One thing I’ve been asked regularly at readings and events (well, by ‘regularly’ I mean ‘more than once’) is how emerging poets can go about building up to getting their debut collection published.
Emerging fiction writers generally understand that to get a novel published they must first, in nearly all cases, get an agent. However, as agents very rarely represent poetry (and when they do it’s often because the poet already has a significant profile), for an emerging poet the route to debut publication can seem rather more opaque.
I am not a prolific (or even a particularly well-established) poet, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a collection published and another scheduled for publication in 2022, and I still remember what it was like sending off my first poems for submission. So I thought I’d write a summary of my experiences in the hope it might help someone who is starting to so the same. (Note: by ‘published’ here, I mean published by an established publisher or press. These days, it is now much easier for poets to self-publish or to publish with a less-traditional partnerships, like ‘Unbound’, but as these are not avenues I know anything about I won’t discuss them here. Also note: a reputable press will never charge you anything for publishing your collection – if a press does ask you to pay to be published that is a huge red flag. Avoid).
As far as I can see, there are three main routes to getting a debut collection published.
Route 1: The Apprenticeship
The first is what I might call ‘the traditional’ route. This route is tried and tested and hasn’t changed much over the years. In essence, ‘the traditional’ route means slowly building up a ‘portfolio’ by getting poems published in a range of magazines and journals.
Usually, you might start by submitting to the ‘smaller’ magazines and, if your poems are accepted with something approaching regularity, then moving on to submitting to the ‘bigger’ or more established magazines; magazine like The Poetry Review, The Rialto, Poetry London, The Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, Poetry (based in the USA), The White Review, The Stinging Fly, Granta etc. Once you’ve written enough poems (and got at least some of them published in reputable magazines), you would then look to approaching a press about publishing your first pamphlet (a pamphlet is about 20-40 page of poetry, plainly printed and staple-bound, retailing for about £5). All going well, after publishing a pamphlet or two and continuing to build up an extensive poetry portfolio, you would then be in a good position to make a submission of your collection to a publisher.
Why is this route a good idea? Firstly, because it gives you time to learn your craft. Secondly, because you might even be lucky enough to get editorial feedback from some magazine editors along the way. Thirdly, it allows you to get your name out there. (It’s important for emerging poets to understand that, albeit with some exceptions aside, collections by new poets sell very few copies. Publishers are very very unlikely to publish a collection by a poet they’ve never heard of, no matter how ‘good’ the poetry is. In reality, most editors already know the names of the upcoming poets they are looking for long before the manuscript lands on their desk – or in their inbox). Fourth, if you are submitting to these magazines, you will also hopefully be reading them – and exposure to your contemporaries will certainly help develop you as a poet. Fifth, you’ll hopefully get to meet (electronically or in real life) other poets along the way. Sixth, it allows you time to get to know how ‘the scene’ works. The ‘world’ of print poetry in Britain and Ireland is fairly small and, for better or worse, largely self-referential. By this I mean (and, again, with some notable exceptions aside) that most of the poetry published in Britain and Ireland is consumed by other poets. Most of the people who read and buy poetry magazines are poets themselves, or at least involved in ‘the poetry world’ in some way. Likewise, most of the people who go to events and readings or who read or buy new pamphlets or debut collections. By knowing who is publishing what, or the styles different magazines and publishing houses are interested in, you can maximise the chances of sending your submission to a publisher where it will be a good fit.
So, what are the problems with this route? Well, firstly it takes time. As I mentioned above, in some ways that is a good thing as it allows you to hone your craft. But there’s time and there’s TIME, and some of the response windows from the bigger magazines are tortuously slow (over six months in many cases, sometimes over a year). And if you are a new poet reading than know this: the wheels of publishing houses turn at a glacial pace. Secondly, you’ll need to spend a lot of time reading submission guidelines and formatting submissions accordingly. Again, this isn’t bad per se, but any time spent on making submissions is time you’re not actually writing – and I know very few poets for who the time to write new material isn’t precious. Thirdly, you might need to put your hand in your pocket in terms of going to events and subscribing to the magazines you’re submitting to (not that you have to subscribe or go to everything, of course – but it’s always worth asking if you don’t want to pay to read what anyone else is writing, why would anyone else want to pay to read your work?).
All in all, this route is not for the fainthearted. It’s probably something akin to a ‘poetry apprenticeship’. But any new poets who are dedicated enough to invest the time this route demands will find their poetry much, much improved.
Route 2: Competitions
A second potential route to publication is by winning, or even being listed in, competitions. It’s worth saying from the outset that route 1 and route 2 are not mutually exclusive and, in reality, often go hand in hand.
Also, it’s worth saying for context that the competition route is how I eventually got my own collection published. I had built up a modest a publication portfolio, maybe 10 – 15 magazine publications and a handful of listings in single poem prizes, but it was my debut collection getting shortlisted for a full-collection prize that led to publication. I hadn’t published in any of the major magazines (I still haven’t!) or published a pamphlet.
In essence, if you win (or even get short-listed) in some of the big poetry competitions you will not only increase the likelihood of getting a collection published but also may be awarded a contract outright.
There are two main type of competitions; single poem competitions and full pamphlet/collection competitions. Winning one of the big single poem competitions (The National Poetry Competition, The Bridport, The Gingko Prize, The Troubadour International Prize, The Manchester Poetry Prize – etc.) is unlikely to get you a contract, but it will certainly make publishers sit up and take note if mentioned in a submission (and it will have the added bonus of course of netting you a hefty cash prize). There are hundreds of smaller competitions too; but while they may be fun to enter and may also pay cash winnings, they are unlikely to do much in terms of impressing a publisher (ironically, listing too may small prize listings in a submission can often work against you, as it can signal to a publisher that you haven’t spent long enough building up ‘a portfolio’). Winning a collection/pamphlet prize will usually bag you a contract outright (such as The Rialto Pamphlet Prize or The Poetry Business’ Book and Pamphlet competitions) – but they can be quite expensive to enter.
So what are the problems with this route? Primarily the cost. Entering multiple prizes can quickly become expensive, even prohibitively so (although a number of competitions now have free entry for low income writers). Also, the time taken to enter is again time you are not writing, particularly for pamphlet/full collection prizes where the formatting guidelines can be quite detailed. In fact, you can soon become sucked into a cycle of endlessly submitting and then waiting for results, which isn’t goof for productivity of new material (or your sanity). Lastly, competitions (particularly single poem competitions) are somewhat of a lottery. In the big competitions, most of the poems are screened out by volunteer readers well before they ever get near a judge. And the shortlists are always of such a high standard that the winner is decided by the judge’s taste and preference rather than objectiveness ‘good poemness’. This is not to say very good poems don’t win these competitions of course – they do, all the time – but there are also many, many good poems which don’t even make the short-listing, and judging your self-worth as a poet only by competition wins and short-listings is a path on which madness lies.
Route 3: Build a readership
Ultimately, poetry publishers (like most publishers) are hoping to make money. So, if you can demonstrate that you already have a large readership for your poetry, or if one of your poems has gone viral, you may be more likely get a publishing contract.
In days of yore, the only way to do this was by doing extensive readings up and down the country. Nowadays, social media has changed all that. It’s now not unheard of for poets to build up large readerships online and then use their social media profile to secure publishing deals for debut collections (and often with big publishing houses – Brian Bilston and Rupi Kaur are two notable recent examples here). But this route is not a shortcut for either routes 1 and 2 above. You’ll still need to spend time developing your poetry, and you’ll still need a collection’s worth of quality material. And building up a large following for your poetry online seems, to me at least, as difficult (if not more so) than building up a ‘portfolio’ as outlined above.
So there you have it, my rather in-expert overview of some of the differing routes available for emerging poets to publishing a debut collection. But, whatever route you find yourself going down, my best advice? Read a lot – and keep at it!