Publishing poetry books: Will a traditional mainstream publisher sell your poems?

If you are a poet, you have probably thought about getting a poetry book published. Good poetry, many would argue, is tougher to write than prose. For the creator (the poet), it requires far more creativity and a much higher emotional quotient to write poems that inspire, move, entertain or compel the reader to think deeper.

But it is still a hell of a job to convince a mainstream publisher to print and sell your poetry book. Let’s look at why that happens and what options you have to get your poems published.

Why don’t publishers take poetry book proposals seriously?

Average quality fiction (that’s marketed well) that falls in a popular genre is easier to sell compared to good poetry. Look around you. How many published novels can you get your hands on, which make you wonder how the author managed to crash through the super-selective manuscripts submission process of the publisher? There was probably something the publishing company saw in the author that went beyond the quality of writing.

Evaluating the market potential of poetry books is tough. Maybe I’m ignorant about this, but I find it easier to slot fictiona and non-fiction into well-defined commercial categories – science fiction, romance, young adult, thriller, self-help, autobiographies and many others. For each category there are tons of books available that set the benchmark. For publishers, it is easier to compare your manuscript to the others they’ve already published.

Publishers have probably burnt their fingers in the earlier days when they were a little more experimental. In the current environment, with book sales dwindling, the appetite for risk has gone down substantially. They want to be relatively sure that they’ll get back the money they invest in publishing your poetry book.

Having said that, poets haven’t disappeared from the planet. You can still see poetry books being published by traditional publishers. So there is something that other poets are doing that’s working for them. Try to find out what that is, and see if you can create a gameplan for yourself.

How can you publish a poetry book?

Step 1: Build your credentials as a poet.

If you have had no track record as a poet, then there’s no way for publishers to know if popular magazines, websites or poet communities value your talents. If you’ve won prizes in poetry contests (small or big), that’s a feather in your cap. Look for other feathers to add colour and credibility to your profile.

Step 2: Work on building your fan-base before you publish the book.

If you are active on social media (Twitter, Facebook et al) and you have a respectable number of followers / friends / fans (or whatever term the site uses to indicate your network power), that’s a good indication for publishers to get a feel for your reach.

Step 3: Give your poetry a unique brand, style.

This is a little difficult to do consciously. But if you write about something that you are passionate about, if you use words that people can comprehend easily (without needing a dictionary), if you write about topics that many can identify and connect with… and if you’ve been doing this for long enough, the branding will develop naturally.

Step 4: Evaluate traditional and alternative options to reach your goals.

Carry out your research on mainstream publishers who have published poetry books. Here’s a tip to make life easier. Rather than building a big list of publishers and then digging deeper to find out whether they publish poetry, do it the other way around.

– Go to popular online book stores and brick-and-mortar book shops. Head straight to the poetry section.

– Check out the book spine to see what logos appear more frequently than others. Jot down the publisher names [and possibly other details like the theme of the book, when this was first published, how many times it’s been reprinted (sign of popularity), and country of publishing].

– Head back home and then check out the poetry submission guidelines on their website.

– You know the rest of the drill: query letter – proposal – publishing contract – party!

The other easier option, of course, is to go to a vanity publisher or take the self-publishing route. But that’s not the focus of this article, so we’ll save it for another day.

Any poets lurking on this blog? What has been your experience with publishers when you approached them with your poetry book proposal?

23 Comments

  1. Dr. Urwashi Parmar says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I had 1 query to ask u. It is not related to the post I am leaving the comment on. After reading your blog, I came to know about the concept of literary agents. Before that I used to directly contact various publishers.

    When I came to know about Jacaranda Literary Agents I send them my script according to their submission guidelines. Subsequently, I came to know of another literary agent Urmila Dasgupta of Purple Folio. I send her my script too.

    Jacaranda has replied nothing as yet but Urmila did respond pretty fast. After some days of submitting the script to Urmila (Purple Folio)she gave me comments as to why my novel is inappropriate & would not be accepted by publishers.

    Though I do agree with most of her comments, there is 1 thing that has left me thinking. She has offered me her editorial services at 30,000 Rs. to make the book more acceptable by the publishers. After she finishes editing my script she would then again start pitching it to publishers.

    Should the manuscript be given to literary agents for editing & would this increase the chances of acceptance of my book?

    Regards,
    Dr. Urwashi.

  2. Sameer says:

    Urwashi,

    It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the operating model by this or any other agency. Different strokes for different folks.

    But as a general rule, I’d personally prefer working with teams where I’m convinced that there’s no conflict of interest and a better alignment of commercial goals (between the agent, author and publisher).

    If one party gets a substantial chunk of money paid upfront, there’s probably little incentive to get the best deal for your book and then have the patience to wait till the royalty starts rolling in.

    My agent sold my book to HarperCollins without a single word edited (and I admit, the manuscript wasn’t perfect at all). The publisher saw potential in it, sent me the publishing contract to sign. After that an editor was assigned (by my publisher) and I didn’t pay a single Rupee for any of the excellent editing that he did.

    You might want to re-visit this post on hiring freelance editors to proof read and edit books.

  3. Dr. Urwashi Parmar says:

    Sameer,

    Thanks.

    Regards
    Urwashi.

  4. I’ve accustomed myself to poems, write ups behind science and maths books since childhood. This is my attempt to get public critics for the things I believe in.
    URL
    http://www.ihopewelastt.blogspot.in

  5. Amrita says:

    Hey,

    I have been writing poetry for almost 6 years now. And i want to publish it as well. But truly, there are no feathers in my cap. I haven’t participated in poetry contests, but i know that my poetry has a mass appeal becaise its almost like i am narrating a part of your life. What should I do. I have a collection of 50 poetry, i have invested 6 years in writing them, and it will be a shame if i cannot get them published just because I haven’t participated in contests. Will the good publishers not be interested in my work at all. Please help..

    Amrita

  6. Sameer says:

    That’s exactly where the disconnect stems from, Amrita.

    Most writers look at it as an emotional investment, while for publishers it is a pure commercial decision.

    If you can bridge that gap, you’d get closer to your goal.

    Winning contests is not the magic key to getting published. It’s just one way of demonstrating credibility. The bigger question is – will the publishers recoup their investment AND make some profit?

    Probably point 2 in the article above might be the way to go. If you have a loyal base of folks who appreciate it from an emotional standpoint, you’d have more options to think about.

    Till then, keep the faith.

  7. Anirudha says:

    Hey Sameer,

    Well I am a poet and participated in some of the weekly poetry outings in Bangalore.

    I have done almost all of the above 4 steps 🙂 and I have been scouting for publishers and most of them I come across dont publish poetry or they turn out to be ‘vanity’ publishers. .

    Would you probably know of genuine publishers who would publish without taking money ?

    Cheers
    Anriudha

  8. Sameer says:

    Anirudha,

    Point 4 involves doing a little market survey (through bookstores) to find out which publishers have published poetry.

    What are the names that came up? Have you approached them?

  9. Anirudha says:

    Hi Sameer,

    Yes I have the list after a market research I have done going to shops and going to the poetry section and I yes I have approached them .Some have stopped taking submissions for the moment, and others have asked for money to publish the book .
    May be the places I have gone( the book stores of the likes of crosswords to start off) and the publishers I have asked could be a smaller list ,and could there be more ? I am yet to find out, hence the search is on . .
    If you do know of any publisher willing to publish let me know , would be of great help to many other poets I know of like me scouting for one.
    ( not sure if this forum would be the right place to name the publishers, hence I dint )
    Cheers
    Anirudh

  10. Sameer says:

    Anirudh,

    I don’t think any traditional publisher will proactively hunt for poetry books (for the reasons mentioned in the post above).

    If they are approached by authors/poets/artists with a proposal that they find really interesting, they might take it up.

    So I’m afraid I don’t have any publisher names to share with you.

  11. Mohit Goyal says:

    Hi Sameer,

    very well written article, and equally well-handled queries. I’m particularly enlightened when you say, “for publishers, its purely a commercial decision”

    So here’s a publisher who after reading some of my poetry, is willing to publish it but only a very few copies and that too, to be sold online. He reasons that “brick-and-mortar sales for a new/unknown poet and his work is almost impossible, and therefore any such effort has to be made by author himself”

    would you recommend me going ahead with such a publisher?

  12. Sameer says:

    Mohit,

    Thanks for your encouraging words.

    If it is a big brand, reputed, traditional, mainstream etc etc publisher, then you could consider the option. Purely for credibilty reasons as you get branded as a mainstream author.

    If not, there’s very little benefit that you get from signing up with them.
    Here’s why:

    – They can’t edit your poems (like they can with fiction/non-fiction books).
    – You aren’t going to use their distribution and retailing channels.

    Even after the print version of my book had been published by a top publisher, here’s why I chose to publish my ebook.

  13. Nabanita says:

    Hi Sameer, I would like to know who is your agent. I’m working on a fiction novel and would like to get in touch with him. Will be grateful if you can provide/mail the details of your agent, at least give him/her name. Please.

    Good wishes
    Nabanita

  14. Sameer says:

    Nabanita, I’ve interviewed my agent here –> Jacaranda Literary Agency.

  15. Nabanita says:

    Thanks a lot for being helpful.. 🙂

  16. Anson says:

    Hello sir,
    Whats the scope in the graphic novels and comics genre for writers in india coz i have some 5-6 interconnected superhero stories which have been appreciated by quite many people who think it will make good profit if its made into a movie but print media is my first love no matter how glorious it might look in the big screens so i need some insights on the graphic novel genre market in india. Can you please guide me?
    Thank you very much.
    Regards.

  17. Tania says:

    Can you please suggest some good poetry book publishers?

  18. @Anson: My knowledge about that genre is very limited.

    @Tania: I am not aware of any publishers who’d focus on poetry. For the reasons mentioned in the post above, they need to keep their portfolio diverse enough to bring in the money.

  19. Prakash Jha says:

    Dear Sameer,

    Thanks for the valuable information. Can you suggest any good poetry publishers if any?

    Regards,
    Prakash

  20. Ramsundar says:

    This is Ramsundar from Mumbai. I am a writer, written many poems and short stories. I have my own collection of short stories.

    Now wish to publish my stuff.
    Pls guide me to proceed further. Let me know how to proceed?

    Thanks and Regards
    Ramsundar
    8108145364/ 09920915381

  21. Arshiyaa says:

    Hi Sameer,

    Thank you so much for sharing all this information. I am a poetess and I already have a blog. I recently finished a manuscript and I was wondering if it is a wise to approach a publisher not based in India?

  22. Kunal Rathod says:

    Very true.
    But I would like to know what are the various challenges one may encounter while publishing an anthology (poems). I’m a poet myself and currently writing poems based on various social themes like Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Gujarat 2002 riots, Challenges one faces in adolescence, etc. This would form the main structure of my book. But I don’t have any idea whether there is a market for poets or not.

  23. Bhyrava says:

    Hello Sameer,

    This blog post was written four years ago, but is very informative. I am aware things might have changed a lot since then, and I hope you get to update more info on publishing poetry.

    I am looking to publish my poetry, too – my poems have been independently published in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature and Muse India already. I’ve also done a stint with ttt and published a tale, if that counts.

    Do you have any advice as to how to proceed?

    Thanks.

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