Often, when I conduct poetry workshops, participants ask what I think about self-publishing. That question resurfaced again recently, and it's a tough one because, ultimately, whether or not to self-publish is a question that only the poet can answer. There has always been a certain “stigma” attached to paying to have one’s work published. On the other hand, many truly great and notable writers have done it. In lieu of a prompt, I thought I’d share some thoughts on self-publishing. If you’re struggling with the question yourself, perhaps this will help you make a decision.
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 frustrates others. One plus for traditional publishing is that traditional publishers typically 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.
Vanity publishers, to which authors pay a fee to publish their books, typically assume no financial risk at all and often offer little by way of book promotion—thus, they reverse the process of traditional publishing. I strongly urge against vanity publishing. You should never have to pay to get your poems published.
There is an alternate route, however, and that route is self-publishing. Self-publishing is exactly what the term suggests: an author publishes at his or her own expense. However, the author also maintains total creative control and does not have to answer to anyone. On the flip side of that, while self-publishing offers complete creative control, it also means not having an editor and professional team to work with you. 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. There’s a caveat here that pertains to publishers who operate in a gray area between traditional and vanity publishing. They don’t pay royalties, but they’re not true vanity publishers either. These companies use various financial and technological approaches to avoid financial risk and transfer some of that risk to the authors. Absorbing some of the risk may be the only way to get a book published, and for an ambitious author, it may offer a way to increase profits. Choosing carefully is paramount with publishing schemes of this sort.
It’s thought in some literary circles that self-publishing means an author couldn’t find a traditional publisher (including the prestige, kudos, and validation that come with traditional publishing) to produce their work. This, of course, may be true and suggests an element of failure and even desperation on the part of an author. The general consensus seems to be that pursuing traditional publishing first is a good way to go. If that doesn’t work out, then investigating the pros and cons of self-publishing is definitely a choice open to poets.
Traditional publishing takes time, it used to be 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 (although it may still be many months between acceptance and print).
Traditional publishers 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%.
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), but that do not pay royalties (at least not generous ones). These small press publishers often produce beautifully designed and elegant books that don’t cost the authors a cent. Authors may agree to purchase a certain number of copies, or they may waive rights to royalties, but (and this is a big “but”), small press publishers make it possible for relatively unknown poets to become known. I’ve never self-published but, other than my books on antiques and collectibles, most of my books have been published by small press publishers. No, I haven’t gotten rich on them, far from it, but the books are all beautifully produced and mean a lot to me.
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 depends largely on 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 to how many poets does that happen?). For the most part, people look at a book’s cover design (a pick-me-up-and-buy-me cover goes a long way), 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 search online or walk into a bookstore with the question “Do you have any poetry books published by Random House or Norton?”
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 ultimate litmus test isn't what other people think but, rather, how you feel about the publishing choices you make. 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 may want to work on it some more and, then, possibly publish it yourself.
Writers Who Have Self-Published
(Note: My source for this info was lost years ago. As this is for educational purposes only, I trust that my posting the following will be okay.)
Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)
Pope had already gained fame for his work published in Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies before he self-published a collection.
Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)
She submitted The Story of Peter Rabbit to six publishers, who rejected it because it lacked the color illustrations expected for submittals of children's books at the time (unlike today). So she drew color pictures (using her skills as a scientific illustrator) and printed 250 copies on her own. She then sold the book to a commercial publisher
Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)
In 1904, he self-published poems and essays with the financial assistance of his college professor. His work came to public notice when he began selling to Poetry magazine.
D.H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
Originally self-published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in “private editions” due to the obscenity laws of the time.
E.E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)
Self-published a volume of poetry in 1935, financed by his mother.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)
His self-published collections (Tamerlane and Other Poems, et al.) were financial and critical failures. The poem that made him a household name, “The Raven,” was published by the Evening Mirror in 1845.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 – 1861)
Poet. Her father paid for publication of her epic 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 tour as a journalist in Paris (1923).
Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972)
Began self-publishing his poetry in Venice in 1908.
Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)
Self-published her first book in Paris in 1909. Later works were published with the assistance of her companion, Alice Toklas.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
Already a published essayist, he self-published Walden in 1854.
James Joyce (1882 – 1941)
A published poet and author, Joyce began serializing Ulysses in Ezra Pound’s The Little Review in 1918. After running afoul of obscenity laws, however, he self-published it in book form by collecting money from friends, fellow writers, and art patrons as subscriptions and pre-sales.
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.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Copyright laws being what they were, he self-published collections of his short stories to counter the “unauthorized” versions on the market. (He also self-published collections of poetry.)
Samuel Clemens (1835 – 1910)
Most famously known as Mark Twain (he published under several pseudonyms), he was already America's most popular and best-selling author when he self-published an edition of Huckleberry Finn.
Stephen King (1947 – )
Self-published short stories while in high school, which he sold to his friends for a quarter. Then there was his short-lived experiment with serialized fiction, sold on the honor system from his website in 2000—long after he had become a household name.
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
Self-published his first collection of poems, which had already been published in magazines and journals.
Upton Sinclair (1882 – 1941)
Was already established as author and playwright before he wrote “The Millennium” as a play in 1907. He rewrote it as a novel that was serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1914 before he self-published it in book form in 1924.
Virginia Woolf (1819 – 1892)
Well-placed in literary and social circles, she published her first books in a joint venture with her half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, who owned a publishing company of the same name. Later, she founded Hogarth Press with her husband, which also published other notables of the time (e.g., T.S. Eliot).
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
After making his name by publishing in newspapers and journals, he self-published 795 copies of his first stand-alone collection Leaves of Grass, which, on the praise of contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, survived the controversy regarding some of its subject matter to be reprinted commercially.
Other authors who have self-published include:
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Obviously, international recognition wasn’t sacrificed by self-publishing, especially early works by some of literature’s best known and most highly acclaimed authors. Whether or not investing in your own work is something you can afford to do and would like to do, is your decision. My best suggestion would be to try and find “homes” for individual poems in journals and anthologies before publishing them in any kind of collected form. If you’re successful in publishing individual poems, it’s likely that you’ll, sooner or later, be able to find a publisher. If that doesn’t happen (and it sometimes doesn’t), self-publishing might be the answer.