A publishing strategy for your first poetry collection

by Kathleen Driskell

Spalding MFA Associate Program Director

Publications in good literary magazines lead often to book publication, not the other way around. You do see poetry collections without a long list of magazine acknowledgments, but not often, and not at the better presses. A list of acknowledgments from solid literary magazines is an endorsement of sorts to a book editor. It means a number of other editors have already stamped your work with approval. It means, usually, your manuscript is worth a good long look. So one of your best book publication strategies is to submit and submit and submit the poems in that manuscript to a variety of literary journals.

But landing a poem in a friend’s journal with no reputation for publishing work of any merit isn’t that meaningful, frankly. If you simply want to see your name in print, then okay, that publication has served its purpose, I suppose. However, if you want to use magazine publications to build your book-publishing platform, not so much.

I regularly get CVs from writers who’d like to teach in Spalding’s MFA Program and I can tell you if two candidates both have a ten-page list of publications, all is usually not equal. Publications in one-off magazines or unprofessional online magazines don’t really work as endorsements for your writing. In fact, those publications can work against you. One might be left to think reputable magazines haven’t seen much to consider in your work, or, worse, that you don’t have much confidence in it either.

So, aim high! By all means, send poems to your “dream-date” magazines like Poetry, The Georgia Review, or Paris Review. In fact, make a list of places where you’d run out into the street to yell hooray if you were published there—and make sure something is out to one or two of those places at all times. When I pick up Poetry or Ploughshares, I always find myself reading a poem by someone who has just begun publishing. There’s no reason that next someone can’t be you.

At the same time, you should also be sending out work to respected magazines considered “next tier.” How to choose from so many? Newpages.com is a great resource for submitting writers. Also, look through the annual prize-winning anthologies, like Best American Poetry, to see which magazines first published those winning poems. Send there.

But, in addition, research and find good literary magazines in your own region. You’re more likely to get a scribble or two on a rejection slip if you point out you’re a writer in that magazine’s geographical area—writers, even editors, don’t want to be rude to writers in their own back yards. You never know whom you will run into. That goes for you, too: go out of your way to meet and say hello to that editor when opportunity presents at a book fair or AWP. All these things help you build relationships with magazine editors. All these things help you place your poems.

Poets just beginning to submit work always ask about what to include in the cover letter, as if it’s the cover letter that cinches publication. If only. But no matter where you submit, in your cover letter, let the editors know you have actually read their magazine and appreciate it. I know from experience that editors get piles and piles of mail and are reading submissions, often, at the expense of time they might be spending on their own writing. Be nice, for goodness sakes.

And something else . . . you don’t have to subscribe to every magazine you submit to, but do make sure you subscribe to a handful. That’s part of being a good literary citizen.

The other thing I’ve learned is that editors, particularly those at regional magazines, are usually good literary citizens, as well—why else would they be doing so much work for no pay? Likely, too, they are involved with other literary things for nothing, like running a reading series or a writer’s conference. Often these regional events are small-budget affairs, with no money to pay large honorariums or fly in writers from across the country, but you’re a beginning writer (meaning low-cost, I’m afraid, at least for now), and a writer they respected enough to have published, so perhaps your name will pop up as a possible reader or panelist at one of those literary events. And at those events, you’ll get more exposure for your publishing career. Yet another reason it’s nice to be nice.

Don’t forget to have submissions out to online magazines, as well. Research to find a few web journals you can send to, because they offer exposure like no paper journal.

Recently, my poem “What the Girl Wore,” was published by Shenandoah, a well-established literary magazine that has recently gone completely online, but lost none of its stature. Within a few days of my poem going live, the editors of Poetry Daily emailed to ask if they could feature “What the Girl Wore,” the following week. Poetry Daily not only has a wonderfully large readership, they also have 62,000 Twitter followers. Overlooking online publishing opportunities can deny you a huge audience.

If you consider a poem finished, make sure it’s out, and out at more than one place—finally most editorial boards are acting more humanely and now permit simultaneous submissions. Gone are the days, thank goodness, when we waited six months or more to hear back about a batch of poems, only to have all returned with a slip of paper one would have to DNA test to know if it actually had been touched by another human being.

Besides, with online submission managers, it’s so easy to submit a batch of poems that every poem you think is finished should be out for consideration. Every poem.

Then, when poems come back—and most will—get them right back out again. If you can’t bear to do this in drips, then set aside a time when you aren’t in the mood to write poems—if you’re like me and write best in the morning, put aside time in the evening every two weeks or so to submit. Put that commitment to your work on your calendar. Better yet, make something beep at you.

And even if a poem is rejected a dozen or more times, if you believe in it, keep sending it out. I can’t remember how many times “What the Girl Wore” was rejected, but I kept it out there until it received a debut beyond any I could have imagined. And, I also gained a pretty solid acknowledgment for the front of my next book of poems.

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