Four Rules You Should Never Break When Submitting Poetry for Publication
I hate rules. Rules suck. Unfortunately, they're a fact of life (and death, too, for that matter), and I've never found any suitable way to avoid them. The publication industry has rules, too, I'm afraid. And, like anything else in this life, you gotta know 'em.
Below, you'll find what I think are the most important rules. If you've ever written for publication before, you probably already know these rules. They're the foundation of the publication world, rules that quote everyone unquote already know. Now, you can know them, too.
Following the rules, of course, won't guarantee publication. The content of your poetry, the craftsmanship and insight you've invested in it, will determine an editor's interest far more than any rules. But if you break too many of these rules (and in some instances, one is enough), an editor may never get past your mistakes long enough to realize the brilliance of your content. Follow the rules. Then, let your poetry do the rest.
The Four Rules
Rule #1 - Get Organized
You need to keep a list of your submissions. At the very minimum, you need the title of the poem, the publication you submitted it to, and the date the poem was sent. You'll probably also want to include fields indicating the date of response and the results of your submission. Passions in Poetry is currently designing an Access database to help you with this onerous task, but until it's ready you need to find another way. A spreadsheet works well, or you can even keep the list in your word processor. However you keep it, do keep it. And maintain it rigorously.
Why is this so important? First, it's important because editors happen to be human beings, too. They lose things. Sometimes with alarming regularity. When you send out a poem and don't hear from any one in a couple months, it helps to know when the poem was sent. And to whom.
But it's really important because you don't want to accidentally send the same poem to two or more publishers at the same time. It's called simultaneous submissions and most magazines (not all) have a strict policy against it. It's not necessarily fair to the us, the writers, but it's just the way things work in the real world. Editors have this terrible tendency to buy a poem or two at the last minute, to fill page space, and they get real upset when they discover you've already (or worse, also) sold it to another publication. If you get caught making simultaneous submissions (and the literary world is a small one), you may find it very difficult to ever regain their trust.
So start your list. Consult it before you send any poem out. And maintain the list rigorously.
Rule #2 - SASE Required
This is one of those unbreakable, mostly unbendable rules. SASE stands for Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. And every submission you send out has to have one. Editors are usually very busy, invariably under-paid, people. Okay, and some of them are lazy. When they've read your submission and decided it isn't right for them, they want to be able to immediately stuff it in an envelope you've supplied to them, with your name and address already filled in, and send it back to you. They're also fairly cheap, so the envelope better have postage already applied.
Some writers like to print off a dozen or so envelopes with their address, then keep them in a drawer for future use. Others, like myself, prefer to print two envelopes for every submission. I do it that way so I can print the publications address on the envelope as the return address. That way, when I open my PO Box, I immediately know who it's from (without that fluttering heartbeat that comes just before I open the envelope). I think it also helps to personalize the submission, by letting the editor know I've invested at least a few minutes on them.
Which ever method you use, do use it. Not providing a SASE won't prevent your work from being purchased. In fact, when an editor buys your poetry, they won't even use the SASE. Your check and letter of acceptance will come in the magazine's own envelope. They'll even pay the postage (heart, be still). However, if you don't provide the SASE, you will never get a negative response from a publisher. And that means you'll have to wait several months before you can send the poem to another publisher.
Rule #3 - Do Your Research
A list of publication markets, whether those on our web site or any you find elsewhere, is just a starting point. We can tell you what the publication thinks it wants, where to send your materials, how much they pay -- all that kind of stuff. But short of actually printing the poems they've published in the past (and violating some serious copyrights), we can't really tell you what you should send to them. Most magazines have their own format, their own needs and preferences.
Is that important? If you send a free-verse love poem to a magazine that has never published any thing but metered verse on science fiction, you're going to do two things. First, you're going to waste your own time and a bit of postage. Second, you're going to waste the editor's time, and that will probably piss them off. Who needs it?
Most magazines will send you a page or two of guidelines for the price of an SASE. At the very minimum, you should send for those guidelines. They'll give you the basic rules of the house, a starting point a bit beyond a simple list of markets. But even that's still just a starting point. Nothing is ever going to supplant the need to read the magazine. Only by reading what they've already purchased and published will you know if your poems are right for them. And, to be perfectly frank, reading the published works of others will probably go a long way towards improving your own writing.
Rule #4 - Don't Get Discouraged
Okay, this is our rule and has little to do with the publication industry. But it's just as important, probably more so, than any other rule we've given you to follow.
Editors buy poetry for a lot of different reasons. We'd like to think they never buy bad poetry (though even that's not true), but we sure as hell know they don't always buy a poem just because it's good. They might buy a particular poem because it fits in with a theme they're publishing. They might buy it because it fits a page, or balances a layout. Unfortunately, the alternative is also true. The editor might return a perfectly good poem because it doesn't match a theme they're publishing, because it's too long or short to fit in their next issue, or just because they've already spent their budget.
Generally speaking, you cant' get a poem published unless it's good enough. But being good enough isn't necessarily good enough. Timing is important, too. Subject matter matters. Even length can be a reason to turn down an otherwise perfectly good poem. So when you get one of yours back, one you thought was a sure hit, don't get discouraged. There can be a lot of different reasons why it was returned.
Instead of getting discouraged, grab your list, find another market, and send the poem out again. And again, and again, and again. Sometimes, I think an editor buys something just to get us off their backs.