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How Do I Get My Poetry Book Published?
Copyright©2009 by Nathan Harms

A beginner's guide

As founder of Utmost Christian Writers Foundation, I receive many letters from poets asking how they can convince a publisher to produce a book of their poetry. I've received so many similar letters that I want to provide some general answers in this article.

Here's an excerpt from an email I received:

"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 experience 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 because there are many so-called publishers eager to take financial advantage of inexperienced poets seeking publication.

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 have their hopes or bank accounts devoured by unscrupulous “publishers.”

What are your poetry credentials?

Most poetry books sell poorly and lose money for the publishers. That’s why publishers are choosy about poetry projects. The question poets need to ask themselves before approaching a publisher is, “Keeping in mind that most poetry books lose money, what can I offer this publisher?”

We must erase from our minds the notion that we are doing the publisher a favor by submitting our work. (Read that previous sentence again.)

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 that fact.

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 purchase copies of the anthology as keepsakes. Poets who fail to order a book will find their work mysteriously absent from the anthology. (They don't know this, of course, because they never see the book!) In other words, poets are paying to have their work published. 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 "anthology publishers" could be the kiss of death to our submissions to mainstream publishers. Because these anthologies publish so much low quality poetry we will be judged by the company we keep.

NLP and NHP swap 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 internationally!" Little do we suspect that these companies are trading information so that they can sell a book to us a second time. (Note: National Library of Poetry filed for bankruptcy some time ago, and their assets were sold, leaving many poets who had pre-paid for poetry with nothing to show for their money. Even to this date—2014—there are similar "publishers" attempting to prey on novice poets.)

This is discouraging—how do I get started?

First, 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 insignificant "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.

We participate in an email exchange, 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.)

*Note: Worthwhile free poetry contests can be found at Winning Writers. Although winning one of these free contests probably won't help build your credentials, you won't be cheated either.

We 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 communed with our readers in ways that are unforgettable and life changing.

I still want to publish a book, even if it costs me money

There are a number of companies that will publish your book for a fee and provide printed copies to you. Beware of companies that claim to pay you a "royalty;" they often acquire complete rights to your material for an extended time (i.e. up to seven years), making it impossible for you to use your own writing elsewhere during that time.

Although we at Utmost will not endorse other publishers, there are web sites that will help you set up your book for publication for a reasonable price. There are publishers who will also provide you with a limited number of books at a reasonable cost. Keep in mind that a "reasonable cost" if you are ordering only 25 books may be $20 or more per book. It's not out of the question to pay $700 for the pre-press set-up and printing of 25 poetry books.

Doesn't Utmost publish poetry books?

We once published books at Utmost, but we have ceased asccepting print publication projects. More specific information is available at our poetry publishing section.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.