Tuesday 31 May 2016

From poetry to strategy: How (not) to get your poetry published

Recently someone without knowledge of the poetry world asked me to read a poetry collection and advise on publication.  What I really wanted to send instead of my longish and painstaking email reply was a concentrated version of Helena Nelson’s book How (not) to get your poetry published – something that would encapsulate all its wisdom, common sense, humour and raw experience. 

Here I’d better declare an interest: Helena Nelson (Nell) of HappenStance Press has published both my pamphlets.  But that means I know she walks the walk.  Many other poetry readers and writers know it too: she’s a prize-winning small publisher and poet.

Why did I need How (not) to and what’s so good about it?  Here’s a list of thoughts about the book, which is itself full of useful lists.  Extracts are in blue.   

1.   If the world of poetry publishing were a tangible object, How (not) to would be a DIY video on YouTube.  A voice and pair of hands would be taking the world apart, explaining how it works and what to do when it doesn’t.  People who’d googled how poetry publishing works or problems with poetry world would settle down to watch it with relief. 

People don’t do this enough to the worlds we construct, which tend to operate on the basis of shared, unspoken assumptions.  These are usually odd and/or unfathomable to anyone new.  Someone who knows a little may think s/he knows a lot and therefore still make what are, in that particular world, mistakes. 

2.   How (not) to takes a strategic and systematic approach, working through the stages an aspiring-to-be-published writer of poetry must go through.  From the first page:

This book deals with strategy.  You may not think poetry and strategic planning have much in common, but why do you think some poets are successful in their publishing deals while others, who seem to you to write just as well, are not?  Getting poetry published is a competitive game in which you create your own luck. 

3. The book’s both hard-headed and warm-hearted, both structured and imaginative.  For example it contains several worksheets at the back including a checklist of how ready you are for publication and a table with criteria for assessing which publisher might suit your work.  It also contains 22 writing prompts – the subliminal message seems to be: don’t get too wrapped up in this, keep on writing the best poems you can. 

4.   Basic questions get clear answers.  Nell lists 10 reasons why writers need to publish in magazines before trying for a pamphlet or book.  Some of these are fairly obvious, such as this being a way of getting your name known.  Others, such as the extra edge that both sending out and rejection bring to redrafting poems, become apparent with experience.  

5.   I challenge anyone to read the book without laughing, internally or out loud.  How (not) to is full of fictionalised case studies from Nell’s own inbox, mostly showing how not to.  We’d never not address a publisher by name in an email enquiry and fail to research her submissions policy on her website first, would we?  Or send an already self-published pamphlet and ask her to publish it?  Of course not… but we’re fallible and the examples are salutary.  

There are many small parodies of today’s poetry world and human nature interacting.  Here are just two items from a list of options for ‘thinking outside the book’: 

- Attract attention to yourself by some highly original fundraiser: maybe performing poems by heart at every railway station in the UK and uploading videos to YouTube.
-  Start a ‘school’ or ‘movement’ with a group of poet friends. Create a name for yourselves (The Middenists? The Quiddites?)  Publish a group anthology. Get noticed.

Those names are fit to march alongside the Levellers or Diggers.

Nell’s approach is more effective and humane than the usual somewhat dry and irritable harangue by an editor fed up with the attentions of zany poetasters. 

6.    How (not) to gets the reader to think like a publisher.  One chapter explains what publishers want.  It itemises all the things a publisher will have to do to publish you (from drawing up a contract to distribution) and all the other things she’ll be doing at the same time (from considering further collections for her poets to applying for funding).  Nell points out that publisher time runs differently: five years seems an age to an impatient poet (and which of us aren’t?) but is short to her. 

Another chapter’s about how to research publishers.  So many people, when applying for anything, talk a lot about why they’d be good at whatever it is but not at all, or hardly, about what about the organisation they find interesting.  

7.   Nell’s wisdom just has to be motivational.  On sending to magazines (bold text is mine):

It’s hard graft, this regular sending out of poems, but it strengthens you.  Certainly rejection of your favourites can be demoralising.  But there are at least three key aspects to the poetry business.  The first is the best – the making of poems, the joy, excitement and fun of that.  Second is getting those poems as good as they can be, which means exposing them to strangers.  The third thing is determination.  Stickability.  Doing the necessary business of sending them out, filing the returns.  Earning respect because you don’t give up.  Standing up and being counted.  You wanna be a poet?  This is your job. 

8.   There’s advice on what to do if publication attempts aren’t working.  The chapter on ‘thinking outside the book’ contains a long, long list of options.  There’s a chapter on self-publication too. 

9.   And there’s much more besides.  About networking online, networking in person, giving readings, blogging…

10.   How (not) to isn’t just invaluable for the starting-out writer.  We all forget or ignore things.  (For example I hadn’t thought about publisher/poet differences in perception of time.  That’s really helpful to me right now.)  The checklists and decision aids would be very useful for any poet on his/her nth collection needing a fresh approach. 

And it’s not only for UK writers.  Although it’s written from within the context of the UK its truths and common-sense have universal application.  That comment’s addressed to the readers of this blog from America, India, Australasia, Europe and everywhere.  The world that’s interested in the poetry publishing world. 

I did send the link to How (not) to to the person who’d sent me the poetry collection; I hope that might lead to a purchase and one more individual both enlightened and entertained. 

How (not) to get your poetry published by Helena Nelson is published by HappenStance Press and costs £10 + postage (which is around £5 for Europe and a bit over £7 for further away).  Its web page, here, has some downloadable material including the publisher analysis worksheet and one called Plan A and Plan B. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent book which Nell (very wisely!) published herself. As for poetry being a job - it's easily the worst paid job that I've ever had. The real question is why people like us devote so much time to poetry when the rewards are practically non-existent.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. I guess because money isn't the only factor, though we would all like poetry and Premier League fee scales to be reversed!

  2. Dear Fiona

    This book would be useful for poets wanting to go the publication route - and a good refresher for those of us who have already had some poetry published in poetry magazines,

    Freda Kvesic