Last week four poets wrote offering me the opportunity of publishing their work. When I read the first email, I was gobsmacked. The message (the same was true of the other three) made no reference to the current C-19 situation. Just the usual I have been writing for 4 years. I attach X poems on the theme of revenge/archery/cryogenics/dementia. I believe they will appeal to a wide range of readers. Do let me know if you would be interested in publishing etc. etc.
Numerous poets are at home at the moment, social distancing or self-isolating, or checking their stock of paracetamol. Clearly some of them are also pitching to publishers. Is this a good time? Ho-hum. Think about it from the publisher's point of view. In fact, that's what our best-selling title How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published suggests. It also says that 'strategy' is vital in getting work published. But it doesn't explain what you're supposed to do in the middle of a global pandemic.
What are publishers doing right now? Apart from looking for toilet rolls, there's a good chance they're worrying. About book sales. About new titles, and forthcoming books. About cancelled launches. About closed bookshops. About postponed events (where poets would normally shift some books). About having already printed too many copies. Will their distributor keep distributing, and if so (with most bookshops closed) to whom? Will their printer go under?
Meanwhile, printers are worrying about publishers. Will planned print runs go ahead? Will publishers want fewer copies? Will they defer printing until later in the year, if at all? Will they be able to service the loans on their fiendishly expensive print machines?
Everybody's doing their best. Big print companies are still running so far, with distancing protection for their staff. Publishers and event organisers are doing online launches and live streaming. Online sales are being brandished. The Poetry Book Society is working hard to turn a drama into a growth opportunity.
But the key factor is uncertainty. Nobody knows how all of this will affect the tiny niche that constitutes the poetry book market.
Whatever each publisher's long-term plan may be, the current priority is selling this year's titles. New proposals can wait.
Here, we have a mountain of boxes in the hall and under the stairs. The mountain contains new pamphlets (Nancy Campbell's Navigations and Annie Fisher's The Deal) and two books to be launched in May (Alan Buckley's Touched and Charlotte Gann's The Girl Who Cried). We have no room for more boxes.
Can I find readers for these new titles? Over the next couple of months (when, yes, I will be doing online launches) we will see. It's a fascinating chance to do things differently, and the publications are fabulous. I believe we will manage it. But there's a lot to learn. Every day the powers-that-be (or the powers-that-were) tell us something we aren't expecting.
On the good side, poetry's a long game. Publishers plan for posterity. But we need to sell books right now. It's essential to keep the cycle moving, which is how we afford to publish the next poets.
So back to your poetry publishing strategy. Perhaps you hope to place a book or pamphlet with a good publisher in the next year or so. How doyou plan round the current situation? Here's a suggestion for the next three months.
Read. Read poems. Old ones, new ones, winning ones, unnoticed ones. Make your own anthology of your favourites and notice who first published them. Learn a couple off by heart (while out on your daily walk). Get right inside them like an old coat. Note down tricks you can try yourself, lines that you love, and why. This feeds into your writing. It's the holy grail, the creative source.
Write. Make poems. Ditch them. Make more. Work on old poems and make them stronger. Send to magazines that are still going strong. Get them, if you can, accepted by top online (and paper-based) outlets, so somebody (not you) may notice and share them on social media. By all means enter competitions: the organisers need the money now more than ever, and if you win, or place, it's another good profile-raiser.
Review. You may not be confident about writing reviews, but anybody can manage two lines and a star rating on Amazon. Or a whole paragraph on goodreads, my favourite social media site (even if it is owned by Amazon). Or try an OPOI on a poetry pamphlet. Poets notice who reviews their work. Publishers notice who reviews their poets' work.
Buy books. Select judiciously. Feed your reading programme and publishers at the same time. If you think publishers don't notice who buys books from their own website, you're wrong. What's the magic factor in getting a collection published? It's when the publisher already knows your name (for the right reasons) before you make an approach.
If you absolutely cannot resist emailing publishers with proposals, at least remember to ask after their health, since they (and their loved ones) may not be in great shape. Check out the submissions page of their website first. Don't send uninvited poems (they'll delete them). Ask whether they might possibly be in a position to look at some.
Good luck —but good planning is better. After three months, review the situation and revise your strategy. You can find free planning sheets here.
p.s. If you'd like an invitation to HappenStance online launches, the first of which will be in a couple of weeks, please make sure you're signed up for notifications on the home page of the website.