My Rules for Publishing
Lit by Maureen Eppstein, 09/08/08
I'd like to start with some statistics. For the 90 or so poems I've had published in journals in the past 20 years, I've also received well over 700 rejections. When March Street Press published my poetry chapbook Quickening in 2007, I'd sent poetry book manuscripts to 64 competitions and 9 open submissions. I'd been a finalist in three of these competitions.
Every year or so I'd reorganize my poetry manuscript. I'd pull out weaker poems, add new stuff, change the title, change the sequence, try to make sure that all the poems in the set held together in some sort of thematic framework. It was a long and often painful process. I'm going to share a few things I learned along the way. The rules of my publishing path apply primarily to literary journals and small presses, but I hope they'll be useful even if you expect to work with a commercial press.
Rule 1: Develop a thick skin. You've poured your heart and soul into a story or essay or poem, and some callous editor sends you a snippy little rejection slip. This hurts. It's OK to cry a little the first few times, but it's going to happen a lot of times. Your first priority is to learn how to handle the pain without totally screwing up your relationships with your loved ones.
Rule 2: Try to walk in that editor's shoes. Typically, literary publications are labors of love. Their editors have time constraints and budget constraints and space constraints and huge stacks of submissions to read. They also have a pretty clear idea of what sort of work will fit the ethos of their publication.
Rule 3: Do your homework. Never, never submit to a journal unless you are familiar with it. That means you need to have held a sample copy in your hands so that you know what their production values are. I remember how bitterly disappointed I was back in the 1970s when my first published poem appeared. It was in a tacky little volume Xeroxed from dirty typewritten copy. But it was my own fault; I had sent the submission out blind in response to a classified ad.
You also need to have read enough of the publication to gauge whether your work is a good fit. This includes not only subject matter but also tone and style.
Rule 4: Find role models. So, how to find the right journal or publisher for you? The usual advice of course is read, read, read. But with so many publications out there, it's an overwhelming task to find those that are simpatico. A good shortcut is to read enough to develop a list of writers whose work you admire and whose sensibilities seem to mesh with yours. Make them your role models. One of my favorite tools for this task is the website Poetry Daily, www.poems.com . They present a newly-published poem each day, along with links to the journal or collection it came from. If I see a poem that blows me away, I look at the publication link and where else that author is being published. I look at who else is being published in those journals whose work I like, and track their publishing careers too. Pretty soon I have a network of possible markets.
Rule 5: Be willing to revise. After a poem or story has gone out and come back a few times from what looked like appropriate markets, you might want to take another look at it. You know the drill: the musicality of your lines or sentences, the freshness of your images. Decide anew whether it's really ready for publication.
If it's a book manuscript, think about whether all the work is thematically connected, or whether you've thrown in some marginally related pieces to make up the required page count. For instance, Quickening is a chapbook of 23 poems. Almost all the poems in it were at some time part of a 50 or 60-page manuscript that was doing the rounds of the competitions. I realized I could get a stronger, if smaller, manuscript by limiting it to what I call my "connection to the earth" poems.
Rule 6: Persevere. As you can see, some of us have taken this rule to extremes that border on the insane. And I want to remind you that self-publishing is an old and respected tradition. In my case I'd already been there, done that, with some very nice limited edition chapbooks. But it wasn't enough. What I needed for my sense of myself as a writer was for some total stranger who was respected in the field to like my work enough to want to publish it. And then the crowning happiness, that the two poets I admire the most, Jane Hirshfield and Eavan Boland, both agreed to write cover blurbs. Their recognition was worth all the pain.
Maureen Eppstein, who is originally from New Zealand, helps run the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference www.mcwc.org . Crossing the boundary between the arts and the sciences, her poems have been included in a textbook on computer graphics and geometric modeling and set as additional reading in a university-level geology course.
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