When I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts from the University of Iowa, and before I began coursework on my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University, I already had a huge interest in writing and publishing—but I had no idea how the publishing business worked, especially in terms of sending my poems to magazines for publication. The result was that I made many embarrassing mistakes, which probably burned some bridges with more than a few well-meaning but understandably irritated editors. Hopefully, this packet of information—in conjunction, of course, with dedication to the craft itself—will help you avoid some of my mistakes, and put you on the fast-track (or, at least, a slightly faster track) to getting your work published.
CHOOSING WHICH JOURNALS TO SUBMIT TO
There are a few things to understand when it comes to journals. First, there are lots of them. Hundreds, in fact, and more are springing up all the time. Some are associated with universities; some are independent. Some are strictly printed journals, while others are “ezines”, or electronic magazines, and are published entirely on the internet. Some journals are more well-regarded than others, while some that are not quite so academically popular might actually contain work that is more to your liking. Choosing a journal that you like—and thus, should submit to—is a very subjective process.
It’s very easy to get impatient and want to just blindly send your work out ASAP—after all, you spent so much time writing and polishing it—but the basic rule of thumb with journals is that before you ever submit your work, take some time to actually read the journal and see what sort of stuff the editors are interested in. Is it narrative, lyrical, experimental, etc? Do they seem to publish work that is aesthetically similar to your own, or stuff that is very different? Remember: if you don’t particularly care for the work in a specific journal, odds are those particular editors won’t care for your work, either. This isn’t personal; we just all happen to be in a very subjective business, so it behooves you to find your niche before you start exposing your work to the world.
Bookstores tend to carry only a few literary journals (that is, journals that publish literary poetry and/or fiction and creative nonfiction), but your local library may have more. Also, most journals have websites with their specific submission guidelines; some even have sample poems for your review. Don’t be in a hurry; take some time to read through these journals, and even make a list of the ones you enjoy. If they seem to publish stories or poems similar to your own, you should submit there. Another thing I highly recommend is to find books by actual writers whose work you like and look over their acknowledgements page; where are they publishing? If journals liked the works of writers you like, they might like yours, too.
HOW DO I ACTUALLY SUBMIT MY STUFF?
Once you’ve located your target journals, it’s time to begin submitting your work. However, it’s not just as simple as folding your poems or stories into an envelope and mailing them to the editors. Most journals have very specific guidelines about how much you can submit at a time, what dates of the year you may submit, and sometimes even the length of the poems or stories they accept and who, specifically, they should be addressed to. As a general rule, though, no magazine wants to receive more than one prose work or a certain number of poems at a time; also, don’t send another batch of poems or another story until the editors have responded to the first batch.
Journals are also usually very specific about whether or not they accept simultaneous submissions. A simultaneous submission is when you send the same poem or story for consideration to more than one journal at the same time. Nowadays, in recognition of how competitive the publishing field is, and how long it can take even the most dedicated editors to sift through stacks and stacks of submissions and reply to your specific work, many journals now accept simultaneous submissions. However, some don’t. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to send your work to many journals simultaneously (which may make publication a lot faster), or send them only to one journal at a time, and wait for their reply before sending them out again.
Once you’ve figured out how many poems or how long a story a given journal will accept, as well as whether or not they accept simultaneous submissions, you now have to write your cover letter, format your poems or story, and send them off. It should be noted that some journals (especially “ezines”, and a growing number of quality print journals like Hayden’s Ferry, Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, etc.) will allow you to send your submission via the internet. Others want it typed, printed, and sent via regular mail. In the case of the latter, you should always enclose a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) with your submission. In most cases, if you send your work to a printed journal without a SASE, your submission will be discarded unread, since the editors will have no way to inform you of their decision, as they simply receive too many submissions to pay for replies themselves.
I have enclosed a sample of the format I use for cover letters, but in general, you want to keep this short and sweet. The general rule of cover letters: do no harm. Be brief and formal; avoid flowery descriptions or explanations of your own work, since it’s better to let the work speak for itself. Also, if possible, take the time to find out who the editor of the journal actually is, and address your submission accordingly (instead of the generic “Dear Poetry Editor” or “Dear Fiction Editor”). This is a good way to show respect for the editor(s) and journal you’re asking to publish your work.
Like your cover letter, unless the journal’s guidelines say otherwise, your submission should be in a standard, readable font with normal margins and your name, postal address, phone number, and email address in the upper right corner of each page. If you’re sending poetry, only send one poem per page, single-sided. This applies to electronic submissions, too. One of the quickest ways to get your manuscript rejected is to annoy editors by crowding two or three poems onto one page.
Also, let’s say you’re sending a poem that is more than one page long. At the bottom of each page that continues over, tab over a few spaces and write whether or not there is a stanza break (see example at the end of this packet). Remember to have your identifying information on every subsequent page of the poem, and also type at the top of the page the poem’s title and what page this is of the poem (for example, “The Greatest Poem Ever Written”, page 2 of 3). This is a good idea in case the pages of your submission get accidentally shuffled out of order.
You will quickly discover that once you build up a large body of poems or stories that you’re sending out, it gets very difficult to remember what you sent where, and when. You do not want to send the same piece to the same journal twice, unless the editor specifically invites you to do so. If you revise a piece, still do not send it back to a journal that rejected it unless it’s requested (another of those “don’t annoy the editor!” rules). Many journals keep records of who submitted what, and if they see the same piece cross their desks a second time, they might conclude that it was an error on your part and not read the revision anyway (remember, some editors receive literally thousands of submissions every year).
To help you avoid mistakes, it’s a good idea to maintain careful records with a spreadsheet that lists the names of your poems or stories, and where (and, if you like, when) you submitted them. Also, this is a good thing to do in case the allotted time goes by (most journals’ websites list how long it normally takes them to reply to submissions) and you still haven’t received an acceptance or rejection. In these cases, write a brief, formal letter (or email) to the journal in question, politely asking about the status of your work.
OK, THEY ACCEPTED MY WORK… NOW WHAT?
You come home, go through a stack of returned SASEs or emails, and find—instead of that disappointingly small rejection slip—an actual acceptance from an editor. Congrats! This is a great feeling. But there’s a little bit of work that goes with it, too.
First, if you submitted your work simultaneously, and one journal accepts it, you must immediately write (or email) all the other journals to which you submitted that poem or story and politely withdraw it from consideration. (This is yet another reason why it’s important to keep careful records.)
Important: Nowadays, more and more journals are taking electronic submissions (especially through submittable.com) so check the journal’s guidelines and see what they want you to do; they might want you to email them and withdraw one poem, or they might want you to withdraw your entire submission online, then resubmit the poems that are still available. (If you’re submitting fiction, odds are you’re only submitting one piece, so it’s a little bit easier.)
Some journals will want you to submit an electronic copy of your work (i.e. email it to them). Another thing that serious, publishing writers have to understand is Rights. Most journals—especially print journals—will only accept work that is previously unpublished. In other words, they want “First Rights” to publish the work.
When you look through the guidelines of printed journals, you will notice that virtually all of them will not accept previously published work. Many “ezines” won’t, either. However, some “ezines” will. This is called “Reprint Rights”. As a general rule, if your work has been previously published, say so in your cover letter—although you don’t need to state that if your work is unpublished (editors will assume that).
PRINT JOURNALS VERSUS “EZINES”
You should never send an unpublished poem (i.e. offer “First Rights”) to a journal unless you would be happy having your work appear there. As we already discussed, some journals are more highly regarded than others. “Ezines” in particular, which are a relatively new phenomenon, aren’t always well respected by the literary community. However, this trend is rapidly changing. Given the ever-rising popularity of the internet, “ezines” can still be a good publishing outlet because they can give your work a great deal of exposure. Also, some are willing to accept previously published material anyway, whereas the majority of print journals are not. Personally, I like to publish my work in both printed journals and “ezines” whenever possible, but it is tough sometimes to decide where I should submit my work first. To simplify this: remember this golden rule: don’t waste time sending out something that isn’t ready to be published, and only submit your work to a magazine you like.
REJECTION SLIPS—DON’T GIVE UP!!
Even Pulitzer Prize-winning authors can still receive rejection slips and form letter emails. Nobody likes them, but everybody gets them. That’s just the way it is. Remember that this is a very subjective, incredibly competitive business. Just because the editors of one journal didn’t care for this or that particular piece doesn’t mean that it won’t be greeted with enthusiasm by the next journal, or the journal after that. For example, I’ve placed poems in journals and won contests with poems that were previously rejected by other journals. Receiving a rejection slip does not necessarily mean that the editors didn’t enjoy your work. Sometimes, they’re just backlogged, or what you submitted might be too similar to something they’ve already published. Remind yourself that this isn’t personal. Like anything worthwhile, publishing is difficult. It requires persistence. More than anything else, you have to believe in your own work!
POETRY CONTEST SCAMS—BEWARE!
Due to the relatively small market for poetry—even smaller than that of literary fiction—there are, unfortunately, some nefarious agencies out there who are very willing to take advantage of poets who are new to the publishing world by trying to flatter them out of their money. The most notorious is Poetry.com (aka Poets.com, The International Library of Poetry, the National Library of Poetry, The International Society of Poets, the International Poetry Hall of Fame, etc., also affiliated with www.picture.com which tries to do the same thing to amateur photographers).
These agencies accept virtually everything they receive, so long as it doesn’t contain profanity or derogatory remarks about the agency itself. Usually, they don’t even read the submissions they receive; they are simply scanned for profanity and derogatory remarks, then sent on for “publication” in overpriced, cheaply-made anthologies that are cranked out by the dozen. The typical method of operation of these organizations is to offer lots of flattery and automatically assure contributors that they are “finalists” or “semi-finalists”, regardless of the quality of their submitted work. In fact, people have gotten published in their anthologies who literally submitted brownie recipes!
If you’ve been taken in by such a contest, don’t be hard on yourself. When I was new to the publishing world, I was taken in, too. So are many others. We all want people to accept the writing we’ve worked so hard on, to accept us, and these groups are very convincing with their flattery—which is how they’ve managed to stay in business. As a general rule, remind yourself that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if a contest alleges that it throws out monetary prizes left and right, be very wary. Whenever you hear about a new contest, do an internet search on its name, along with key words like “scam”, and see what you find.
I tend to get on a soapbox when it comes to the potential evils of self-publishing so in the interest of keeping my blood sugar from sky-rocketing, I’d encourage you to check out my screed at: http://troublewithhammers.blogspot.com/2012/02/writing-on-wall-perils-of-self.html.
REPRINTING THINGS IN BOOKS
OK, let’s say that down the road, you’ve built up a body of poems or stories and you want to try and publish them as a chapbook and/or a full-length book. There are some important things you have to know. This gets back to “First Rights” but as a general rule, poems or stories published in journals can be republished in chapbooks, and whatever’s in chapbooks can be republished in full-length books, but only in that order! For instance, you can’t publish (or self-publish) a book or chapbook, then later, send those poems or stories out to journals (unless the journals are willing to consider previously published material, and most aren’t). You can also publish things in a book that weren’t published individually in journals; in fact, most poetry books and short story collections contain at least 50% previously unpublished material.
WAIT… WHAT THE HELL IS A CHAPBOOK?
Chapbooks are basically shorter versions of books. They’re usually around 20 to 30 pages, are cheaper to produce, and therefore don’t cost as much as traditional books (meaning they can be sold for less, usually as a means of promotion). Many writers (especially poets) will try to put together a chapbook as a way of getting their work out there. A word of caution, though…
FIRST BOOK CONTESTS
Especially for poets, since we’re talking about a pretty small audience and very little money to be made, many opt for going the contest route so they can get a little extra exposure. It’s crucial to consider the contest guidelines, though. Let’s say you want to enter a First Book contest, but you’ve already published a chapbook. You check the guidelines and see that writers who have published chapbooks but not full books are eligible. OK, no problem. But let’s say you’re trying to enter a contest that won’t consider entries from authors who have already published a book or a chapbook… and you just self-published your own chapbook or put it online. Well, that means you’re not eligible… and it’s another reason to avoid the very real, very understandable temptation to let your impatience get the best of you. That the powerful play goes on, wrote Walt Whitman, and you might contribute a verse. Sure, you’re in a hurry, but spend as much time as you can on the actual crafting of your writing, and spend at least a decent amount of time weighing your different options for publication.
Publishing your writing in well-respected venues is difficult, but there’s a wealth of legitimate, online resources to help you along the way as a publishing writer. Two of the very best, most informational resources are Poets and Writers (www.pw.org), and AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, www.awpwriter.org). I highly recommend checking these out—not just for information on journals and legitimate contests, but also for other tips and resources that can help you on your way.
In terms of finding guidelines and info on journals, another great resource is www.duotrope.com, which allows you to search for journals that specifically want poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, simultaneous submissions, etc.
An excellent list of print journals that accept online submissions (plus a few decent ezines) can be found at: http://dianelockward.blogspot.com/2009/02/journals-that-accept-e-mail-online.html
SAMPLE COVER LETTER
Your Name, Address, and Email
Journal's Name and Address
DateDear [Name or "Editors"],
Please consider the enclosed, simultaneously submitted poems for Best Journal Ever: “Once Again, I Fail to Learn Quantum Physics”, “Dear Leviticus”, “The Secret Lives of Rocket Scientists”, “The Best Advice”, “Surgeon General’s Warning”, and “On the Bright Side.”
I have enclosed a SASE for your reply but I do not need my manuscript returned [obviously, you wouldn’t use the previous sentence in an electronic submission]. Thank you for your time and attention.
AUTHOR’S BIO [This can also be given in First Person as a 2nd paragraph in your cover letter, or left out entirely]
Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Cream City Review, and other journals, and can be read online at www.troublewithhammers.com. He is the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review.
SAMPLE EMAIL WITHDRAWING YOUR WORK
Dear [Name or "Editors"],
Please withdraw my poem, “Dear Leviticus,” from consideration at this time, as it was just accepted elsewhere. I appreciate your time and attention and apologize for any inconvenience.
BELOW IS A SAMPLE FORMAT FOR A ONE-PAGE POEM
My Contact Info
ODE TO DOGS
I am tired of hearing about dogs
used as metaphors for the uncivilized.
Imagine a world in which humans
possessed at least twenty times
as many olfactory receptors,
able to distinguish the tang of cancer
rising musk-like from the bedsheets
next to a smoldering ash tray,
able to detect that one drop of blood
in every five quarts of water,
to know what you did last night
no matter how many times
you soap-scrubbed the evidence.
It does not take savagery
but more love than we can muster
to lick the hand you've sniffed,
to love despite the perfume of sins
we wear each day like a halo.
BELOW IS A SAMPLE FORMAT FOR A TWO-PAGE POEM
My Contact Info
THE CLAY-SHAPER’S HUSBAND
Here I am, confronting this bowl
kept under guard and pressurized glass
in the archway of the St. Louis Art Museum,
and somehow it feels good
to note that it’s not all that impressive.
Clean, sure, and smooth, but plain.
Like this was just the demonstration piece
by the teacher of a pottery class
who has fired his kiln so many times
he could—and does—do it while drunk.
Then I see the note on the plaque
that says this was made by a woman,
which apparently they can tell
by the curves petrified within the swirl-print.
That, I decide, must explain the absence
of a hunt-carving. Say, a bison
turned sideways in an empty field
while some scrawny fool hefts a spear
that looks, coincidentally, about as thick
as his own and the bison’s legs.
But this one lacks adornment,
which is a nice way of saying it’s boring
to someone raised on video games,
who nods off in movie theaters
whenever spaceships stop exploding.
Now should be the story’s turn
where I visualize the ancient woman
who shaped this and try
to pull off some simple, heroic ending
that shows her bronze wrists
[OK, since this is online, pretend you were just looking at a page and it ended right below (stanza break)]
My Contact Info
(Clay-Shaper’s Husband, page 2 of 2)
deep in Nile mud, hair up, her infant crying
because that’s what infants do
—especially in 2000 B.C.
without canned applesauce and Pedialyte.
I am leaving the museum now.
Giving up, I think not of my clay-shaper
but the men next to her. How one, at least,
must have thought it a miracle
when her small hands rounded the earth
and left it that way. How could he know better?
Perhaps this was the same man
whose eyes drew lines between the stars
while the others laughed at him.
No one saw the hunter, the bull, the ladle
no matter how he pointed.
But she saw, I bet. That’s why
she gave him that bulb of pottery
the size of a baby cabbage.
Here, she said. Love what you can touch.
And he did, washing her small hands like jewels.
That's it. Naturally, all of this could be appended with "In My Opinion" or "In My Experience." Anyway, I hope that was helpful! Best of luck!