Too Many Poets, Too Few Readers

Or why some magazines have started charging submission or reading fees. Most poetry magazines have two main problems: an overload of submissions and a scarcity of subscribers. The latter means most editors are working for free because the magazine only brings in enough income to print the current or next issue. In some cases, the editor is also putting their own money in to fund the magazine as well. The former means that editors are keen to reduce the level of submissions coming in. Ideally everyone submitting to a magazine would at least buy a copy and preferably subscribe to help keep it afloat, but that doesn’t happen.

A submission fee is a quick fix: if writers have to pay to submit, maybe they’d ensure they only submit their best work to magazines that are the best fit for that work.

However, submission or reading fees are a problem

  • They exclude writers who can’t afford to pay. Even though reading fees might seem a small amount, writers don’t submit once to one editor, they submit several times to different editors so even small fees can add up.
  • Not all magazines charging fees pay for acceptances so the reading fee is not recovered by the writer.
  • Writers who can afford to pay may decide not to submit on principle.
  • It deters writers from becoming subscribers. Most writers who subscribe to magazines do so because they are planning to submit to that magazine at some point and given a choice between paying a submission fee or a subscription, most will choose the former over the latter because writers only have a finite disposable income and it makes more sense to use that to work towards publication than reading.
  • The magazine restricts its pool of contributors to those who can both afford to pay and are willing to pay submission fees.
  • Since magazines typically accept only 1-2% of submissions, the writers whose work isn’t selected are subsidising the writers whose work is accepted.

Funding for magazines has always been a problem.

  • It’s frustrating for editors to see submission after submission from poets who don’t subscribe, but poets can’t always afford subscriptions and some will subscribe after an acceptance. Some poets are subscribing to magazines but not necessarily every magazine they submit to.
  • Arts funding streams are usually focused on one-off projects or are not suited to repeat funding to subsidise an ongoing project, even during the start-up phase where a magazine is launched and seeking subscribers.
  • Crowd-funding too is fine for one-off projects e.g. setting up a new magazine but not designed to provide ongoing funds and it’s difficult to run a crowd-funder without a lengthy list of contacts who can be relied on to both contribute and spread the word. It also has the inbuilt complication that crowd-funders will expect rewards for their donation. A magazine that can only offer an issue or a subscription might attract lots of low-level donations with the risk of not hitting its target.
  • There’s also the age-old problem of wannabe writers who don’t read and don’t see why they need to support poetry magazines through buying copies, but are often first to complain when a magazine ceases publication.
  • Guilt-tripping submitters (whether successful or not) into subscribing (“the magazine won’t survive unless you subscribe”, etc) is rarely successful.

It’s easy to see why reading fees, which can be used towards publication costs, are seductive.

How can publications avoid charging for submissions or using reading fees?

  • Be ruthless in rejecting writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines.
  • Consider using reading windows so writers can only submit at certain times (and automatically reject writers who submit at the wrong time)
  • Place limitations on how often writers can submit e.g. only submit once during a reading window, do not submit for a year after publication, do not resubmit until the next reading window after a rejection.
  • Consider soliciting contributions as well as unsolicited submissions – this could help redress gender/racial balances too
  • Check that submission guidelines are clear about writers submitting work in the right format for the magazine so that less time is wasted typesetting and reformatting contributions.
  • Consider being more prescriptive in describing the type of work included in the magazine. Asking poets, who are not always the ideal judges of their own work, to “Send in your best work” is an invitation to being flooded with submissions.

How can Poets Help?

  • Do support publishers and magazines through subscribing and buying books, pamphlets and magazines when you can afford to.
  • Do share your publication successes on social media (with a link to the publication).
  • Consider reviewing and championing the work of others (you may get reciprocal shares and reviews in return).
  • Check submission guidelines and double-check your submission complies before submitting.
  • Resist the temptation to flood a publication with submissions. If an editor’s accepted a poem, they are unlikely to accept more until your poem’s been published and even then there may be a rule about not submitting for a year after publication. If an editor’s rejected your work, they might welcome further submissions, but not within five minutes of their rejection. Look at what’s been rejected and consider whether the poems you’d like to submit are the best fit for the magazine before pressing send.
  • Don’t submit outside submission windows.
  • Don’t think submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
  • Gain a beta-reader or join a workshop/online forum/spoken word evening where you can test your poems on readers and listeners before submitting to a magazine. Your latest poem may be the best thing you’ve ever written but a fresh pair of ears will notice the tongue-twister in line five and a fresh pair of eyes will notice the stray apostrophe in the first stanza.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with reading/submission fees because good writing comes from talent, knowledge of writing craft and practice, not ability to pay. Putting up entry barriers in a field that’s already got issues with accessibility – unpaid internships in publishing, the VIDA Count’s demonstration that women writers are less likely to be reviewed, that most writers need a second job to compensate for the low income directly from writing, the lack of visibility for BAME writers, etc – I don’t think is helpful.

However, writers also need to acknowledge that they can’t expect to be published if they don’t buy books and magazines when they can afford to, don’t head out to spoken word nights and poetry readings where possible, and don’t help support publishers and magazine editors through reviewing (even a one line review on a seller’s website/online forum is useful) and publicity.

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Reasons Poetry Manuscripts get Rejected

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.

Presentation

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.

How do you write a poem? Giving credit where it’s due

Perhaps you decide on a theme, perhaps a image springs to mind, perhaps you are reminded of an incident that happened to you in the past or a first memory, perhaps you had an abortive attempt to get some words down on the page and decided more research was needed, perhaps you came across a poem and wanted to write a response to it, perhaps you were flipping through your notebook and came across an interesting idea, perhaps you saw a poem with a format that seemed appropriate for you theme and you decided to write your poem in that format.

It’s very rare a poet sits down in front of a blank screen or blank page and writes a poem without any preparative thought process.

It’s equally rare for a reader to read a poem with a completely blank mind. Readers bring their own experience, memories and baggage to a poem. One reader may hate ballads because she remembers being humiliated after being expected to learn one by heart and messing up one of the lines when asked to recite it in front of the class. Another reader may love the ghazal and be pre-disposed to look favourably on any she reads. Another reader may find that your poem about a tragedy triggers memories of involvement in a similar tragedy and her response to your poem will be informed by her memories.

Many readers are also poets who commit take a phrase, image or poem to memory or a notebook to refer to again later. These notes may then become sources for new poems. The new poem may take the form of a call and response with the original poem as a call and a new poem emerging from the lines written in response. A new poem may arise from taking an image, brainstorming and creating a poem from the brainstormed ideas. A poet might start with a line from another’s poem and write a new poem based on that line. Found poems, including erasure poems, use an original text and reformat it into a poem but generally the original sources were not poems and the found or erased poem offers a new slant or focus on the original and can be read independently of it. Cut-up poetry takes a source or sources and cuts out lines or phrases to make a new poem. All of these are legitimate sources for new poems, providing the originals are credited where the new poem uses lines from the original(s).

How much of the original source do you have to include in your new poem before you need to include a credit from the original?

If you have no intention of publishing the poem written in response to other or using cut-up, erasure or found techniques or by ghosting (basing a new poem on the structure or imagery of another), no problem arises. The new poem stays in a notebook or file never to see to the light of day; like a workshop exercise to try out an unfamiliar form or experimenting with an image. The problems arise when poets seek to publish a poem that was based on another source.

If you’ve written an ekphrastic poem inspired by a piece of art, which could be a painting, a sculpture or even a piece of prose? The usual way of crediting the original is to add a note “after” with the name of the artist. The understanding here is that the poet has tried to capture a feel, atmosphere or sense of the original piece of art in their poem in a response to the original art. I’ve written a poem, “Good Morning Midnight” (included in “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”) after Jean Rhys: the poem tries to capture the atmosphere and feel of Jean Rhys’s prose but does not quote from it.

If you use cut-up, found or erasure techniques, you should credit the original text(s).

If your poem B is based on a line by poet A in their poem A, a credit should be included.

Parodies are not plagiarism, neither is rewriting a story from the viewpoint of a different character providing you have invented the different character’s voice and not simply rearranged the original story (although in both cases it helps to credit the original in case your readers, who may have a different cultural background, are unfamiliar with it).

But what if you’ve used a call and response or ghosting techniques to write your poem? Here the line between plagiarism (the wrongful appropriation, close imitation or purloining of other writer’s work) and a new poem becomes more difficult to define. When scaffolding is used, the idea is that the scaffolding is removed and a new building stands, independent of that scaffolding.

The ‘fair use’ argument (usually used where works are quoted from in a piece of criticism or review or in students’ work) may not be enough either. A poet may only have used 23 words of another’s poem, which might be justifiable if the original was a thousand line epic, but if the original was only 30 words, then 77% of the original poem has been used. It’s difficult to argue a poem that is 23% the poet’s own work is a new poem and doesn’t need to credit anyone else. It’s not possible to reduce an argument to simple mathematics either, if those 23 words were the essence or structure of the original, the second poet absolutely should credit the original poet.

It is possible to publish poems based on other’s work with or without credits being given. Editors, publishers and competition judges have not read every single published poem and, even if they had, would not necessarily recognise that the poem they are reading is based on another poet’s poem. Poetry works on trust. Most competitions include in their rules that entries must be the original, unpublished work of the entrant and trust entries comply because they don’t have time to check. Most publishers and editors ask for original work and trust that poets know the law around copyright and are aware of plagiarism so don’t submit work that breaches either or both. In turn, reviewers trust that books or pamphlets sent for review are of unplagiarised work. Where proper credits have been given, there shouldn’t be a problem. Where credits have not been given, trust is broken.

I’ve discussed here ways in which a plagiarist may redeem themselves and re-build broken trust.

The biggest mistrust will come from poets whose work has been appropriated. A poet who has spent time and effort in drafting, editing and re-drafting a poem, particularly one based on a personal experience, will not want their work plagiarised. It is not flattery, it is theft.

Using another poet’s poem as the basis for your own is fine, but if you wish to publish the resulting poem, make sure it can stand alone without any trace of scaffolding and be prepared to give proper credit.

Performance versus Page in Poetry

Bemused recently when a poetry editor suggested the poems I’d sent him were “more suited to performance than print” and wondered what he actually meant.

The distinction between a “page” poem and a “performance” poem is false and does not exist.  All poems have to work in both mediums: that’s one of the things that differentiates poetry from prose.  Prose need not be read aloud.  Obviously prose has a rhythm: a country stroll will be described in long, meandering sentences whereas a narrator being chased by a serial killer will use terse, tense sentences.  However, a poem doesn’t just have a prosaic rhythm, but also a musicality.  It could be that the sounds of the words, the rhythm – shaped by line endings and verse breaks as well as grammar and punctuation – and the meaning complement.  It could be that rhythm and sounds run counter to meaning and create a tension that a writer can’t do in prose.  A poem that’s too difficult to be read aloud is a failed poem.  A poem that is easily performed but doesn’t have sufficient layers of meaning to sound to satisfy on the page is a failed poem.

The distinction then is not the poem, but the poet.  Some poets are natural performers and perfectly happy with poems in an oral medium, reading aloud to audiences.  That’s not to say that their poems don’t work on the page, but that they’re happier with poetry in a social setting.  Other poets are happier in the intimacy and privacy of reading poetry from a page (or aloud to themselves only).  That’s not to say that they don’t make good readers, but they’re happier surrounded by paper or alone with a computer screen.

I’m definitely a page poet, so the idea my poems were “more suited for performance” is a surprise.  But I don’t get the qualification “than print”.  The poems still have to work in both mediums.

Why do people Want to be Poets?

It’s a lousy job: you obsess and angst over getting the right words into the right rhythmic order, only have the narrowest chances of publication and can expect to earn nothing, having to fit being a Poet around day jobs and family.  So why do people want to do it?

Seamus Heaney, awarded the Nobel Literature Prize for his poetry, in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll suggests:

In poetry in particular, an ancient or sacred art, the word ‘poet’ still has an aura – that’s why people want it so much.

Helena Nelson in Chapter 3 of the Happenstance Story suggests,

Increasingly, I meet people who are happy to volunteer the information that they write poetry.  They introduce me to friends of their who also write poetry.  They don’t seem to read much poetry, apart from their own.  They don’t seem to know much about poetry, except their own.

Helena Nelson continues,

There seems to be a kind of confusion between writing poetry and Being a Poet.  The laudable attempts to make poetry more popular in sane, poetry-hating classrooms have somehow contributed to the idea that, against all the odds, Being a Poet confers celebrity status.

I’m inclined to agree.  There’s a huge difference between writing poetry and Being a Poet.  You can spot the Poets a mile off: they’re not writing! What do you think?  The real writers of poetry are too busy writing.

Related Articles:

Types of Writers

Six Tips for Finding Time to Write

When Can I Call Myself a Writer?