My First Book of Poetry: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Independent Presses (Part II of III)
Frances Justine Post
I am not ashamed to tell you that my debut book of poetry, Beast, was rejected 70+ times over an approximately 5 year period before it was finally accepted and turned into an object in the world this past January. When I counted up these numbers after the fact, I was shocked. I was also a little proud of my previously unacknowledged combination of hope, persistence, self-delusion, and/or insanity. I'm not sure which of these words describes my persistence in the face of rejection the most.
I am not ashamed to tell you that when I got the email from Augury Books, I stared at it in shock and befuddlement, thinking it was a mistake. After all the hours of revising and writing and submitting, I had never actually considered this moment, the moment when someone finally said "yes."
I have been lucky. I have had individual poems published, I have received awards, I have gotten good workshop comments and support from my professors, but someone was finally saying "yes" to what felt like my entire vision of the world. I was never actually sure that it would happen. If you are feeling this same way, I would like to offer advice in the hopes that, like me, you can thicken your skin and persist in your belief in your writing.
PART II: Submitting Your Manuscript
Stop submitting only to book prizes
While the acclaim and name-recognition of winning a well-known prize is nice, it's not the only way. More than ever, this is the Golden Age of Indie Publishing. Independent poetry presses are publishing the most daring, mind-blowing work. As a whole, they are not concerned with making money like the publishing behemoths of yore. They are interested in finding voices that speak to them. One of those voices may be yours.
"Diversify your holdings" by submitting to open reading periods
Of course, no one can resist the siren call of the Yale Younger or APR or the Walt Whitman Award, and you shouldn't either. Maybe you will be the lucky one to be plucked from the hundreds of submissions by John Ashbery. It happens for someone every year. But, like in the stock market, you've got to "diversify your holdings." Of all my advice, this is the one thing you absolutely must do. First of all, it is usually free or significantly less expensive to submit to open reading periods. And, if there is a fee, you often get to choose a free book or two to receive in return.
Contest versus Open Reading Period
With book prizes, the editors of a press or contest winnow down the submissions to a smaller number, but then the actual decision leaves their hands and the judge decides who wins. The book that is ultimately chosen may or may not be their first choice, but they still must support it. However, if your book is chosen through an open reading period, you know that the editors themselves will be very invested in your work. They have chosen you because they believe in you. In my experience, this makes all the difference. They want your voice in the world, so they will work really hard to make that happen.
Contests are like Ivy League universities for the Po Biz
I'm not telling you this just because my book was taken by an independent press. I have come out the other side and all my preconceived notions that I should win a big prize through a well-known contest became just an unnecessary "should." A should that was making the process so much harder, like applying to Ivy League universities just because everyone else was, even though I really wanted to go to an art school (which is what I ended up doing for undergraduate after lots of fees and heartache). If you win a contest, excellent! I am just trying to tell you that there is more than one way.
Don't do blanket submissions
You will just end up wasting your resources and time. With open reading periods, it really is possible to submit to presses who you think might line up with your aesthetics. Figuring out aesthetics is tricky and everyone does it differently. See below for how I do it.
Check out the press's authors
Who has the press published? If they have a contest, who was a finalist? Are there names on there that you know and like, who maybe line up with your aesthetics? If yes, submit there. If no, skip it. You don't want to waste the press' time or your own.
Check out the editors and their work
Most editors of indie presses are writers themselves. Their names will be listed in the "About" section. They will likely have their own websites. Do you like their work? Does it seem to align with yours in some way? Again, if yes, submit. If no, skip it. If I like what I see and feel that their work might line up with mine, then I will think about submitting there. If it seems like their work is completely different from mine, then they are not the best audience for me. No hard feelings.
Support the presses you are going to submit to
It's awesome if you can buy a book or two directly from the publisher. But you can also browse their titles in your local bookstore. Request their titles in the bookstore if they are not already there. "Like" their Facebook page and/or follow them on Twitter.
Realize it's not personal
Having worked as a reader and editor for multiple literary magazines from The Paris Review to Gulf Coast, I can tell you right now that taste and aesthetics are completely subjective. This may upset you, but it personally makes me feel better. Even if all the editors can agree that a manuscript is good and strong, it does not necessarily mean that it will be picked to be published. Editors want to publish the work that moves and thrills them. It is not really possible to categorize what moves us, right? You just know it when you see it. For this reason, when I get a rejection, I move on. I know that press or magazine was not my audience, but someone else will be.
May 13, 2014