A Quick Guide: Before You Submit Your Work

These observations are some I’ve made in submitting more than one thousand packets of poems, and in my own publication journey. I’m an active observer of press behavior on Twitter and Facebook.

Of course, the work of developing as a poet is lifelong, and your mileage may vary, but here are some things to consider before you submit your work.

+ Submitting is an attempt to enter a literary ecosystem, one that is balanced by the editors who don’t know you picking up your work and a readership – probably made up of other poets! – buying or browsing a journal where they themselves might not be published.

Put doing your part in supporting the poetry community ecosystem first. Of course, subscribing and paying submission fees supports journals and presses. (You don’t need to do either in order to participate widely in community, especially with so many journals online, and free and reduced rate reading windows for submitters.)

But reading is a meaningful and even more essential contribution to the health of our common ecosystem. Are you reading and participating as a vital part of the world you want to enter? What’s the last book by a poet that you bought? The last journal you read from cover to cover? What readings have you gone to just to listen? To read at the open mic? Doing this will also guide you towards presses you’d like to be a part of, and which ones you might avoid (more on this below.) The same goes for journals! Find them on social media. Share links. Reach out to authors whose work you admire, especially those who aren’t yet “poetry famous.”

To seek publication without taking the time to read others’ work (or making time to do so) is to expect attention and praise without being willing to contribute to the literary ecosystem.

+ Do your homework. Reading or skimming the pages of every journal you’re thinking of submitting to will do so much for your writing life! Not only will you encounter authors you might want to one day join on these pages, but it also will tell you if your work might have existing kindred ideas in a specific journal before you even hit the “send” button. The last thing you want is to find something cringeworthy keeping company with your poems after they’ve been accepted, or to get that quick rejection because your mermaid poems don’t fit in with the journal’s focus on the undead, for example.

ALWAYS read and follow the submission guidelines.

+ Be a good ambassador for the journals that you enjoy. Share links, encourage others to submit. Perhaps even volunteer to work as a reader. By talking about the good things that happened with your publisher, you’re helping guide people away from the predatory and/or unprofessional activities happening at less ethical presses.

+ Don’t support presses who have bad reputations by submitting to them/allowing them to publish your work. This seems like common sense, I know. Be sure your work and submission fees support the wonderful presses who quietly do the difficult and sometimes costly job of behaving ethically in the poetry community.

Beware of journals who:

  • Reject your work but then try to sell you a “service” along with that rejection.
  • Disparage the work of submitters on social media.
  • Publish work by their editors and readers. *The only way to know this is to find the masthead on their site, and compare it to their table of contents! Because of this, when a journal’s masthead is not available on the journal’s main menu, it’s a red flag to me!
  • Have a reputation for backing or knowingly publishing those who engage in hate-speech, internet bullying, intentional spread of misinformation, or whose editors themselves behave this way.

Beware of presses who:

  • Publish more than 50 titles a year. Figures across the net say that Copper Canyon, arguably one of the best and larger “small press” poetry publishers out there publishes 18-20 titles a year. How can a press support individual authors and do the difficult work of editing for that many authors with a small staff? (A quick glance at the final product might also show you that some of the books from certain presses are riddled with typos, poorly produced or look and feel otherwise unprofessional.)
  • Require a large number of pre-sales in order for your book to go to press, especially if you are a poet without a pre-existing following. You might as well be self-publishing if you and your mother end up having to buy tons of copies in order for the book to go to press.
  • Have a reputation for backing or knowingly publishing those who engage in hate-speech, internet bullying, intentional spread of misinformation, or whose editors themselves behave this way.

“Smaller” but still worrisome practices to me:

  • Presses and journals who go dark for long periods without explanation and then suddenly reappear without a word to the authors they’d accepted but never published.
  • Presses and journals who don’t communicate with their authors.
  • Presses who don’t fulfill orders promptly. The way a press treats its customers is a good indication of how it might treat its authors. (Another reason to buy books and copies of print journals from presses before trusting them with your manuscript!)
Be intentional with your submission practices.

By publishing with a press, you are allowing your work to represent the press’ ethos out in the world, and tacitly backing the ways they present themselves.

The best way I’ve found to find out about the reputation and quality of a press is to engage in the poetry community online, where you can sometimes observe bad behaviors along with the good firsthand, before you even submit your work. Ask questions, read threads of posts of authors in trouble, or of authors who ask the same questions you have. Unfortunately, authors who’ve had a bad experience are not always willing to speak out, for fear of looking like they didn’t do their research, or because they simply don’t care about these other factors.
Only you can say what standards you have for your work.
*If you would like help with finding a home for your work that reflects your values as a poet and brings you closer to your goals for your poems, take a look at the ways we could work together, or please reach out!

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