So you’ve looked at your poems or short stories or whatever and thought, “Yeah. I think I’m ready to make a book!” You now have a couple paths you can take, the main being to self-publish or to submit to small presses during their open reading periods. I have done both, and each have their merits.
I’ve had several folks ask me in the past, “When are you going to publish a poetry collection?” Like it was just something I could do anytime. Then I realized that I could do it on my own – compiling a small but complete collection and printing a few copies to hand out for free at my shows. (I would have charged if I thought the quality of the books were better – I’m proud of the content, but I’m, uh, not that great at folding and cutting paper so they looked like a child’s art project.
I did it zine-style, first printing out the poems, then cutting them up and taping them to pieces of larger paper (two poems to each large page, to make two book pages), which I then photocopied. After the copies were done, I folded them down the middle, stapled them, and voila! Some shitty homemade chapbooks.
Within a month of hand-making a chapbook, I received my acceptance letter from CWP Collective Press. It’s been a weird few months. It’s amazing that, within a year of having my first published poem appear in a small local magazine, I’m going to have a book. I’m stoked, and all of my friends are too, but some have asked me how I did it. The first thing I can think of in response is this:
I single-handedly owe reading more books for my vast and swift improvement in writing and increased fortune in publishing. Therefore, my first suggestion is:
Read a fuckton of books
A metric fuckton. It was easier last year; while I was only semi-employed, I managed to read 148 books. I’m currently at 73 books for 2018. It’s been difficult with my busy schedule, but it is my favorite pastime when I’m on the bus or sick or too exhausted to do shit. It’s also one of my favorite forms of procrastination.
I consume almost everything – novels, classics, essays, manga, poetry collections, memoirs, things I’ve meant to read for years and things I think I may hate but figured I’ll try anyway. These 73 books are only the books that I’ve finished – I’ve started a few others this year, only to realize that they weren’t up my alley and not worth completing.
The diversity of my reading has greatly affected both the range of topics that I write about and the quality of my writing. I think it’s impossible not to internalize at least some of the more universal qualities of good books if you read a metric fuckton of them.
Also, it’s important to read contemporary writing, especially from journals and presses that you want to publish your work!
Take your time
I was really antsy last year to publish a book, even though I didn’t have enough decent writing that worked cohesively in a collection. So I kept writing, sometimes with a very specific theme in mind (or vibe, as I usually listen to the same music while writing similar pieces), put them together in a manuscript, and then submitted it to a place that swiftly rejected it.
It took a few months for me to go back to the manuscript and read it and realize that it was absolute garbage. Things that I would have noticed if I’d stepped away from the pieces for awhile immediately grabbed my attention and made me cringe. And I had even edited them! Or so I thought…sometimes, the best editor is time.
Time gives perspective to work and also gives you the chance to grow as a writer. You can come back to a manuscript as a more mature writer and give it an overhaul. Or you may just toss it and start fresh, keeping in mind the lessons you learned from your past failure.
Follow the publisher’s rules!
You may think that you are too good to follow exact submission requirements. Or rather, you may think that your art is so good that it transcends the requirements; the editors will realize after reading it that it’s worth rule-breaking to accept your revolutionary work.
But that’s never what happens. They will reject you and will probably vaguetweet about you not following their guidelines.
I’m not saying to avoid risks; I’m gambling on my own short story collection at the moment. I submitted it to a press that I love, but that favors poetry. Their website states that they accept all genres of writing, but I’ve never seen them accept anything other than poetry. But I submitted during their open reading period, using the document settings (font, spacing, etc.) that they require, and with the required email subject and additional information. In my cover letter, I explained that many of the flash fics in the manuscript are either narrative prose poems OR were poems I turned into short stories. I thought long and hard about submitting, and whether they fit the press’s tone first. I think that qualifies as an acceptable risk.
What wouldn’t be an acceptable risk is sending a fiction collection to a press that literally states “NO FICTION” on their website, or a sci-fi story to a press that only wants literary or YA or something else that’s not explicitly sci-fi. It’s also shitty to use your own font against their requests (it doesn’t look as cool as you think), sending a place a pitch that asks for a full manuscript, or harassing the editors for any reason.
Ultimately, the main reason I’m getting published is because I was finally ready. My work was cohesive, my editing and writing improved, and these were things that a small press could immediately recognize.