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  • Writer's pictureMatthew M C Smith

So you want a collection published?

Matthew M. C. Smith on literary presses and getting a book published.

Most poets I speak to want their poems to be published online and in print journals, culminating in collections of their work after experimenting with pamphlets/ chapbooks. The print option is, of course, the traditional route. Not everyone has this goal - some enjoy performing as spoken word artists or participating in collaborative projects; there are tracks less beaten, such as poetry films or weird and wonderful art installations, involving their words. And there’s making music which is one of the most ancient functions of poetry.

But the vast majority I know want to get published and have a collection of their own.

Getting a collection published is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, aspects of being a poet. Some people aren’t focused on this but most writers I know would love a collection of their work to read over, show others or pass on as a family heirloom.

Self-publishing via Amazon, Lulu or a local printer has never been easier but the task of editing and marketing your own work is not for the fainthearted. Having to design and produce your work with upfront costs and the burden of self-marketing is daunting.

When I self-published my first work Origin: 21 Poems, I remember how hard it was to sell copies over social media and even harder at in-person events. Not having the validation and backing of a literary press seemed like hawking an inferior product that no-one seemed to want – only kind souls or people identifying someone new and a little different on the scene. I remember the grind of selling it, how awkward I found this and the sticky situations like being asked if I would do a book swap with the worst poet in the room or arguing with friends who insisted on paying (so awkward)! I came to realise the merits of self-publishing – freedom and autonomy – being self-driven – but how easier my first book would have got out there with the support of a press. I believed in this work but without it being 'properly published' by a literary press, it felt a bit stigmatised.

I quickly learnt how strange my own approach was to becoming a 'poet'. I brought out a book as a 40th birthday bucketlist goal without publishing anything before or being any sort of presence in any poetry community. I did it all in a strange, unconventional way but I had a book to show people rather than published pieces fragmented in journals and on websites, which is a disadvantage of starting via the usual route.

I published my second book The Keeper of Aeons with Southport indie press, The Broken Spine, who did a great job in all aspects from design to distribution, via online sales. I will always be grateful to this press and its editor Alan Parry for showing such attention to detail and marketing my work over a long period, which helped me to get my work out there and generate more readers. This is an example of where an indie press can be a fantastic option – one that is really keen to connect to new audiences and look hard at marketing and promotion. Because they had no grant funding, rich patrons, crowdfunders, they were resting on no laurels and worked hard for every sale.

Another dilemma in the poetry industry is that even if poets get a publisher, there’s a root and branch issue from the smallest to largest publishers – marketing can be poor at best, abysmal at worst. As a writer and editor, I see brilliant collections come and go, with publishing houses giving a week or two of publicity and then they move on. The poetry world is not great at marketing and I can only think of a few presses that do it well, in a really sustained, enthusiastic way, by advertising their collections, getting reviews, nominating their writers for awards and keeping the buzz going over months, even a year. Much of this also depends on the energy and focus of the writer.

One of my gripes as a writer and editor is this – terrible publicity in an area of the creative arts that I love. I see how hard presses work to get the book done but how poor their publicity can be and the double problem then of how poor writers market themselves, both parties all too keen to move on to the next project. It’s no wonder as poetry is fantastically uncommercial. Some of the most prominent poets I know have shared with me in private how few copies they’ve sold and how over three or few years, their royalties have been nothing or in two figures – and this is well-known writers in my country and further afield. Poetry is super-niche, whatever we think about its resonance/ resurgence on social media. I have heard and read of royalties being 10- 20% of profits for the author as a standard and other presses giving a small number of copies to their authors - no royalties. No wonder when so few copies sell in such a niche creative field.

Unless poets are really savvy, super relevant, highly connected, or have work in teaching and the arts, it's almost impossible to make this lucrative in any way. If you want to do it for the money, get an extra job selling Avon products, flipping burgers on the weekend at the football, or take up some tutoring instead. Almost anything else would be more profitable.

As an editor working with writers, such as M.S. Evans, Matt Gilbert and Sarah Connor, I use three social media platforms to regular promote their work. This process happens over months and they have all been widely reviewed and nominated for awards. There have been opportunities for all of them to perform their work at virtual and/ or live events. All have had multiple opportunities to host events like TopTweetTuesday on Twitter and appear with other writers and their feature evenings. All have had, or will have royalties.

What I hope with their books is that they find plenty of readers, plenty of homes over the world, have super-positive critical reception and have impact, as measured by reader response. I would also hope that the books will still find readers in 6 months, 1 year, 3 years and so on. I also hope that through getting published with Black Bough it has led, or will lead, to greater things – new opportunities and connections for the writers as their name and work becomes widely known. Above all, it’s great as an editor to make a fuss of talent that might otherwise go overlooked. Black Bough’s not Faber, Carcanet or Bloodaxe but there’s plenty of heart, energy and noise in the press, a step-up for those looking to develop and make a name for themselves.

When writers want to get published they need to look at who will make a fuss of their work - who will make a strong, sustained attempt at promotion. Although the monetary gains are not to be made (labour of love for editor/ press and writers), the creative boost for both can be incredible. A sense of accomplishment, of life-achievement that few ever manage to achieve. That is why if you get a book published, your friends, family, acquaintances are almost always impressed and can lead to a new and more positive sense of self (that sense of achievement). That is its own reward because it’s hard - it takes guts, grit, talent, persistence.

If writers want to get a published collection out there into the world and find new audiences, they need a good editor, a strong say in the look of the book, some share in royalties without too much expectation of making much money and be in it for the love of the creative achievement. It should be an equal partnership between press and writer, proactive on both sides with respect going both ways and a growth mindset.

Black Bough Poetry have a submissions period for pamphlets/ chapbooks/ collections closing on 1st December 2023.

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