Writing a poetry book requires courage, stamina, and a lot of patience with yourself. The poetry book ranks at the top of many poets’ to-do lists, but getting a manuscript in front of poetry book publishers takes years of writing and planning.
This article covers the essentials of getting new poetry books into print, covering both the writing and publishing process for contemporary poets. Let’s get into it: How do you write a poetry book?
How Many Poems in a Poetry Book?
Most poetry book publishers abide by the following definition: a poetry book is any collection of poems longer than 48 pages. There’s no standard for how many poems go into a collection; it’s much more important that the collection feels “finished” to the poet.
Poetry book publishers often define a poetry book as any collection of poems longer than 48 pages.
With that said, feel free to experiment with length and content while writing a poetry book. You could, theoretically, publish a book of 3 16-page poems, or something similarly eccentric!
What is a Poetry Chapbook?
A poetry chapbook—in contrast to modern poetry books—is a collection of poems under 48 pages in length. Because of this page restraint, poetry chapbooks are often thematic and dwell upon a small group of topics; they are rarely narrative in nature. Everything we discuss about how to write a poetry book applies to chapbooks as well.
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Should I Publish a Chapbook or a Full-Length Poetry Collection?
Often, a poet will publish a chapbook before they publish a full length collection. In the publishing world, a chapbook serves as a “sample” of a poet’s potential. If the chapbook is commercially successful, then that poet is more likely to publish a full-length collection in the future.
Instead of writing a poetry book, most modern poets begin their publishing journey with a chapbook. Melissa Lozada-Oliva and Olivia Gatwood both published chapbooks through Button Poetry, which gave both poets an opportunity to tour and sell those books across the U.S. As a result, Gatwood has a new full-length collection, and MLO has an upcoming novel in verse.
Do Modern Poetry Books Follow a Theme?
In other words, how do you approach crafting a poetry manuscript? This is probably the trickiest part about assembling a collection of poetry. Like much of creative writing, there’s no formula for how to write a poetry book.
Many new poetry books do follow a theme. Collections about love, death, grief, and oppression certainly populate the poetry shelves of bookstores. However, a theme is only one way of connecting poems together. A poetry collection doesn’t need to be about something; the poems just need some sort of connecting thread.
A poetry collection doesn’t need to be about something; the poems just need some sort of connecting thread.
For example, a collection can be centered around poetry form. Every poem in Terrance Hayes’ collection American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is, as you can guess, an American Sonnet. Hayes’ poems range from the political to the romantic, but all of them are united in form and in motive.
Poetry can also tell a story. Anne Carson’s lyrical poems in Autobiography of Red tell the story of Geryon, a monster of Greek myth re-imagined as the protagonist of a queer Bildungsroman. Carson’s poems are haunting, lucid, and wonderfully absurd, pushing the boundaries of what a poetry collection can accomplish. Ilya Kaminsky does something similar in Deaf Republic, a poetry collection about a fictional town under occupation. Kaminsky’s collection is at once a celebration of humankind’s resilience and a stark warning against totalitarianism, with each poem stacked off each other like cards in a deck.
Likewise, Danez Smith’s collection Don’t Call Us Dead centers around the theme of kaleidoscopic identities, and the collection begins in story. The first third of the book consists of poems searching for a “Heaven for black boys”—a space of respite, a land “that loves [its people] back.” After this first section, the rest of the poems examine Smith’s other identities, uncovering the experience of being black, HIV-positive, and genderqueer.
And, yes, many modern poetry books do follow a theme. The poems of a collection are often united by topic. Louise Gluck’s collection Wild Iris dwells on nature, existence, and the cycle of life; Richard Siken’s collection Crush tells heartfelt stories about queer desire and loss. Many poets center their collections on identity and personal experience, and through a combination of wit, authenticity, and the building blocks of poetry, your collection will certainly achieve the same.
How Do You Order the Poems when Writing a Poetry Book?
Most new poetry books don’t follow a linear narrative structure, so ordering the poems in a collection can prove challenging.
When thinking about the composition of a poetry book, remember the Five E’s:
- Enmeshment: Do the poems feel related to each other? Can you explain why one poem follows or precedes another?
- Evenness: Do the poems feel evenly spread out? Or does one part of the manuscript feel “better written” than another part?
- Evolution: Does the subject matter change and grow overtime? Does the speaker come to new revelations? Or do ideas merely repeat themselves in parallel ways?
- Experience: Do these poems offer new experiences for the reader? Will the reader’s understanding of the world be challenged, enriched, or improved?
- Experimentation: Do these poems play with words, forms, and structures? Do they seek new and inventive uses of language?
The order of poems in a modern poetry book should accomplish these five tasks. If you feel that yours does, you’re ready to start formatting and submitting your manuscript! For more on how to make a poetry book, take a look at Jonathan McClure’s course Crafting Your Collection.
How Should I Format My Poetry Manuscript?
If you’ve finished writing a poetry book, this is your next step. Manuscript formatting is an essential part of learning how to write a poetry book. Take a look at our article on poetry manuscript formatting below. Additionally, you can download a pre-edited poetry manuscript at our resources page.
I’ve Finished Writing a Poetry Book. How Do I Publish It?
Just like learning how to write a poetry book, we’ll break down learning how to publish a poetry book into a few different facets. First, it’s important to know a bit about the world of poetry book publishers.
You know how people joke about poets not making any money? It stings a little, but it’s true—publishers do not have a whole lot of money for poets. Most new poetry books are published by independent presses, which have a small budget for acquiring new works. Poetry books have a smaller readership than fiction and nonfiction titles, so for a press to accept a poetry manuscript, that manuscript needs to have strong appeal towards the publisher’s readership.
If you’re eyeing an indie press, take a look at the previous titles they’ve published, as this can help gauge their diet for experimentation, as well as what their readership expects from the press.
Do poets ever get a payday? Of course—just don’t expect six-figure book deals. The only publishers who can afford expensive book titles are the Big 5 (Penguin, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster). These publishers will only acquire poetry books from well-known poets, so unless you’re the U.S. Poet Laureate or a social media mogul, you won’t have much luck with these companies.
Nonetheless, building an audience for yourself as a poet and working with the right publisher will yield successful book launches, which are a vital part of sustaining your career as an author. But what are publishers looking for?
What Do Poetry Book Publishers Look For in Manuscripts?
Indie book publishers don’t have much money to risk, so they’re likely to publish titles that are easy for the company to market. As a result, book publishers tend to carve certain niches in the poetry world.
How do you learn about a publisher’s marketing base? Well, you can’t, really. But you can make inferences based on the titles you read and the book publisher’s digital presence.
For example, Graywolf Press is known for publishing experimental, experiential poetry. Many of its titles are tinged with social activism, and it has the readership to match this interest: its poetic ranks include slam poets, political activists, and educators, as well as plenty of poets with degrees in English. Note the press’ mission statement: to produce “works of literature [that] nourish the spirit” from “underrepresented and diverse voices.” This tells you everything about the quality of work Graywolf expects and the voice they tend to publish; if you think you meet these expectations, you might want to submit to them!
Academic presses, which we’ll include as a subgroup of indie publishers, tend to attract academic poets. Thus, they expect a high level of attention and rigor towards the more scholarly facets of poetry: form, vocabulary, etc. Take a look at some recent publications by Yale University Press. The titles and subject matter of their poetry books tend to be erudite and didactic, and many of the names in their Younger Poets series have become celebrated in the poetry community.
Before you submit your manuscript to poetry book publishers, try to tick all of these boxes:
Checklist: How to Publish a Poetry Book
Here are yes or no questions that help you know if your poetry book is ready to submit to publishers or contests:
- Are you confident in the manuscript? (See: The 5 E’s)
- Have you bought and read at least 1 poetry book from this publisher?
- Does your poetry compare to other books by this publisher?
- Some considerations: Subject matter, tone of voice, vocabulary
- Does your manuscript meet the publisher’s expectations? (These are usually included in the contest details).
- Is your manuscript properly formatted? The publisher may reject your work if it’s rife with formatting errors.
One thing we didn’t include on this checklist is the need for a social media following. Most modern poetry book competitions are judged blindly, meaning the manuscript reviewers choose a title without looking at the poet’s name. If you’re considering pitching a poetry book to an agent (which we discuss in a bit), having a following can help support your chances of getting published, since there’s a better chance that your book will be commercially successful.
Who Are Some Poetry Book Publishers I Can Submit To?
Rather than pore through the many poetry book publishers currently accepting titles, it will be much easier to send you towards directories that know way more than we do.
Directories for chapbook and manuscript contests:
Directories for publishers seeking manuscripts:
Directories for poetry agents:
Directory of Literary Agents (requires sign-up)
Do I Need an Agent to Publish My Poetry Book?
The short answer is no. Few literary agents represent poets because, again, there’s little money in poetry. As a result, the poet is often their own representative, which is why many poets get their start by submitting to chapbook and manuscript contests.
The short answer is no. In fact, few literary agents represent poets.
Of course, poetry agents do exist. However, like book publishers, agents are wary of signing with new poets, unless that poet can vouch for their future literary success (previous publications, social media following, etc.). If you want to publish with the Big 5, or even with some independent publishers like Graywolf, an agent is often necessary.
Recruiting an agent has its own requirements. Reader’s Digest breaks it down pretty well at this article, but in short, you likely need to submit a query letter to the agent. This is your time to sell yourself as a writer. Lead with your best foot forward, and if an agent is looking to acquire new talent, they may just acquire you.
What Can You Tell Me About Self-Publishing a Poetry Book?
Self-publishing is an optional route for those learning how to publish a poetry book. Companies like Lulu, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Ingram Spark have carved a niche in the book publishing industry, allowing many poets to circumvent the traditional publishing space and put their own words in print.
Take a look at our article on self-publishing with Amazon below.
In short, self-publishing is a viable option, but if you want it to be fiscally successful, you need a healthy mix of marketing savvy, business acumen, and patience.
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