How to Become a Published Poet

Let’s be honest: no one chooses poetry to become rich and famous. Very few poets make a living on the proceeds from their work, and the payouts for journal and book publications are modest. As for fame, well … do you know who the 2019 US poet laureate is? (Psst … it’s Tracy K. Smith. Also, for the record, the poet laureate receives a modest $35,000 annual stipend for the position.) The point is, famous contemporary poets are usually considered famous only within poetry circles, and rarely do they become household names in the way Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and Elizabeth Gilbert have. Publishing poetry may not pay a lot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay at all—monetarily or otherwise. Why is publishing your poetry a worthwhile venture? To arrive at an answer this larger question, we will first answer some of the smaller and most frequently asked ones:

Do I need a literary agent?

For the most part, no. In a way, you need to act as your own agent by seeking literary outlets for your work. It takes a lot of time to research the journals, magazines, and presses that would be a good “home” for your poetry, but the process can be really fun. Then, it’s up to you to contact each editor during his or her open call for submissions. (Read on for more information about this.) Unless an editor has contacted you about your work, it’s generally considered unprofessional to send your poems outside the window of an open reading period. This is very standard for most poetry presses, which tend to be on the smaller side. So managing your submissions, tracking deadlines, and considering which poems to submit are all tasks that cannot be delegated to a literary agent.

If you've won a big award (the Walt Whitman, the Ruth Lilly, or a Poetry Society of America Award, for instance), have at least two books published from reputable poetry presses, and have given many poetry readings, then a literary agent might reach out to you, but you will not need to seek representation on your own. Having a literary agent is a signal to large traditional publishing houses that you are already well established in your poetry career and have amassed enough of a readership that your future books might be profitable to them.

Where should I send my poems?

Before publishing a whole collection of poetry, you should start by publishing individual poems in literary journals. Many journals have open reading periods, and sometimes the issues are themed. The biggest advantage you can give yourself is to be selective and careful about the places that you submit, and the best way to get a sense of the work being published through a journal is to read some of their previously published poems online—or better yet, subscribe to the journal.

As an emerging poet, you should initially target smaller outlets to publish your work. While the New Yorker might be impressed with your writing, the magazine is less likely to take a chance on someone who doesn’t already have at least a few publishing credits. Similarly, larger publishing houses that have a poetry imprint (e.g., Ecco Press, which is an imprint of HarperCollins) often solicit work from poets who have been previously published (usually with at least one book under their belt), or they accept work from already-established poets through the mediation of agents.

It might be easiest to think of journals and submissions in terms of tiers. Some journals are more selective than others, and some journals are more likely to publish emerging writers. If you don’t know where to start, here are some helpful resources to get you submitting:

  • Submittable: This online portal helps you keep track of your submissions. Most journals accept submissions electronically (although a few journals accept submissions only by mail). Create a free account to keep track of your submissions, browse upcoming open reading periods, and discover new journals.
  • Duotrope: This paid service provides information about hundreds of literary journals and keeps track of submissions. It provides market listings for more than seven thousand active publishers and allows advanced searches to help you narrow down your finds to a manageable number. Each listing offers a brief overview of the publisher as well as insight into how selective each journal/press is compared with others.
  • Entropy magazine: A literary journal in its own right, Entropy also provides a great resource for poets who want to keep abreast of upcoming literary deadlines in “Where to Submit.” Updated every three months, this free listing offers journals at a glance, so that you can understand the types of poetry each journal publishes, and provides a direct link to each journal’s website.

Do I need a query letter?

When submitting a batch of poetry (a journal customarily asks for around three to five poems, not to exceed ten pages), a short cover letter is required. This is very different from a query letter, which aims to “sell” a book to a prospective publisher. One of the biggest differences between publishing poetry and publishing prose is the fact that poets are not expected to pitch their writing to prospective publishers the way that other authors must. In fact, pitching your poetry at all is kind of considered a faux pas in the poetry community. Instead, you want the merit of your poetry to speak for itself. In this way, publishing poetry is much more passive than publishing fiction. Imagine yourself trying to court these journals or presses. You are not the kid at the school dance breakdancing in the middle of the floor to impress the object of your affection; you are the coy wallflower making eyes from across the room.

In addition, submission readings are often “blind,” meaning the editor will only read the cover letter if they are interested in the poems, and only after they’ve read the poems. So there is no need to pitch your poems at all.

How, then, do you make your work stand out from the pile of submissions? The surest way is to follow the guidelines exactly and then personalize your cover letter. (Read more about this below.) Poetry editors are some of the most generous readers in the industry, sometimes providing thoughtfully crafted responses to each submission. However, if you don’t take the time to follow a journal’s guidelines and your letter is obviously generic (or missing), an editor is less likely to take the time with your submission.

Your cover letter should be polite, professional, and very brief. Here is a general outline:

 

Dear [Editor’s Name],

Please find my poems [list the titles of your poems] attached in submission to [journal name]. Thank you for your time and consideration of my work.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

[Your Name]

[Your Author Bio]

 

Be sure to research the names of the editors, as it shows that you cared enough to read through their website. Also, try to refrain from editorializing. If you must provide some context for your work, it is best to keep it to one or two lines. Finally, right below your signature, be sure to include your author bio, which should be written in third person. Your author bio isn’t uploaded as a separate document (unless otherwise specified) because it is more convenient for the editor to have your information in one place. Providing your bio after the closing of your letter is an added courtesy that shows a certain level of professionalism because it saves the editors from having to ask for this information later, should they choose to publish your work. Keep your bio to one paragraph, not to exceed ten lines.

How much does it cost to publish?

Some journals ask for a small reading fee (usually $3–$5) to help offset the cost of the journal, but most journal submissions are free. While reading fees are generally considered scammy by presses that publish prose, they are commonplace among small literary journals that don’t make much of a profit.

Also, almost all contests, for individual poems as well as full-length books, charge submission fees. The fees go toward the printing cost of the journal or book, and they are also pooled together to create the prize for the winning poet. For book contests, a reading fee rarely exceeds $20, and for individual poems, the contest fee is usually between $5 and $10. Once a poem or manuscript is accepted, the publisher covers the cost of publication. If you choose to self-publish your work with print-on-demand publishers, the cost will vary, depending on the publishing company you work with.

Are poetry contests worth it?

This all depends on your goals. Winning a poetry contest is an excellent way to gain recognition in the literary community and a wider readership and to give heft to your literary bio. However, if you are just starting to publish your work, it is best to submit to journals that speak to your poetry’s aesthetic. Because many contests have guest judges, it is hard to pinpoint the type of work that they will select as the winner. If you see a contest being judged by a poet whose work you admire, we encourage you to submit, but be advised that poetry contests are highly competitive and the payouts for publication are generally under $1,000 for a book from a small press and about $50­–$100 for a poem.

How can I tell if a poetry contest or publishing contract is a scam?

Do your research. There are many literary journals and presses out there, and not all are equal. Consider these warning signs:

  • The publisher asks for money. Beyond a small reading fee or contest submission, you should not pay to be published. If a publisher requires a reading fee, consider whether they are a for-profit or nonprofit organization, the type of poets the organization has previously published, and the types of organizations that the publication supports on their website. For instance, you will know that the organization is legitimate if they give part of their proceeds to groups such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the Poetry Foundation, or the Academy of American Poets.
  • There is no compensation. While many legitimate journals and presses cannot provide monetary compensation for publication, they should at least provide you with contributor copies (free copies of the finished product).
  • The offer is a form letter. Whether the acceptance is for one poem or a whole manuscript, your acceptance is a personal one. The letter should be personally addressed and refer to your work by name. Oftentimes, an editor will call out specifically why they chose your work for publication. Be wary of scams that refer to your work in vague terms or use odd fonts, such as handwriting style, in their acceptances.

For more information about literary scams, visit www.winningwriters.com/contests.

What is a poetry chapbook?

Historically, chapbooks were small pamphlets usually containing poetry, sold by peddlers or “chaps.” In modern-day usage, chapbooks are small, typically hand-stitched books of less than forty-eight pages, published in limited edition (a print run of one hundred or less). Poets tend to treat chapbooks as a stepping-stone toward a full-length publication. In addition to the contests for full-length manuscripts mentioned above, there are chapbook contests, and the submission fees for them are generally less than that of full-length contests.

What is the rejection process like?

For poetry submissions, rejection is part of the process. Every published poet has many rejections notched into their belt, even though we don’t hear about them. But, chin up—rejections aren’t always a bad thing. Poetry submissions have a tiered process, meaning that response letters are separated into three categories: standard rejection, encouraging rejection, and acceptance. To find out more about the language of each type of rejection, check out the Rejection Wiki (yup—that’s a thing!), which will help you determine whether the journal is encouraging you to submit other work in the future.

Back to the original question: Is becoming a published poet worthwhile? If after reading about how you probably won’t make much money or gain international fame or bestseller status from publication you still want to publish your work, then you are a poet in the making. (After all, poets feed off heartache and tribulation, right?) In all seriousness, though, publishing poetry is a wonderful way to form a community and attract readers who earnestly admire your work. Poets are some of the best writers in the industry simply because the nature of the endeavor means that they do not treat it like a business at all. They may never receive acclaim or award, but the publishing venture comes from an honest desire to connect with a writing community beyond themselves. They write for writing’s sake. If that isn’t worthwhile, then we don’t know what is.

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