I recently came across a suggestion that self-published poetry books could be seen as lacking credibility or editorial rigour. That’s not my experience as a reviewer. It’s fair to say a self-published poet is more likely to make a negative comment about my review, but that’s usually because a self-published poet places more importance on reviews than they deserve.
What does a Poetry Reviewer look for?
- Poet’s name – not because established poets get a more favourable reaction but because if I’ve seen the name before as someone getting regularly published in poetry magazines (regardless of how many poetry books they have or haven’t published), then the poems in the book are more likely to be of a good standard.
- Publisher – not because of a bias towards certain publishers but just to see whether the book is self, vanity or traditionally published. At this stage it’s about production values and presentation, not content. A book that doesn’t fall apart when I pick it up, where poems have been printed in a reasonably-sized font, on paper that doesn’t become transparent when I try to read the poems is going to be easier to review. If I’m sent an ebook then I’m also looking for a clear presentation.
- Credits/Acknowledgements – if the poems have been previously published, then the contents have been subject to some editorial control even if the book is self-published. This gives me confidence the poems are going to be of a reasonable standard.
- Pagination – I’ve reviewed poetry books without pagination but page numbers make it easier to find your way around a book and re-find that poem you were going to quote and the less time I spend flicking through pages trying to find the poem I was going to quote from, the more time I have to write my review.
- Previous Publications – the lack of previous publications are not going to bias me against the book. I’m likely to be harder on someone’s fifth book than their first because someone on their fifth book should know what they’re doing.
- Great Poems – or at least poems that have been written with care, ones that have great titles, a first line/sentence that draws a reader in, that has a marriage between rhythm and sense and that seeks to communicate with a reader. Generally it’s easier to review very good or very bad poems. It’s harder to review a competent collection of average poems that refuse to take risks because “competent”, “average” and “safe” imply boring and it takes a lot of work to be interesting about a boring book.
All of the above can be achieved with a self-published book as well as a traditionally published book.
In this blog post, self-published is defined as a book that the author arranged to be published by paying a printer to print the book where the printer may have offered advice on design, layout and typesetting, but will not have offered advice on the contents of the book. A vanity publisher will have flattered the author into believing they have a saleable, marketable book or that the poems are brilliant and may have charged a sizeable mark-up on the costs of printing and producing the book, i.e. played on the author’s vanity to win their agreement to publish the book rather than treating it as a purely commercial transaction. It’s often the case that, having achieved a profit in charging the author for printing the book, vanity publishers then make no attempt to market it. The author, having been misled into believing their work is brilliant, often objects when reviews suggest the work might not be so brilliant. For this reason, many reviewers refuse to accept vanity-published books for review.
What a Poetry Reviewer sees as a red flag:
- Vanity-published books
- No credits/acknowledgements – it may be that the poems in the book were written for a specific project so the poet didn’t seek to get individual poems published in magazines, however, it often suggests the poet has rushed into publishing a book
- Sloppy production – I’ve no objection to a poet trying to make a book look ‘edgy’ or as a result of punk production values but I do need to able to read the poems to review them.
- Poems without titles – you’d give a character a name so readers can identify them so why not poems? Reviews that carry phrases like “the third untitled poem in the collection” or “the poem that begins with the first line” aren’t easy to read and if a review has a limited word count, limits what can be said about the poems
- Misleading titles – something called “Ghosts in the Desert” should feature at least some ghosts. The title doesn’t have to describe the contents – the ghosts don’t literally have to be in the desert or be conventional ghosts – but don’t use the title of an Edward Hopper painting if your poems are all about Van Gogh.
- Lengthy Explanatory Footnotes – unless these effectively are a part of the poem (c.f. T S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”). When you’ve used specialist technical jargon in a poem or have written about an historical event or are writing about an invented fantasy world, it’s tricky to strike a balance between footnotes that provide a useful glossary and footnotes that explain too much and come across as pretentious and condescending. This is where an editor can be useful. If your notes are longer than your poem, you need to re-think the purpose of either your poem or the notes. Reviewers do have access to internet searches but it can be interrupting if I find myself looking things up more often than I find myself reading the book I’m reviewing. If I find the research more interesting than the poems, there’s a problem.
- A Foreword or Editorial Introduction – unless it’s a selected poems where the selector (who is not the author) wants to explain the rationale behind the selection, or the book has been published after the author’s death and the publisher feels that a context is relevant, otherwise it feels like an explanatory footnote put in the wrong place. It’s especially worrying in a first collection because it implies that the publisher or poet is not confident that the poems are good enough to stand by themselves.
Personally I always strive to write a review that gives readers enough information to decide whether or not they want to read the book under review. I don’t mind if I don’t like the style or poetry or the subject matter; I can still appreciate what the poet’s doing if the poet writes with craft and skill.
I’m only going to comment on the production values of a book if they are brilliant or very poor relative to the price. A highly-priced book with poor production values or a book with a low price and high production values will attract a comment. But, essentially it’s about readability, not whether I like the cover image.