for Poetry Submissions

Publishing Your Book of Poetry

by F.J. Bergmann

spacerThere is probably no poet alive who has not longed at some point to have a published book of their poems, if only to show off to friends and relatives, to say nothing of being catapulted into everlasting fame. However, there are publishing protocols more likely to result in you (and others) taking pleasure in your book months or years down the line.
spacerImportant distinctions are those between traditional publishers, cooperatives, vanity presses, and self-publishing. “Publisher,” “press,” and “printer” are often used interchangeably, but there are differences in their functional spheres.
spacerA printer is the fabricator of the books themselves; e.g., Kinko's is a printer, albeit an expensive one. Most publishers do not print their books themselves, but arrange for a commercial printer to do so.
spacerPress is a broad term; most publishers and many printers use “press” as part of their name; it also refers to the machine that actually does the printing. Letterpress and offset printing are specific, more costly methods than, say, Xerox copies (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing for an extensive explanation of terms and process). Cost per book will vary with quality and quantity.
spacerA publisher is a company that produces books or chapbooks, promotes them, and arranges for their distribution to wholesale and retail venues. If legitimate, their main objective, and source of income, is to sell books; if you go to a real publishing company's website, you should see their recently published books prominently featured and offered for sale, with blurbs, press releases, author event listings, and so forth. A website oriented toward enticing prospective authors rather than book purchasers is a danger signal. Reputable conventional publishing houses consider submitted poetry manuscripts without charge (other than entry fees for contests with prizes in addition to publication), and pay you in copies and/or royalties.
spacerCooperatives vary in their terms. Usually, these are run by poets who have similar tastes and pool their efforts to achieve autonomy, or who lack the reputation or patience to attempt traditional publication and are willing to contribute funds or additional labor toward publishing their books and those of others. Sometimes an individual publisher who cannot risk funding the entire cost of printing a book will ask the author to contribute. Be very cautious in this situation; is the press dedicated to poetry? What is the quality of their previous books? Are these books featured and readily offered for sale on the press website? Do they sponsor local reading events?
spacerA vanity press (PublishAmerica and Author House are notorious examples—or outfits like the now-defunct Poetry.com, or Naked Fish, where you can have one poem published in a “real book” for only $75!) will publish your book under their imprint, at your expense, for a profit. What this means is that you are paying more—in some cases, thousands of dollars more—than the actual cost of producing your book, in order to gain an imprint that any knowledgeable reader will regard with contempt. These places have no credibility whatsoever with reviewers or distributors. It is also not uncommon for the “publisher” to simply pocket your money and never produce. This option is far more discreditable than self-publishing and should never be considered, no matter what “guarantees” are made. A loss of a few thousand dollars may be catastrophic for you—but it won't be worth hiring a lawyer for. Check ctwatchdog.com/2010/06/20/self-publishing-books-another-way-to-get-scammed-as-students-discovered, scrivenerserror.com/, and indianawelcomescrooks.com/ for tales of woe.
spacerSelf-published originally referred to books produced directly by authors themselves. This requires editing, layout software or paste-up capabilities, design skills, and access to a press and bindery, all of which can be learned—or negotiated for. The most important concern in self-publishing is marketing and distribution. A listing on Amazon and a website (are you capable of setting up an attractive website with PayPal buttons?) are not sufficient to attract customers and generate sales. Do you have a fan base eager to purchase your books? Do you regularly give well-attended readings? Do you intend to drive hundreds of miles in order to beg individual bookstores to carry your title? Poets who do well with self-published books (and CDs, for that matter) are generally performance poets who are well-known, read in public often, and tour distant communities regularly.
spacerIn traditional printing, an edition with a predetermined number of books is produced all at once, and price is dependent on quantity. POD is digital print-on-demand, where as many or as few copies as desired can be produced at a time. POD is generally more expensive on a per-book basis, but if you intend to buy only a small number of books, it may be a more economical alternative. Binding style, paper used, and printing method will all affect the per-book price. As an example, in recent years, the Wisconsin Poets' Calendar, in an edition of 2,000, wire-bound with a color cover and a few color pages, has averaged about 150 pages and $4 per copy to print.
spacerCurrently, many self-publishing POD venues such as Booklocker or Lulu advertise online; these places require nothing more than a completed manuscript, but are more expensive than making arrangements directly with a printer—and the finished product is often identifiably shoddy. These companies generally allow you to put your own made-up press name—imprint—on the books (transparent in this age of Google, though). For poets who are under time constraints, or do not have access to a good local printer, this route may be worthwhile if self-publishing is an appropriate choice in the first place.
spacerAn ISBN number is usually provided by a publisher, but may be an unnecessary expense if you are self-publishing. ISBNs cost $275 in lots of 10 through bowker.com; a single ISBN through a retailer can cost $55 or more. ISBNs are pointless unless you have good reason to expect hundreds of copies of your poetry book to be sold through a distributor—and in that case, you should have no trouble in obtaining a regular publisher.
spacerQuality in production has many aspects, none of which can be overlooked. Cover image and design, paper, font selection, layout, and proofreading are all part of publishing; if any of these are skimped on, the resulting book will be inferior. Not only that, but the poetry it contains should have been subjected to external quality control—don't rush into having a book published simply because you have written enough poems to fill a manuscript.
spacerA good rule of thumb is that at least half of the poems in a manuscript should have already appeared in a journal. Involving other published poets who have books out from good presses in the editing and selection process is wise—at least get feedback from the members of your critique group. Sadly, many poets merely want to have an actual book with their name on the cover to press upon business associates and family members—the quality of the book and publisher, recovery of costs, and respect from other poets is immaterial to them. These folks are easy prey for vanity presses and POD outfits that have no interest in the literary quality of their output.
spacerLength is the completely arbitrary difference between a chapbook and a full-length poetry book: chapbooks normally have fewer (often far fewer) than 40 pages; full-length manuscripts usually have at least 48 pages and may run over a hundred pages. “Book” in the poetry world generally refers to a full-length book. With the exception of haiku and other extremely short forms, there should be only one poem per page. Note that a stapled-spine chapbook, in an edition of 200 or so, can be produced by most local printers for well under $2.00 a copy from a formatted .pdf.
spacerMany up-and-coming poets obtain book publication by winning manuscript contests. There are a limited number of these contests, however, and a near-infinite number of desperate new and prospective MFAs. Some contests, especially those sponsored by academic presses, are worth entering if you pay attention to a few safety rules: are you being published in journals at the same level as past winners? If the press has a journal associated with it, have you been published there? (Editors are not likely to engage a judge in opposition to their established tastes.) Is the entry fee in proportion to the prize money? A fee no greater than 2% of the total prize is fair. Never include illustrations or photographs with a poetry manuscript submission.
spacerA few formerly reputable presses have begun charging a reading fee. While I am sympathetic to the onerous task of going through a large slushpile, it should be noted that most major fiction publishers do not charge fees—and it takes much much longer to read a novel than a book of poetry. Don't condone predatory practices by submitting to these places.

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© 2011 F.J. Bergmann

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