Think back to the chapbooks from the first lesson. Feel free to re-reference them if you’d like. Aside from content, what made certain chapbooks stick out as compared to others? For print chapbooks, was it something about the texture? Or maybe the art style? For digital ones, did you find yourself liking certain texts and formats? Maybe even certain digital readers over others?
There are many things to think about when choosing a publisher for your work, but behind it all is the idea that you’ll be working with this publisher over an extended period of time. You are entrusting them with your work, and because of that you want to make sure they are 1) people you can work with and 2) people who will be good stewards of your work. Ideally, you’ll build a strong relationship with your editor and will feel like you have the option to publish other chapbooks with them in the future.
I’m going to go over some of the main factors I think about when selecting a chapbook press. I’m sure that this list is imperfect, but it makes clear that all of this comes down to what your priorities are for your chapbook. Which presses would you want to work with, and which ones would you not want to? What do you expect to get out of your relationship with a press, and what is less important to you?
- Do I get royalties for sales? A single advance? Or no pay at all?
- What is the advertising like? Do they have an active social media presence? Do their books get Amazon listings?
- Are they local? Are there opportunities to collaborate with them? (e.g., Red Birds Chapbooks had a table at AWP and invited me to sell books there. They also offered to send copies of my books to a bookstore for sale.)
- What is the print run like?
- How long has the press been around? Is it backed by a university or privately run (this may or may not be an indicator of the future longevity of a press)?
- Are submissions only accepted through a contest? Is there a fee to submit? What are the prizes? Do the prizes justify the fee?
- Who else has published with this press? If it’s someone I know, what do they say about their experiences working with this press?
- Are their aesthetic values in line with mine?
- Could I see my book in their bookstore?
- What am I expected to do to promote the book, and do I feel like that is something I can realistically do? (e.g., some presses require obtaining a certain number of preorders.)
- Looking at other books they’ve published, what is the quality of the final product?
I’m going to elaborate on this one because even though it’s a really awkward topic to broach, it’s very important. Taking a look at a decent population of chapbooks, you’ll notice that a chapbook printer can really make or break a book. If the chapbook is treated with care, the end product can become a work of art. If not, it almost makes you wonder if it would’ve been better to print it yourself.
The production of the chapbook as an object can help or hinder the written content. A sloppy cover, an uneven cut job, or even typos can make a reader uninterested in turning the page. An editor at a press can become a good friend who is invested in your work, or they can be someone who is pumping out work too quickly to be concerned about quality.
In my experience, some presses have been better copyeditors than others. I’ve had reviewers point out that one of my chapbooks had lots of spelling and grammatical errors! I was mortified when I realized that they were right—and neither I nor my editor noticed. I had another press where they sent several galleys with the same spelling errors, and even when I corrected them, they were still there! This isn’t to bash these presses—they’re run by people who, like me, make mistakes. And while we as authors need to take ownership of the product we’re submitting, we also want to be with a press that takes the time to make sure their product is in a state ready for publication.
So once you find a press that’s a good fit, you’ll want to start sending out your work. Every press is different in what they request for a submission, but we’re going to talk about the typical components they ask for:
Think of a query letter as a first date: you want to dress up, maybe put on some make-up, but you don’t get plastic surgery. That is to say, you want to think about how to best sell what you have to offer (your experience as a writer, your manuscript), but you also want to be accurate (and not making something up).
The main things an editor is looking for in your query letter are:
- Clear contact info (should they be interested in your manuscript)
- Why you are interested in this press and think it’s a good fit
- A brief idea of what they should expect when opening your manu
- This usually includes a brief synopsis or blurb
- Identify it as a completed manuscript
- Indicate page length or number of poems
- Why you as a poet are qualified (this usually takes the form of a brief bio, which we’ll discuss later)
Clear Contact Info
On my cover letters, I usually try to have a clear header with my name, mailing address, phone number and email.
Why You’re Interested in This Press
When looking for a press, you should be able to identify reasons why you think they’re a good fit. What they do and how they do it should align with your goals and priorities. You should be able to look at their catalogue and feel like your work could fit naturally alongside theirs.
Most editors appreciate an acknowledgement of their press’ work—if you can begin with a sentence on why you chose this press, what you love about their book list (maybe even referencing a specific chapbook you read that you loved), you should. Not only will the editor personally appreciate this, but it will have them entering your submission, knowing that you know what you’re talking about. Since so many submissions are “crap shoots”, to see that you’ve tailored your submission to them specifically will already make you stand out.
Another way to make your submission effective is to address your query to a specific, appropriate editor.
What They Should Expect
If you have particularly timely content, you can talk about why these poems are needed right now.
I have posted some sample queries here. Note that many of them are pretty old, so I’ve made notes of what I have done well—and more so, what I could’ve done better. Please feel free to take a look at them as examples when creating your own query.
When to Write a Cover Letter vs. a Query Letter
If a query letter is a first date, then a cover letter could be described as a handshake: it gives the needed facts, is straight to the point, and is friendly but professional. You’ll notice that some of the letters I include in the document aren’t full-fledged query letters but something briefer. They go less into the “why you should choose this book” and more just lay out what it is. This is because in some circumstances, a press requests that you just include a cover letter, or it is more appropriate to include this than a query letter.
The cover letter, unlike the query letter, is not a place to sell your book. It’s more of a form of etiquette to introduce your work. Now, when I say “introduce” I do not mean you should be describing your work, or giving background on yourself. The handshake metaphor is actually very accurate—a cover letter should be brief, and give an editor the basic information they need:
- a header with your name and contact information
- an address to the appropriate editor (Dear [name of editor], to show you know who you’re talking to)
- the titles (and word count, if prose) of your pieces
- a polite greeting/closer
- a brief bio (optional, but good in case they need it)
So how do you know when to use a cover letter or a query letter? Largely by what the submission requirements are for the given press. Particularly for contests, it’s not appropriate to include a query letter, but it may be good etiquette to include a cover letter. This way, there isn’t just this wild manuscript on an editors desk, but brief context as to why its there. Particularly for paper submissions, having a letter is important for giving your manuscript a reason to be on their desk.
A contributor’s biography is important for a couple of reasons. Most immediately, it gives an editor a sense of your qualifications as a poet. Should they choose to publish your work, they will likely use this bio on the chapbook itself. A bio typically includes one’s education, a sample of their publications, a link to their website, or a brief personal statement. Some writers prefer to focus their bios on their personal interests, but for the sake of the query letter, I’m going to focus on the more “traditional” bio.
“Traditional” bios are largely academic in nature. They usually revolve around previous publications, or relevant experience, qualifying the writer as an expert in their field. I recommend trying to always have some sort of “traditional” bio, as this is helpful for trying to get jobs or apply for grants. Selling yourself is an important element of publishing, and the bio is a great way to learn how to do this effectively.
When you’re first starting to send out work, it can be tricky to create a bio. If you don’t have any publications, how do you still present yourself as a qualified writer? I strongly recommend that before you send out a chapbook manuscript that you have some individual poems published in literary magazines. If you’d like to learn more about how to get your work into literary magazines, check out my other class on it. Publishing individual poems not only shows the editor that you have experience as a published poet, but it can also be a great way to promote your manuscript. It also gives your poems the advantage of being published more than once.
Traditional bios aren’t limited to focusing on publications however. They can also include information on:
- your writing education (MFA, participation in writing programs, Fellowships, teaching experience, Bachelors, etc)
- other education (BS/PhD/Masters in field outside of writing. This may allude to another career, or the content of the accepted piece)
- working as an editor on a magazine (including high school or college literary magazines)
- If referring to high school/college experience, don’t say “I worked on my high school litmag”. Instead, frame it precisely and succinctly: “I worked as staff on Stylus”.
- contest wins (again, including high school/college)
- a link to a professional website (I strongly encourage this! Once your chapbook is published, you can also list information here on how to order it!)
You might be thinking to yourself “I don’t have any of those qualifications!” That may be true, but if you think long and hard enough, it’s likely you’ll be able to find some good relevant experience. If I was able to make a professional bio in high school, I’m confident that you can make a good bio. To show you what I mean, I’ll give you the example of my first bio:
Meg Eden has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Teen Ink, Listen, Characters, and Sloppy Noodle. She has also won first place in Characters’ fiction writing contest and Heroes and Dreams Foundation’s Essay contest.
You probably noticed that none of these are spectacular publications. However, I did get my first agent when I had this bio. While the publications are anything but impressive, I think it did show that I was active in the writing community, and that my work was beginning to get acknowledged. In your first traditional bios, that’s the goal.
As I continued to publish, I replaced the magazine names with the publications I thought were the strongest. The same goes for contest wins. My most recent bio reads like this:
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and Gargoyle. Her poem “Rumiko” won the 2015 Ian MacMillan award for poetry, and she has four poetry chapbooks in print. She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at: www.megedenbooks.com
If you want more examples of bios, take a look in some chapbooks or literary magazines (including Gulf Stream’s, which is available here). You can see the diversity of bios, which ones appeal to you and which ones don’t.
The final component to a submission is your sample poems. This is pretty straight forward—you just submit the number of sample poems requested by the publisher. Sometimes they ask for a full manuscript, but other times they ask for a selection from your manuscript. Please make sure to follow the guidelines of what they ask for! When you prepare your poems, make sure you are including your strongest work. You want to represent the best you have to offer.
For our last homework assignment, I’d like you to make a list of 2-4 publishers you think might be a good fit. Briefly justify what you think makes them a good fit. What do you like? What do you see that they’re doing that comes alongside what you’re doing? Be as specific as possible!
Alongside this list (which can take whatever format you prefer), I’d like you to do a mock-submission of your work. This will include 1-2 queries for your manuscript. Why I ask for more than one is that I’d like to see how you tailor your query for different publishers. Please address these queries as if you’re about to send them out to publishers. Also include a sample of 3-5 poems from what you see as your manuscript thus far. Please do not submit this directly to presses yet as you’ll receive feedback from me that may suggest edits!
Also remember, if you’d like feedback on your entire manuscript, there is an option for that! Please contact me if you’re interested.
Since this is the last lesson, I’d also love you to use the discussion below to reflect on the process and experience of this course. What did you learn? Where do you see your manuscript going? Do you have a complete manuscript now, or are you just about to jump into trying to compile that? Where are you now, and where do you want to go?
Here are a few presses you might want to take a look at:
Pays in royalties:
- Red Girl Chapbooks
- Sarabande Books
Pays with prize (requires fee):
- Finishing Line press
- Poetry Society of America
- Grayson Books
- Gold Line Press
- City Lit
- Bateau Press
- Iron Horse Press
Pays in contributor copies:
- Dancing Girl Press
- Hyacinth Girl Press
- Black Lawrence Press
- Mary Ballard Poetry Prize (free contest)
- Accents Publishing
- Bateau Press
- Sibling Rivalry Press
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.