this is that a track record of magazine publications shows commitment to a developing manuscript and an effort to develop a readership for your work.

Capable writers, unpublished

A few years ago, I went through several boxes of manuscripts for an independent press. These scripts had already been deemed worth a third look: most submissions are returned quickly since editors become adept at identifying substandard work. They don’t often make mistakes, and would make fewer if the process wasn’t clogged by those who send too soon.

The work I read was generally impressive, carefully assembled by capable writers and much of it as good as work I’d recently seen in book form. But this publisher only has room for one or two debuts each year. My task was to look for exceptional, original manuscripts and after a while, I found myself growing impatient with poems which were well written but overfamiliar in style and subject matter.

If you do feel you are ready to approach a publisher, you must find out their current submissions policy (see the listings in the Yearbook and look at publishers’ websites). Some of the bigger lists go through periods where they will not look at any unsolicited work. Some prefer sample submissions of a dozen poems only. Don’t make common mistakes: email submissions are rarely allowed; full return postage must be supplied; never ask for an email response, or a detailed critique; keep your covering letter short and pertinent; never drop the name of someone who has praised your work unless you have the express permission to do so.

How poets get published

For me, a few years of feverish reading, writing and showing work to university writers-in-residence and to other young poets led to an Eric Gregory Award which was followed by interest from a major publisher (Faber, whose editor had been on the award panel). I spent five years carefully building up a manuscript. Faber then featured my work in an anthology of eight promising poets but turned down the manuscript. I worked hard to improve it and sent a pamphlet (which I cheaply self-published) to a few other publishers. I was quickly approached by Bloodaxe, who were familiar with my work via the Award and publication in magazines. Here are some examples of how other poets got published:

  • Poet ‘A’ was a late starter and wrote in various ways. At a group, he found that poems in a certain style (which he had felt came too easy) were well received. He gladly went with this direction, and put effort into reading his poems aloud when he had the opportunity. A poetry editor saw him reading and asked to see his work.
  • Poet ‘B’ had a reputation as a performance poet but had begun writing more formally. He read widely and joined a weekly group with a tutor whose poetry he admired and worked hard on developing a new style of writing. He then did an Arvon Foundation course with a tutor he had encountered before, who was so impressed with his new work, she recommended him to a publisher she was working with.
  • Poet ‘C’ had placed poems in several magazines and had some commendations and prizes in a few competitions. She sent a dozen poems to a well-known publisher who asked to see more. She sent more for consideration, took some time off work to develop her manuscript and, in time, the book was accepted.

One step at a time

So take your time, find a mentor, or someone who’ll be honest and astute about your poetry, build up a manuscript slowly, with lots of revision, read and read more, find opportunities for reading in public, go to a writing group if you can, do an Arvon Foundation course. And keep in mind that there is far more pleasure in writing than in seeing your name on the spine of a book.

For more advice on learning your craft as a poet, read Writing Poetry by John Whitworth (Bloomsbury, 2001 & 2006)


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