I had a message over the holiday from a Facebook friend wanting a steer on getting poetry published. Alas, I was only able to offer the most basic advice, which is to shop around before you submit.
Many brilliant first novels were rejected dozens of times before someone saw their potential. The work of JK Rowling, DCB Pierre, and Irvine Welsh sat on slush piles before gaining worldwide recognition. When we hear these stories, the implication is that those editors who returned the manuscripts with short notes of regret were somehow deficient in spotting pay dirt. While this unquestionably happens, it is as often the case that the writer made the mistake – sending work to the wrong people.
Starbucks and McDonalds both sell food, but you can’t buy a burger at Starbucks or biscotti in McDonalds. So it is with publishers. If Sarah Waters sent one of her brilliant novels to Mills & Boon, no matter how well they recognised her talent, they would reject it. It’s not what they do. If Penguin received a manuscript from Jeffrey Archer it would also be a no, because his work – despite being edge-of-seat addictive – is not literary.
Before you start posting copies of your work, research who is most likely to welcome it.
The easiest way to research potential publishers – or agents, which is a more useful route – is to identify other writers whose work is similar to yours and find out who represents or publishes them. If you’re not sure who else has form in your area of interest, or who has a similar style in terms of presentation, you’re not reading enough. Always read the work of others in your field: it provides a yardstick for your own originality and quality as well as pointing you in the right direction.
Once you have your research list, you are ready to send your manuscript to people you know are more likely to be receptive to, and to spot what is good and bad about, your writing. If they reject you they are in a position to articulate why and will often take the time to do so. That in itself has huge value. It is a form of literary criticism. Unlike our Tricycle Readers group which will analyse the finished product, the agent or editor deconstructs your work-in-progress.
I’ve no idea if the friend who inquired about her poetry writes like Carol Ann Duffy or Pam Ayres; whether her subject matter is pastoral or personal; whether she writes in rhyme or blank verse; whether she thinks prosaically or in the abstract; whether it’s moving or challenging; or whether it is of sufficient quality to be publishable on a professional basis. What I do hope, however, is that whatever the outcome of her submissions – and instant success is rare – she continues to write, using what she learns from the process to inform and improve her future oeuvre.