Ch-ch-changes, a talk on publishing for emerging writers

This is the draft of a talk I’m going to be giving on publishing later on tonight. I wasn’t given any particular parameters, except that I was expected to talk for about 20 minutes, and this is clearly longer than that and kind of rambling. But I figured I’d just get down some of the things I’ve been thinking about, and see what the audience wanted to explore.

Many, if not all, emerging literary writers get their start by publishing with literary journals and small presses. This is especially true for poets, of which I am one, so forgive the bias towards poetry. Though fiction writers (some of them) can hope for lucrative book deals, along with agency representation and even, sometimes, royalties, only the very smallest number of poets can ever hope for that. So if your plan is to make a living writing and publishing poetry (or fiction, of the literary sort, for the most part) now is a good time to reconsider.

According to a Chronicle of Higher Ed. article published in 2010—three years ago, now—there were tens of thousands of people in the U.S. taking poetry workshops and therefore writing poetry. Expand that to the number of people writing poetry without any kind of academic infrastructure and the number is surely in the hundreds of thousands. This is a new world for poetry, a kind of popularity that is really astonishing, especially given how many people in the institutions of poetry claim that the audience is constantly diminishing. And it’s almost as easy to publish now as it is to write.

According to the same article, there were over 2000 literary journals publishing poetry in the Duotrope database. Duotrope is a popular, now-paid, service for writers to find “markets” (as publishing venues are referred to on their site) to which they can submit their work. It used to be free, and now charges a monthly subscription to all those tens and hundreds of thousands of writers hoping to be published.

The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) which is an organization that provides services to independent and small literary journals and presses has hundreds of member-presses (my own press, Anomalous, is one), and publishes a directory of literary publishing venues that in its last printing was over 400 pages long.

And that’s not even considering the ever-increasing self-publication options: personal blogs and websites; print on demand services like Lulu and Amazon’s Createspace; real “meat-space” print on demand Espresso machine services like the Paige M. Gutenberg at the Harvard Bookstore; and self-publishing ebooks for Kindle or through free services like Smashwords.

Technology is a radically democratizing force that is making literary writing and publishing possible for far greater numbers of people than ever before. And of course this is deeply troubling for a lot of the institutions of traditional literary culture. In a conversation on The Boston Review’s website, spurred by an article by the renowned literary critic Marjorie Perloff on this very phenomena, two poets discuss the consequences of such rapid and radical change. It’s a great conversation, well worth reading.

But more practically this is pretty good news for anyone who wants to be a published writer. It’s not that hard to get published. What’s hard is to get published where you might want to get published. And that’s really the question I think it’s most valuable to consider as a beginning writer, or even as an experienced writer. Where do I want to be published, and (especially) why.

You might, if you’re a poet, really want to be published in Poetry Magazine (the hundred-plus-year-old bastion of Official Verse Culture) because of the prestige associated with that publication. Or you might, if you’re a fiction writer, really want to be published by The New Yorker for the same reasons. Or the Paris Review. You might want to be published by a journal that focuses on a particular demographic (veterans, gender queer, feminist, hispanic, black, asian, native american, really any racial minority, mothers, fathers, writers in their teens, writers over 50, writers in the mid-west, the north-east, the south, Brooklyn, it goes on and on and on). You might want to be published in a journal that publishes writing on a particular theme (love, death, science fiction, war, again, you name it and it’s out there). The abundance of writers and venues out there means that there’s a place for just about any kind of writing, if you can find it.

Which of course doesn’t mean that everyone can (or should try to) publish everything they write (unless of course you’re self-publishing, then, really, go for it). But say you had unlimited time and resources, you could probably try to get every. single. thing. you write published. It would be an interesting experiment. No, for most writers, time is a very limited resource, so we practice a good amount of self-exclusion. We only send out the work we most want to see published, because it is the work we think of as our best. And I’m at my best only about 1% of the time.

And submitting to literary journals takes work (first you have to find the journals you want to submit to, then you have to follow all their guidelines if you want your work to be actually considered, and trust me, many journals will immediately reject work that doesn’t follow their submission guidelines, but more on that in a bit). Submitting doesn’t just take practical, logistical work, it takes emotional work too. You find the perfect place, and you get very excited about it, and then you start doubting yourself, you talk yourself out of submitting at all, but then because it’s so perfect and you love the stuff they publish so much, you talk yourself back into it. You get all your work together, conform to their guidelines, write a good cover letter (tip: short is good), and mail or upload it all. Then there’s the waiting (sometimes as short a time as a few days, more often a few weeks or even months—one journal I really admire takes at least 6 months to get back to their submitters!). So it’s an investment of time and emotional (and sometimes financial, if there’s a submission fee) resources.

And then, the inevitable rejections. You’ve gone through all of that, and you still get rejected most of the time. Most writers do. My journal, Anomalous, receives a relatively small number of submissions compared to other journals – about 200 a month. And we accept less than 2% of the work submitted to us. So you see, it’s not just a matter of numbers, but of really finding the journal (or small press) that fits your work, and your needs as a writer.

Anomalous, the online literary journal I founded in 2010, has a very specific mission. We seek to publish and support emerging writers who are working in ways that push the limits of writing. Essentially, though we don’t use this phrasing on our website, we want to support emerging experimental or innovative writers. Which of course doesn’t mean that the only writing I like is experimental (and if you don’t really know what I mean by experimental, Marjorie Perlof’s article “Poetry on the Brink” offers a great comparison between traditional and innovative literary works). And it doesn’t mean that I don’t like or even want to publish the work of more established, famous writers. But when I set out to start a journal, I wanted to serve a population of writers that needs my services, not the justly-famous writers that have no trouble placing most of their work (those lucky few I mentioned before). My goal was not to use my famous-writer connections to build a reputation for myself as a publisher, but to use my experience publishing to help writers build their own reputations.

Other journals, of course, have different and legitimate goals. There’s room in the pool for everyone, especially when the pool is made up of so many hundreds of thousands.

Publishing has changed a lot in the past decade or two because of the technology that makes it cheaper and easier to publish books, and because of digital publishing platforms. Of course. I couldn’t find the exact numbers, but there used to be many “large” publishers, like Norton, Penguin, and Random House, and now there are five. As large publishers have gotten larger in an attempt to save themselves in the face of new technology and shifting markets, they have opened up a lot of room for independent publishers, which range from big and for-profit (New Directions), big and non-profit (University Presses, for example), to tiny (my own press, for example). Each kind of publisher serves writers in different ways, just like journals. And just like journals some publishers have defined demographics they wish to serve. But the more important differences between publishers (as opposed to journals) are production, distribution and marketing.

I’d actually much rather answer questions and have a conversation about publishing than continue to talk about it (since I already know what I think). But let me say that I’m incredibly excited about the move towards radical accessibility in publishing. I’m excited to think that a new market approach might be to make most if not all of the books available digitally for free, and to seek revenues in new ways. Especially since, as I said at the beginning, very few writers make their living writing. I’m excited by the explosion of platforms for ebook and app-based publishing. I love audiobooks, and firmly believe that all books (especially poetry books) should be available in that format. I’m also a book designer, and maker of hand-made letterpress editions, and so I’m especially interested in how the book as an object can retain its value (and have that value increase, even) in a digital world. And to prove it, the chapbooks that Anomalous Press publishes are all made in a variety of formats: ebook, audiobook, paperback, and some in a handmade artist book edition.

So as emerging writers yourselves, what is it you want to talk about when it comes to publishing?


  1. Jeff

    The thing I find toughest in all the publishing deluge is getting to read as much as I used to. As my own writing drifts away from fiction, I’m becoming aware of the necessity to read more and longer texts to directly inform the direction and detail in what I do. How I long to be a student again! It’s harder when it’s in your spare time. And with all this publishing going on, there’s two pressures on reading. The first is that increased availability gives a nagging sense that you’re missing out on something. The second is that if you’re unable to get to much of what’s out there, then the chances are this is the same for everybody, begging the question as to who anyone’s writing for? Reading strategies. That’s what the world needs. The thing is: once this furrow is ploughed, which book on reading strategies should one read? And will we need a strategy for coping with the sheer number of them?

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