Poet Beware

By Victoria Strauss

Thereare many legitimate markets and opportunities for poets. There are also manyschemes and pitfalls. Some appeal to your ego, some to your frustration...andall want your money.

Vanity Anthologies

Dozens of vanity anthology companies target poets. Unlike true anthologies,where writers are paid for their contributions, contributors to vanity anthologiespay the publisher.

Vanity anthologizers operate more or less the same way. They place adsin writers’ magazines and elsewhere announcing a free poetry contest, withcash prizes for the finalists and guaranteed publication for finalists andsemi-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 that length restriction. The shorter the poems, the more canbe crammed into an anthology; and the more poets who can be offered publication, themore books the company is likely to sell. In other words, the contest isn'ta real competition, but a marketing ploy designed to draw in paying customers.

Everyone who enters receives a glowing, ego-boosting letter declaring thema semi-finalist. They’re then given the opportunity to purchase the anthology(often with volume discounts), and also to spend anywhere from $20 to severalhundred dollars for extras--adding a biography, having the poem read ontoaudio 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 publishing promises--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, the anthologies are not the place to obtain it. Because there's no editorial screening, theoverall quality of the published poems is poor. Anthology credits are notrespected 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. Bookstoresdon't stock them. About the only place you're likely to see one is on yourown bookshelf, or that of a friend or family member you've persuaded to buya copy.

Subsidy Publishers

A subsidy publisher charges a fee to print your book, and also provides additionalservices such as distribution and warehousing. For poets frustrated by thedifficulty of selling poetry collections, this can seem like a tempting alternative.

Be aware, though, that subsidy publishers are not in business to sell yourbook to the public: they’re in business to sell their services to you. Mostcharge hugely inflated fees, and despite their promises do little or nothingto market books (why should they? They’ve already made a fat profit on whatthey charged you).

Worse, some subsidy publishers engage in fraudulent practices--offeringterrible contracts, producing shoddy books, printing a fraction of the promisedprint run, taking your money and then failing to print anything at all. Plus,because subsidy publishers will publish anyone who can pay, regardless of quality, subsidy-publishedbooks aren’t respected. A subsidy-published book won’t be stocked by bookstores,and it’s not likely to be reviewed.

A better alternative is one of the print-on-demand-based self-publishing services.These provide reliable publication for a fraction of the cost, and in additionmake your book easy to order online and in bookstores (though again, becauseof these services' business policies, it's unlikely that stores will actuallystock your book). You’ll still have do all the marketing yourself, and strugglefor respect (many people consider POD-based self-publishing no differentfrom subsidy or vanity publishing). But you’re much more likely to get yourmoney’s worth.

Internet-based Publishers

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

Some small Internet-based publishers are just vanity publishers in disguise. They charge“setup” fees, or fees for adjunct services such as editing and design, orrequire you to purchase bulk quantities of the finished books. Often youwon’t discover this until you receive the contract.

Others are “author mills”--publishers that turn a profit by publishing enormousnumbers of writers and selling just a hundred or so books from each. Authormills often present themselves as “traditional”, because they don’t requireyou to pay anything--but as with the vanity anthologies, their books aremarketed not to the reading public but to the authors themselves (who are pressured to buy theirown books for resale) and to "pocket" markets surrounding them, such as friends and family. Also, because author millsneed a constant flow of new writers, they tend to accept just about everythingthat’s submitted, with little regard to quality. An author mill will put your collectionin print--but it won’t give you a professional publishing credit.

Even when Internet-based publishers are well-intentioned, they’re often runby people without publishing experience, resulting in poorly-edited, unprofessional-lookingbooks. To make matters worse, Internet-based publishers 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 an Internet-based publisher.
  • How long has the publisher been around? Look for evidencethat it has been in business a year or more, and that it has a backlist ofpublished books. This indicates at least some stability, as well as the capacityto take a book all the way through the production process.

  • Are the books edited, professionally-produced and ofgood physical quality? Order a couple so you can check.

  • Do you have to pay? Small publishers may not be ableto afford advances, but they shouldn’t charge their authors. Any money requiredas part of the publication process--including pre-purchase or pre-sale requirements--signalsa publisher that relies on its authors as its main source of income, and thereforedoesn’t have much incentive to get its books before the public.

  • Are the books reasonably priced? Internet-based publishersoften price their books very high--a real disincentive for readers.

  • Can the books be easily obtained? A small press may havetrouble getting bookstores to stock its books--but they should at least beorderable through the catalogue of a major wholesaler such as Ingram, and from online booksellers.Books that can be bought only from the publisher’s website or from authorswon’t sell many copies.

  • What's the contract like? Watchout for nonstandard clauses, and don't sign away your rights for more thanthree years at a time. It's a good idea to get a lawyer to look over anycontract you're offered--but be sure it's a lawyer who has publishing experience.Publishing contracts are very specialized documents, and someone who isn'tfamiliar with industry terms and practices won't be able to advise you properly. 

  • Contact some of the publisher's authors. Ask them about their experience.

Reading Fees

A small reading fee ($5 or $10) is easy to rationalize--it helps defray theexpenses of the publication that’s asking for it, and it won’t break yourpocketbook.

However, while there are some sincere, struggling publications that chargereading fees in order to survive, just as many are simply trying to turnan extra profit. Given how hard it is to tell the difference--not to mentionthe number of publications that don’t charge reading fees at all--reading fees areusually best avoided.

Note that a reading fee isn’t the same as a contestentry fee--see below.


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

Some contests are just schemes to sell you merchandise, as with the vanityanthologies described above. Watch out also for “contest mills” that makea profit on the front end, via entry fees. Some advertise enormous prizes($15,000 for the winner, $10,000 for second place, etc.) with correspondinglyhigh entry fees ($25 or $30). But if you read the fine print, you’ll discoverthat 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 profitfor the owner no matter what.

Other contest mills are run by magazines ore-zines that conduct a dozen or more contests a year, or by Internet-basedgroups that offer monthly contests and advertise under several differentnames and URLs to draw more entrants. Such contests aren’t likely to employrigorous judging standards. The prizes are nice if you win, but winning doesn’tmean much professionally.

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

Some questions to ask before deciding to enter:
  • Who’s running the contest? If it’s an organization youdon’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, ifyou know who the judges are you can better assess the contest’s prestige.

  • How often does the contest happen? If there’s a contestevery month, or many contests every quarter, it may be just a moneymakingscheme.

  • Is the entry fee appropriate? Contrary to popular belief,an entry fee (or a “reading” fee associated with entry) isn’t a sign of aquestionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover expensesand fund the prize. However, the fee should be appropriate to the contest.Anything over $15 should prompt some careful checking.

  • What’s the prize? The contest rules (and there shouldbe contest rules, clearly stated: if not, be cautious) should make clearexactly what the prizes are. Be suspicious of contests that offer enormousmoney prizes (see above).

  • Contests that offer publication are very appealing. However, this isn’t necessarilya sign of legitimacy--many fake contests offer publication to winners. Ifthe contest is sponsored by a book or chapbook publisher, carefully researchthe publisher before entering. Never enter a contest that requires you toaccept 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 entrantsto give up various rights, such as first publication or the right to sellthe entry elsewhere. Some require you to give up copyright. And if you entera contest online, you may be giving permission for your entry to be publishedat the company’s website, whether you win or not.
Literary Agents

Successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Unless you’re alreadyfamous, poetry collections are a tough sell--plus, the poetry market simplyisn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines say they accept poetsor poetry collections. Nearly always, they’re unscrupulous operators lookingto make a living not from selling books to publishers, but from chargingfees to clients. Most have no track record of sales to paying publishers.

And Finally...

If you run across something you’re not sure about, industry watchdog groups can help.

Preditors & Editors provideslists 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 URLs

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 theAcademy of American Poets: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/56

Contests and vanity anthologies--warnings from Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/contests/

__________________________________________________________Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, and a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site. Her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. She’s an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website. She welcomes visitors to her own website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com.

Used with Permission Copyright 1999-2006 Victoria Strauss

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