A little while ago, a friend asked me for some thoughts on getting published as a poet, for a talk she was doing. They seemed to go down well, so I thought I’d also post them here. I should say that these are just my perceptions, and I’m not claiming to be the world’s expert on this – I’m conscious I’m only part of the way down the path I describe (I haven’t yet published a full-length collection) and others are much further along than me. But, for what they’re worth, these are my perceptions of the route to becoming a published poet.
Getting published as a poet is very different from getting published as a novelist. Don’t even think about approaching an agent – most agents won’t touch poetry with a barge pole. If you’re just starting out, there isn’t much point in sending your lovingly compiled collection straight to a publisher either. Unless you’re a genius or extremely lucky, they’re unlikely to publish it.
No, getting published as a poet is more like getting a job. What you need is a good CV. The good news is that there is a well-established route to getting one. Start small, by sending your work off to some of the numerous poetry magazines and webzines that are out there. Read them first, to see whether your work is likely to fit in – if you write formal sonnets, best not to send them to a magazine specialising in avant-garde free verse. Also, look out for calls for submissions to themed anthologies, and perhaps join a poetry group that publishes its own collections. Enter competitions, of which there are plenty. Your chances of winning may be fairly small, but again it helps if you research the judges to see what kind of poetry they write themselves. Look for competitions that publish an anthology – then you may get published if you’re shortlisted, even if you don’t win a prize. There are competitions for which the first prize is publication of a collection – perhaps your best chance of short-circuiting the whole process, but the odds are quite long.
When you have a track record of published poems, and perhaps have been shortlisted in a few competitions, then you can think about approaching one of the many small publishers who produce short collections (but check that they are currently accepting submissions first!). These used to be called pamphlets or chapbooks, but these days are often in book form – albeit only 20-30 pages. Publishers tend to like collections to have a theme (though this can be fairly loose) – so in choosing what to send there is a compromise to be made between picking your best poems and finding common threads between them. Of course, there will be lots of other aspirant poets doing the same thing, so the odds are against you – but keep trying!
As in other areas of writing, avoid vanity publishers who will charge you exorbitant fees to publish your collection. A bona fide publisher will not charge you money – though, since poetry publishing isn’t exactly lucrative, they may encourage you to buy some discounted copies (which you can then sell on yourself) to help cover their costs.
As for full-length collections, for which there are fewer publishers available, again, you need to have an established CV as a poet to have a worthwhile chance of being accepted – which in this case is likely to include having already published at least one shorter collection.
There is also an alternative route to success as a poet – which may ultimately include publication – by becoming well-known through poetry slams, fringe shows and the like. It goes without saying that you need to be a confident and effective performer to succeed in this arena. It also suits certain types of poetry better than others.
Even if you’re more of a ‘page poet’ than a performance poet, it’s still good to take any opportunities that come along to perform your work in public, and to do some practice so you can deliver it as effectively as possible. And when you finally get that collection published, you’ll want to have at least one launch event – where better to sell those copies the publisher twisted your arm to buy?