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On Publishing Poetry

A guerillalit production.

On Publishing Poetry


I. Questions

Poetry and its writers have always faced a bit of a quandary when it comes to publishing.  There are contests and chapbooks and major houses and small presses and selected poems and collected poems and anthologies and literary journals and vanity presses and POD’s and ebooks, on which you will receive contradictory advice for each (an old professor told one of the staff here never to publish a chapbook unless he did not want a career in writing; Bukowski not only published a chapbook first, but listed it as one of the happiest days in his 40-year career).    What makes sense for you, individually, as a poet?  What is important to you?  And by what standard would you deem your work a ‘success’?   guerillalit will try to give you the information necessary to make the best decisions for your work.


First off, let’s take a look at the publishing industry at present.  It is not poet-friendly.  Quite frankly, it never has been (Whitman had to self-publish, Dickinson published only four poems in her lifetime, etc.).  Publishing, in any genre, is often a waiting game.  You may have a manuscript sitting on your desk for years before you are “discovered.”  For others—the majority, in fact—you never will be “discovered.”  You will simply hold onto your manuscript as long as it takes as you pray to find a publisher somewhere willing to take a chance on your work.  Once selected, and the excitement of your artistic validation (always a rewarding feeling, regardless of experience) begins to die down, you look at what you are faced with.  For poets, often a one-book deal with little or no signing bonus or money up front, little if any control over how the book is marketed or designed, and no guarantee the next book you write (which you may have already finished at that juncture) will be put out by the same publisher.  And that’s the lucky among us—many of us will never find a publisher.


Why is that?  How can publishers be so blind to the obvious talent of some of the poets writing now?  The answer is quite simple—econ 101.  Last year, more than 65% of the books sold and created in the United States were nonfiction books (In Great Britain, of the 100,000 new books printed last year, 7,000 were novels).  Go into any bookstore and the majority of titles are travel books, cookbooks, memoirs, how-to books, etc.  The New Fiction section is primarily thriller, mystery and science fiction titles.  Literary fiction (the publishing title for those books you spent your school years reading—Faulkner, Hem, Dos, Steinbeck, McCarthy, etc.) accounts for less than 10% of the market.  Poetry accounts for about 1%.  Even independent presses publish four times as many nonfiction titles as fiction.


There are more people writing poetry right now, more readings being attended, than at any time in the history of the United States.  Yet there are few recognizable names—quick, how many of you out there can name the current Poet Laureate?  Or how about the last three?  There are no cultural icons or literary mavericks at present, no Hem or Frost or Ginsberg or Kerouac.  And so publishers, whose primary job is a strict adherence to the bottom line, to find the new Hit, find little use for new poetry.  People who walk into bookstores (we just lopped off about 65% of the population) rarely peruse the aisles looking for interesting covers or new authors.  They generally head for a section they know with an author they know, or a specific title they are looking for.  This is not lost on publishers.  We here at guerillalit have nothing against the big publishing houses who publish little, if any, poetry because big houses are big businesses and poetry makes them no money—unless you are a celebrity.  We understand that.  And while we have no beef with them, we also simply don’t think them necessary for poetry, its authors, or its readers.  Like independent film and music, poetry has found a way.


So what’s next?  What options are there for the modern poet besides suicide and waiting?



II. Answers

With no offense meant to anyone reading this essay, poets tend to be a rather meek lot.  We wait upon the acceptance of others and think our situation rather helpless.  guerillalit was created under the premise that our own work and our own voice can be best represented by our own distinctive style and unorthodox marketing.  Do not play the game the way they want you to play it.


With the tools available now through the internet and computer programs, you can literally create the book you want—from the cover design to the interior options, to the marketing, to the venues from which to sell it.  With the proper programs and internet competence, a poet can download his or her book, design a cover (or choose from databases from over 10,000 images) to his liking, market the work as he/she sees fit, and have it on every major booksellers’ website (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Strandbooks, Powells, etc.) within 6 weeks.  And with POD (print on demand), the cost is infinitesimally smaller than just a decade ago.  Note: Without certain programs (even if you only have Word), online vendors will assist you with your book.  With their access to technology, you still are able to produce a product worthy of the book you envision.


Some clarity on options:

Vanity Press: These are publishers that often charge a substantial fee upfront to publish your work (usually between $700-$2000), and the author is then left with a large amount of copies (500 is a fairly standard number) with which to distribute on your own.  guerillalit does not recommend vanity presses and highly encourages authors to look at all their options before deciding on this direction.

POD: Print-on-demand services create the books as they are sold, therefore keeping costs down.  Many internet companies are POD’s, and provide excellent opportunities for those artists willing to do some of the dirty work themselves (such as readings, marketing, internet ads, etc.)  Many online publishers offer marketing kits for the author, as well as global distribution kits which allow the book to be sold on nearly every major website and in bookstores as well.  Many companies offer excellent opportunities for poets along these lines, provided the author is willing to work for an audience.  Note: Please do some research before choosing a company that offers POD services.  Some will demand payment beforehand, which thereby renders the obvious benefits moot.  As with anything, be careful.

Small Press/Literary Journal Contests: Contests are an interesting animal.  We here at guerillalit have sent our work off many times to contests, full of hope as we dropped the envelope into the postbox only to receive the nearly inevitable rejection letter some months later.  Some of us have even won national contests.  And all of us have worked, at one time or another, as editors for prizes large and small, prestigious and infamous.  Our support for entering contests varies, but one thing we agree on is this: none of us has any confidence in the impartiality of the judging of these contests.  And that is not to knock the process as a whole.  I am sure that somewhere over the rainbow there is a contest with editors pure as the driven snow who read every submission with passion and sound judgment—but we sure haven’t seen it.  One of us even worked (as a lowly associate poetry editor) for a journal that only chose from solicited examples, but did not mention that in the advertising nor did it mind cashing the entry checks from every unsolicited author that crossed its desk, and whose work went almost immediately into the trash can.  No names have been mentioned here, and none will be—it is not our intent to embarrass anyone.  But being that most contests range from between $10-$25 per submission, we think most poets have better things to do with their money.  Oh, and if you find a contest without an entry fee: have at it—there’s little to lose there, and good luck.

Small/ Independent Press:  We fully support those who bravely go in the direction of the iconic independent press.  The benefit is being published by an actual house (therefore allowing others to think of acceptance as validation).  The problem here is twofold: time and artistic freedom.  For those very few out there who finish a book and immediately find a small publisher to accept your work, good for you.  For others, the wait can be excruciating.  We know of a fine poet in the Los Angeles area who worked on publishing his book for years and in the process of waiting had every single poem in the collection published in journal and litmags, yet could not for the life of him get his book published.  After five years of waiting, he did find a small publisher in Minnesota to buy the ticket, and he has been happy with the results.  But five years is quite a wait, and he is very good.  Also, once your book has been purchased, many small presses will already have machinery in place with regards to designing and marketing your book.  Some of you would be happy to sign those things over, so this route may be best for you.  Others among us are a bit more particular and want more artistic control.  Those are choices for the individual poet.  Small presses are a great way to go, but finding one that accepts unsolicited manuscripts, in a timely fashion, and that allows you to control (to whatever level you feel comfortable) the design and marketing may be difficult.


With all of the abovementioned choices, do not expect to make a good deal of money as a poet.  Artistic success oftentimes has as much (or more) to do with luck and circumstance as with talent.  Remember that and work hard to find the right circumstance.



III. Tips

Here are some tips, in no specific order, from us at guerillalit:

  • You will often have to convert your book from a word file to a PDF (some companies will do this for you, but you will lose any unorthodox fonts) if you are sending your manuscript to an online company.  To do this, you will need to have Adobe Acrobat (and other various programs) and print the word file to Acrobat/Distiller (some computers do not have Distiller and will go directly to Acrobat) in the EXACT page size that you would like your book.   For example, to convert your book (even if that word file is already in a 6” by 9” page size) to a PDF at that same size you will need to go into your “printers & faxes” in your Network Places and create a new file in Acrobat/Distiller printer to accommodate the different size.  Once you have made that change, it will be listed under your printer settings from then on, making any subsequent books easy to convert.  We only mention this because it has led directly to no small amount of hair loss on one of the staff here.
  • There are a number of ways to design your cover.  We use Photoshop in RGB color because our covers are intended to be striking and simple, and that works best for our needs.  There are numerous programs out there with which to design, and most internet/technology publishers will ask that the file be saved as a JPEG or PNG file in the proper size.  Working with any design program is not easy, and we recommend either taking a free class or tutorial, which can be found on the web, or extension courses through universities or your workplace (if possible), unless you have a whole lot of time to kill and are computer competent—in which case you are probably 15.
  • We also recommend sounding your poems off SOMEONE.  Join a writing group or have your friends/acquaintances read them.  Attend readings, or check out open mic nights.  Or better yet, take a class.  You will soon discover that many people like to write poetry and not all of them are skilled.  This is very important.  The more you read, the more you sound ideas off of others, the more influences you collect, the more your work will grow.  There is no way of getting around that.  You cannot sit in your room and write of your angst or your family’s deficiencies using interesting imagery and never show them to anyone and expect some publisher somewhere to anoint you the new Emily Dickinson (who, coincidentally, did exactly that).  guerillalit offers tutoring in the Los Angeles area and on those rare occasions New York as well.  Tobias does the majority of it, though Brian has been known to pitch in as well.  Eugene will not do it; we can’t even get ahold of the guy half the time.  Please contact us at if you are interested in rates and such.  But this is not a substitute for a class or workshop.
  • Adding to that, we at guerillalit are nothing if not poetry fans.  We write it, we read it, and we (don’t laugh) live it.  Poetry, that bound speech, has the power to change lives and alter the world.  We believe that, or else we wouldn’t be doing this.  But nobody wants to read bad poetry except your mother (and she doesn’t either, she just doesn’t know how to tell you).  So become skilled in the art.  For all of us.
  • We highly encourage all poets out there to continue submitting to literary journals and the like.  While we encourage the guerillalit way and the empowerment of the poet, it is both a feather in the cap and a slap on the ass for the ego to be accepted and shown in literary journals, regardless of their reputation.  We do not encourage you to send money to people.  If you are a poet, you probably don’t have much to begin with!  Keep it, and find somebody who might kinda sorta maybe be willing to publish you for free.  Get the voice out there.
  • We also highly encourage you to purchase the guerillalit Poetry Guide for sale here on our site (or if it’s not, then hopefully it will be soon).  The short guide offers a quick history of the poet, as well as descriptions of various forms, techniques, and “schools” (ex. New Critics, Imagists, Subjectivists, etc.) that have developed throughout the last few centuries.  It is information collected from the poets here at guerillalit who have earned prestigious degrees, won national awards, been published in numerous journals, and read at Carnegie Hall.  It is not meant to be a be-all and end-all for poetry, but rather a supplement for those who know some and a big help for those who know little.  It is made out of a love for the art, not for profit.  guerillalit makes only .50 per copy sold after printing costs.




IV. Economics

Economics in poetry?  Don’t laugh.  We just want you to think before you make choices with your work.


First, many thousands of poets out there submit frequently to contests, whether they be for the publication of a poem or book.  The esteem of the prize is the bait, and the hook.  After you win, what then?  It goes on your resume, which, because you are a poet nobody reads, and then does nothing to get you a book deal.  Nothing to get you your next published piece.  And if you don’t win, you’re out $10, $20.  And poets submit to these en masse.    We understand that little journals (many of which have published some of the poets here) and small presses depend on the income from these things to subsist, and in no way do we want them gone, but we don’t understand the necessity of winning the 3rd Annual Nobody Cares Award from the acclaimed Minnetonka Religious Journal you read about last week.


Do you realize that with some creative computer work (read: not paying full price for programs necessary to self-publish) and that same amount of money, you could download your own book, create your own cover the way you would like, and purchase two copies of said book, as well as a marketing kit, for the same price it just took you to submit to a contest you have no idea if you have any chance of winning?


None of us start writing poetry for the money involved (if that was your intention, stop now).  But each to each what is important is pushing the art forward and creating and adding your own verse.  Don’t ever apologize for being a poet; make others apologize when they admit they don’t read poetry.



V. guerilla

This makes sense for us.  We, as poets, have made a decision to circumvent the system and attempt to help others do the same.  The system is broken for poetry—it is obviously not for cookbooks.  Good for Emeril and the like, but we want creative control over our work, to put it out where and when we want.  To create our own covers.  To market the way we feel necessary.  To put guerillalit stickers on the president’s ass if we feel like it.  If we don’t sell books, that’s our problem, not some corporate publishing house’s—which is the way we want it.  We encourage you to do the same.


That is guerillalit.

Fight for it!

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