Poetry publishers can’t just publish poetry they love. Poetry publishing is a business and no business can afford to run at a loss. When you send your manuscript to a publisher, they’re not just looking at how wonderful the poetry is, but also considering if it might make a loss. Common reasons for rejections are:
Lack of a Track Record
Most buyers of poetry books are other poets. Other poets tend to buy books by poets they’ve heard of, had recommended to them or poets they’ve seen at a reading or festival. If you haven’t tried to get individual poems published in poetry magazines, haven’t tried competitions or haven’t given any readings, a publisher will know you lack a readership.
Poetry does not sell
At least it doesn’t sell in large numbers overnight. Poetry books do sell over a long period to people who attend readings and see the poet’s name in magazines. To take on the commitment to publish a poetry book, the publisher needs to love the poems and be convinced there’s an audience to buy the book.
Lack of Marketing Experience
Poetry publishers don’t have much in the way of a marketing budget. Poets need to be able to help market their books. If you submit a poetry manuscript, it’s always worth mentioning whether you’ve done any readings, are a member of writers’ groups, are on social media and whether you participate in workshops. You don’t need to do all these things – getting social media wrong can backfire – but you do need to know which marketing channels can work for you and be able to show you’ve thought about marketing.
A poetry collection isn’t simply a collection of poems the poet thinks are their best pulled together in a book. Usually the poems are grouped together around a theme or themes, albeit loosely, and organised so that poems that work together appear together. There is room for experimental or not yet published poems. There isn’t room for ‘fillers’, less polished poems that fit into the theme but whose main job is to fill out the pages. Poems whose theme is too similar to the preceding poem or that offer the same perspective of a subject need to be thinned out too (and not merely shuffled so they appear later in a collection). Collections that only offer previously published poems can be as boring as ‘greatest hits’ albums, particularly for reviewers who have generally seen the poems in their original publications. A collection is a body of work, not the sum of individual poems.
Failure to stick to the publisher’s guidelines
Publishers don’t produce guidelines because they happened to have a bit of free time on a Friday afternoon. Poets who don’t follow guidelines will find their work returned, unread.
Failure to follow guidelines marks a poet as difficult to work with. If a poet can’t follow guidelines, it suggests that poet won’t be happy about working with a publisher. A publisher isn’t necessarily looking for a poet who automatically says ‘yes’ to every change they suggest, but they don’t have time to deal with a poet with an obstructive attitude.
The Poet gives up
Poetry’s a tough market with periodic peaks and troughs. Publishers tend to give priority to poets they’ve already published, which can make it feel as if doors are closed to new poets. You need to find the publisher who is going to love your work, put together the best version of your manuscript that you can and ensure it lands on the right publisher’s desk at the right time. There’s an element of luck but a lot of it comes down to research and persistence.
That doesn’t mean stalking your desired publisher or firing off variants of your manuscript every other month until you’ve ground them into an acceptance. It does mean reading the replies you get. If a publisher asks to see more work or wants you to send poems one to ten back but with different poems eleven to fifteen, do it. Publishers aren’t going to invite you to send more work at a future date unless they’re committed to reading and considering the work they’ve invited you to send. Turning down that invitation will leave you unpublished.
Read poetry books to find out which publishers prefer poetry like yours and/or publish poets like you. Check out publishers’ websites and read their guidelines. Double check your submission conforms to the guidelines and you’re sending it during the submissions window (if there is one). Have a plan B. Publisher A may love it but may not be able to publish it right now. Publisher B might feel it’s not quite right for them. Publisher C might like your poems but they published a book on that theme last month. Publisher D might like some of the poems but not others and want you to send again in light of their comments. Publisher E may not take unsolicited manuscripts. Publisher F would have loved it and snapped it up but you gave up at E so publisher F never saw it.
Your submission is looking dog-eared and tired. It’s hard work, but you need to tailor your submission for each publisher. If you submit a tatty, much-read manuscript with a form cover letter, the publisher will know they weren’t your first choice so will give priority to poets who did make them their first choice. If a poet can’t sum up the enthusiasm to make a professional submission, how much enthusiasm will they have to market the book if the publisher goes ahead?
The Poet thinks they’re doing the publisher a favour
- A post-graduate degree in creative writing does not give you the right to be published.
- A lengthy list of publishing credits and a few competition successes does not give you the right to be published.
- Being able to book a slot at a major literary festival to do a reading does not give you the right to be published.
- Having a previous collection or ten does not give you the right to be published.
- Producing a glowing blurb and review from an established, award-winning poet does not give you the right to be published.
- Having thousands of followers on social media and contacts that will get your book into local bookstores does not give you the right to be published.
Only the publisher can decide what they want to publish. They have every right to say no.
Publishers aren’t just looking for fantastic poetry that they love, they are also looking to publish books that sell. Poetry doesn’t sell by itself, it also needs a poet who can demonstrate a professional working attitude and can help with marketing. The rejection of your manuscript may actually have nothing to do with the quality of your poetry.