Poets and Pay

  • Would you enter a competition where the entry rules required you to product a work of art using considerable skill to meet a detailed specification where the prize was to see stonemasons carve your words in stone, something they would be paid for but you would not be?
  • Would you undertake a three hour journey to give a half hour reading and hang around for a question and answer session for the privilege of appearing at the event (and no expenses)?
  • Would you allow a publisher to have an original, unpublished piece of work for exposure (i.e. no pay)?
  • Would you be prepared to read at a festival which attracts generous sponsorship, where the organisers, marketing staff and people serving coffee are on a salary but you are expected to receive nothing?
  • Would you agree to be a poet in residence where you had to produce a predetermined number of poems and your pay would be free entry to the place you were doing the residency which has an entrance fee?
  • Would you agree to take part in a cultural event to raise awareness and funds for a charity, not one you normally support, when the organiser assumes you would want to donate your fee to the charity, i.e. this donation is their decision, not yours?

How many questions did you answer “yes”? How many did you answer “It depends…”?

Few poets earn money directly from writing and publishing poems. Most earn money through commissions, tutoring, lectures, giving readings and performances or through a secondary job. Therefore reducing the opportunity to earn money through commissions, workshops and performances affects poets. More time spent doing secondary activities means less time available to actually write poems, this impoverishes us all.

  • It might feel good to see your work permanently on display somewhere, particularly if the place is local or has special meaning to you, but your poem is your work. You may generate some local publicity on the back of your poem appearing, but you should also be paid. Without your poem, the stonemasons wouldn’t have work and it’s highly unlikely they’re working for free.
  • If you are reading as part of a book launch or doing a book signing, you won’t get paid because the purpose is to sell books. If you have been asked to appear at an event run by unpaid volunteers and no one is being paid, then you have to consider whether the benefits of appearing outweigh the costs – if a local event where your travel expenses are minimal and it offers an opportunity to network with other poets or publishers and sell your book it may be worthwhile doing. If you have to incur travel expenses, prepare a reading and for a session afterwards it’s not unreasonable to ask for payment.
  • Never fall into the trap of thinking exposure for your poem is worth donating an original, unpublished poem to a magazine/fanzine/anthology without payment, especially if the editor has a salary. If the magazine is being run on a shoestring with an unpaid editor, then a complimentary copy or a token payment will be all you can expect. But steer clear of publications which expect poets to work for free or expect poets to buy copies of publications their work appears in without payment for their published poem: your own reputation may be harmed by association.
  • Similarly don’t bother doing a reading where everyone involved is getting paid except you. It might feel good being able to say that you read at this festival, but feeling good and getting a bit of local publicity won’t pay any bills.
  • Always check the terms of any commission before undertaking to do it. In principle if you produce a poem or poems, you should be paid. A waiver of the admission fee isn’t payment, especially if all it’s doing is allowing you access to the place you need to visit to inspire the commissioned poems. You may be willing to accept a lower fee if the residency is in a place that has a special meaning for you or is connected to a charity or voluntary organisation, but take care not to devalue your work by becoming an unpaid intern.
  • If you are approached to work for a charity, be wary of those who assume you don’t want a fee. If it’s a charity you do support and are happy to work for without a fee, still produce an invoice but mark it ‘donated to charity’ or ‘waived in favour of the charity’. Whether you donate your poet’s fee or not is your decision, not theirs. Remember a not for profit or no profit organisation is not necessarily a charity, just an organisation that reinvests any profit back into the organisation’s work. This does not exclude them from paying for poems or readings. Again, reinvestment of your fee is your decision, the organisation should not assume you are willing to work for free.
  • Two more crucial factors in whether you accept a commission or agree to do a reading are a) copyright and b) publicity.

Does the copyright of any commissioned work remain with the poet or is it bought by the commissioner? Ideally you would retain copyright (or copyright would transfer back to the poet after a set time) so that you can use the commissioned poem(s) elsewhere e.g. in a collection or recording of a performance. If you do not retain copyright, the commissioner should pay you for buying those rights.

If you are expected to be available for interviews or for publicity events connected with the commission, beyond a mention in your newsletter or on social media, this should be taken into consideration.

All writers should be expected to get involved in publicity and help promote their own books and any events they are involved with, however, poets also have be on their guard against not being paid.


Introducing Poems

I was reading Sally Jack’s review of Word! in Leicester and wanted to pick up on a couple of things she mentioned. I agree with her on both points.

Firstly I’m pleased that Sally Jack picked up on Word!’s strengths: that it represents different genres of poetry as if they are on a spectrum rather than adding to the false page/stage divide and that exposure to different genres and standards (from newcomer to established poet/performer) encourages and provides inspiration to do better. She makes the point that the imagery used by some of the poets demanded the poems be read as well as listened to and the best poems work both read aloud and silently.

Secondly I agree with her comment, “It does not always instil me with confidence to hear in an intro that the poem was just written that afternoon.” It may be true, but it leaves your audience thinking:

  • It can’t be very good.
  • The poet is trying to head off critical listening by saying in advance that the poem’s not very good.
  • How much respect for the audience does the poet have?
  • Knowing that Word! has no difficulty in filling the open mic spots, why does this poet feel obliged to read something dashed off this afternoon which may not yet be ready for a wider audience?
  • Why should I pay attention to a poem dashed off in a hurry rather than doing something more useful such as finding the right money for buying a drink, checking my phone for messages, drafting a poem of my own?
  • It may be one of those extremely rare poems that went through numerous drafts over a lengthy period of time in the writer’s head before it got put down on paper so it arrived fully formed and polished, but why mention it was only written that afternoon?
  • Why be apologetic about a poem about to be read?
  • Surely when it was written is totally irrelevant to the poem?

The last question gets to the heart of the problem: the poet has taken attention away from the poem and focused it on the poet. It may be that poet was the only poet who could have written that particular poem in that way, but Word! isn’t about poets; it’s about poems.

Word! runs at the Y Theatre, Leicester on the first Tuesday of every month:

3 February – Penelope Shuttle with Kathleen Bell
3 March – Rosie Garland with support from Pam Thompson
7 April – Adam Horovitz with support from Sole2Soul
5 May – ‘Jarman in Pieces’ by Project Adorno
2 June – Salena Godden with support from Bobba Cass

#OnWriting: Read

Don’t have time to read? You’re not going to be a writer.

You might feel like a writer, you might put words on a page, read them back, edit them, take them to workshops or open mic slots for feedback, you might edit them again. But you won’t develop your writing skills. You’ll find yourself circling around the same material, writing in the same style and polishing your work to the point where not only has it lost its shine but also any spark or sense of energy that prompted you to write it in the first place.

Writers need to read:

  • Reading is the key way of learning writing craft. You can go on creative writing courses and attend workshops which will bring the learning aspects of reading to the fore and give you a deeper understanding of a writer’s craft, but you still need to do the actual reading.
  • Reading exposes writers to new ideas, new ways of approaching a topic or experimental ways of writing.
  • Reading exposes writers to failure: reading a poem that doesn’t work for you gives you the opportunity to unpick where it went wrong and avoid those errors in your own work.
  • Reading’s easy: books and e-readers are portable and audio books are a good alternative.
  • Reading doesn’t need a huge time commitment. Those minutes when you’re stuck in a waiting room, sitting on public transport, in traffic or develop the habit of reading a poem last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Reading needn’t just be about works on a page. Next time you’re watching a film or your favourite soap opera, listen to the dialogue, think about the scenery and camera work. Would you have shot that scene from that angle? Would you have taken that indoor scene outside? How did the dialogue convey the information the viewer needed to follow the plot?
  • It stops you being that loser who gets muted on social media, who becomes the poet open mic organisers struggle to find a slot for or who doesn’t get invited for drinks after workshop simply because constant self-promotion and failure to engage with or support other writers signal that you’re a writer with no interest in developing craft.

Reading differentiates the writer from the wannabe. I’ve seen the excuse from someone that they didn’t have time to read because they had a full time job, time spent reading was time not spent writing and they were not a full time writer. Very few writers are full time writers. Income from writing and publishing has dropped and most writers have a secondary job to supplement their writing income and not all those secondary jobs are part-time.

But reading isn’t about the number of books read. Skimming 40 poems a week won’t make you a better writer. Taking one poem, reading it carefully, thinking about why you like/don’t like it, working out why a particular phrase or image stuck with you after that first reading, returning to it, working out why the less memorable sections weren’t as memorable, looking at the marriage between form and content, is what will make you a better writer.

Submitting and Performing Poems: Presentation Matters

Whether you are about to read some of your writing to an audience or you’re about to send a batch of poems off to an editor, how you present your work could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. In theory, a good poem will transcend being mumbled in performance or scrawled on a scruffy piece of paper, but, in practice, you’re putting a barrier between your audience and your poem and why would the audience, who knows there’s another performer, the editor who knows there are plenty more submissions to read through, make the effort to appreciate your poems?

Presentation for Performance

  • Speak Clearly – a quiet voice or a strong accent isn’t a barrier, mumbling and covering your mouth (whether with a hand or scarf or the page/screen you’re reading from) are.
  • You don’t have to stand still but bear in mind too many gestures or movement will be a distraction: you are a narrator rather than an actor.
  • Rehearse and pace your reading so you’re not tempted to rattle through your poems or cram in more poems than sensibly fit.
  • Engage your audience – look up occasionally and acknowledge their presence.
  • Don’t become a lecturer – lectures are boring, engage your audience and acknowledge their presence.
  • Rehearse and plan your introductions but prepare to be flexible. The person introducing you may mention some things you’d planned to say or another reader may already have explained a topic you’d written about.
  • If you mess up a line, take a deep breath and either carry on or read the line again and continue as if the mistake hadn’t occurred. You might be cringing inside, but the audience want to see you recover (unless you’ve failed to engage them, mumbled through your first poems, distracted them by randomly waving your arms around and lost their interest).

Presentation for Page

  • Use a standard font in a standard size – you may want a gothic font for your Edgar Allan Poe pastiche but it’s far better to suggest this with a gothic initial letter and the rest in a legible font
  • Don’t include extensive notes about how your poems should be presented – magazines and publishers generally have a house style that their readers are familiar with. If you’re publishing online and your poem uses a non-standard format or is a concrete poem, save your poem as an image (eg as a .jpg file) and treat it as a picture rather than text.
  • Don’t include an explanation of your poem or a lengthy glossary of notes – your poems should be able to stand without supporting material.
  • Images, templates with elaborately designed borders in the margins and watermarks will distract from the page and make it harder to read. If you are using coloured paper or a coloured background (eg because you’re self-publishing or publishing online) think carefully about how your font colour works with your background. Some colour schemes render the font invisible.
  • Double check or typos and grammar errors or get someone else to proof-read for you. Ambiguities can hold a reader up. Some errors can completely change the meaning of your poem.
  • If submitting to an editor, follow their submission guidelines or, if there aren’t any guidelines, use the standard format: covering letter, poem on a separate page with name, email and address on each sheet (in case they get separated) and, if required, a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a reply. If submitting by email, add the email to your address book so replies don’t end up in your junk or spam folders.

Competition is tough. Every live literature/spoken word event isn’t just competing against other events (theatre, music, film), but also against TV, games and social media, particularly when the weather’s lousy. If you want to be able to read again or invited to do other readings, you need a reputation for being reliable, professional and able to engage and audience. Poetry publishers are overwhelmed with submissions. If yours turns up on crumpled, coffee-stained paper without a covering letter or you’ve send a email with an over-elaborate handwriting style font laden with watermarked swirls, you’ve handed the editor reasons to reject your poems. Presentation matters.

Selling Poetry

Accept you’re in for the long haul

Poetry rarely sells quickly. There may be a peak of sales as news of a new book or pamphlet gets out, spikes of sales as a review appears, but most poetry sales happen at readings or when a potential reader starts noticing your poems in magazines and sticks your name in a search engine. Waiting for reviews can be frustrating but yours isn’t the only book the editor or blogger had been sent that week and you have to wait your turn.


Tried and tested methods:

  • Press releases – remember ‘writer writes book’ is not news, find an angle and make it newsworthy
  • Book launch
  • Readings
  • Mailing lists
  • Blogs – announce on your own blog if you have one and consider writing guest posts for other relevant blogs that feature guest posts
  • Social Media – inform, don’t broadcast; update your profile(s) to include your new publication; add your publication and a link to where it can be purchased in your email signature.
  • Reviews
  • Advertising – if budget permits
  • Special offers and discounts – if your book is linked to a season or anniversary offering a limited discount tied to that season or date of the anniversary may generate interest but be wary of long term discounts
  • Competitions – check any legal requirements and ensure the prize is proportionate to the effort required to enter. A free copy of your book is fine if entrants simply have to answer one question or retweet a message but looks mean if you’re asking entrants to do something more complex or that will incur costs
  • Promotional items – bookmarks and leaflets can be done at little expense. Factor in the return on investment: low quality items can suggest a low quality book, expensive items might not provide a reasonable return. If you use a QR code on publicity items, make sure it links to useful content that can be read on a mobile device.

Coordinate with your publisher

Check what publicity your publisher can do before you launch your own campaign. Duplicating press releases or sending multiple review copies to the same publication is wasted effort. Before you organise a launch or promotional readings, check your publisher can get copies of the book to you in time.

Most book prizes will only accept submissions from publishers, not authors. But don’t insist your book is entered. Some publishers’ budgets won’t extend to the entrance fees and publicity premiums charged by prize administrators. For instance, The Poetry Book Society’s New Generation promotion charged an entry fee of £20 plus 7 copies of the entered book and a publicity premium of £300 per successful title. So if a successful poet had two qualifying books, the publicity premium would be £600 for the publisher, who may decide they would get a better return on investment though other publicity.

Don’t use the guilt or fear factor

Your publisher will not disappear overnight if people don’t buy your book. Yes, getting poetry readers to buy books and support poetry presses and magazines is a good thing, but using guilt as a sales tactic will fail. Readers like to feel good, not feel pressurised into buying a book to save a press or because your journey from writing poems to publication was a difficult one.

Similarly the fear factor – fear of missing out (not ordering before the special offer runs out, not getting at the discounted price), fear of being left behind (everyone’s talking about this book) – might encourage a handful of early sales but isn’t a viable long term strategy.


  • Poetry readers associate your name with quality poems they’ve seen in poetry magazines
  • Your publisher has a good reputation
  • You’re known for giving good poetry readings and being approachable
  • You don’t solely broadcast on social media but take care to share useful links, retweet and engage with followers
  • You don’t continually beg followers and connections to post reviews on booksellers’ sites, review sites or tell their friends your book is available
  • You don’t use your mailing list to bombard people with news about you, but use it sparingly to notify people of relevant news about new releases and readings
  • You’re seen to be supportive of poetry in general because you review, you blog, you support readings and events in your local area, you buy poetry books and pamphlets, you subscribe to magazines, you are a member of a scheme such as HappenStance subscribers or Friends of Cinnamon Press and/or you help promote poetry through social media.


Good reviews and recommendations from trusted, established sources do help sales. But constantly urging people who’ve bought your book to recommend it will backfire. Pestering book bloggers who write reviews for a review is not recommended either.


Your book isn’t priced too cheaply (suggesting low quality or desperation to sell) or too highly in comparison with books of a similar quality and length. If you offer a discount, do it for a limited period, offer a discount for buying directly from you or at a specific event. Offering a long term or permanent discount makes it look as if you got your price wrong or it’s not selling.


  • No one owes you a review. If you send a copy of your book and ask for a review, the answer may be no, especially if you demand the review appears in the next issue or within a week or before the publication date or put other restrictions on who can review, when they can review or how you want the review to appear.
  • Don’t panic over a bad review. If the reviewer is not your target audience, they probably won’t like your book; that’s not a problem. If your intended audience don’t like your book, that’s a problem, but it’s your problem: you didn’t target the right audience.
  • If you like a review of your book, publicise it: link to it or quote from it.

A good review from an established, respected reviewer can help sales. But firing off group emails to every blogger reviewer you can find or sending out unsolicited review copies can lead to no reviews. Target magazines and reviewers carefully: do they give positive reviews of books like yours? Approach with a query first and tailor your query to the publication – see my reviews policy and how not to approach book bloggers.

If you don’t like a review, take care about what you say, particularly on social media which may not be as private as you like to think. By all means ask a reviewer to correct a factual inaccuracy such as a publication date or their statement that your book is contemporary when it’s set in the past or future, but don’t complain. A reviewer is entitled to their opinion. Focus on publicising the good reviews instead.

Don’t obsess over sales figures

Instead of focusing on the numbers, look at what those numbers are telling you. They might act as a guide to whether your current publicity campaign is working or not.

Mostly poetry book sales happen at readings and those sales aren’t captured in the sales figures.

What’s in it for your readers?

The ‘What’s In It For Me’ factor: what will make people buy your book? Most poetry readers want a book of quality poems that speaks to them in some way, it may surprise or challenge them, it may be that you’ve touched on their favoured subjects or you speak to their world view. Why should a reader buy your book instead of a book by another poet?

Focus on your next book

Publishers don’t like writers who only write one book, no matter how well that one book sells. They prefer writers with the potential to deliver another book in due course. Give your current book chance to sell before launching another.

Your second book will help sales of your first as new readers become interested in your backlist so it’s a good idea to have your book available as an ebook even if it’s no longer available in print.

In the meantime, you still need to read, research and write.


Kick-starting New Poems

In the post-holiday, January gloom (it’s been foggy every morning this week so far) and lousy weather, it can be difficult to find inspiration to start new writing projects and easy to sink into despondency. Here’s some ideas that might trigger new poems:

  • Pick a colour and write down images or themes associated with that colour, eg green is suggestive of new beginnings, red suggests passion (love or anger), blue is calming. If you walked into a room decorated primarily with that colour, what would it tell you about the person who lives or works there?
  • List your previous addresses – if you’re a frequent mover, stick to half a dozen – pick one address and random and chose an event unique to that address – perhaps you celebrated a milestone birthday or a new job, heard a piece of significant news – and write about it.
  • Pick one of your songs at random and write down what images or themes come to mind when you listen to it. Does a particular fragment of lyric stick in your mind? Is there a particular memory associated with that song?
  • Try re-writing a story from the viewpoint of a minor character or an inanimate object. Either chose an episode from a favourite book or film or a well-known tale. Sometimes changing the point of view can add a new perspective to the original.
  • Dig out the recipe for your favourite winter comfort food and think about the smells, tastes and textures of the individual ingredients and the final dish. Does it conjure up any particular memories or sensations? At what occasions have you cooked/eaten that dish? Is there a story linked to it?
  • Without staring or making someone feel uncomfortable, notice someone on your next journey or daily commute. Briefly, mentally note what they’re wearing and carrying. Later write down what you remember (what you remember doesn’t have to be accurate: you’re not writing about the person you saw, you’re creating fiction) and create a back-story for them, showing their character through their choice of clothes.
  • Small Stones: each day take a few moments to write down an observation. It might be nature-based, noticing snowdrops in the January sun, or a small act of kindness. Whether you polish your small stone into a pebble or leave it as a rough-hewn chunk is up to you, but collect enough of them and you might see a theme developing or at least have some notes ready for NaPoWriMo in April.
  • Get up from your desk and get some exercise. Sometimes doing something rhythmic such as walking, riding a bike or swimming, takes you away from the pressure to write. Sitting looking at a blank screen or blank piece of paper is the worst place to look for inspiration.
  • Read. If inspiration still seems slow, pick a poem from a book and magazine and either note its themes or an image to write a new poem of your own or write a response to the poem you’ve selected.

What do you find a useful source of ideas?


How to Submit Poems to Poetry Magazines

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions was to submit more poems to magazines (or start submitting poems to magazines), here’s how:

Check for submission guidelines

These might be on the magazine’s website or in the magazine itself. If there aren’t any guidelines, use a standard submission format (keep reading).

Select your Poems carefully

It might feel like you’re making progress as a writer if you send out several batches of poems to a list of magazines, however, if you’re sending formal poems to magazines that prefer experimental poems, you’re wasting not only your time but the editors’ too.

At least try to read a copy of the magazine you want to submit too and not only get a feel for what poems they publish, but also the style, length and any preferences for formats. Ideally you’d subscribe to a few magazines so you can keep up to date with what’s getting published.

If there are no submission guidelines, choose three to six suitable poems for submission.

Presentation Matters

You want to look professional. Any elaborate fonts, images imbedded in documents or pretty-coloured paper will mark you out as an amateur. Editors would like to read your poems so keep the presentation plain and simple and let the poems speak for themselves.

  • Use a plain white or off-white background or paper
  • Use a true-type font such as Verdana, Times New Roman or Arial
  • Type each poem on a new page (use the Ctrl and Enter function in Word)
  • Avoid typing two spaces after a full stop or period. Touch typists might have to unlearn this habit
  • Unless you use an initial capital at the beginning of each line, turn off the ‘start each sentence with a capital’ function on your word processor and double check your word processor hasn’t defaulted to copying the format of the previous line and inserted an initial or lower case capital contrary to your intention
  • If you’ve used a letter with an accent, umlaut, etc, search for ‘Character Map’ and copy and paste the required letter from there if you’re using Word because Word uses its own special characters which don’t always copy and paste into an email and may not show up properly on an editor’s screen – this is particularly important if you are copying and pasting your poems into the body of an email rather than sending in an attachment
  • Poems are generally single-spaced with a double space between stanza unless the format of the poem itself calls for a different layout
  • Put your name, address and email address on each page even if submitting electronically. Some editors may still print off your submission and pages will get separated
  • Double check and correct any spelling or typing errors
  • Save your document in the right format – most magazines will take Word Documents (use .doc extension) but check the guidelines

Covering Letter/Email

Always send a covering letter. It need not say more than, “Please find attached/below poems for consideration for publication,” but it’s better than a bunch of poems turning up in an editor’s inbox with no indication that they were a submission for their magazine. Double check you’ve got the name of the magazine and the editor(s) right before hitting send.

Including a list of publication successes is not necessary, but if you do include one, keep it brief and to the most important or most recent.

If the submission guidelines ask for a writer’s biography, keep within the guideline word count. If a word count is not given, keep your writer’s biography to a 50 maximum. Reading previous issues of a magazine will give you an idea of how long and what format you biography should be in.

If a biography is not asked for in the submission guidelines or there were no guidelines, you don’t need to include one.

Before Sending

  • Give your submission a final proof read, check you’ve got the email address, magazine name and editors’ names correct
  • Double check you’ve complied with any submission guidelines, especially note if the editor takes attachments or wants poems in the body of an email – you don’t want a rejection simply because an editor doesn’t open attachments
  • Make a note of what poems you’re sending where
  • If you’re posting your poems, enclose an SAE with sufficient postage for your submission to be returned and a big enough envelope for your submission to be folded no more than twice to fit (the editor may simply not bother replying rather than using their origami skills to let you know their response)
  • Send and good luck!



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