Publishing Poetry

sample cover lettersPublishing Poetry

Editors are people. Many are among the most helpful and charming you'd ever hope to meet. Others, putting matters mildly, are self-opinionated, ill-bred and/or plain daft. All who publish regularly have their own lists. How do you turn the last group into people you enjoy associating with? Probably you can't, since they've been pushed to the brink of madness years ago, but you can save yourself a doctor's prescription and the time wasted in drafting incendiary ripostes, by being soberly effective and professional. Conversely, you can turn a friendly editor into an enemy by:

1. Paying no attention to the publication's guidelines: not taking the trouble to read a few issues, and/or slant work accordingly in content, style, and word length.

2. Pestering with phone calls, emails, letters, manuscript revisions and explanations well before the stated evaluation period is up.

3. Submitting work at the wrong time: magazines generally like to put their Christmas edition to bed by July, for example.

4. Changing everything when only small changes have been requested, not making changes clear, not making the changes at all or on time.

5. Not addressing the editor by name in proposals, or briefly acknowledging courtesies, help or advice given.

Editors in the non-commercial field — experimental fiction, academic articles, poetry — face a spasmodic and smiling amateurism that places the burden of work squarely on their own shoulders: rescheduling for delays, correcting, rewriting, holding the space while ever more bewildering changes and improvements come in.

As a writer, you're selling something into a hopelessly oversubscribed market, where everyone's too busy to give advice, or read beyond a few sentences if the proposal isn't coming good. That also applies to on-line publications. Strange to say, an editor does not want to put in half an hour's work on your behalf if you haven't bothered to spend five minutes clicking through his site. Usually he won't. Life is short, and the occasional kindness can descend into a well-meaning but infuriatingly myopic correspondence, one that leaves both parties feeling confused and aggrieved.

Most magazine provide submission guidelines, and ask for an accompanying letter, which should be friendly, informative and business-like.

That last does not mean a corporation-speak communication built of clichés, but something that denotes professionalism, that an intelligent and well-read author has chosen this particular outlet and is applying to its editor.

The submitted work has also to be appropriate. Many literary magazines want poetry, but they want poetry of a type that fits in with their preconceptions as to what contemporary poetry is and should be doing. What those preconceptions are can be gauged by reading what is published, and by such policy statements as appear in the magazine or in directories of publishing outlets for poets. Sending a carefully-crafted sonnet to an avant garde magazine is a nonsense, and editors continually complain that two thirds of their time is wasted in reading material of the wrong style or content, wrong length, no covering letter addressed to them by name, no publishing history, no SAE for response, etc. Guidelines are given for a reason, and have to be read.

Indeed the whole magazine should be read before submission. Literary magazines are usually labours of love, perilously short of funds and subsisting on grants, competition receipts and the personal generosity of friends. It helps to first send for a trial copy, to read it carefully, and at least take out a year's subscription if the submission is accepted. Editors feel their efforts are truly rewarded if each issue contains a few poems that are really good, and what they ask in publishing your poetry is the financial means to continue providing a platform for new work.

Or the best ones do. Some unfortunately dream of publishing only nationally famous poets, and assess each submission by name rather than by work. Unless well-known on the poetry circuit — and editors are very knowledgeable here — your poetry goes into a slush pile, to be picked over if space unexpectedly appears when selections have been made from submissions by big names and personal friends. Some magazines accept practically everything, and follow up their flattering words of 'exceptional talent' etc. with offers of overpriced anthologies or conferences of 'selected poets'. Some magazines are the in-house journals of university English departments, and their young editors do not always have the reading and experience to tell the good from the merely fashionable.

Poetry Submission Routines

You can develop a standard format for such letters, or purchase sample cover letters, but remember to modify for each case.

The well-known magazines are notoriously choosy, accepting only 2% or less of submissions. You can greatly shorten the odds by:

keeping scrupulously to the submission guidelines.

reading the publication carefully and sending exactly what is wanted.

presenting yourself as an old hand.

Unless instructed otherwise:

1. Type/laserprint each poem on quality white paper, double-spaced. In the top left hand corner put your name and address. In the top right hand corner put the rights for sale: usually first serial rights. Start each poem on a new page, and number the pages sequentially, each with name, address and rights for sale. Run off fresh copies for each submission.

2. Include a one-page covering letter, personally addressed to the editor by name. Phone to get that name if necessary. The covering letter should offer the poems for consideration (list them), say (subtly) why the poems are being submitted, and briefly mention your previous successes.

3. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (or self-addressed envelope and IRC if submitting from abroad).

You can kill your chances by:

1. Adding that your schoolteacher or Aunt Mildred thinks your poems are absolutely fantastic.

2. Including silly credits: vanity presses, senior citizen competitions, etc.

3. Insisting that these are just what the magazine needs (that's the editor's job).

4. Overdoing the compliments: I think this is one of the few magazines. . .

5. Including notice of copyright, which suggests only trouble.

6. Submitting in longhand.

7. Specifying payment (arranged later).

8. Including drawings or artwork (they're rarely useful).

9. Specifying a deadline for reply.

10. Submitting on coloured/non-standard size paper or with fancy fonts.

11. Pleading, or promising a subscription if accepted.

12. Threatening a personal visit/violence/suicide if not accepted.

13. Sending a follow-up letter a week later: I need to know because. . .

Submission Schedules

Getting your work published with increasing regularity calls for an organized and persistent approach. All freelancers work to schedules, and would quit the business if the odd rejection slip interrupted the creative flow. Here's what to do:

Make a longish list of outlets, the best prospects at the top.

Group your work into batches, each specific to a particular outlet or group of outlets.

Work through the list, sending your batches out to several outlets at a time. Pay no attention to the usual demands for single submissions to literary magazines. Many are hopelessly amateur, will keep you waiting for months, lose your MS, or not reply at all.

Send a polite reminder if stated response time is very much exceeded.

Keep a record (see below) of submissions, acceptances and any remarks.

Always keep several batches in circulation, sending the batch off to a new outlet the very day you get a rejection slip from the previous magazine.

Rearrange batches and their contents as necessary.

Don't abandon a work until you've exhausted all possibilities.

Learn from the pattern of response times, rejections, acceptances and comments in publishing your poetry. Read magazines/ezines more carefully as a result, but accept that some editors will never take your work.

Your Submission Record will look something like this:


Batch Name

Submitted To

Date Sent


Response Date



'red iron'



all rejected



submit 'northern blues'

'northern blues'



all rejected


liked 'moontown'

submit 'carlisle castle' batch

'red iron'

London Poetry


'old foundry' accepted


more like this

reorganize batch









Detachment is the key. Get your writings published regularly by turning anticipation into a routine. An acceptance? Right: make a note in the record. A rejection? No matter: send the batch to the next on the list. Submitting work takes time and patience, an immense quantity of both, but the strategy at least is within your control.

Remember that the book trade can be slow, especially in impoverished areas like poetry. Keep copies of everything sent. Allow a few months before sending the polite follow-ups, again as business letters. Be systematic in submissions, making them one of the regular chores of writing.

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