In June 2019, I began the process of publishing my first book of poetry. It started on a whim; a friend on my slam poetry team said they were making a chapbook and suggested I work on one too. Since it was summer and I was bored, I agreed. The next few weeks were marked by collecting my existing poems, writing, editing, and formatting. Surprisingly soon, my manuscript was ready to be sent out into the world. Now, [and time erodes like thunder] I’d never published anything before, save a few opinion pieces in my school newspaper. I soon learned there are a looot of unexpected things when publishing poetry.
The first unexpected thing? The money. Although each publisher’s submission fee is usually only between five to thirty dollars, those small numbers quickly add up. I knew that since there was a very small chance of being accepted by any publisher, I would have to submit to a lot of houses. Before I knew it, I had spent over a hundred dollars on a fun, spontaneous project.
The second thing I didn’t realize was just how long publishing houses take to respond, if they respond at all. As it turns out, it’s incredibly common in the writing world to never receive a response about your work; not even a copy and pasted rejection. When you do receive a response, it can take up to a year. I realize now that the long wait times are due to the time-consuming nature of reviewing submissions, but at first, I was shocked that a fifty-page manuscript would require so much time. I actually didn’t end up hearing from the majority of the houses I submitted to. After a few rejections, I received an acceptance letter from Assure Press, and took the first opportunity, not knowing whether I would receive any other acceptances.
Once a press accepted my work, I thought it would be smooth sailing from there. The first surprise I received post-acceptance was how little communication I got from my publisher. For an industry focused on communication, the publishing world has horrible communication. I spent months guessing and second-guessing what I was supposed to be doing, where the editing and publishing process was at, and if/when the publication date was set. As a bit of a control freak, it stressed me out not knowing how much I should edit, if I should be reaching out to bookstores, etcetera. As it turns out, I still don’t really know the answers to these questions.
Another surprise—hopefully one of my last—was when I received the sales report three months after publication. I was disappointed at first when I saw that I had only sold 27 copies, until I did a little google-searching and found out that most first time poets only sell 25-30 copies total. While this might be common knowledge in the industry, it was shocking to me. Looking back, I realize I have no idea how many copies were printed. Knowing that number might have prepared me a little more for the first sales report.
My advice to poets aspiring to publish a book is this: make a list of questions to ask your publisher right off the bat, or be prepared to feel left in the dark. My second piece of advice is to enjoy learning about the process and know that since nobody makes money off poetry, your work really was accepted purely because someone loved it which is always gratifying!
Has anyone else published their poetry? Or a short story or novel? What's been your experience? Let us know in the comments below!
About the Author: Zoë is a third year Comparative American Studies major at Oberlin College. She is an officer on OSLAM, Oberlin’s slam poetry team, and recently published her first book of poetry, [and time erodes like thunder].