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Lessons from a Poetry Submissions Party

This past Saturday, I spent the afternoon with my writing group submitting poetry to literary magazines. While many of us poets publish at least some work on our personal blogs, literary journals are the best way to increase the visibility of our poems and, of course, to build credentials toward one day publishing a “real” poetry book.

The submissions process is not for the faint of heart. It entails choosing—from hundreds of literary magazines—where to submit, determining which five poems to send each magazine, tailoring a cover letter, precisely following each magazine’s rules, bravely pressing the Submit button, and then waiting up to six months for a response. Even the word “submission” is intimidating!

As there are quite a few parallels to the nonfiction-book world, I thought I’d share lessons I’ve learned from the poetry submissions process over the years.

Lesson 1: Treat submissions like a business.

Poet and friend Cheryl Wilder offers this advice: “When you get ready to submit your work, stop editing. Don’t think about the creative side. Detach. Look at things methodically and objectively.”

I couldn’t agree more. You use different skill sets and thought processes for creation versus distribution. Separate the process of writing from that of deciding how and where to publish. As Seth Godin says, stop tinkering and ship!

Lesson 2: Make your own rules.

For poetry submissions, I have several rules for determining which lit mags I’ll send my work to:

  • The journal must be somewhat known and respected. (Of course in the real world most people won’t have heard of these journals, but in the literary world they should have a viable reputation.)
  • Submissions must use an online process. (No postal submissions for me! Too much hassle.)
  • Submissions must be free. (There is a trend in literary magazines to charge a small reading fee of $3–5. Regardless of amount, I have a philosophical problem with paying someone to read my work, especially because they will most likely say No thank you.)
  • The editors must have a reasonable response time. (Lit mags often take three to six months to respond. I understand the inner workings of these publications, so I have patience, but if they can’t commit to responding within six months, that’s just not acceptable to me.)
  • The magazine must allow simultaneous submissions. (Most journals accept work that is submitted multiple places at the same time; this is called a simultaneous submission. However, some journals insist you send your work ONLY to them, and leave it with them while they decide yes/no. With turnaround times of up to six months? Nope.)

For a nonfiction book, you’re looking at a different process with query letters and proposals, but these types of rules apply in some form as well. You are the author. You get to choose who to work with and how you will allow yourself to be treated.

Lesson 3: Find the right fit.

Among the hundreds of literary journals, my work clearly fits some better than others. And that’s the tricky part: finding the right fit. It takes time to read sample work from multiple journals, and even if a journal seems like a fit, the editors may be tired of that style and looking for something new. They may be in a bad mood the day they read your work, or they may have just published something similar.

Many things—completely unrelated to quality—lead to rejection. But do your best to find a publisher that suits your writing. Don’t waste your time or the editors’ time sending your work to an inappropriate publication.

Lesson 4: Play the numbers game.

The last time I got serious about submitting my poetry was a few years ago. That year I set a goal of three submissions a week, and I did reasonably well meeting that target. By the end of the year, I had a 7% acceptance rate, which meant a 93% rejection rate. This is entirely normal!

Now, there’s no such thing as getting 7% of a book accepted. So consider how many rejections you might get before the acceptance finally arrives. Even assuming a reasonable fit (see Lesson 3), it’s still a numbers game.

Lesson 5: Publishing helps you write.

After our submissions party I arrived home exhausted. All that work to send seven submissions of five poems each. Thirty-five poems. If my average holds, I might get two of those accepted… maybe… if I’m lucky… and the editor is in a good mood. But I felt great! Getting my work out into the world—even if it is ultimately rejected—inspired me to keep writing. And I know from experience that having a poem accepted (woot!) inspires me even more.

Books are obviously a different animal—you don’t just throw 35 books out there and see which one sticks. But you could send out related articles or guest blog posts, thereby getting a publication fix and building some name recognition. Who isn’t motivated by that?

Lesson 6: Submissions get less scary over time.

OMG I remember the first time I started submitting my poetry. I had no idea what I was doing! The whole first year was one big experiment. How do I do this? What kind of response will I get? Are my cover letters OK?

Over time the process got easier. Of course I didn’t want to intentionally waste anyone’s time, but I became less concerned about whether the editors liked my poetry. I couldn’t get a yes unless I got some no’s along the way. (If you’re in sales, you know this mindset.) I still get nervous sending my work to a stranger, but I press the Submit button much more quickly.

Lesson 7: Cookies, wine, and friends will sustain you.

Until you reach the point where submitting your work is old hat, and even then, make it a fun process. We had lunch and holiday cookies—and wine when the inevitable irritations cropped up.

Sharing your work with friends may not lighten the manual load, but it does lighten the emotional load. Even if you’re a disciplined submissions machine, it helps to have support. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but humans—and that includes writers!—are social creatures.

Ready to submit?

Whether you write poetry or nonfiction books, putting your work in an editor’s or publisher’s hands opens you up to vulnerability—and possibility. After you get the inevitable slew of rejections, when you finally receive an acceptance… boy, does it feel great.

Are you ready to submit your work?


Not sure if your manuscript is ready to send out? Wondering if it needs something else before you self-publish? You might find a manuscript intensive helpful. We’ll take a strategic, critical (in the best sense of the word) look at whether it is helping you meet your goals.

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