How to Query a Poetry Press

Guest Post by Janet Holmes

Janet Holmes

Last month, I got an email from someone I don’t know and posted it on Facebook.

It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

Questions: Are you guys currently receiving submissions for publications?

How much will it cost to assemble a book of poetry?

Do you guys provide copyrights?

Do you also provide art covers? If so, how much will that cost? Can I provide my own?

I edit my own poems would that be okay if I do all my editing myself?

I have this thing were I don’t want people editing my work only myself.

After the book is finished being published and all, will I be having all royalties? or is it 50/50?

I look forward in hearing from you soon.

Someone in the comment stream objected that I was “mocking” this correspondent unfairly, suggesting that he was “a kid” who didn’t know the ropes. In my defense, I didn’t use the fellow’s name, and I answered him in email, suggesting he was looking for a self-publishing company. But this commenter thought I should do more by way of communicating with would-be authors about how one goes about submitting a manuscript, and Martin Ott has invited me to elaborate here. So here are a few pointers.

1.      Know to whom you’re writing.

This correspondent went to the effort of looking up our email address, but could have taken the extra step of seeing who is on staff. Otherwise, use simple business etiquette. Some women, though I’m not one of them, prefer not to be called “you guys.”

2.      Learn something about the press before you write.

Most if not all presses will have a web presence with information about submissions, current and previous publications, and something about the press history and mission. The person you’re writing to will probably just point you to this information if it is readily available elsewhere. Do your homework.

3.      Read a book from the press—or at least look at one in a store.

It should go without saying that poets read books of poetry, but if you’re submitting to a press you’ve never heard of before, how do you know they’ll respond to your work? The best way to find out is to see what they’ve already published. If you like what you read, then by all means, query. At Ahsahta, we include a poem from each book in our catalogue on our website, so people can read a bit before they decide whether to buy—or whether to submit.

4.      Show in your cover letter that you are familiar with the press.

Often, someone will write to us because they’ve admired one or more of the books we’ve published. It’s good to know that they are knowledgeable about our tastes and our list, and that the accompanying manuscript will likely be somewhere in our ballpark.

5.      Know what publishers do.

Because it can be relatively inexpensive to produce a short run of books, self-publishing is popular among people who want to do their own editing, layout, cover art, and other production tasks. A publisher won’t charge you for these things, but a printer (or self-publishing company) will. There are many businesses set up just for this purpose, and not all of them work the same way. Just use “publish your book” as a search term, and you’ll be led to CreateSpace (an Amazon.com company), Lulu, and many other companies who will be happy to walk you through the process and charge you appropriately.

Publishers, however, are in it for the bigger picture. First, they don’t publish every manuscript they get. There’s a rigorous editing process that serves two purposes: it ensures that the publisher can afford to publish all the books that are accepted (since the authors are not paying for the publication), and it also provides a standard of quality by which that publisher will be known.

A publisher will register your copyright, typeset your book, design it, provide a cover with or without your input, market it, distribute it, and in most cases pay you a royalty when the book has sold copies. The degree of your involvement in these processes will differ according to the publisher. There is no need in a query letter to ask about any of the routine things a publisher does—that’s for later, when the book has been accepted.

6.      Know what the publisher wants.

The publisher may have a policy of looking at an entire manuscript or only a 10-page sample; some will only want the query letter itself (or no query: see below).

If an entire manuscript is solicited, you will want to provide one to the length specifications for the press—in most cases, 60 to 80 pages of poetry. The poems should be ordered the way they will appear in the book, with a table of contents, acknowledgments, and an author bio. A publisher does not want you to send hundreds of poems so that they can choose the best ones; they want to read only your best work.

If you are entering a contest, pay attention to the rules. If the rules say not to put your name on every page, don’t do it. If they say don’t include a bio or acknowledgments, don’t include them. The rules are there for good reasons, and not following them can get your manuscript tossed aside.

If the publisher just wants to see a sample of your work, send the best poems you have, perhaps with a paragraph describing the book if it is a larger project.

7.      Respect the publisher’s guidelines.

Many publishers work several years in advance, and may have a backlog of books they’ve promised to publish. For that reason, they may not be reading unsolicited manuscripts at all. Before you go to the trouble of writing a polite and businesslike query letter, check to see whether the publisher is open to receiving them. Ahsahta and many other publishers no longer look at paper copies of manuscripts, but use Submission Manager or Submittable or other software to manage their workloads. If we aren’t currently accepting manuscripts, the Submission Manager will be closed.

Readers might be surprised how often I get letters similar to the one I’ve quoted above. So if the person commenting on my post is correct, and more communication is necessary, I hope this will help.

About the Author

Janet Holmes is Director and Editor of Ahsahta Press at Boise State University, where she is also a Professor in the MFA in Creative Writing program. Her latest book of poetry is The ms of my kin (Shearsman).

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2 Comments

Filed under Guest Blog Post, Publishing, Uncategorized

2 responses to “How to Query a Poetry Press

  1. You’re far, far kinder than I’d have been in the face of such a mercenary query letter. I’ve never gotten one quite so me-me-me, but if I ever do, I’ll direct the inquirer to this post. You’ve done a very good job explaining the basic rules of the road. Thank you!

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