So you think you have a chapbook; now what?

May 13th, 2013

I’m starting to think about where and how to publish a chapbook, and I thought I would think it through out loud and share what I’m learning. If it helps somebody else, that’s wonderful and if not – I find that writing things out really helps me clarify my own thoughts on the matter. The standard caveats apply, of course; I’m no expert – I’m muddling through this for the first time myself – and obviously if you’re thinking about publishing a chapbook you’re going to want to do your own legwork, but maybe my questions for myself will trigger some questions of your own, or a I’ll mention a press you hadn’t come across and want to investigate further.

It seems to me the first question regarding publishing a chapbook is, should I enter contests or not? That’s one you really have to answer for yourself, but in my opinion a poet should ask herself the following big picture questions:

  • Is my manuscript ready to go? Really ready? Really, really ready?
  • Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how?
  • Are the costs worth the potential rewards?

It can be a little hard to imagine that there’s a downside to entering contests. If you have faith in your manuscript (and if you don’t have faith in your manuscript you shouldn’t be sending it anywhere yet, contest or otherwise), what’s to lose? You could win, and most contests come with a cash reward, a print run, and bragging rights. What’s not to like about that? And if you don’t win, you’re out your entry fee but there’s no harm done and your entry helped support a contest that contributes to a healthy poetry community. I’ll confess that my own first reaction is that contests are a win-win situation – if you set a budget and stick to it – so why not?

And I think that gut reaction is exactly why a poet needs to ask the big picture question Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how? For me – and remember, this is just me thinking out loud about if I want to enter contests or not – that’s the key question. When would winning a contest be particularly helpful, helpful enough to be worth the entry fees and the waiting for results and keeping track of all the various rules and regulations and submission requirements? (I don’t know about you, but I find the practicalities of trying to get published – cover letters and proof-reading and submitting and submission tracking – take up an awful lot of time and occupy too much space in my head so I definitely consider this part of the cost of a contest.) Bragging rights are great, but are bragging rights alone worth several hundred dollars in entry fees?

Here’s when I think contests would be particularly helpful:

  • If you’re getting ready to apply to MFA programs or other advanced programs, and if the results will be out in time to include on your application package, being the winner of a chapbook contest could be pretty nice.
  • You’re applying for a fellowship or residency (I suppose that falls under the above).
  • You’re looking for academic jobs.
  • You’re already half-way through a full-length manuscript; having an existing publishing track record, as a contest winner no less, might be helpful shopping the next project.

It seems to me all of that is a way of saying, if you’re in a position to genuinely take advantage of the momentum winning a contest might provide then contests could be especially worthwhile. The more prepared you are to take the next step, to see where you want a contest to take you, the more worthwhile it becomes. Of course, not everybody can win a contest and probability dictates that most entrants won’t, so the benefits of entering a contest are only potential benefits whereas your costs are set. It will never be bad to be a contest winner so the question each writer has to ask is if the potential benefits are worth the certain costs.

If you’ve thought about the big picture issues and you decide to enter contests, here are a few more questions to consider:

  • What’s my budget? Fees vary from contest to contest; my limited research at this point shows a lot hovering in the $25.00 range. And don’t forget about postage costs: like fees, page limits vary from contest to contest, so your manuscript could be 16 pages or it could run up to about 30. Once you’ve finished your really, really ready to go manuscript, print it out on the paper you will be using for your entries, include a cover letter and any other pages of documentation required (for example some contests want two title pages, one containing identifying information and one with no identifying information), and bring it to the post office and find out how much postage will be. That is part of your costs. Personally, I think a poet should set a firm budget first and then see what contests look interesting; there’s the danger of “oh, just one more, it’s only $25.00″ and before you know it you’ve sunk a lot more money in contests than you thought you would.
  • What are the simultaneous submission policies? Is entering this contest going to lock up the whole manuscript and for how long?

Now you’re down to the nitty-gritty and you need to ask some specific questions about the contests you’re looking at:

  • Do I meet the eligibility requirements? (Age, gender, race, residency or citizenship status but also if the contest is limited to poets who have not yet published a book or chapbook.)
  • What are the possibilities regarding simultaneous submissions?
  • How is the contest judged? Are entries read blind? Does the organization adhere to the contest code of ethics established by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses? Basically, are the contest’s policies transparent?
  • Is there a named judge? Am I familiar with the judge’s work?
  • Is this a new contest or does it have an established track record? Who are some of the past winners?
  • If winning comes with obligations such as giving certain readings or attending a ceremony, can I fulfill those obligations? (Probably not a big issue for most people, and more likely to be a condition of book prizes than chapbook prizes, but still worth looking into.  Writers living abroad especially need to think about these things.)
  • How long will it take for entrants to be notified? Will all entrants be notified or only the winners? Do I want to have my work out for that long?
  • What is the prize? What is the print run and distribution plan?
  • And finally, set up a tracking system to keep track of what contests you’ve entered and when, who judged them (if known), fees paid, and expected notification date if known.

Poets & Writers includes a special section on writing contests every year in the May/June issue; this year’s issue should be on the newsstands now so if you’re at that stage with your work (in any genre) you should run out and pick that up. And as always, search engines are your friend.

I’ll be posting on and off as I continue to look into my options. Happy submitting!


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