Poet Beware!

There are many legitimate markets and opportunities for poets. There are also many schemes and pitfalls. Some appeal to your ego, some to your frustration…and all want your money.

Vanity Anthologies

There are dozens of vanity anthology companies that target poets. Unlike true anthologies, which are marketed and sold to the public, vanity anthologies are marketed and sold mainly to the contributors.

Most vanity anthologizers operate pretty much the same way. They place ads in magazines, newspapers, and online announcing a free poetry contest, with cash prizes for the finalists and guaranteed publication for finalists and semi-finalists. You can enter as many poems as you like, as long as they aren’t longer than about 25 lines.

There’s a reason for this length restriction. The shorter the poems, the more can be crammed into the anthology; and the more poets who can be offered publication, the more books the company is likely to sell. In other words, the contest isn’t a real competition, but a way of drawing in in paying customers.

Everyone who enters receives a glowing, ego-boosting letter declaring them a semi-finalist. They’re then given the opportunity to purchase the anthology (often at a “special discount”), along with various extras–including a biography, having the poem read onto audio tape, having the poem mounted on a plaque or embossed on a coffee mug, membership in poets’ societies, attendance at expensive poetry conferences (celebrity hosts often lend these events a misleading veneer of respectability).

Vanity anthology companies usually do fulfill their promise to publish–so if you’re just looking to see your poem in print, you may consider this a reasonable deal. But if you want a genuine publishing credit, vanity anthologies are not the place to obtain it. Because there’s no editorial screening, the overall quality of the published poems is poor. Anthology credits are not respected by publishing professionals.

Nor, despite the companies’ claims, do the anthologies get wide exposure. Vanity anthologies aren’t reviewed. They aren’t purchased by libraries. Bookstores don’t stock them. About the only place you’re likely to see one is on your own bookshelf, or that of a friend or family member you’ve persuaded to buy a copy.

For more information and lots of links, see Writer Beware’s Vanity Anthologies page.

Vanity Publishers

A vanity publisher charges a fee to print your book, and also provides additional services such as distribution and warehousing. For poets frustrated by the difficulty of selling poetry collections, this can seem like a tempting, if expensive, alternative.

Be aware, though, that vanity publishers are not in business to sell your book to the public: they’re in business to sell their services to you. Most charge hugely inflated fees, and despite their promises do little or nothing to market books (why should they? They’ve already made a fat profit on what they charged you).

Worse, some vanity publishers engage in fraudulent practices–offering terrible contracts, producing shoddy books, taking your money and then failing to publish anything at all. Plus, because vanity publishers will publish anyone who can pay, regardless of quality, vanity published books aren’t respected. A vanity published book is unlikely to be stocked in bookstores, and it’s not likely to be reviewed.

A better alternative is self-publishing, either via a print-on-demand self-publishing service such as Lulu.com or iUniverse, or one of the increasingly popular ebook-only alternatives, such as Smashwords. These provide reliable publication that can cost you much less than you’d pay a vanity publisher (many of the ebook-only options are free) and in addition make your book easy to order online and in bookstores (though again, because of these services’ business policies, it’s unlikely that you’ll have bookstore presence). You’ll still have do all the marketing yourself. But you’re much less likely to be cheated.

For more detailed information, see Writer Beware’s Vanity/Subsidy Publishers page.

Small Presses

The power of the Internet and the ease of print-on-demand technology has made it simple for almost anyone to set up in business as a publisher. Many of these small presses, unlike larger houses, are eager to consider poetry collections. However, caution is definitely in order.

Some small presses are just vanity publishers in disguise. They charge “setup” fees, or fees for adjunct services such as editing and design, or require you to buy finished books. Often you won’t discover this until you receive the contract.

Others are “author mills”–publishers that turn a profit by publishing hundreds of writers and selling a handful of books from each, rather than trying to sell a lot of books from a limited number of authors, as real publishers do.

Author mills often present themselves as “traditional”, because they don’t require you to pay up front–but as with the vanity anthologies, their books are marketed not to the reading public but to the authors themselves (who are pressured to buy their own books for resale) and to “pocket” markets surrounding them, such as friends and family. Also, because author mills need a constant flow of new writers, they tend to accept just about everything that’s submitted, with little regard to quality. An author mill will put your collection in print–but it won’t give you a professional publishing credit.

Even when small presses are well-intentioned, they’re often run by people without publishing experience, resulting in poorly-edited, unprofessional-looking books. To make matters worse, small presses often offer terrible, nonstandard contracts, and are prone to running into financial difficulties and vanishing suddenly without a trace.

Do some careful checking before choosing a small press

  • How long has the publisher been around? Look for evidence that it has been in business a year or more, and that it has a backlist of published books. This indicates at least some stability, as well as the capacity to take a book all the way through the production process.
  • Are the books edited, professionally-produced and of good physical quality? Order a couple so you can check.
  • Do you have to pay? Small publishers may not be able to afford advances, but they shouldn’t charge their authors. Any money required as part of the publication process–including pre-purchase or pre-sale requirements–signals a publisher that relies on its authors as its main source of income, and therefore doesn’t have much incentive to get its books into the hands of the public.
  • Are the books reasonably priced? Small presses often price their books very high–a real disincentive for readers.
  • Can the books be easily obtained? A small press may have trouble getting bookstores to stock its books–but they should at least be orderable through the catalog of a major wholesaler such as Ingram, and from online booksellers. Books that can be bought only from the publisher’s website or directly from authors won’t sell many copies.
  • What’s the contract like? Watch out for nonstandard clauses, and don’t sign away your rights for more than three to five years at a time.
  • Contact some of the publisher’s authors. Ask them about their experience.

For more information and advice, see Writer Beware’s Small Presses page.

Reading Fees

If you’re submitting to magazines and journals, you may encounter a reading fee. A small reading fee ($5 or $10) is easy to rationalize–it helps defray the expenses of the publication that’s asking for it, and it won’t break your pocketbook.

However, while there are some sincere, struggling publications that charge reading fees in order to survive, just as many are simply trying to turn an easy buck. Given how hard it is to tell the difference–not to mention the number of publications that don’t charge reading fees at all–reading fees are usually best avoided.

Note that a reading fee isn’t the same as a contest entry fee–see below.


The lure of contests is strong. There are prizes to be won, and sometimes publication to be had. Once again, though, caution is in order.

Some contests are just schemes to sell you merchandise, as with the vanity anthologies described above. Watch out also for “contest mills” that make a profit on the front end, via entry fees. Some advertise enormous prizes ($15,000 for the winner, $10,000 for second place, etc.) with correspondingly high entry fees ($25 or $30). But if you read the fine print, you’ll discover that the contest owner reserves the right to award prizes on a pro rata basis–i.e., prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants, guaranteeing a profit for the owner no matter what.

Other contest mills are run by magazines or e-zines that conduct a dozen or more contests a year, or by Internet-based groups that offer monthly contests and advertise under several different names and URLs to draw more entrants. Such contests aren’t likely to employ rigorous judging standards. The prizes are nice if you win, but winning doesn’t mean much professionally.

Still other contests are outright fakes, run by crooked literary agencies as part of an editing or fee-charging scam, or by vanity publishers looking for paying customers.

Some questions to ask before deciding to enter:

  • Who’s running the contest? If it’s an organization you don’t recognize, verify that it’s legitimate. If you can’t confirm this to your satisfaction, give the contest a miss.
  • Who’s doing the judging? Some contests protect judges’ privacy, so not naming judges isn’t necessarily a warning sign. Still, if you know who the judges are you can better assess the contest’s prestige.
  • How often does the contest happen? If there’s a contest every month, or many contests every quarter, it may be just a moneymaking scheme.
  • Is the entry fee appropriate? Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee (or a “reading” fee associated with entry) isn’t a sign of a questionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover expenses and fund the prize. However, the fee should be appropriate to the contest. Anything over $1o should prompt some careful checking.
  • What’s the prize? The contest rules (and there should be contest rules, clearly stated: if not, be cautious) should make clear exactly what the prizes are. Be suspicious of contests that offer enormous money prizes (see above).
  • Contests that offer publication are very appealing. However, this isn’t necessarily a sign of legitimacy–many fake contests offer publication to winners. If the contest is sponsored by a book or chapbook publisher, carefully research the publisher before entering. Never enter a contest that requires you to accept a publishing contract–some vanity publishers trap clients this way. And there should never be an extra cost associated with a publication prize.
  • Read the fine print! Contests sometimes require entrants to give up various rights, such as first publication or the right to sell the entry elsewhere. Some require you to give up copyright. And if you enter a contest online, you may be giving permission for your entry to be published at the company’s website, whether you win or not.

For more information, see Writer Beware’s Contests and Awards page.

Literary Agents

Successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Unless you’re already famous, poetry collections are a tough sell–plus, the poetry market simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines say they accept poets or poetry collections. Nearly always, they’re unscrupulous operators looking to make a living not from selling books to publishers, but from charging fees to clients; or else they’re too inexperienced to understand the market. Most have no track record of sales to paying publishers.

Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Once they’ve built up a track record, they can submit their collections to publishers on their own.

And Finally…

If you run across something you’re not sure about, industry watchdog groups can help. Preditors & Editors provides lists of publishers and literary agents, with warnings about those that aren’t reputable. Writer Beware tracks contests, publishers, and literary agents. You can e-mail the staff, and they’ll let you know if they’ve received complaints.

Pitfalls for poets are many and various. But if you do your research, keep your wits about you, and look before you leap, you’ll be fine. Happy writing!

Useful Links

- Excellent tips on how to sell poetry, from published poet Neile Graham: http://www.sff.net/people/neile/how.to.sell.poetry.htp

- Good advice on writing and publishing poetry, from the Academy of American Poets: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/56

- From the UK’s Poetry Society, helpful info for poets: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/info/faq/

- Poets and Writers has an extensive Grants and Awards section, which includes chapbook contests: http://www.pw.org/grants

- More poetry contests, from the Poetry Society of America:  http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/resources/poetrycontests/

First published in Poet’s Market, from Writer’s Digest Books, 2003

Updated version copyright © 2012 Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.

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