Saturday, February 25, 2017

Traditional, Small Press, and Self-Publishing

When I conduct poetry workshops, participants often ask about self-publishing and its relative merits and credibility.

Some poets want to create a book for a specific purpose or a limited market (family, friends, local buyers) and aren’t concerned with finding a major publishing house to print and promote their work. The traditional publishing route and the inability to secure a publisher may frustrate others. One plus for traditional publishing is that traditional publishers pay royalties for the right to publish books, they promote the books they publish, and they back their books with the “stamp” of their imprint.

Traditional publishing takes time, it’s usually a slow process of many months (sometimes years) between the acceptance of a book manuscript and the book's appearance in print. Self-publishing, especially with today’s technologies in place, is much faster. Self-publishing offers complete creative control, but it also means not having an editor and professional team to work with you.

Many major traditional publishers prefer to work with authors who have agents representing them and will normally ask you to sign a contract. Once you sign such a contract, your book essentially belongs to the publisher. It’s important to understand a contract’s copyright terms and what those terms will mean to you. If you self-publish, that isn’t something you need to worry about. And nowadays, there’s the additional self-publishing option of the e-book.

Traditional publishing almost always provides significant marketing assistance. If you self-publish, you will need to market your book on your own. With self-publishing, all monetary profits from the book are yours. Traditional publishers generally offer authors a profit percentage. That percentage is usually net, so discounts, returns, marketing costs, and overheads are taken off the total before your percentage is calculated. Royalty rates for traditional publishing normally range between 7% and 25%.

Some writers become so frustrated by dealings with publishing houses, that they consider a form of publishing known as "vanity publishing." This kind of publishing carries with it a giant caveat. In vanity publishing, authors pay a fee to have their books published. These publishers typically assume no financial risk at all and often offer little by way of book promotion—thus, they reverse the process of traditional publishing. You pay them to publish your book, and that's all they do. Their credibility ranking is low.

There’s another option: a wide range of small press or independent publishers who will publish poetry collections without charging a fee (unlike vanity publishers). These small press publishers often produce beautifully designed and elegant books that don’t cost the authors a cent (other than an initial, usually nominal, reading fee). Most often, small press publishers have high standards and publish good poets. These presses work with contracts—authors may agree to purchase a certain number of copies, or they may waive rights to royalties, but rights to the poems often remain with the authors. Small press publishers make it possible for relatively unknown poets to become known. Most of my own books have been published by small presses, and I love each one. No, I haven’t gotten rich on them, far from it, but the books are beautifully designed, I've had a fair amount of "say" in the design process, and I've even gotten some royalties. Importantly, the people behind the small presses have been wonderful to work with.

There is still another route, and that route is self-publishing. Self-publishing is exactly what the term suggests: an author publishes himself or herself at his or her own expense. However, the author also maintains total creative control and does not have to answer to anyone. There was a time when self-publishing meant working with a printer and spending a lot of non-writing time in manuscript preparation. Today, though, a range of computer programs enable authors to prepare their own manuscripts for publication electronically. This, paired with print-on-demand (POD) technologies and e-books, make book publishing much less expensive than it used to be.

It’s thought in some literary circles that self-publishing means an author couldn’t find a traditional publisher (including the prestige and validation that come with traditional publishing) to produce their work. This, of course, may be true. The general consensus seems to be that pursuing traditional publishing and small presses first is a good way to go. If neither of those work out, then investigating the pros and cons of self-publishing is definitely a choice open to poets. Vanity publishing should be avoided.

So … what does all of this mean to the typical “local” poet who has completed a book manuscript and would like to see the book published? Essentially, it means that you have options. You can try the larger publishing houses (especially if a “name” publisher is important to you); you can look for small press publishers who will work with you in producing and marketing your book; or, you can self-publish.

Is there a stigma attached to self-publishing? In some people’s estimation there is, but your book and its entry into the world depend largely upon your own definition of success, your personal situation, and your expectations.

I’m not an advocate of self-publishing, but I’m not against it either. Of course, it’s nice to have a big-name publisher who produces and promotes your book for you (but how many poets are that lucky?). For the most part, people look at a book’s cover design, the title, the author’s name, and possibly the “blurbs” on the back cover. Literary snobbishness aside, I don’t know many people who buy poetry books based on their publishers. (How many people walk into a bookstore and ask, “Do you have any poetry books published by Random House?”)

For most poets, working with small press publishers is a viable and very satisfying way to go, and self-publishing is an option that remains open. The conclusion is this: it’s your work, and it’s up to you to choose the publication path that works best for you. Weigh the alternatives, try a few submissions here and there and, if you don’t find a publisher for your book, you can always publish it yourself.

Time-honored Poets Who Self-Published

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) had already gained fame for his work published in Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies when he self-published a collection.

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967) self-published poems and essays in 1904 with the financial assistance of his college professor.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) paid to publish his first book.

E.E. Cummings (1894 – 1962) self-published a volume of poetry (financed by his mother) in 1935. On the half-title page, he listed thirteen publishers who had rejected the book, which ultimately became one of his classics.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) self-published collections that were financial and critical failures. In 1827, he paid printer Calvin F. S. Thomas to publish 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet-sized collection. The book didn't carry Poe's name; authorship was, “By A Bostonian.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 – 1861) self-published at age 14 when her father paid for publication of her epic narrative poem “The Battle of Marathon” as a gift for her 14th birthday.

Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) self-published his first collection, Three Stories and Ten Poems, during his first visit as a journalist in Paris (1923).

Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) began self-publishing his poetry in Venice in 1908.

Louis L'Amour (1908 – 1988) self-published a book of poetry many years before he gained fame for his westerns.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) self-published a book of poetry in 1881.

T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) self-published his first collection of poems.

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) self-published 795 copies of his first collection Leaves of Grass.

Others Authors Who Have Self-Published:

Deepak Chopra
Gertrude Stein
Zane Grey
Upton Sinclair
Mark Twain
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Stephen Crane
Bernard Shaw
Anais Nin
Thomas Paine
Virginia Wolff
Rudyard Kipling
Henry David Thoreau
Benjamin Franklin
Alexandre Dumas
Beatrix Potter

Small Presses That Publish Poetry
Here are seven small presses that you might want to visit online (click on the press names). There are many others—I hope you’ll do some research and find out about them.

The Aldrich Press is an imprint company of Kelsay Books. We accept unsolicited manuscripts from accomplished poets year round. Authors are expected to be widely published in magazines and journals. (See Kelsay Books)

“Black Lawrence Press is an independent publisher of contemporary poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. We also publish the occasional translation from German. Founded in 2004, Black Lawrence became an imprint of Dzanc Books in 2008. In January 2014, we spread our wings and became an independent company in the state of New York. Our books are distributed nationally through Small Press Distribution to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and various brick and mortar retailers. We also make our titles available through our website and at various conferences and book fairs. Through our annual contests and open reading periods, we seek innovative, electrifying, and thoroughly intoxicating manuscripts that ensnare themselves in our hearts and minds and won’t let go.”

In 1968, C. W. “Bill” Truesdale founded New Rivers Press as an independent publishing house to provide a voice for new authors. Today, New Rivers Press honors Truesdale’s tradition with a dual mission: to connect the best new and emerging writers and storytellers from across Minnesota and the world with eager audiences and to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students interested in entering the publishing world after graduation.

“Red Hen Press, one of the few literary presses in the Los Angeles area, was founded in 1994 by Kate Gale and Mark E. Cull with the intention of keeping creative literature alive. Our focus as a literary press is to publish poetry, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Red Hen Press is committed to publishing work of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting literacy in our local schools. We seek a community of readers and writers who are actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature.”

Terrapin Books is a new small press, owned and operated by poet Diane Lockward, that specializes in poetry books. “Our intention is to publish books by individual authors, an occasional anthology, and a small number of craft books. We pay a generous royalty fee and provide each poet with 15 complimentary copies of his or her book. Our authors are able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount. Our books are 6x9, paperback, color cover, and perfect bound with printed spine.”

Milkweed Editions

Just as the common milkweed plant is the site of metamorphosis for monarch butterflies, Milkweed Editions seeks to be a site of metamorphosis in the literary ecosystem. We take risks on debut and experimental writers, we invest significant time and care in the editorial process, and we enable dynamic engagement between authors and readers. We operate as a nonprofit to pursue these ends without overbearing financial pressure. And yet, though profits aren’t our primary focus, helping our authors succeed certainly is. Just so, since our founding in 1980, we’ve published over 350 books of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and now have over four million copies in circulation. We believe that literature has the potential to change the way we see the world, and that bringing new voices to essential conversations is the clearest path to ensuring a vibrant, diverse, and empowered future.

Kelsay Books

“Kelsay Books is an independent literary press run by Karen Kelsay, an award winning poet, whose primary focus is to publish beautiful books in a timely manner. Four imprint companies have been established to accommodate a variety of published poets. We accept unsolicited chapbooks and full-length manuscripts year-round.”


  1. Very informative, Adele. Thanks!

  2. Made me think about my own book manuscript and the publishing options I might have. Thank you.

    1. So glad you found it useful, John. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)February 27, 2017 at 9:34 AM

    I notice that all of the small press publishers are located in the u.S. and wonder if they consider work by poets from other countries. I will do some research! Thank you for these wonderful insights.

    1. You've brought up a good point, Amita. Good luck with your research!


  4. Hi, Adele,

    Thank you for taking the time to look into and writing about this, much appreciated. For most of us I suppose writing is an expression of our experience of the world, and for whatever reason wanting to share that with others and perhaps a way of taking a closer look.

    ~ ~ ~

    He seems amused by what he writes
    a book of poems from the heart
    to another he hopes will sell
    a million copies around the world
    to travel signing books
    for readers wanting more
    this is of course not a secret
    nor could it be when smiling
    writing from the heart.

    Between your lips of sky and land
    the words to rise and set the sun
    in ink on the page untouched
    by you till now.  

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Lewis, and for sharing your poem with us! Your comments and poems are always much appreciated.