Saturday, September 22, 2018

Self-Publishing—Yes or No

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:
Deepak Chopra
Gertrude Stein
Zane Grey
Upton Sinclair
Mark Twain
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.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Prompt #323 - Not the Villanelle!

About ten years ago, in response to a workshop group’s request, I came up with a pared-down version of the villanelle. After presenting a session on villanelle writing, the consensus of option was that the form, while interesting and challenging, was a bit too confusing for starters, and my workshop group requested something related but better suited to “getting their feet wet.” What I came up with worked well for the group, and they named the invented form the “Adeleanelle.”

I posted a blog prompt using this form a number of years ago, and thought it would be fun to revisit the form this summer. I admit, with a slightly red face, that in the ten years followed creating the form, I still haven’t written a single villanelle, though I still enjoy reading them, especially Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I’ve excused myself with the thought that formula poems are almost mathematical (and math was never my strong suit). I think my feeling has been similar to the workshop group members’.

Developed in France and introduced into English literature during the late 1800s, a villanelle has 19 lines, with two repeating lines throughout the poem. Here’s the canonical format:

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

(Are you confused yet?) The first five stanzas contain three lines (triplets), and the last stanza contains four lines (a quatrain). The 1st (A1) and 3rd (A2) lines of the first stanza are alternately repeated, with the 1st line becoming the last line of the second and the fourth stanzas, and the 3rd line becoming the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. Lines 1 and 3 are repeated again to  become the last two lines of the final stanza. (Feeling compulsive?) There is no prescribed meter or line length; however, iambic (ta-DUM) and four or five feet per line are good bets. (Do you have an idea now why I’ve never tried to write one?) Of course, modern attempts stray from the rules and allow for some flexibility, and enjambments can be used to help the course of the poem. Note: Poems have two basic types of line breaks: end-stopped and enjambed (in an enjambed line, the break occurs in the middle of a sentence or phrase; end-stopped lines end with punctuation).

Recently, I introduced the villanelle again in a private coaching session and, although it was happily received, the student thought the form was too strict and too rigid for any reasonable attempt. She asked if I know of a slightly simpler format loosely based on the villanelle but “easier.” Once again, I brought out the “Adeleanelle,” and hope you’ll find it fun to work with.


1. Write a twelve-line poem divided into three four-line stanzas.
2. There is no rhyme and no prescribed meter.
3. Begin each stanza with the same word. (That’s each stanza, not each line.)
4. Line 1 is repeated as line 5.
5. Line 4 is repeated as line 12.
6. The poem takes its title from the fourth line of the first stanza.


1. Begin with a free write and then get your ideas organized.

2. Take your time. Keep a copy of the guidelines close as you write and refer to it as needed.


Here’s an unedited example from the group (thanks, Jayne R. for permission to post this poem again).

Another Time, Another Life (the title is line 4)

Line 1                                                 And now in the retelling,
Line 2                                                 I wish and wish again that
Line 3                                                 the dream had been a dream—
Line 4                                                 another time, another life …

Line 5  (repeat line 1)                        And now in the retelling,
Line 6                                                 I wish you here, my love,
Line 7                                                 your still eyes wide (alive),
Line 8                                                 nothing in the shadows—

Line 9                                                 And only light and light—
Line10                                                where loss forgets its place,
Line 11                                               your hand still warm in mine,
Line 12 (repeat line 4)                        another time, another life …

If the Adeleanelle doesn’t strike your fancy and you want to go for a “real thing” challenge, there’s a great how-to here

Note: Keep in mind that whatever you choose, meaning should never be subordinate to form!

Villanelle Example:

“Villanelle” by W. H. Auden


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Prompt #322 – Writing a Memory (not quite a memoir) Poem

We’ve addressed the subject of memoir or memory poems a few times over the years, and this week we revisit the idea with a challenge to write a poem about a special memory (good or bad). Sounds easy, right? NOT!!! For this poem, I’d like you to stay very focused on not simply telling a story but, rather (and here’s the challenge), to stay focused on what the story means.


1. Remember that there’s a big difference between writing a poem and creating art. A lot of people who write poetry work from a prose impulse and a prose logic that they arrange in lines and stanzas. This is especially prevalent in “memory” and memoir poems. Be careful when you write. It’s good to start with a free-write, but then work especially hard to tweak and hone.

2. It’s way too easy to tell a story in a format that looks like a poem. Often, we see memoir and confessional “writings” that tell something of someone’s story, include a couple of good images, throw in few similes or metaphors, come up with a clever ending, arrange the whole thing in lines and stanzas, and masquerade as poems.  Sure, that kind of writing may generate applause from readers or listeners who have had similar experiences (especially in open readings where there isn’t enough time to “know” the poem well), but it’s not truly poetry because it never reaches beyond the poet’s impulse to “tell.” The poem has to be more than the story – it has to be about what happened because of the story; thus, the story becomes subordinate to its telling, and that’s precisely what too many writers don’t achieve.

3. Beware of writing/telling too much in your poem – beware the dreaded Prose-o-saurus! Remember that a poem should contain an element of mystery or surprise – first to the poet and then to the reader or listener. A lot of the poems being read and published today are so cluttered with superfluous detail (and adjectives) that the poems become claustrophobic experiences (I call it TMW – too many words). A poet, beyond competence, has to trust readers to fill in some of the blanks. Some people who write poetry become so occupied with telling their stories that they (the writers) are indelibly superimposed over their poems. There is definitely a finding and loss of the self in poetry writing – that sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. The poet enters the poem to learn something; once written, the poet necessarily exits. The poem shouldn’t carry the poet along with it – all that bulk and bone will cast shadows on the poem’s light.

4. A lot of people who write poems (memory-type in particular) are inclined toward abstractions and generalizations, which often equal sentimentality. These are majorly risky. There is a big difference between image and abstraction. The best lesson a poet can learn is to write little – to go to the minute on the way to the large, and that means avoiding abstractions and generalizations. A good poem does take risks – artistic and emotional – but never through concepts and notions or simplifications. Every poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment. A poem should be about poetic sentiment without schmaltziness. Subtlety is good, overstatement and the obvious must be avoided. Think of your poem in terms of what your personal story means in the larger, more universal perception of human experience.

1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains, and that really good poems have layers of meaning.

7. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.

8. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.)


Once in the 40's by William Stafford

We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold – but
brave – we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich. We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

Note: What is Stafford really “telling” readers in this poem? How does this short poem convey the sense of what was and how good it was, and how we sometimes only recognize that much later?

Porch Sitting by Deborah LaVeglia

This dark night holds promise.
Each lightening bug produces
its own shimmer of hope.
Sitting on my stoop
on New York Avenue in Newark,
I watch the cars pass by. 
I laugh with neighbors,
smile at the children playing freeze-tag
and TV-tag, their knees powdered with
dirt, faces made-up with the crust of
forgotten ice cream.

This dark night holds promise,
I see the light shining in my kitchen
window, my mother passing by
for the hundredth time.
Louie’s mother leans from the fire escape
and joins in the conversation below,
Michelle’s mother calls from half-way
down the block, musical notes:
This dark night holds promise
and I am grateful.

Note: Notice the subtlety and nuance in this poem, and the way Deborah skillfully uses imagery to convey deep meaning. Notice how Deborah challenges the ordinary, how she connects, reveals, and surprises. The deceptive simplicity of the poem is intensely profound and means much more than the words it contains. What is Deborah grateful for? How does this have meaning for you?

The Dancing by Gerald Stern

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop – in 1945 –
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing – in Poland and Germany –
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

Note: Gerald Stern has said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” In this poem he remembers what it was like in Pittsburg, 1945. This poem is very specific to Stern’s experience (as memory poems should be). How does it speak to you? What, specifically, strikes a chord when you read this poem? What is Stern telling us?