The best way to get your poems published is to send them out. That being said, you’ll end up receiving more rejections than acceptances, no matter who you are. The whole thing is just a numbers game. So why not reframe and welcome the reality of those inescapable rejections?
One way to do this is to aim for 100 rejections a year. You can read more here about this approach, one taken by numerous writers to remove the inevitable sting of the submissions process.
In 2018, I continued submitting poems, essays, and writing projects. Sure, I welcomed the publications and acceptances, but what I was really aiming for was 100 rejections.
Where I Started
I ended the previous year, 2017, with 13 rejections out of 27 total submissions. Why the high acceptance rate? Many of the submissions were to extremely tiny presses in my hometown, projects run by friends who asked me to submit, or community initiatives where nearly everyone who wanted to participate got published. I really wasn’t sending my work out to places where I didn’t have a direct connection.
At the end of 2017, I was happy about what I had published, but I knew that I was missing a ton of opportunities by not submitting more widely.
My Self-Imposed Rules
I entered 2018 already in graduate school. I was producing longer works. I also believed that I was producing better quality writing.
In my quest for 100 rejections, I decided to set a monthly submissions quota: I would submit to 12 venues per month. All writing-related submissions would count towards this quota: journals and magazines, publishers, grants, residencies, writing contests, application-based reading series, and more. All genres counted towards my single goal: poems, book reviews, essays, etc.
I would not count rejections from venues I had submitted to before the year began; I gave myself a clean slate.
How Did It Go?
In 2018, I accrued 86 rejections and 18 acceptances. I still have 45 pending submissions, for a total of 149 submissions for the year.
I maintained the 12 submissions/month rule pretty well. The few months I lagged (four submissions in June and three submissions in November), I made up for in other months (21 submissions each in September and October).
Some Notes About Strategy
- I discovered calls for submission through reading, social media posts, and the CRWOPPS Listserv. I compiled these opportunities in what is now a 294-row spreadsheet with far more venues than I’ve had time to read, research, and submit to. It’s a good problem to have!
- If a journal sent me a “friendly rejection” (i.e. “We can’t publish your work now, but we hope that you send us more work soon”), I made sure to resubmit…and resubmit…and resubmit.
- I submitted “packets,” i.e. the same set of poems, to say, 25 venues.
- I sent different packets of poems to contests than I did to literary journals.
Analyzing the Acceptances
With 149 submissions, I didn’t get that many more acceptances than when I submitted to only 27 places. Was all the extra work worth it?
Even after reframing the value of a rejection, the true goal is to produce good writing that garners readers. Here’s my break-down of the 18 acceptances. I wanted to see if analyzing these would give me any more insights about strategy:
- Two acceptances at journals where I knew the editors and was asked to submit (this is customary)
- One acceptance for a feature in a daily online poetry series for which my work had been solicited
- Seven journal acceptances from the “slush pile”
- One acceptance into a Milwaukee-themed anthology
- One acceptance to attend a residency
- One accepted guest blog post
- One article in a regional LGBTQ news magazine
- One publication associated with being a poetry contest semi-finalist
- One acceptance for inclusion in a collaborative poetry sculpture
- Two acceptances for inclusion in a poetry festival and at a zine fair
I also published non-submissions work as well, most notably a few book reviews from when, later in the year, I became a staff book reviewer for South Florida Poetry Journal. I also did some fun projects with The Drunken Odyssey. 2018 gave me the chance to conduct some great interviews as well, and, of course, to co-edit The Politics of Shelter. I also started this blog!
Analyzing the Rejections
Out of 86 rejections in 2018, 16 of them were friendly, “send us more work, please” rejections. This gives me some valuable information about where to prioritize submitting next year.
One of the early friendly rejections was from a journal that has multiple submissions periods every year. I sent them another round of poems and received word in December that they wanted to accept one. This is a journal I’ve admired for a while, so it was a satisfying accomplishment.
The Numbers Game
I spent $629 on submissions in 2018.
But really, looking at the numbers, it’s not that bad, just $52 and some change each month. Not all that high for a self-employed artist.
And I made the money back: I won a contest at Cutbank (from a 2017 submission) that came with a $500 prize (I wrote a longer post about the economics of contests on this blog a few months ago). Two journals paid me $10 and $25, respectively, for publishing poems. I was paid $100 for a poetry performance in November, and $100 in April. My submissions have also led to some paid event planning work. No doubt there are are a few other gigs I’m forgetting at the moment.
I can look at it like I made $735 and netted about $100, or I can look at it holistically: poetry is my contribution to the universe and like any artist, I’m finding ways to make it work. My teaching and web writing gigs (most of my income) are also part of my poetry life.
There is no doubt that my ability to pay for submissions fees relies on class privilege. To even have $52 a month in the first place to spend on something like this is a huge privilege. Journals and contests need to have more options for writers who can’t afford the fees—otherwise, people move farther along in their “careers” and gain more positive recognition because they have the money.
At the same time, I know plenty of people who spend $52 a month on pizza, or beer, or nails. It’s true that one can prioritize writing over other things: I use my bicycle to get to school and to do local errands, spend a lot of time cooking from scratch, don’t own a car (though my partner does), don’t buy makeup, wear used clothes, cut my hair at home, etc.
What can I say? Some people gamble; I submit to writing contests.
Out of the $629 I spent on submissions in 2018, I delegated:
- $303 to sixteen poetry contests (I won Cutbank and was a semi-finalist in Nimrod)
- $42 to four residency applications (I was accepted to one)
- $15 to consideration of inclusion of my poetry in a sculpture in NYC (I got it!)
- $75 to four chapbook contests (still seeking a publisher)
- The rest to the $2 and $3 fees that many journals charge all submitters to fund the journals’ online platforms
My Submission Goals for 2019
I got a lot closer to 100 submissions in 2018 than I’d expected, just 14 away from my goal. In 2019, I’m planning to submit to 20 venues a month instead of 12, though I don’t want to submit work simply to reach a certain number. It’s important to thoroughly research every venue so that you don’t accidentally send a journal work you should already know they wouldn’t be interested in.
After submitting 149 times, I have a lot more information than I did this time last year about who likes my work, who has no interest in my work, and which journals would be the best fits for me. I didn’t receive that many more acceptances in 2018 than I received in 2017, but my acceptances represent a hugely broader and more vibrant range of venues. I definitely gained a wider audience and readership. And I know about (and have read the work in) a ton more venues than I had previously.
My goal for 2019 is to go bigger and be more selective at the same time, if that makes any sense. I want to continue to expand what I believe to be possible for my poetry, while at the same time making more informed decisions related to who would enjoy and connect with my work.
Submitting widely helped me feel brave when approaching intimidating opportunities. So what if I didn’t feel like I had a chance? At the very least, it would be another rejection towards my 100.
I am going to continue to experiment with entering writing contests. I’ve been in the contest game for less than two years and would like to see what happens if I continue to submit. I’m also planning to continue to read and research new potential venues from the backlog on my spreadsheet, which may include spending some money on subscriptions.
How do you get your work out into the world? Do you enter contests, submit to journals, post your work online? Do you aim for 100 rejections? Where do you go to find readers?