Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Some Thoughts About Submitting a Book Manuscript

I'm out in my writing shed so I don't have the numbers to how many times my poetry manuscript was rejected, but will get you that info. We were way into double-digits, but I'm interested in going back to see the first time I submitted it. More on that later, but for now, I thought I'd offer some suggestions about publishing a book.

While I'm definitely not the "all-knowing" poet because I had a manuscript chosen in a contest (I do believe a lot of winning is luck & timing), I wanted to offer some thoughts and questions to think about while submitting your work to save you time, money, and hopefully, your sanity. I think they are things I wished someone had mentioned to me before I started submitting--

1) Is your manuscript done? This could have saved me a lot of time and money as I realize I was submitting my manuscript before it was complete? Why? Because the manuscript was ready for publication, but I was.

It's something to think about-- is your manuscript really ready for publication or are you? If your mss isn't ready, ask yourself what you need to do to get it ready (i.e. put it in a better order, write more poems, find a title?) Have a little conversation with your manuscript and see what it needs (more on this later).

2) Submit only to presses you want to be published in. Okay, this sounds obvious, but I'm amazed at hearing how people aren't happy because they were chosen by X contest. I say, "X contest didn't just choose you, you sent them your work." "I know," they said, "but that was because I didn't think I
would win." Huh?

I think the thing here is, sometimes we lower our standards too much. We so want to be published it becomes-- you or someone like you. Then it's -- you or someone who might know you. Then it's-- you or really anyone, anyone, I'm feeling desperate here...and lonely.

Try to imagine being chosen by the press you send to, are you happy or disappointed that you weren't chosen by Press Z and now wondering if you should say yes.
- Do you like they way their books look?
- Are you proud of them out in the world?
- Do you like other poets this press has published?
- Would you be happy to tell someone this press published you?

If getting published by a certain press isn't going to make turn cartwheels, but make you feel like your settling, maybe it isn't the best press to submit to.

This is a very long way of saying what I said to begin with-- Submit only to presses you want to publish your book.

3) How do you feel about contests? There are a lot of poets who despise contests, I'm someone who doesn't for a lot of reasons. Here are some reasons I like poetry contests--

a) I think they are fun and I think winning something is fun and fun to tell people. Maybe this is my 7 year old girl-self, but it was really fantastic to win a book prize. Maybe this is the girl in me who never got the trophy (except from my good friend, Nancy as a birthday gift. It reads: Poetic Champion of the World (that always makes me smile).

b) These contests keep the press afloat! As much as some despise them, they are helping our independent presses stay alive! It's as if 300-900 people made $20 to $25 donations to the poetry presses of America. If that's how presses find the best way to get their money because people aren't buying books or making donations on their own, then so be it. It's not their job to help us out, it's their job to stay alive in a world of big publishers.

c) I like getting the winning book and (this might sound odd), but it feels more real or validating to me to have someone choose my book then for me to publish it on my own. I know that last one has to do with my insecurities, but I just thought I'd throw that out there because I bet may be a few of you who feel that way too.

4) Before you submit to a publisher, have someone else proof it for you and find the typos. There will be some, trust me on this!

5) Make sure to also send it to presses that don't run contests as they are cheaper and/or free. Pitt, Sarabande, Boa, are a few I immediately thought of that will take manuscripts submissions in certain months. Some require you to have already published a first book, some don't. But they are great presses and I would have been doing cartwheels to be chosen by any of these!

6) Ask yourself, "Are there any poems I need to write for this manuscript to be complete?" This is similar to #1 but a little different. I think many times we start with X number of poems then try to order them or pull out the weakest ones, but I think it's always a good idea to ask yourself what is missing?When I first showed my manuscript to peers in my MFA program, they felt it was missing emotion. It was so witty or smart and full of word play, which they liked, but overall it felt shallow. That was in 2006-2007 and I spent the next year rewriting it and adding poems that gave it more an emotional depth.

7) Know what would make you happy and follow that. Do you want to win a book prize or do you want to have a book to sell at readings? Do you want to be published by a prestigious press or do you want to published by a local press that isn't as well known? Do you just want to get your poems into the hands of readers or do you have a specific goal?

Some poets are just as happy by self-publishing their own book (they have full control, it's less money, etc) while others want to go with a press already in business, (it feels more prestigious or "real" to them, they don't have to do all the graphic work of creating a book, all the details like getting it on Amazon & the ISBN # are covered). Either way is a good way, you just have to know you.

I knew myself enough to know I wanted to go with a press already in business and I wanted my manuscript chosen by someone.

And if you go way back to my Artist Way Action Plan of May 2008 (the last one I did) it says this: Goal: Publish an Award-Winning Second Book of Poems.

I guess my final thoughts are know yourself and what you want and what would make you both happiest and the most satisfied. And find the best path for you. It's kind of both the best and worst parts of being a poet-- there's no one way. I think it's more of a good thing because there are so many roads to take to achieve whatever your goal is.

Anyway, just some thoughts to consider. Not the truth, not the facts, just maybe something to think about as you submit.

Oh and trust luck and timing, it's part of it in much of life's stories...



  1. i'm not one "qualified" to give advice (having been on the failing end of manuscript submission for awhile), but all of this rings true.

    i think writers should have an answer to the question, "why do you want such and such a press to publish your work?" and the answer should begin, "b/c such and such press is great at ______."

    the press you find will believe in your work, so the answer shouldn't be "they happened to be the ones that liked my poems." it has to be about a practical -- and likely, serendipitous -- match-up.

    kelli, these are great notes. thanks for sharing them!

  2. Kelli:

    Thanks for taking the time to share this information and experience. Valuable considerations.

  3. i decided to post this anonymously, but i normally comment openly. i was in such a hurry to get my first chapbook published that i entered many places whose work i had never seen before and when it was taken i was ok with the pub but really would have liked something a little different. this is definitely something to keep in mind. if you don't read the work of a particular publisher why send your book there?

    fantastic tips. keep up the good work kell! and congrats again :)

  4. I enjoyed your comments about this. I agree about giving the time and attention to put the poetry first, not letting the eagerness to be published get ahead of the actual writing.

    My experience with book publishing has been, I guess, fortunate, I think that would be one word for it. Aside from a very early book I self-published, with all of the other books I've published (through three publishers) I've known the publishers personally before I sent them manuscripts.

    And, in each case, they asked me to send them manuscripts, or it happened more or less mutually from knowing each other and general conversation. So, through very good luck I've mostly been able to avoid the relentless scramble of submitting manuscripts out in the world.

    My luck hasn't been perfect. In a couple of other cases, I've sent queries (again to publishers I knew as friends or friendly acquaintances) and they said no, for various routine reasons -- already have a full backlog of accepted manuscripts and forthcoming books, or lack of funds, etc. And there have probably been others I might have had a chance with, but I didn't have manuscripts ready, and when I did they were no longer publishing.

    Of course with each of the publishers who have published me, I had/have a great love and respect for the kind of poetry they've generally published, and for the books themselves (design, binding, graphics, etc.).

    It's hard for me to imagine sending a book manuscript to a publisher that didn't publish the kind of poetry I'd like to read. And I wouldn't be inclined to try to become "friendly" with a publisher or editor just on the off-chance that they might then publish me. In the end the poetry itself would suffer, I think.

  5. Early on in my submissions I received word that a co-op was interested in publishing my book IF:

    I put up a lot of the money AND gave over all editorial control.

    I said no, and though I have moments where I am wondering if my book will ever find a home, I know I did the right thing by turning down their offer.

    Now that I have had the book worked, tightened, and rejected because of not publishing a book of poetry in the year I submitted (I was told by the editor my manuscript kept coming to the top of the pile), I have decided to retire the manuscript. It's a tough decision, but all but two poems are more than seven years old, and others are 12 years old or more.

    It's a shame that it took me so long to get the manuscript ready to publish and know that its time has most likely come and gone. I submitted to every press I thought appropriate---both contest and non contest, and this last press is it. If it doesn't get accepted there (the press which told me to send again this year), then I am retiring it.

    Learning there might not be a place for my book was the most recent lesson I've learned.

  6. Thanks everyone, good thoughts!

    and Justin, maybe look at your mss in some time-- I think I feel this way because I really don't believe that there's a "time" for poems, but that good poems are timeless. Think about it. Maybe not now, but maybe later... ???


Always love to hear from you...and the anonymous option is open for those feeling shy.

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