For the last couple weeks, we’ve looked at the value of writing poetry simply to write it with no concern toward publication. But as writers, most of us do want to be published. For many, writing is an act of communication and it is only complete when the words we write connect with readers. So let’s talk about options for poets who are seeking publication.
A collection of poetry by a single author is the option many people think of first, and such collections do get published. But poetry collections by a single writer are only a tiny subset of all books professionally published. Many poetry collections actually reach the market via self-publishing because the readership for such collections is small and a writer can often exploit that market every bit as successfully as a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers are nervous of poetry collections because they tend to have low sales. Of course, this isn’t always true. The bestselling children’s poetry book ever, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends is still selling more than forty years after its initial publication.
With a fear of low sales, it’s rare for a publisher to take on a book by other than an established poet unless the book is extremely engaging, usually because of its topic. Funny poetry generally sells better than serious poetry, and there is some interest in STEM subject poetry, though this is more true with educational publishing than trade publishing. Nature poetry is common, but science poetry that goes beyond the expected birds and clouds might do even better.
Rhyming Picture Books and Novels in Verse
Short poems aren’t the only options for poets. Poets who are also storytellers can marry the two by telling a story in poetic form. For very young children this means rhyming picture books. For teens, this can take the form of a novel in verse. Both can be unique storytelling methods that demand serious skills on the part of the author.
Novels in verse had a burst of real popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, exemplified by [former ICL student] Karen Hesse’s Newbery winning Out of the Dust in 1998. These books tend to be a collection of poems that work together in a new way to tell a story that was evocative, lyrical, emotional, and fast reading. These elements created a perfect storm for some readers. Today novels in verse are less popular (and so picked up less often by publishers) but they are still being published, often offering a unique voice for under-represented groups. Excellent examples of a more recent novel in verse are the award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and the slightly older Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.
Today, the novel in verse is really most likely to be picked up if it brings the reader a perspective that is not often seen or gives voice to a group that has not often been heard.
Rhyming picture books, on the other hand, are more ubiquitous. The key to selling a rhyming picture book is to combine perfect meter and compelling story/characterization. Normally when a rhyming picture book fails to sell, the problem really lies in the plot (or lack thereof) and/or the meter. Rhyming picture books are wildly popular with readers, but they aren’t easy to write, despite the number of people who think the short length means an easy book to create. Some publishers have closed the doors to rhyming picture books mostly because so many people think they are easy and submit a tsunami of deeply flawed manuscripts. But if a writer can combine a compelling and engaging story with perfect meter, the market is there for the book. The best way to make the connections you need to sell a good rhyming picture book is probably through attending conferences and getting open doors to potential houses and agents.
An interesting side effect of becoming good at writing poetry is that you’ve probably read a lot of books. Good poets stay on top of what is being published in their field. As a result, there are options available simply because of the reading you do. Book reviewing is one possibility. Although book reviewing often either doesn’t pay or pays poorly, it does offer the option of lots of free books. Once you are connected with book reviews, you can often read pre-released books for free because publishers court book reviewers. School Library Journal is one book review source that accepts proposals for review submissions. They are also open to opinion pieces on specific subjects so if reading poetry has resulted in you having strong opinions about poetry and can write about the subject in a professional way, you might consider pitching an essay.
Writing only poetry is a tough way to make a living and few people manage it. But with study of the markets and a flexibility in your writing, poets can sell their writing. And who knows what life you might change with your poem? It just might be your own.