Apr 14

“My Poems Used to Get Published. . . But Now, Nothing”

The following is a recent  exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.


I’m looking for some advice from an expert.

I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.

So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.

Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.

If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.

Dear E.,

Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.

Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.

No accounting for tastes.

Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.

Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.

I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine


I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.

I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.

Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.

Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.


Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.

Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.

Then she slipped away

into the answer.

Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.

Dear E.,

I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:

-Don't write about writing.

-Don't write about aging.

-Don’t write about old people dying.

Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.

Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.

Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.

I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine


I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.

What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.

Dear E.,

Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.

My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”

Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine

Oct 08

The Oddity of One's Own New Book

This has happened before. Something is printed and I see only its imperfections. But slowly I become proud that exists at all.

The Woman Who Values Herself is about 90 percent of what I envisioned when I set out to print a pocket-sized book of 31 affirmations for women, each illustrated with a line drawing by Sheila Kennedy. I suspect it is just as a grown child is always about 90 percent of what a parent hoped for. And of course the parent dwells on the 10 percent. What's right:
  • sizewomanwhovalues2inches
  • cover color (love the green! There is no name for such a green!)
  • most of the drawings
  • the fact that this book exists at all
  • the kindness shown to me by all the blurb contributors
  • that this is Sheila's first book and she's thrilled and she should be, she is awesome
  • that this book might be of help or comfort to somebody somewhere someday
  • pricing ($10; thank God I asked for advice!)
What's wrong:
  • They didn't add one of my corrections
  • The paper is thick and I'd hoped it would be opaque, but it's not
  • The back cover with its three colors looks better to me than the front with its two colors
  • They didn't vertically center the blurbs on the back; I mean, it's okay but it's not perfect!
  • Yes, the spine is 1/4 inch wide just as I wanted, and admittedly it is the thinnest possible size for a perfect (glued) binding, but it drives me wild when the microscopic printing on some of them is off by a millionth of an inch
That said, it is time to start getting proud of it, just as a parent finally becomes proud of simply having passed along the gift of life.
Jul 21

More Writers than Readers?

9 February 2009

Worry of the week (overheard): Won't self-publishing create more writers than readers?

Let's examine this question. Self-publishing doesn't "create writers." Self-publishing requires a text already written. Self-publishing creates authors -- writers who have their names on books. Self-publishing generates authorship.

The word "readers" in "more writers than readers" really means "readers who purchase books." There are plenty of readers. They're all reading stuff on the Internet, or at the library, or magazines, or books by their friends or faves. The real worry is, "Can publishers sell enough books to make profits?"

The question then becomes: Does the existence of more self-published authors generate less money for publishers and their authors -- less money than formerly?

Well, the vast majority of authors -- the unknowns, the rookies, the "mid-list" --could hardly make less money. But self-publishing could possibly generate more for them.

For publishers - well, you had your chance. When writers sent you these same manuscripts, you wouldn't even look at them. So they turned themselves into authors without you. They're happy. They sell their own books at least as well as you would have sold them; maybe better.
Jun 27

That, Plus 50 Cents, Will Get You Coffee

I once edited an autobiography by a Holocaust survivor. The author was 10 when transported to Auschwitz with his father, an M.D., late in the war. The doctor told the Nazis – then badly in need of a camp M.D. – that the boy was 16 years old and his assistant. Both were therefore allowed to live, and both survived.

However, because the author was so young when imprisoned, he retains few vivid memories about the camp and its inhabitants. Most of the book is about the rest of his life.

The author’s question was: Did I think he could get an agent for the book? It was, after all, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor. Life stories don’t get any more dramatic than that.

My research turned up these surprising (to me) facts: Holocaust memoirs are “a dime a dozen.” Agents, publishers and readers don’t buy such books out of respect for the survivors. They snap them up only if such memoirs are very detailed and shocking and revelatory, and if the book centers on the camp experience. Agents and publishers want THAT so badly that they will seize upon phony Holocaust memoirs cooked up according to that recipe.

Very carefully and politely I told the author my crushing conclusion: If he wanted to see his memoir in print, he should self-publish. He wouldn’t stoop to that. Can’t blame him. But since that time, someone has tried to establish a Holocaust-memoir vanity-publishing business to make themselves some money from these dime-a-dozen manuscripts. I’m not kidding.

And you want an agent for that memoir you wrote about your relative with Alzheimer’s? Your broken hip? Your infertility treatments? Save time and effort: Publish it yourself.

May 08

Chapbook Renascence

Not so long ago -- about 15 years -- a "real" or "serious" poet wouldn't be caught DEAD issuing a chapbook. Only losers would try to preserve their work in little stapled, spineless booklets! Because desktop publishing as we know it did not exist, the booklets were either hand-set or photocopied. That was the extent of alternative publishing -- the only way for poets to take publishing into their own hands. A book reviewer back then, I swatted chapbooks away like flies. I saw them knee-deep at secondhand bookstores. Well, things have changed and chapbooks are important now.

Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.

I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.

And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.
May 08

I'm Rich and Devoid of Common Sense

  • If sending out a mass e-mail to 5 million perfect strangers, at a cost to you of $2,359, sounds to you like an effective way to market your self-published book. . .
  • If you think establishing an author website or a book website* will make your book sales soar. . .
  • If it sounds like a good idea to spend $1,387 to submit the link from your website to 3,000 websites with no guarantees that any of them will post your link. . .
Marketing.YenchenSupport.com is for you. I'm in some sort of database of self-published authors. Yenchen phoned me this morning. When I expressed interest in their company, of which I had never heard, they passed my call up to a guy who spoke better English and told me all about their services for self-published authors. If I signed up today I'd get 30 percent off.

I wish at this time to let everyone know that "self-published" does not mean "rich" or "naive" or "devoid of common sense."

*All authors should have such a site, but such sites aren't sales tools. They are contact tools. When was the last time you bought a book through an author's website?
May 08

Amazon's BookSurge Personally Phones Me

May 19: Anti-trust lawsuit filed against Amazon.com for pressing self-publishers to print books exclusively through its subsidiary company, BookSurge.

May 20, 12 noon: A promotional E-mail from BookSurge (how’d they find me?) offers me 20 free copies of my own book if I self-publish with them before May 30. I’m curious and reply.

May 21, 10:20 a.m.: A deft and polite BookSurge sales rep ACTUALLY PHONES ME. I said I had a 90-page book of poetry, print-ready, in PDF format. Faint hint of dismay (poetry?!) detected. To publish this book in paperback I’d pay them only $299 and get 1 copy. If, like most authors, I had a plain, no-pictures, word-processing manuscript, not print-ready, requiring interior layout and design, I’d pay $499 and get 1 copy.

Honestly, the above two deals are competitive in all details with other good self-publishers. Except Booksurge alone can currently say, coquettishly, “We are one of the few self-publishing, print-on-demand companies that can guarantee availability on Amazon.com always.”

But what about my 20 free copies? I asked the rep. Turns out that Booksurge’s May special isn’t for penny-ante printing like mine, but for their Total Design Freedom Packages: $799 to $2,749. (Note: The traditional publishing industry has never given authors a say in their covers or bindings, much less total design freedom. It sounds good, but you don’t need it.)

Like other PODs, BookSurge has optional promotional tools, but only BookSurge, being Amazon, can pair your book with an Amazon bestseller as a tag-along (“buy this too”) suggestion on the bestseller’s page -- if you pay $1,000 a month.
May 08

Bookstores Accommodating the Self-Published

In tomorrow's NYT is a juicy piece about self-publishing, but skip the article's opening moans and groans about how there are too many writers (they mean us). This is the news part:

". . .For the most part, big booksellers shy away from carrying self-published books. But they’re still looking to jump into the game. . . .

"The Borders site says self-published authors can even arrange readings in local Borders stores. . ."

And a big hint that a self-published author will soon be able to BUY space on bookstore shelves, if that's what he/she wants and can afford. (Vanity shelving!) That'll help keep the big-box bookstores open for a few more years -- because fewer people shop in those places anymore, unless they want Harry Potter or Rachael Ray. The surviving bookstores will be more like independent bookstores: smaller, and supportive of local authors; and a center for downloads. Or there will be small, dedicated book/media stores: one specializing in mysteries, one in romance, one in Spanish-language books, and so on.

Given that, and given all the new competition for readership -- what's your plan?
May 08

Choosing a Book Cover: A Matter of Self-Respect

Choosing a book cover is like getting married. It'll be with you a long time, so choose carefully; and there are penalties for changing it. Authors often are dead set on the covers they want, so they won't listen to reason, and commit to less than they should have; or they just "want it all over with, get the darned book out," and they settle. I wish more of them would take their time to make a really good choice. The right title and book cover is 70 percent of your book's success. NOBODY wants to buy a book that LOOKS self-published. Please RESPECT YOUR OWN WORK (I feel strongly about that) and  consider (and none of this costs you any money):

1. Research book covers you like and determine why you like them: Color? Typeface? Images? The way the title or image is placed?
2. While looking for covers you like, look for unappealing ones, and determine what makes them unattractive.
2. Although the book may well be for or about you, the cover is for your readership.
3. A good book cover contributes greatly to the book's success; a bad one repels buyers and readers.
4. #1 source of cover disasters: drawings, paintings, or photo images by, or of, the author's friends and relatives. Even your friend who is a professional artist will draw you a disaster when you dictate to him exactly what you want, such as a watercolor of the old home place, or a symbolic image.
5. No one will understand the symbolism of your symbolic image.
6. Script or fancy type fonts render titles unreadable. People who can't read the title can't want the book.
7. A book's title should be readable from 12 feet away.
8. If a book cover is solely words (title, and name of author) it had better be professionally designed, or it positively SCREAMS "self-published!"
9. A truism from the printing industry (where I began my career): Readers shun books with purple covers; no one knows why. Go into a bookstore and I will give you a dime for every purple cover you find.
10. Book covers are NOT the place for old family photos, a watercolor of the old home place, or a photo or image of you (costumed, or being yourself). These may mean a lot to you; they mean nothing to readers. A cover is not about you; it is a responsibility you have to your readership.  If you must have those pictures, put them INSIDE the book.
11. Images from the Internet may not be used without express written permission from the creators or you can be sued and have to change your cover.
12. Self-publishing companies offer generic covers. Everyone will recognize that they're generic and no one will respect your book.
13. If you plan to list on Amazon.com and other sites, remember that online, your book cover image will be one inch high. Can readers still see your title when your book cover is shrunk for online selling?

What costs money: Professional advice. Professional graphic artists familiar with book-cover standards. This is money you WON'T regret spending.

I'll soon post some disastrous covers so you can see what I mean.

Jan 22

I'm A Happy Little Cheat

Adjusting for subject matter and experience, a writer friend of mine, age 60, is as good a poet and essayist as Elizabeth Bishop -- to whom she has been compared. She published a book of poems (having won a competition) in 1991. She has three more books in manuscript. I guarantee you they are stunning. For a decade she sent them to publishers, receiving rejections mainly because they're literary and won't make money. She's worried that when she gets old and dies the manuscripts in her file will be thrown away.

I said to her, "What good are they in your file drawer? How about self-publishing?"

She found this idea distasteful. Self-published books are "not legitimate." But then she complained that a poet friend whose book was accepted three years ago by the "legitimate" LSU Press now hears it is scheduled to come out in 2010.

I said, "The system is broken. We all moan about how the publishing world is insane. We have to do things differently. Look," I said, "a book is a book. If you self-publish at least you'll have a book. It'll have an ISBN so people can find it. You can give it to libraries. You can give it away. Somebody somewhere will read your book."

My friend says it isn't legitimate. She wants to be legitimate more than she wants to publish. And she is getting what she wants.

Me? I'm publishing another book! It's essays this time. I am happy that my illegitimate books get bought and sold, and are in print, and in libraries, and on amazon.com, and not in my file drawer. I'm a happy little cheat who beat the system.
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