Small Presses Today... and How to Get Their Attention

Submitting work for publication

Before the time of commercial presses, literary journals, and the Pulitzer Prize, poets were known only in tight academic circles.  Poets were the entertainers and flames of enlightenment reserved especially for kings and dukes and other such nobility with little else to do with their fortunes than hire poets to increase their clout.  In the late eighteenth century, however, a group of presses changed the way people read literature and the manner in which people wrote it.  This band of Bohemian publishers, known collectively as Grub Street (so-called for the London road on which many of these presses operated), disseminated the written word to the growing middle class.  Memoirs, novels, essays, and poetry were tailored not for the elite, but for the ordinary citizen.  No longer were books only the prized possession of kings and monks.  Although its reputation was tainted at the outset by criticism from the writing aristocracy, Grub Street still managed to revolutionize the demographics of the reading public and throw the doors open to artists who previously had no voice.  Women could now publish and sell their literature; men who were not merely pawns of politics or money could now share their ideas with their middle-class brethren.

This dynamic shift in power had its consequences, however.  Poetry had always been venerated as the highest form of literary expression.  Although the tight binding of literary dogma had begun to loosen its grip when eighteenth-century heavyweights like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson started publishing essays and novels, poetry was still the choice tool for enlightenment and the finest form of entertainment.  When the masses seized the literary power from the erudite nobility, the world of literature opened wide its scope and accepted varied media more rapidly.  Poetry began to drown in a sea of novels, literary essays, and short stories.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and you have a free, literate population that buys books at its leisure.  Each year, we spend millions of dollars on novels, magazines, and various how-to manuals on everything from finding the perfect job to reupholstering the sofa.  We go to the movies in droves and listen to music in our cars, offices, and homes.  Poetry publication, on the other hand, seems to have returned to the hands of the literary elite.  Poetic legends still sing loudly from bookstore shelves, but where do fledgling poets turn when all the doors leading to publication seem shut?  In a time when the steamroller of popular culture has long flattened the market of literature to a streamline formula that leaves behind poetry as a realistic form of entertainment and when mass media has taken the place of kings and dukes, is there still a forum suitable for the dilettante poet?

Enter the small press.  The spirit of Grub Street continues to march strongly to a poetic beat despite the different drum of mainstream commercialism.  In fact, only the slightest effort in researching small presses affords an extensive list of literally hundreds of small presses scattered throughout the United States.  While the small press is the avenue poets take to reach influential audiences, it is not exactly the path for the casual poet.  Still, the excitement, confidence, and exposure one gains from publication are well worth the wait.  

Different small presses offer different perks to their published writers.  Some presses pay money for submissions, while others offer copies of the publication; some may offer little more than the compliment of publishing your work.  Whatever the subsidy, the fact remains that submitting work to any small press requires the labor having a suitable piece or collection of poetry, researching specific publications, and then creating a game plan for submission.

Just as all literature varies in style, form, and audience, so do small presses.  Some small presses, in fact, do not publish poetry; rather they choose to concentrate on other forms of creative writing.  Other presses specialize in their area’s local artists, others in specific forms of poetry, and still others in certain themes and topics.  It is obvious, then, that good research would aid your search for the press that best suits your particular brand of writing.  If you tend to write racy or erotic poetry, it would be a mistake to send manuscripts blindly to publishers like Feather Books, for example, which only publishes poetry written from a Christian perspective.  The reverse is also true:  Not all publishers are interested in religious or strongly philosophical work.  Additionally, some small presses have separate divisions that cater to various audiences or that have different submission guidelines.  Knowing which press you would like to consider you for publication could save a lot of work and heartache.

Research the presses that interest you before you send your submission.  Visit their websites; contact the presses and ask about their submission guidelines, and, by all means, buy at least one of the publications from each press and read it.  Get a sense of what types of works they usually accept; take note of the length, style, and theme of a particular piece and compare it to your own.  If you do not know where to start, buy a copy of Writer’s Digest’s Poet’s Market or The Pushcart Prize, both of which provide lists of small presses and their addresses.  The Pushcart Prize, a collection of the winning short fiction, essays, and poetry from Pushcart Press’s highly acclaimed annual contest, will also give you an idea of the types of poetry that are particularly popular with editors and what each specific press tends to accept.  Poet’s Market, on the other hand, is a reference guide that specifically caters to burgeoning poets.  It not only lists presses, but also provides information on everything from government arts grants to poetry workshops, and it includes commentary and essays by experts in the field.  As a resource for a submitting poet, it is invaluable.  Lastly, check out the background of the press.  Make sure it has a steady track record and is not really some amateur pet-project that might go under tomorrow.  A good indicator of an established small press is its status as a non-profit corporation because, as such, you can be sure that the editors are serious and that the press is reasonably stable, and, more importantly, the press then qualifies for government grants—money that keeps it running.

Once you have researched the press or presses that you find interesting or particularly likely to accept your work and that are reputable enough to depend on, you must actually get down to the business of submitting your manuscript.  There are typically two parts to your submission:  the manuscript and the cover letter.  The manuscript is the copy of your artistic child, so it is an understandable mistake that you would want to dress it up like it was being baptized:  do not.  Think of submitting a poem as more of a business endeavor than as an artistic one.  And the best approach to business is no-frills simplicity; therefore, leave the art for the poem.

Accordingly, your manuscript should be typed, not handwritten, not fancifully painted with quills in calligraphy, and not printed in an elaborate font; Times New Roman, Garamond, or something similar is most appropriate.  Likewise, the paper on which it is printed should be plain, white, and of standard weight—pretend you are submitting to the most boring person you can think of.  If the editor senses you are a novice or that you are inconsiderate of his or her sense of professionalism, the manuscript will most likely not make it past the waste basket.

When formatting your manuscript, stick to the college basics unless your research into a specific press tells you otherwise.  Remember that your manuscript may pass through several sets of hands and eyes before the press arrives at a decision.  With that in mind, you should start each page with a simple header that includes your name, address, telephone number, and an email address.  Keep your poem single-spaced and observe double-spacing between stanzas; maintain a one-inch margin on all sides of the page.  Type the title of each poem six lines below your address in the center of the page or flush left.  Use standard capitalization and place one blank line between the title and poem.  Try to limit each of your poems to a single page without making the font unreasonably small.  If a poem does run over one page, make sure you leave the proper cues on how to read it.  Let the editors know if the stanza has also continued onto the next page, or if the next page begins with a new stanza.  Also, include a key word from your poem’s title and the page number in the header for the editors reading your manuscript.

While it is important for your manuscript to be businesslike, it is even more crucial that your cover letter observe the same professionalism because it is often your first introduction to the editor.  Any cover letter should include the standard information:  the title and length of the work you are submitting and whether or not you would like your manuscript returned.  In any case, include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your submission so that the editor can respond.  If you do expect your manuscript back, make sure to include an envelope large enough to house it with enough postage to cover the extra bulk.  Finally, it would be to your advantage to list any publication credits you have.  More importantly, if the work you are offering has been published before, make certain you have the rights to allow others to publish it and let the editor know when and where it was published.  This does not mean you should include a copyright notice on your poem, however.  Most publications do not retain the rights to the poetry they publish.  Notifying the press that your poem is copyrighted is tantamount to assuming they will steal your work and is, therefore, insulting to the editors.

It may seem like the standard letter needs to cover a lot of business, but this should not affect the efficiency of your letter.  Your cover letter should never be more than one page and should only report the essentials.  Explaining your poem, reciting your poetic philosophy, or including a biography, unless the publisher specifically asks for one (in which case, it should be brief), only succeeds in marking you as a novice and makes it seem as if your poetry somehow is not good enough on its own.  While you may be proud of your past accomplishments or that particular photograph that captures your poem perfectly, the editor has no need for them.

Once you have compiled all the pieces you need for your submission and have thrown out the pieces you do not need, there remains only the matter of mailing it off and waiting.  If you are accepted, congratulations:  You have broken into a phase in your craft that marks you as a professional writer.  You are now strengthened in your resolve to become a better writer with a wider audience.  If you are rejected, congratulations:  You have gained invaluable experience while joining other writers in their familiarity with rejection.  In other words, do not lose heart.  Rejection does not automatically mean your work was bad.  Many small presses operate on a tiny budget that allows them to publish only a few writers at a time.  Another common reason they must reject submissions is simply that the writing did not fit their desired theme or form for that particular edition.  Use rejection as a springboard from which you work harder and smarter to find your poem’s market.

Whatever you do, do not let a little rejection stop you.  Writers are usually rejected more than they are accepted. Remember the story of Grub Street:  an underground writing culture that was brutally rejected upon its arrival because the writing bourgeois felt threatened; a literary movement that ultimately prevailed and dramatically changed audiences and writers; a revolution that continues across the globe in countless small presses and the authors who submit to them.