Criticism, Writing Workshop

Publishing Poetry Books: Small Presses That Don’t Charge Reading Fees

If you are looking to traditionally publish your poetry book, you’ll likely find yourself spending a great deal of money. Most small presses that publish poetry books charge reading fees for submission. These small presses often host “first book contests,” “second book contests,” or “open reading periods,” where writers submit their manuscripts. Many of the major first book and second book contests receive hundreds of manuscripts (800 to 1,000 manuscripts being submitted to a contest is not unheard of). Other small presses offer poets the opportunity to submit their work during open reading periods for a fee, where the press often won’t commit to publish a single manuscript from the pool of submissions. The cost to submit to these poetry book contests and open reading periods ranges from $25 to $30 per submission.

Shortly after I graduated from my M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University, I found myself in the position of desperately needing to publish my poetry book (if you want to teach creative writing at the university level, you’ll need to have published at least one poetry book from a respectable small or medium-sized press). I also found myself in massive student loan debt and struggling to find work due to the 2008 financial crisis. Despite these challenges, I spent the first two years after graduate school submitting my work to many small presses publishing poetry books. If you understand the nature of publishing, you understand that in order to have a fair chance of publishing a poetry book (or publishing anything for that matter), you’ll have to submit your work to many places. When it comes to poetry, this means submitting your manuscript to dozens of small presses. I estimate I spent several thousands of dollars submitting my manuscript to first book contests. (Do the math: about 50 submissions at $25 to $30 each, plus the cost of mailing and printing…it was that late aughts, after all). After two years of doing this, I saw some minor success. My poetry manuscript was selected as a finalist for a couple of contests and I’d been nominated for a few small awards. But I still had no published poetry book, which meant that I couldn’t apply for university teaching jobs, making my expensive M.F.A. pretty much useless as far as pursuing my planned career path to be a tenured-track creative writing professor (now, the thought of me being a tenure-track creative writing professor sounds about as absurd as saying I want to be a professional surfer; I have to admit I sometimes think I  probably would have had a better chance of being a professional surfer than poetry teacher if I’d started surfing as young as I’d started writing poetry—but I digress.)

The problem with publishing poetry books is this: the average poetry book doesn’t sell well. Small presses often have to rely on poetry reading fees just to survive. After all, if you aren’t selling 800 to 1,000 copies of every book of poetry you publish (and most small presses don’t), you’ll need to find a way to get income. $25 to $30 reliably coming from people who may not buy your poetry books, but who are willing to pay for you to read theirs is a pretty solid, but questionable, business model.

According to an article written by Rachel Mennies for The Millions, the average poet who has published one successful poetry book spent around $3,000 in contest submission fees before seeing success. In most cases, royalties and prize money wasn’t enough to recoup these costs. This is not surprising, given that most first book contests for poetry offer prizes under $5,000. And given the dismal state of poetry sales, especially in “academic” poetry, most writers cannot hope to make a living off of royalties. Most writers make a living as teachers, but again, having a published book is important to landing those jobs.

Poets don’t like to talk about money. No one goes into poetry for the money. I didn’t go into poetry to become rich as a poet. But the fact that submitting work costs money makes poetry only accessible to the wealthy or at least to those with some kind of disposable income.

This creates a system where poets who publish their work often can afford to do so. Mennies noted: “If a sizable majority of poets must spend money to secure publication for their books (and, ever increasingly, to submit to journals), and it’s uncertain whether or not those costs will be recouped upon publication, is the submission-fee model equitable for poets? By equitable, I mean accessible across, here, class: can a poorer or working-class poet submit her manuscript as often as a wealthy or institutionally supported poet? The data is unequivocal: no.” Because so many of the opportunities available to poets are contingent upon a first book, poorer poets are locked out of accessing institutional support (through tenure track jobs and residencies that rely on having a published book). They are locked out of job opportunities that rely on having that first book. And they often leave the field altogether.

I had to eventually stop submitting my work to poetry small presses. There came a point after the financial crisis where I had trouble affording groceries. I certainly didn’t have the discretionary income available to send out $25 poetry manuscripts to first book contests. Then I got divorced, had to leave Canada where I’d been living at the time, and found myself living out of a tent and a van. The thought of publishing a poetry book was the last thing on my mind, especially given the costs of submitting my work. It’s not that I stopped writing. It’s just that I stopped submitting.

I’ve recovered a great deal since then, but when I found myself recently with some discretionary income (not having to pay hundreds of dollars to my student loans every month thanks to the student loan deferrals due to COVID-19 gave me a little freedom to use my money creatively; an argument for student loan forgiveness; yes, even for Ivy League graduates, like me; though I’d be happy to see student loan forgiveness for state school attendees only, or forgiveness equivalent to the cost of attending state school; any relief is better than no relief), I decided not to submit my poetry manuscript to poetry contests. I decided to use it to start my own small press (Sphinx Moth Press) and publish my book (Relationship: A Poetry Book) in the process.

Poetry small presses struggle because they don’t often have government support, donor support, or enough people buying poetry books. I don’t think this model is inevitable. I believe that there are people who read poetry out there (look at how many people buy Rupi Kaur’s books!); I believe a small press willing to diversify its titles can sustain itself without the need for submissions fees.

Sphinx Moth Press won’t rely on a submission fee system. I want to make poetry publication a possibility for all poets. Sphinx Moth Press will ask that those poets who can afford to submit their work to paying contests support the press by becoming patrons of the press or support the press by buying our books.

Blood Owl. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Blood Owl. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Sphinx Moth Press isn’t the only U.S.-based press that has an open reading period where writers can submit their work without paying a fee. Author’s Publish includes a list of presses (U.S., Canadian, Australian, and U.K.-based) that have open reading periods. When looking at this list, writers should also visit the submissions pages of the individual presses to learn more because many presses have restrictions about who can submit (cultural or regional), or to check to see whether these submissions policies may have been affected by COVID-19. They should also take the time to understand how the press promotes new authors and the work they publish. Many presses on the list are strong venues that offer real opportunities to new writers.

In the coming months, I’ll offer more updates. But for now, support poetry. Support independent artists and writers. We need it now more than ever.

(UPDATE 02/23/21: Author’s Publish has two pages which list presses that are open to free submissions. The most recent one is “90 Poetry Manuscript Publishers Who Do Not Charge Reading Fees.” Older ones include: “78 Poetry Manuscript Publishers Who Do Not Charge Reading Fees.” Authors should refer to the “90 Poetry Manuscript Publishers Who Do Not Charge Reading Fees,” as it appears to be the most up-to-date list on the website.)

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.