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How Do I Get My Poetry Published?
Copyright©2003 by Nathan Harms

As founder of Utmost Christian Writers Foundation, I often receive letters and emails from poets asking how they can convince a publisher to produce a volume of their work. I've received so many similar letters that I felt some of the answers could be provided in the article that follows.

I encourage novice poets—or even experienced poets who have not been published—to read my thoughts on this matter.

I have a collection of poetry I'd like to publish. Could you suggest some reputable publishing houses? This is my first attempt at publishing. Those who have reviewed my poems (approx 100, to date) qualify them as being quite pure and refreshing. If anything they are uplifting and written from a Christian perspective. Thanks for any help you can give me. Andy

Here's another email.

I am beginning writing poetry and have about 60 poems. I've had one poem selected as semi-finalist in the International Open Poetry Contest (National Library of Poetry). This poem is being published in a book. I have 50 of my poems in the process of being copyrighted. I am truly inspired by Christ in my poems and someone compared me to Edger Allen Poah (sic). I truly didn't think they were that good but maybe I'm wrong. I don't know where submit my poems. William

These are only two of numerous similar enquiries I received in my email this week. These notes are strangely encouraging even though they show a lack of knowledge or research by the senders. They're encouraging because of the poets’ sincerity and obvious fervor to distribute their work to a readership.

At the same time, I find these enquiries a little terrifying. Poetic waters teem with publishing crocodiles anxious to sink their teeth into naive neophyte poets.

As poets it’s natural for us to seek readers. Our desire to communicate drives us to the page. On the other hand, enthusiasm and lack of knowledge make a dangerous concoction. Too many poets are being devoured by unscrupulous “publishers.”

What are your poetry credentials?

Most poetry books sell poorly and lose money for the publishers. That’s why they’re choosy and cautious about poetry projects. The question a poet needs to ask herself before approaching a publisher is, “Keeping in mind that most poetry books lose money, what can I offer this publisher?” We have to erase from our minds the notion that we are doing the publisher a favor by submitting our work.

The first question a publisher asks might be, "Does this poet have a readership? What credentials does she have?"

When poetry publishers say "credentials" they mean previous publications in reputable poetry publications, significant poetry prizes or academic qualifications. If we're submitting a poetry book manuscript to a publisher we should include a list of publications where our poetry has been published previously. A bare minimum of such credits is 15-20. Poetry prizes are not as impressive to publishers, but if we have won a large or notable prize, we should mention it. If we're an English professor at a college or university or have a degree in literary arts we should be sure to feature it.

If we do not have any credentials, it’s probably premature to be thinking of publishing a book unless we want to do it ourselves.

But I've been published in an anthology!

A number of disreputable "publishers" cater to beginning poets, flattering them and accepting their poetry for publication in anthologies. Poets who are "accepted" for publication are offered the opportunity to order copies of the anthology as keepsakes. Poets who fail to order a book will find their work mysteriously absent from the anthology. In other words, we are paying to have our work published in such anthologies. It’s not realistic to consider this as a genuine publishing credit.

In fact, the mention of National Library of Poetry (NLP), Noble House Publishers (NHP) or other similar "publishers" could be the kiss of death to our submissions to mainstream publishers. Our mention of such publications signals that we're beginners with scant knowledge. Because these anthologies publish so much low quality poetry we can expect to be judged by the company we keep.

NLP and NHP share information about the poets they've published in their anthologies. If we have been published by NLP, for instance, we may receive a letter from Noble House claiming that they have seen our work in another book and wish to reprint it. Of course this adds an aura of respectability to the request. We think, "Why, the anthology containing my poem really has been distributed nationally!" Little do we suspect that these companies are trading information so that they can sell to us a second time.

This is discouraging–how do I get started?

We put aside the idea of publishing a complete volume of our work until we've established some credentials. We don't waste time entering "free" contests or submitting our work to publishers who produce numerous anthologies of unknown poets. We don't spend time and money copyrighting our work. (Each poem is copyright from the instant we assign it to paper or our computer's hard drive.)

We join a community of poets. Whether we participate in an email exchange, a poets’ chat group or a critique circle, the exchange of poetry and support with other poets will improve our writing enormously.

We enter small contests that charge entry fees. The fee is part of the cost of our education. If the contest offers a critique, we take advantage of the opportunity, whether it’s free or not. If we're serious about our poetry we invest in it. (We steer clear of free contests unless we know who is operating them. Most of them are run by disreputable people who try to separate us from our wallets after accepting our free entry.)

W submit our individual poems for publication in appropriate print journals. On-line publication does not merit much respect from mainstream publishers, so if we're trying to gather credentials, we need to submit our work by postal mail and keep good records of our successes and failures.

Finally, we don't expect to earn royalties or large sums of money from our poetry successes. Our work as poets is vital, but is always undervalued financially. Our reward comes from the knowledge that we've mastered our craft and met with our readers in ways that are unforgettable and life changing.

If you read this article, please let me know.