How to publish your poetry

Having had my own book of poetry published, I’m often thought to be party to the secret handshake of publishers everywhere. When people ask me how they can get theirs published, I tell them it’s a tough road, full of complex choices and lucky turns. Actually, it’s a simple process. The tough part is writing poetry good enough for publication. Once you’ve got that sorted, it’s useful to know how poetry publishing works. Read what I’ve said here, and also read the Centre for the Book’s advice on publishing poetry.

Before you read the proper explanation below, this is the bottom line: first, find and read a few poetry magazines. Then send them about four poems at a time for them to consider publishing. Once you have had several poems published in magazines, then you can approach publishers who publish books of poetry. Now, here is how and why.

Very few people who write poetry know how to get it published, especially in South Africa. It’s just one of the drawbacks of growing up in a country where literature has not been a high priority. So the first thing is to understand the basics of how poetry publishing works. The principles are similar for short stories.

Firstly, there is a very big, important difference between “publishers” and “magazines”. Publishers publish collections of poetry by one or more people in book form. Magazines publish poems by different people (usually one to five poems per writer), and are published on a regular basis. Most magazines that specialise in poetry and short stories sell most of their copies to subscribers, who pay in advance and get their magazines in the post. Books and magazines both sell through bookshops, but they are usually marketed badly and stocked irregularly.

(There are also websites that publish poetry, and act as online poetry magazines. I’m not going to talk about them here, because they all have very different ways of working, and you can find hundreds of them online easily enough. In most cases, they are not as choosy about what they publish, because they are not limited by space. This means they have a reputation, sometimes unfairly so, for publishing poor poetry.)

It often seems as if no one cares about poetry. The simple reason for this is that there is no money in poetry. This is not a tragedy, it’s just the way it is. Really good, popular poetry is exceptionally hard to write, so it’s not surprising that there is very little of it, and that most other poetry doesn’t sell. A very successful collection of new poems in South Africa will sell about 500 copies. There are probably less than five publishers in South Africa who are willing to publish it at any one time, and their willingness to do so changes all the time, depending on their financial position. Those who are brave enough to publish collections of new poetry will publish about one a year. These will usually lose money and be cross-subsidised by other publishing.

There are more poetry publishers overseas, especially in the US and the UK. But they will almost always only consider publishing your work if you’ve already published a collection in your own country, and a few poems in magazines in their country.

Every writer starts by getting poems published in poetry magazines. No one ever, ever, ever starts with a collection. Well, unless they publish it themselves, but then you’re missing that stamp of approval, evidence of the quality of your work, that having someone else invest in it brings.

You need to find good literary magazines that publish poetry (and other forms of writing). If you’re thinking of submitting work to any of them, there are a few golden rules to follow. As a poetry editor, it’s very easy, and very annoying, to see when someone hasn’t followed these rules. Annoying the poetry editor is the best way to reduce your chances of getting published.

  1. Always read at least one whole issue of a magazine before submitting work to it. If you can’t find the magazine in a bookshop, write to the magazine and ask for a copy, or at least for the price and their bank account details. This will prevent you from wasting your time sending them the wrong kind of work. For instance, don’t send love poems in formal metre to a magazine that specialises in alternative theory and experimental literature.
  2. Don’t send too many poems. Each magazine has different guidelines about this. If you don’t know how many poems to send, don’t send more than five (or fewer if they’re longer than a page). Also, don’t include a long explanatory covering letter. The poems are what matter, they should speak for themselves.
  3. If the magazine does not take submissions by email, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). When you post your poems to a magazine, make sure you include a self-addressed envelope, and put a stamp on it. Poetry magazines can’t afford hundreds of stamps. Remember you want to make the editors feel good about you so that they take your work seriously. Remember too that the whole point of submitting your work is to get a response, so make that as easy as possible for the editor.
  4. If you’re submitting by post to a journal overseas, include International Reply Coupons instead of stamps. You can apparently get these from the post office, though you’ll struggle in many developing countries. And if you can’t find them, apologise profusely to the editor of the magazine, and try to make another plan. Even if it’s including a memento of your far-flung country by way of sentimental compensation, and an email address. Oh, and if you’re submitting overseas, mention how you know about the magazine, and that you’ve read it. Magazines with websites get thousands of submissions from people overseas whose idea of poetry-magazine research is quality time with Google or the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook.
  5. Be absolutely sure about the quality of your work. If you aren’t certain that it’s good, it probably isn’t. If you haven’t read a lot of other poetry written in the last hundred years (at least the equivalent of an entire 400-page anthology of different poets; what you read at school doesn’t count), then you won’t know how your work relates to modern poetry. If you don’t know modern poetry, it is impossible to write with confidence. Lack of confidence shows up easily (in clichés, a poor sense of rhythm, slavish adherence to rules or an adolescent ignorance of them, clunky rhymes, overuse or lousy use of line-breaks, archaic language, a tendency to moralise, and so on).
  6. When you receive a rejection letter, send another submission to another magazine as soon as possible. Everyone gets rejected at some stage, and the disappointment can stop you in your tracks. You need to keep moving.

Those are the golden rules. In addition, there are a few things to keep in mind about submitting to magazines:

  • Don’t expect any feedback on your poems, editors don’t have the time.
  • Don’t expect more than a standard, mass-produced rejection or acceptance letter.
  • Don’t expect to get your poems back.
  • Don’t expect to be paid anything (though you’ll usually get at least one free copy of the magazine in which you appear).
  • Expect to wait a long time for a reply to your submission (though feel free to inquire after about two months).
  • Expect it to take even longer from when you are accepted to see the magazine in print.
  • Don’t expect to see page proofs or to be updated on progress before publication.
  • Expect magazines from time to time to make mistakes when typing up your poems; it sucks but it happens.

Here’s a short list of poetry magazines.

35 thoughts on “How to publish your poetry

    • No, sorry, Cameron. There are some tips for your poetry on http://howtopublishyourpoetry.co.za. (By the way, if you’re typing in capital letters, you’re not taking enough care with your writing. This makes me doubt how much care you’re taking over your poems. Remember that ever letter counts, especially in poetry.)

      • Am ZENZELE makhubedu please hear my poem .Am clueless I don’t know where to go ,I feel the emotions and physical pain that is sparkling in my mind I don’t know where I come from and nowhere to run I always take the most endless road that leads me to nowhere ,but I just keep on walking and walking knowing that success is my destination but those who don’t know me will keep asking themselves onto what am about ,Am lost please show me a way where I can find shelter

  1. I have published in literary journals and have a poetry book I would like to now publish. Can I submit it directly to publishers? If so, which South African publishers publish poetry?. Is it better to hire the services of a literary agent? if so, where can a reputable agent be sourced?
    Andrew

  2. I am a 19 year old student and I feel discouraged. I love to write and my dream of having my poetry published has come to an end.
    I have never read a poetry magazine and I can not afford the subscription fee (considering I am still waiting for NSFAS to even consider letting me get a loan so that I may get through university and improve my writing skills).
    I can never be sure about my quality of work as I am surrounded by my peers that are always too impressed and too optimistic about my work even when I personally think (at times) it is ridicules.
    I have read some modern poetry by Richard Siken and Warsan Shire (my favourites) and I have a tumblr blog, I now know that this means nothing.

    Thank you for the heads up.

  3. I just want to know where can I go from here , I have over 100 poems and still I am writing , I need help with getting my work published

  4. I’M A POET, INTERESTED IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AND IN TERMS OF PUBLISHING, CAN I SURVIVE IF I WHERE TO WRITE FOR A LIVING IN THIS COUNTRY OF OURS, AS I HEARD IT HAS NO MONEY WHAT SO EVER?

  5. What about free online publishing? I would like to publish my poems, no for money, but simply to express my thoughts.

  6. I have poems I would like to publish. I love poetry so much and I just can’t stop writing poems and they keep popping in my mind.I just find pleasure and happiness in poetry. It just restores my soul and make me feel unique

    • I HAVE WRITTEN A COLLECTION OF SEPEDI POETRY. ANY PUBLISHING HOUSE IS WELCOME TO HELP PUBLISHING MY POETRY BOOK

  7. Im cebo zizipho pamla a young writter who has wrote lot of poem bt dont know where to publish if you want to see one of my poems visit me on facebook cebo pamla zizipho

  8. I am a 13 year old girl and I have this passion of writing stories and poems.Your help may fulfill one contribution to this journey of being genius,gorgeous and a talented venda girl.

  9. im David and busy with poems, its very spiritual and powerful.It is written in Afrikaans,i would love someone to help me to publish the poems.

  10. Hy i’m Timothy Ndlovu,i’m a poet and i wrote more than enough poems now,it’s ready to be published,i’m asking for your assistance

    Kind regards
    Timothy

  11. Im Anisah Mahlambi i write ode poems and i have been writing since grade 5.i realy have no clue but i still have hope for that one day my poems can be seen by the world.i am now going to grade 11 and all i need is to see my self as a incouraging person who helps others all the time. I wish i have my dreams to become true please help me if u can

  12. I am Zizile Malala a 18 years old girl who is a poetess.i have a poetry and wish to publish one day.can I get some advice from other poetess and poets on how to reach my destination. Or any place around SA to publish.

  13. I am panache and I have got some few poems id like to submit and also earn money I am looking for a publisher

  14. I am currently a matric student who loves writing poetry. I always wanted to know how the publishing process works, this has been very informative so thank you.

  15. Hy.am Mable.am 15 years old.I knw am too young but I like writing poems and sometimes I even render them.please help me to succeed.its been long since I wanted to have a book of my own poems but I got no luck.please I need ur help.I promise I won’t let you down please

  16. Hi I’m Arthur Phaswane and I’m 17 years old and my little brother is 15 years and we love to write poetries and poems ,and we write poetry such as alegy ,sonnet and ellipsis .we like to publish our poems ,so there is any way u could help us inbox us on Maermanarthur@gmail. com

  17. Hi im Nhlanhla im 15 years and i love writing poem and i would really like to publish some of my poems , can you please help me publish them

  18. My name is Asanda Mkhize and I am a 15 years old poet & author who wants to be published.If there is anything you can do to help me please do,you won’t regret it.

  19. This is useless…am Ndlovu Lizzy MN am 14years old,my friend Nomathemba Rabothata also 14years and I love writing poems n we would like to publish them but we r being pushed away wherever we run to,no publisher wants to publish our poems all our work n talent went into vain can any publisher please come to our rescue??
    If anyone wanna contact me([phone number removed])

  20. Hi there. I have written over a hundred.poems since I started last year in June. The flavour is mainly melancholic since my poetry was born during an emotionally stormy season in my life. Then I just went on and on…

    I will then contact a couple of magazines and see what happens

    Thank you so much for the info you shared.

Leave a reply