The first thing to know about the poetry market is that it doesn't exist.
No one makes money from poetry. Seamus Heaney may do, but he's got a Nobel Prize. For everyone else - whether that's poets, would-be poets, poetry magazines, or poetry publishers - money is a very scarce commodity indeed.
That means that getting poetry published is even harder than it is to get other sorts of writing into print. Here's what you need to know.
The sad fact is that there is almost no commercial market for poetry. Even large bookshops will only sell the acknowledged classics, anthologies, and a few books by today's most famous poets. Very, very few poets ever reach this level.
So much for bookshops. More important are the specialist poetry magazines and poetry presses - the heart of the poetry scene. A collection of poetry might well only sell a few hundred copies. Very few collections will sell more than 1000. Almost none will make a profit.
Poets themselves don’t make any money from their work – or maybe £50 and a pub lunch. The people who buy these books are poetry addicts and they buy these books from ads in the poetry magazines, from poetry festivals, etc.
It is easier to walk across hot coals than to become a published poet. It's fine to write poetry for yourself & friends - as most poets have always done. But suppose you really, really want to get published. What then?
The first point is that you can forget literary agents and mainstream publishers. Both groups of people are interested in making money – and though poetry offers many riches, it brings none that qualify as legal tender. Instead, your ultimate aim is to interest the smaller poetry presses.
In nearly all cases, these presses will only pick up a new poet if they have a track record of publication in the poetry magazines. As a rule, you should aim to have had 6-8 individual poems published in specialist magazines before it makes sense to try and publish a whole collection.
So step one is simply this: start submitting good quality work to the poetry mags.
The Poetry Magazines
Some of our favourite magazines are The Rialto, The North, New Writer, Ambit, and Anon – but there are zillions of others too. For a good place to browse go to the Poetry Library, or check out The Poetry Kit.
All magazines have their own submissions procedures, but as a rule you should send out no more than half a dozen poems with a stamped addressed envelope for a response. It’s a hellishly competitive business getting accepted, so do prepare for a fair number of rejections before you get anywhere. Oh yes, and don’t expect speed either. Three months to get a response is, sorry to say, perfectly normal.
If and when you get 6-8 poems accepted by these mags, then and only then is it time to start approaching publishers.
There is one other option, which is the best one for most poets: self-publication. This isn’t a way to get well-known, to make money, to get your work into bookshops, or anything else. But it is a way to get bound copies of your work for you to distribute (or sell) to families & friends.
The easiest & cheapest route for most poets is simply to go to your local printer: the Kwik-Print shop, or similar. Get a quote for printing and binding a hundred or so copies of your work, and go with the best quote you obtain. This won’t be too expensive, and you won’t be ripped off.
Beware of any ‘publisher’ advertising online for your work. Real publishers don’t solicit work. Anyone who wants you to pay to publish your work will print the work, but they will not publish it in any normal sense. Your work will not appear in bookshops. You will not make money from it. And there are lots of bandits out there. For more on this, please check out our field guide to bandits.
You have been warned!