Several times a week I get mail from poets saying, "I have some poems my friends tell me are great and I want to have them published in a book. What do I do?" The answer would be easy to give if everyone were exactly alike, but, thank goodness, we aren't, so each person truly needs an individual answer, or even more correctly, several answers. Thus, I am putting here some options to let you at least know some of your possible avenues. Which method you will choose, or combination of methods, is part of your work as a poet. And it is all work. But the very best kind.
A. This is not an impossible dream because you see it happens. But the normal way to accomplish this is to first read the books being currently published by poets now teaching in universities. Then you enroll in that school, and attend that person's classes. Your goal will be to impress that teacher of the worth of your poetry, your future as a poet and your commitment to being a poet. This will not bring you your book contract, but, if you are lucky and the teacher likes you, may bring you a grant or a poetry prize. Most big-name publishers, and even smaller ones, have no idea of whether anyone's poetry is any good or not (they are business people, not arbitrators of taste) so they depend on the decisions of the poetry community which are manifest in winning the grants and honors given by the academic world. The people you study with will be the ones to carry you into these realms of dreams or maybe not. If not, you will, by then, be qualified to get a teaching job in a school or university as you will have, on the side, gotten your degree.
Do not think that if you send a really neatly written letter to W.W. Norton that they will be so overwhelmed by your charm and the greatness of your poetry that they will ignore the methods above and sign you on. Unless you are having an affair with the publisher, this is a dream very unlikely to come true.
B. Another way to get a big-name publisher for your poetry is to write other books: either translation, novels, how-to-books, cookbooks. Not just one, but several. If a publisher makes enough money on your books, he (usually they are male) may decide to humor you by also printing a book of your poems. Don't ignore this method as I know it works but also understand that it takes as long to accomplish as the plan above. Publishers all know poetry books by single authors (unless they are already famous) will not sell enough to pay the printer.
C. You win a large grant or poetry prize that offers big-name publisher publication. Yes, this sounds great but be aware that the judge may already know the person who will get the grant. This is the way her/his students are helped to get ahead and that is what is happening. This is not a search for the best poetry being written. And this method, which often charges a hefty 'reading' fee is counting on so many hopefuls sending in money that they pay the printer's bill. Thus you are paying for a book you will never see with minimal chance of helping yourself. Unless you personally know the judges of the contest, these 'contests' are a waste of your money, your time, your poems and your dreams. The acceptance of these scams is scandalous but continues because the sponsors know they can count on the unrealistic dreams and desires of every poet to be published.
First you have to find one. The best method is to read and buy poetry books. Find authors you admire, find out who has published their books, and find out who else that company has published. It is often helpful to go to readings of these poets, get to know them, and get to know, through them, their publisher. Don't think you are too good to skip any of the above steps.
A. If you happen to find a new publisher, just building a stable of writers, someone eager to enter the field, your chances of them publishing your book is very good. Yes, they will be learning with you and your work, but hopefully there will be, in the end, your poems between the covers of a book.
B. A small publisher may agree to publish your book if you help pay to have your book printed. I know there was this stigma of self-publishing or vanity publishing. It has largely been advanced to cover up the publishing industry's dirty little secret. You know, now, what the publisher learns sooner or later - that poetry books by single, unknown authors will not pay, let alone make money. Someone has to pay the printer. Often to keep publishing, a publisher will agree to do a book if you pay the printer. This process has several guises. The publisher can ask that you get a grant for the publication of your book. The publisher can ask that you buy a number of your books from the company at a certain agreed upon price. This is not so bad as you get your book done, you get enough copies to give to your friends and those you wish to impress and sell the rest at readings. But you must be realistic about the finances. Most of these deals will require about $2,000 - $3,000, depending on the book style, cover, and print run.
3. Even a small publisher may have experience you lack and already has at least a small readership to whom you may wish to be introduced. They have some practice in handling printers (a chapter for itself!), and the business ends of publishing already in place. They also have the power of a name -- which has been earned and maybe worthwhile for you to acquire. If you have this kind of money to donate to the arts and yourself, this is definitely a possibility.
Don't believe the myth that self-published books are not 'good' or that doing a book yourself is new. So many of the truly great writers have had, in the beginning of their careers, to either pay to have someone publish their books (Gertrude Stein is a case in point) or do it themselves by establishing a press (Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard). With the introduction of computers and desk-top publishing the opportunities spread out like a colorful fan before you.
A. Establish your own publishing company your self. Give your company a name, register yourself with your local small business associations, apply for an ISBN (International System of Book Numbering) run by the Bowker Co. Get a Library of Congress number for your book and you are on your way. Or if you are brave and self-confident, you can simply get a name and do your book and let the business world get lost in your dust. Do not worry about having to file taxes on your earnings! But you might be able to declare your losses; check with your tax advisor as all the legal claims say!
These are limited only by three things: your time, your money and your inventiveness. This has little or no relationship to your skill as poet. Remember to keep the two jobs in separate sides of your brain.
Let us start with the basic premise of why you wish to have a book of your poems. You want to show them to other people, right? The simplest form is a broadsheet. A broadsheet, not all that popular these days, is a large piece of heavy weight paper or cardboard containing (usually) a poem and an illustration. These were hung on the wall as pictures and used as posters are. With computers and copy machines this option is within the reach of anyone.
B. A chapbook
Supposedly, the name came from the idea of English publishers who published books in serials so that each chapter was available as a small, paper covered booklet. Even Emily Dickinson put together her poems into little hand-sewn chapbooks. So the idea is not without precedence and value. If you have been a poet for any length of time you will already have a collection of these from friends, brothers and sisters of the art. Look them over carefully. What do you admire and what bothers you? Which booklet would you be proud to put your name on? Which booklet could you make? Find the one closest to your dream and leap off from there! Make the book as interesting and as well as you can with your capabilities. It is your book. Again, with computers and copy machines and even Kinko's, you can turn out a darn nice book. Don't expect to get the local bookstore to stock it (unless your independent bookseller is really independent) or to get a review in the city newspaper (they will not even look at a book unless it is hardcover) and if it is poetry, probably not even then unless you are on their staff. But you will have a memento to give your friends so they can enjoy your poems on their bookshelf.
If this method interests you, please check out the Minimal Press site. More help is on its way to you.
C. A Paperback Book
In this age of desk-top publishing this option is open to everyone with a modicum of skills, time to learn typesetting, the money to pay the printer, and a joy in selling books. Again, find a book you admire and begin with that for your dreams. Instead of running off copies on your laser printer or copy machine, you will prepare the book to be camera ready to send to a printer. Printers are not the easiest persons to work with (unless you are greatly blessed). Many have no sense of time (the book promised in 6 weeks can come any time after that date). Most have their own ways of expecting the material and you will have to accommodate their wishes down to the letter. And some are a disaster, especially if they do not guarantee their work and even if they do, deciding who is at fault when a problem occurs is an even bigger battle. Your local printer is probably easier for you to work with as you learn how to present a book as they wish it, but they can and probably will cost you more.
Most printers will not consider printing a book with a run smaller than 300 copies. And most professional binderies will not guarantee their work on books smaller than 90 pages. One thing you will surely do is to get job quotes from various printers. Always try a local one and one of the big ones where you can often get online quotes. Before asking for a job quote you will have to know how many pages your book will be; the weight of paper (60 pound is normal but print can show through, 70 pound is more opaque and costs more); the kind of paper (the house paper for text is the best deal in white or ivory); illustrations, yes or no; cover (coated on one side - CS1 in 10 pt which is fine, or 12 pt if you wish a heavier cover); cover colors or black ink on white; and the number of copies in the run. Any other wishes can be tried as options so you can decide what you can afford to do or not. Do consider a hardcover book without a dust jacket. Surprisingly these cost only about 15% more than paper back, but if you wish for a dust jacket you will find that this doubles the cost of your book.
Naturally the more books you have printed the lower your per-book cost will be. But also, the printer's bill increases too. And think of where you will store those many books. They need to be dry, warm, worm and mouse safe. You can use them for insulation by building interior walls on the north side of the room or making furniture out of the heavy boxes. I kid you not.
D. An On-line Book
In just the past five years this possibility has emerged and will, I feel, in the future be the way to go for poets. Since our books don't usually make money, and printing costs money, putting a book online even saves storing all those boxes. And, this is most important to me, people who never would have gotten a book of your poems in their hands, can access your poetry. I know there is this dream of paper, ink and cardboard in your hands, but once that you have gotten over this thrill, the greater excitement is having your book available to the widest possible audience. Here are several options again:
1. Put your book up on your web page. Many have done this and you can, too. One of the challenges of this, after you get the book online, is getting people come to read your book. You can do this by offering a service or something that people want enough to come to find your site and stay long enough to find the book. Whole books could be written on this subject, but look around the web, see which sites you go to often, what you look for on the web, what unique information can your offer? Do it.
2. Put your book on the web where other books are. Here on AHAPOETRY are two options. For books of haiku, tanka or renga my AHA Books offers online version of books. Check out AHA Books Online to see what is being done and all the various methods and styles of what we are trying. This costs you nothing, but neither does it earn any money for any of us.
3. Make an online book of your poems and have it placed in the Brautigan Virtual Library Bookshelf, also here on AHAPOETRY. Thus, you can benefit from the traffic generated by some of the other features of this site. Read some of the books in the Brautigan Virtual Library. My goal is to earn money for poets' book by offering the download of a book for a small sum. At this point I have not found a secure method of making small payments, but I am investigating this constantly. I do feel poets should be paid for their work as we do perform a service to humankind. The only problem is over-supply and under-demand.
4. A. J. Tedesco of " Dreamspace " who offers to put up books of poetry without cost on his site. I checked the site and it looks good to me. But you must decide for yourself if this is the proper place for your book of poems. ** 7/28/98
5. Rocket e-Books offers a library of books to be downloaded to be read with their palm-sized machines. I have one of these *books* and love it. You can upload your book of poetry to their site if you are a registered owner of an e-book. E-books are of two kinds: books sold online for downloading into e-books and ones for free like books out of copyright or books given by their authors (a boom for beginning poets).
6. The latest word (summer of 2000) is that big-name publishers who are interested in entering the e-book market are looking for books that they can offer free in e-editions to pull in interest for their other titles which are sold. You might get lucky when offering your poems to such a company for this purpose. You might even chip off some of their advertising dollars as they will be using your material to promote their company. Think about it. Investigate.
7. Now we have Stephen King who is offering a pay-per-chapter option for his readers as he by-passes the publishers. I doubt one could do this with poetry, but it shows you where the book is flipping open. Hopefully, someday we will have a easy method of paying small amounts online so we can sell the right to download a book of poems.
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 18, 1997
Occasionally I get e-mail from people saying they have written a poem and are wondering how they can sell the poem or begin making money from the poem or even from a book of their poetry. Recently in the magazine Feelings, (Anderie Poetry Press, POB 85, Easton, PA, USA), the editor Carole J. Heffley, wrote her editorial on just this subject. I thought it might be helpful for those of you who have thoughts of 'getting rich' with your poetry to read her words:
... It's been a long time since I've received one of these gems. In my nearly nine years as a poetry editor, I've never quite gotten used to letters like this. The letters I am referring to go more or less like this:
"Dear Editor, Here is my wonderful poem; how much will you pay me for it?" Believe it or not, some letters simply say: "Send my check to ______."
I have developed a form letter in reply that goes something like this: "Dear Would-Be Poet, If you are expecting to be paid for poetry, you are sadly misinformed about the genre. You are wasting your time writing poetry because you have missed the point of the entire effort. You have failed to understand that poetry doesn't pay, it costs. Writing poetry costs your heart and soul. It costs years of study, of reading, and of listening. Poetry costs going to readings not only to read your own work but to truly hear the work of others. Poetry isn't a paying job; it is a way of life. If you expect to get paid for your work, dear poet, look elsewhere. Poetry pays infinite intrinsic rewards and few, if any, external ones. Sincerely, the Editor."
Friends, you've got to love poetry to be a part of it. What else but a love of the art (and make no mistake about it, poetry is art) could explain endless hours spent on one poem -- or even one line -- squeezing it, rolling it, shaping it, into something that makes the connection between heart and paper via pen? Or driving an hour to stand with shaking knees behind a podium (or worse yet, just standing up in front of a group with no "prop"), to read one two-minute-or-less long poem? Or sending out submission after submission in hopes of publication; not in payment, but in publication.
You've got to love something that gives such small repayment for devotion: the ink on a sheet of printed paper that spells out your heart with your name attached. And yet, friends, I've got to tell you that after more than 30 years of writing poetry, just seeing a poem of mine in print, with my byline, is worth everything, nothing more required. Funny, isn't it?
Carole J. Heffley
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