Poets and Publishing #2

7 Oct
Poets and Publishers 2017

From left: Mary Jean Chan, Carrie Etter, Amy Wack

For the second year running, much-published poet and University Reader Carrie Etter quizzes two publishers from the world of poetry for tips on getting published.

This year, Carrie talked to Seren Books editor Amy Wack and Mary Jean Chan, co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

Amy is more of an unashamed traditionalist, a ‘sucker’ for form but ‘like it when people change my mind’. She is drawn to universal themes of nature, love (‘it worked for Shakespeare’) and bereavement. But she hasn’t had a transgender-themed submission and thinks it’s about time. There is a discussion about the importance of themes in collections – what if you have lots of good work, but no particular theme? It’s all about marketing, says Amy. Themed collections are easier to sell.

And, like it or not, selling is a big problem in poetry. According to Carrie, the average book of poetry sells about 200 copies. Seren prints about 600 to 1,000 copies for a first run. A T.S. Elliot-nominated collection might generate 1,000 sales. Being on the curriculum makes a huge difference. And when books really begin to fly off the shelves, the top book sellers can muscle in – when a Costa prize winner ran out of books on Amazon, the international online retailer took it upon themselves to print some more, at dubious quality.

Mary Jean’s magazine print run is just 250 and receives no funding from its parent, Oxford University, though they are pushing to see this changed. Oxford Poetry boasts probably the youngest editorial team in the business, and certainly in the magazine’s history, all in their twenties and the youngest at 23. ‘We love any kind of poetry,’ Mary Jean tells us, and they welcome a diversity of voices. What they do avoid is the cliche or – to be more exact – anything which has been said before in a particular way. But if you do submit, stick to the submission window and follow the submission guidelines.

When lucky enough to secure a publishing deal, as with any first time artistic enterprise, don’t get so excited you neglect to check the contract. Firstly, make sure there is a contract, then read it and check you’re paid royalties on sale (10-15 per cent says Amy). Amy advises poets to negotiate their contract if they aren’t happy and ‘If you want your publisher to love you, get out there with your books.’ If you want people to know your poetry, love your poetry and buy your poetry then you need to emerge from your writing cave, read your work and have copies available for sale to your new fans.

And so you’ve submitted a poem to a magazine and you know it’s poor form to submit it to others while you are waiting, but you haven’t heard anything for a while – when should you chase? Amy says one month and Mary Jean says they reply – when work is submitted within the submission window – within two months.

I was left feeling that you really do have to love poetry to write it and pursue it as more than a hobby that sits in a notebook. It’s highly competitive and there’s no money in it, with decreasing high street bookshops making the job of selling even more difficult. But there’s still nothing like the validation of seeing your work in print.

Words and picture by Louisa Davison

Poets and Publishing took place at the Richard Jefferies Museum, 6 October 2017 as part of Poetry Swindon Festival.

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