Award-winning writer and poet Andrew Oldham discusses trying to get writing published in the modern world of publishing.
I have just had my first poetry collection published, Ghosts of a Low Moon (Lapwing, Belfast 2010). The journey of getting it published started nearly three years ago. It took me some time to get a collection together, for over eight years I have been published in magazines, anthologies and online zines. I am not a prolific poet. My poetry output sits side by side with my fiction writing. I do not call myself a poet as I write around fifty poems a year; most never get out of my notebook because when I rewrite they do not get through my editorial process. That is my choice. I am a writer who writes poetry. I am not idle though. I am actively involved in the publishing world. I am a writer. I am a reader. I love books. I promote reading. I have been a publisher. I have been an editor. I have seen the grass on the other side of the fence. I have run my fair share of workshops across the UK and there is one question that always comes up. How do you get published?
I have answered this at festivals, events and in libraries across the UK. Fifteen years ago there was a straight-ish answer; submit your work to an editor and take your chances like everyone else. It is no longer that straight-ish. An explosion of multimedia platforms including the web means it has become a minefield. There are hardcopy publication rights, e-publication rights, region first rights and copyright. What is law in the UK may not be a law in the States or India. This makes getting published outside of the UK liberating, it widens your audience by a few hundred or a few thousand. The web though does not deal in hundreds and thousands, it deals in millions.
The web has no walls, no distribution problems, no lost books in transit and in a few cases, no qualms about breaking UK copyright laws. It does not care that an entire industry devoted to the world of poetry, short fiction and fiction needs these laws in place. The industry is not just publishers; it is promoters, printers, editors, writers, poets, designers and most importantly, readers. The web has liberated the reader and I applaud that. It has yet to liberate those who want to write poetry. We have an imbalance between those who write poetry and those who are willing to pay to read it.
There are many wannabe poets, I use this term for any poet who has never been published or who has never read a poetry collection. They often write secretly at work, on the bus, in a traffic jam, in their new bathroom, new kitchen and newly decorated study, they wait for the all empowering muse. They inevitably write about cats. They always attack the poem with a chainsaw, hammer or crowbar, wedging in the obvious rhyme, the tired metaphor, the bucket load of derivatives. Poetry is not alone in this, fiction gets it too, except poetry is always seen as more easy, less time, quicker to churn out because it rhymes. In my UK workshops, on UK discussions panels I have heard people declare thus proudly. Last year in a festival audience, a man stood up said this and then boasted that he could write a collection in one afternoon, in his shed (I don’t know what the relevance of the shed was and it still haunts me). He went on to tell five hundred people in the audience that poetry did not take much thinking about. He did not want a publisher because no one reads and instead he posted his magnum opus (his words) to his Facebook profile. His family loved his poetry, especially his cat (again this image haunts me and I have been tempted to phone the RSPCA about the abuse of cats with bad poetry). This event was cut through by a fire engine klaxon in the distance; a fire had taken hold in a boarded up old bookshop in town.
Why does poetry get this? What is the reason? Are these the times in which we will see actual reading become niche?
I grew up with people wondering why I read, it was a common question at bus stops, in class and one time, in a library. The answer is simple because I wanted to write. I did not know that then but Blake, Herbert and Hughes did me a favour, the act of reading widened my horizon.
It is sad that some people want to write but do not want to read. This lack of reading has two effects on publishing, it clogs up the editorial process, unwanted poetry, bad poetry, bad wannabe poets, send some fine poets, some fine publishers to a slow, strangling death. Then the same lack of reading translates into poor sales. Some voices blame the publisher, mud is slung, arguments rage, accusations of poor promotion flit back and forth in emails, letters and phone calls.
Here is the simple truth, the hidden fact that many publishers do not tell you, whatever the book cost to produce, promotion will cost three times more. This is often unpaid work, many publishers, promoters, poets and writers are happy to do this. Not because they are noble, not because they want to be famous but for the simple reason that they are part of an industry that reads, that writes, that reads. Reading matters. That’s it. If you don’t read, don’t plan to read, then leave, there is the door, take your manuscript with you. Publishers need readers. Poets need readers. Poets are readers. Publishers are readers. Save their time, save their money, save them from the crap your family likes. This industry is not your family.
Times change though and in my round of publishers, clutching my correctly formatted ms and enclosed sae, brief bio and publishing history, I discovered a hidden problem. Though many fine poets submit each year, only a few get published because editors have discovered a growing problem, the slush pile is now a mountain. Commitments to that were draining some editors dry. One editor had married his slush mountain so he could divorce her; with the short term view that at least fifty percent of it would go with her when she left.
A common problem amongst this journey was how so few submissions adhered to the publishers guidelines. How many came with no return address. One publisher told me he had received a collection which had no name, no title (to any of the poems), no contact, no bio but still received a phone call six months later demanding it back. This lack of attention to detail is costing publishers time and money. For some reason, some wannabe poets think publishers are rich or beneath them.
One publisher told me that in one year he had received a worrying amount of submissions with covering letters stating that the new poet would deign to let them publish their first collection. They were immediately rejected. Who want to work with anyone who deigns?
A common problem was the waiting list for publication, this ranged from three to a whopping seven years. Many publishers wondered why some poets thought submitting a first collection with no track record, no awards and no history in the industry was a good thing. This brings us back to the man at the festival who had indeed submitted one of his earlier collections to several publishers who rejected him for not having a history of publication in magazines, to which he stated, No one seriously reads magazines.
Poetry has won the Costa two years on the run, it is part of daily lives, music was born of poetry and poetry has been born of music. As a nation we do not read enough, television is not to blame, computer games are not to blame, sex is not to blame. The responsibility lies in all of us to pick up a book, walk to the library, go to a bookshop, ask a friend to recommend a book, to get out of our comfort zone.
I was lucky to get published. I do not take it for granted that this will make getting my second collection published easier. It just prepares me for the minefield that getting published has become. I sympathise with anyone serious about being published who reads, and I mean really reads and not as I heard from a creative writing student who professed to be a poet, I’m only buying this poetry collection because we have to; I mean who pays for poetry? All that white space is such a waste.
If you choose to not read then all there will be left is white space, no reading equals no writing, no publishing and no chance of publication. So, please for the sake of publishers, writers, poet and libraries put down your pen and read, widen your horizons a little bit more.