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Poets Helping Poets: Self-publishing and poetry?

Recently, I asked members of my Poetic Asides group on Facebook to give me their take on the relationship of self-publishing and poetry. The response was so overwhelming that I couldn't include everything (and I apologize if your take was not included--or had to be edited), but I did get a lot.

If you feel like adding your own voice to the discussion, just leave a comment below.

Here's some of the great feedback:

As long as a person understands the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing, and understands the pros and the cons, ie, the additional work involved for the poet, the responsiblity for self-promoting which needs to accompany the self-publishing, and choses the press with care, I believe there is nothing wrong with self-publishing. There is a history in literature of great poets having things to say and yet not having a publisher recognize them until after their death. For example, Emily Dickinson remained largely unpublished for the duration her life, yet still took the time to create booklets of her own poems, gathering them into groups, and hand sewing them together. If a writer feels that there is validity in their work and is willing to stand by it there is nothing wrong with chosing to self-publish even if it is only to feel a sense of completion so they may move on, to the next project.

Julia Ann Unruh


Didn't Robert Creeley self-pub 10 chapbooks before he'd made any name for himself? It's a good idea, I think. If anything, the good ones serve as a sort of calling card, and it's a cheap enough route one could break even on sales well before selling out of a run.

Scott DeKatch


With so few publishing houses and extended waiting periods, I think self-publishing might be a good option for many. Getting a good editor before publishing, however, might be a good idea. I'm all for it!

Helen Zisimatos


Next to targeted non-fiction, I think poetry is the most logical work for self-publishing, especially for those who actively pursue readings, whether featured, open mics or poetry slams. The market for poetry in bookstores is miniscule, and the majority of presses aren't going to print more than 1,000 copies -- more likely 500 -- and have little wherewithal to actually promote them, so a self-published poet is going to have to do all of the legwork any way. Why not take on the easily calculated risks of production -- small initial print run + POD = minimal upfront cash layout -- and keep 100% of any profits made on hard-earned sales?

More thoughts on marketing here:

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez


It all depends on what you want to do with your work and where you are as a writer. If you're just starting out and want something to sell/give away at readings and open mics, then make you own chapbook. If you want to be published by other people, self-publishing can be problematic, as many places won't accept previously published work.

The best route is to publish yourself within the context of publishing other people: ie, feature your work in the first issue of a journal or chapbook press, but then focus on other people.

Hugh Behm-Steinberg


With Print-on-Demand so easy, relatively, self-publishing makes sense in some situations, outside the academic world. My husband and I spent a summer taking photographs of Langston Hughes sites in Lawrence and researching his boyhood years 1902-1915 in our hometown. We did not assume this to be a definitive scholarly book, but rather a chance to document information before it was lost. We self published the book, and to our deliglht, some scholars have made use of it. If we had rewritten it and worked with an academic press, it would have take 3-5 years!

I encourage writers of poetry to work within their communities, and when their work begins to overflow their town and region, then submit works to national markets. Self-published anthologies of regional work can be self published to good purpose.

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas (2007-2009)


I've been hosting poetry in Las Vegas since 1999 and am fairly well-published in various journals, magazines, etc. Many of my friends have pressured me to produce a chapbook, but I have an odd stubborness about it. I feel as though if I self-publish, it's not legitimate; it's vain. Others would argue differently, but I don't think my work is valid unless someone else recognizes its publish-worthiness.

Danna Jae Nordin


It seems there's a double standard out there among various media when it comes to self-publishing. For instance, why is it acceptable--and laudable, even--for bands to release their own albums and filmmakers to release their own films, but it's looked down upon for a writer to release their own work? This is especially the case in academic circles.

Some of my favorite reads were self-published: Al Burian's "Burn Collector," Aaron Cometbus's "Cometbus," among others. While there is a stigma attached to self-publishing outside of the underground, that doesn't inherently make the work good or bad, because the content is what counts.

Jason Jordan


There is only one commercially legitimate way to self-publish your work and that is to learn the Book Arts (Binding, Macrotypography, etc.) and bind the books yourself. If you self-publish using one of the many 'services' for that purpose your work will still hold no water with publishers whatsoever. If you start your own small press, learn the trade, and establish an actual record of sales in differing demographics, then publishers will look at you in a legitamized light.

Drew Wiberg


If there is no other way to get your stuff out, I don't see anything wrong with it. It might just be a way to be recognized as, after all, a lot of publishers don't seem to read. And even if they do, they want quick money, not quality.

Monique Caddy


I teach undergraduates and at near the end of the course they have to memorize a poem and make a bookmark, broadside or chapbook of the poet they studied during the semester. They come up with the most beautiful and innovative broadsides I've ever seen using materials anyone can buy cheaply or scrounge up from around the house. I bring in examples from prior classes to show them how inexpensive it can be to get a poem out into the world. These aren't their own poems, but clearly that could be the next step.

With the economy closing in on us, poetry, an already marginalized, under-represented market (because there is not now and never was a big market for poetry books) will see a drop in sales. Barnes and Noble has already removed all poetry books from their shelves in an effort to cut back. They will re-order, but only titles that sell extremely well--Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and major award winners. This leaves little room for the little guy or gal. So, in my mind, self-publishing, as well as self-distribution, may just be the wave of the future for poetry.

Small Presses may also find themselves going under during these tough economic times which means fewer contests, fewer venues for publication. Even poetry journals will surely stumble under the weight of the inflated dollar. As a result, we may see a surge in online publications. It's so cheap to make a broadside, a chapbook or even a full-length collection on computer. Something to note, even the Pushcart Prize is now accepting online publications for their yearly prize, and so these journals are becoming more accepted as legitimate. I think self-publication, as a result, is also finding and will continue to acquire more legitimacy.

This doesn't mean that there will be more good poetry out there. That's one of the legitimate gripes about self-publication. Just as anyone who fiddles with car engines and then decides to put up a sign and open shop is not necessarily a good mechanic. Just as there are good doctors and not so good doctors. The same holds true for those who write, maybe more so. But hey, there's already a glut of bad poetry on the market, legitimate prize-winning poetry.

The rush to publication is a problem with American poets who tend to view product above process, who seek recognition at the expense of excellence, who are self-satisfied rather than self-critical, and the worst, who spend more time writing and trying to get published than they spend reading and studying great poetry.

So, my advice, is to find people who are both strong advocates AND strong critics of your work and ask them: Am I ready to publish? Rule of thumb: You should have been working seriously at your craft for at least 10 years before you consider book publication. You should have at least 20 or 30 good magazine publications under your belt, along with a wealth of rejections. You should attend workshops, conferences, programs if money allows to garner feedback on your work. All the same holds true for self-publication. If you decide to self-publish, the rules haven't changed, just the venue.

We all know Walt Whitman believed enough in his work to self-publish and we're glad he did. He also rewrote and revised furiously. With self-publication--the time and expense of it--maybe more poets will think twice before flinging their poems out into the wine-dark sea.

Dorianne Laux


I have never self-published but I did have contracts with two subsidy publishers...against both of whom I wound up in class action lawsuits. One publisher and her husband went to jail for cheating authors out of their money and not delivering on their promises. Those associations left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth and my pocketbook minus thousands of dollars.

That said, the first publisher did print thousands of my books (not the 10K as contracted though). I was able to parlay those books into a good career for myself (primarily on the web). Now, 60 small-press published books later, I can look back at that time as a learning experience. It taught me patience and humility. I have also tried to counsel newbie authors but I've found that's generally a waste of time. They are going to do what they are going to do and if what you suggest doesn't mesh with what they've decided to believe, you are wasting breath and effort. Some people can't be helped. They have to learn the hard way.

Would I self-publish? No, I don't believe I would. I would try every e-book route available first and use self-publishing as an absolute last resort. Would I subsidy publish again, suggest other writers do it? HELL, NO! The reason why is simple: at least with self-publishing you have some say in how and when and why you spend your money. With subsidy/vanity, you do not. You are at the mercy of just how honest that publisher is or isn't. There are too many reputable e-publishers out here who will look at your work and if it isn't good enough for them, chances are it won't be good enough for readers to buy. If even the poorest e-pub won't contract your work, it just might not be as great as you believe it to be. If you publish anyway and then place it before reviewers, be prepared to have a new one reamed for you.

Then there is the monetary to consider. For every $1.00 I make on my print books, I make $100.00 on downloads. The reason is simple: distribution via the internet. There is less overhead for the publisher and the royalty percentages are far greater than trying to get the books into brick and mortar stores. Your book never goes out of print and a reader can get it in the middle of the night during a snow storm while sitting in their jammies. That's a good incentive for some buyers. Most small pubs have very low prices on downloads but the NY boys are getting into the market with the inception of the Kindle et al and the prices are being traditionally hiked up to what the cost of a mass market paperback would be. That's highway robbery but hey! Anything the traffic will allow, eh?

As for poetry: I have been in a couple of anthologies and as a rule they just don't sell. I love poetry. I read poetry but I don't buy books of poetry. I can't see self-published poetry books fairing much better than those put out by publishers. In this day and age, people are moving away from the calmer, gentler forms of entertainment. We are not producing new generations of readers but rather generations of Xbox clones. That's a shame for there is so much solace in a well-crafted poem.

Charlee Compo


On principle I'm against self-publishing, because it means skipping an important phase of a writer's work, i.e. submitting it to the appreciation of professional and expert readers. But there's the other side of the medal: most readers aren't interested in poetry, poetry books don't sell, and publishers generally don't invest their money in producing books without a financial return, so it's difficult for a poet to get published by a third part. The best way to work as a poet is, as we know well, submitting to specialized reviews or taking part in literary competitions.

This said, getting published rather than self-publishing doesn't mean more readers. If you're lucky, 100 will read what you write, maybe 15 will like it, and 5 will understand it.

Is self-publishing a good thing? Ezra Pound self-published his first book, and many great Italian poets did the same. Probably they had no other choice, but time is the best judge.

Valeria Di Clemente

Pescara, Italy


There was a time when I would have said that self-publishing was a relatively harmless route. Now I would discourage any serious poet who asked me. My reasons? Glad you asked.

A. The ease with which it can now be done has really diminished the currency for all poets. I suppose vanity presses have always existed but now anybody can go to KINKOS and publish their own chapbook quickly and inexpensively. So in effect, being published proves next to nothing. Anyone can call themselves a poet and anyone can be published.

B. I regret having self-published some chapbooks because, despite the sense of self- accomplishment, and actually BECAUSE of it, I suspect I was less motivated to perfect my skills and hone my craft, instead of waiting till I was good enough to earn acceptance from an objective third part. I suppose a possible exception would be that if you'd been trying for a long time, and published in a lot of fairly prestigious journals, and a couple of TRUTHFUL, OBJECTIVE writers validated the value of your work, self-publishing might be OK.

C. A surprising number of presses holding first book and chapbook contests have made it clear that those who self-publish are not eligible. So according to those standards, you could create a chapbook and give 10 copies to friends at Christmas and they would not want you to enter.

Seems REALLY harsh but there it is. You would know even if they didn't.

Christopher Soden


I would never self-publish a regular book of any kind (as opposed to a chapbook). Even if you opt for one of the companies that charges for set-up, then prints on demand, the expense is significant and the price you have to charge buyers for each book is much larger than if someone else with a press publishes it. A ibig issue, too, is marketing. Even poets who read regularly have a difficult time selling any quantiy of books. Poetry books, especially, are a difficult sell, unless the publisher has an agreement to sell to libraries, certain bookstores, or colleges.

I would self-publish a chapbook since I have a program that prints in book form. With a laser printer that goes on forever, the cost would be minimal. I say that I WOULD, but haven't done so. I've been fortunate enough to have offers for my first three chaps.

Pris Campbell


One thing to consider is that some publications will not even consider running a review of anything that could be considered self-published. I heard from a man this week who had published a book of fiction, but (he says) the publishers put little effort into publicizing his book. He said he had decent sales without publicitiy, so he bought back the rights to the book and the remaining copies. He was then told that doing so, technically, made his a self-published book now, therefore ineligible for "serious attention."

My experience in publishing poetry is slim, but I would think one should pursue all the avenues for publishing first. 

Nancy Posey


I think small chaps are a great thing, when you have enough to sacrifice some. This is mainly a poet-to-poet world, so small inexpensive bait is a good thing. The quality and originality still has to be high, since this is a "showcase". The small chaps I really like have quirks and thoughts unique to that poet, so I try to do that also. It's a souvenir. A size mailable in a #10 envelope and a token price (free, or send back stamps in a bag?) is fun.

Jim Knowles


Self-publishing is like a very large business card or portfolio. It's self-promotion which is personal-scale. You can participate in the gift economy to exchange small print-run (or photocopier-run) works without a big cost out lay. If you go thru a print on demand company, the overhead is still low.

One of the drawbacks is that if it is only you promoting you, the distribution networks and the onus to spread the material is all on your shoulders. If you work cooperatively with a group, channels can be shared. There's more credibility if a group says you are good than if you alone say you are worth the time to read. If you are published in magazines and thru other people's networks you are less in control of what goes to print but your works can be accessed by more people.

The other main drawback is that by self-publishing you may set the bar too low. You may (or might now) rush to publish before the work is polished enough. An editor or more experience or more time sitting with the work could give room for improvement. The gating of going through someone else can hold you in a purgatory that is useful for more refining time.

Pearl Pirie


I, and several other poets I know, have self-published chapbooks. I think that self-publishing works perfectly for chapbook-sized collections. It allows the poet to gather his/her work in one place, or follow one theme without the need to fill 90 or so pages. It allows the writer also to dip his/her foot into the world of "merchandising" your art--seeing what it feels like to have a larger number of readers looking specifically at your work--without having to submit to the intricacies of having someone else publish you.

And, don't underestimate the psychological value of having a collection of work "published"--ie in book form, bound, ready to hand out or sell to anyone who will have it. It all helps you to take yourself and your work more seriously. So I believe it is a great first step on the road to publication.

Of course, it is not a substitute for being published by an outside publisher, someone who doesn't already love you. That not only has even greater psychological implications, but also catapults you into a community of writers who have also been published by that publisher.

I have found this to be one of the greatest results of all of being published by bluechrome over here in the UK. But self-publishing, especially for poets, is a great first step.

Sue Guiney

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