Why I Went With Self-Publishing vs Traditionally Publishing for my Poetry Book
If you're ready to publish your poetry book, there are two main paths ahead of you if you want to get your collection out there: traditional vs self-publishing.
When I put my first debut poetry collection, seven years, together, I was determined to traditionally publish it. I viewed traditional publishers as the stamp of approval and saw it as a milestone that I had to reach to be considered a "real author." I had dreamed of it since I was a child.
So I found some publishers who published poetry and started writing queries and understanding what I needed to do to send my manuscript to them. One thing that I found most of them wanted was a social media following. They wanted to know if I could market my book, but I was confused because I thought that was their job.
So I started growing my Instagram in February 2020. I didn't know how many followers they wanted me to have, but I figured it was somewhere in the thousands, which was going to take me months. But while I started growing my account, more people were asking me to publish a collection of my work, and I didn't want to make them wait months, maybe even years. So I started looking into self-publishing my work.
If you're in a similar position or just interested in what the pros and cons of each method are, keep reading! Just remember these are based on my own opinions and research, and everyone will likely have a different experience. I have never worked with a traditional publisher, so this is all based on stories and research I've heard.
This is one of the main reasons that I decided to move forward with self-publishing. If I published through Amazon's KDP, I would get 60% of the royalties. From the research I had done, a traditional publisher would pay you between 5 to 25% of the royalties. Another poet commented that they were only offered 15% royalties.
While I'm not in this for the money, I don't think it's wrong to know your worth and value. I poured my heart and soul into this book, and if I had the choice, I would like to be compensated the most for my work.
Another thing that factored into this is that if I was going to be asked to do a lot of marketing and all of the writing on my own, wouldn't I want to be paid the most anyway? The more research I did, the more I realized that you would still have to go through the work of promoting your book and that the traditional publisher relies heavily on you to market your own work.
Growing my Instagram account was more work than just auto-posting a poem a day. I was building a community; I was spending my time interacting with followers. It was a lot of work, and why would I want to essentially take a pay cut out of my poetry book so I could just have a publisher's name attached to my book?
While I've never queried a traditional publisher, I have sent out my work to many magazines and journals for publication. It took me forever to break into the publishing scene, but I eventually did it. It was like applying for a job; maybe one poem got accepted for every hundred submissions I sent out.
I knew that sending out an entire collection would be even more time-consuming and maybe even more impossible. One survey found that editors confirmed only about one to two percent of authors that submit their manuscripts actually get accepted by the publisher. That doesn't mean that your writing is bad, but even J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter got rejected by publishers twelve times before someone accepted it.
I knew that my odds weren't great, no matter how much I believed in my work. But the more research I did, the more I found that many popular poets have been published after they found success with self-publishing their books.
Rupi Kaur, the author of milk and honey, started by self-publishing, and now she has sold over 11 million copies and is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Shelby Leigh, the author of changing with the tides, is a popular TikTok poet who republished her book through Gallery Books after they realized how popular her books are.
So self-publishing is just the start of your adventure. This means that you could become more popular later on, and it may even be easier to get noticed by a traditional publisher since they know that you already know how to sell a successful book. However, you may even find that you enjoy publishing your poetry on your own!
Growing a poetry Instagram following was much more challenging than I thought it would be. I had to make Reels, I had to write poems to post, I had to do hashtag research, I had to interact with other poets, and grow a community. While it was fun, it was much more than just a hobby that I could spend a few minutes a day on.
Once I started finalizing my book, I realized that book marketing was also very challenging and time-consuming. And if I was going to have to do that, I wanted to be compensated as much as possible for that work. As much as I hate capitalism and "grinding culture," I still have bills to pay, and my time is valuable. If I wanted to grow poetry into a full-time business and job, then I would have to maximize the royalties, which meant going through self-publishing.
The one con about self-publishing is that you have to pay for all the publishing costs upfront. A traditional publisher would generally handle that for you, but as I mentioned in another blog, you can pay as much or as little as you want to publish your poetry book.
A traditional publisher will generally handle the cover design, the book formatting, editing, some marketing, and distributing your book. You'll have to do some marketing on your own, but other than that, you would just be in charge of writing the book and incorporating any edits.
This is normally why you would receive less of the royalties; they're going to be doing more of the work. But when you handle most of these tasks, you'll reap the rewards later on. For me, it was easy to do the book editing and formatting since I have had experience and training in these areas.
If you don't have the training, you can hire someone (like me) to help you visualize your poetry book. This way, you'll still be able to get more royalties in the long run as well.
As I said earlier, I wanted to release a book in 2022. I realized that I had waited long enough, and if I didn't start now, these poems were just going to sit dusty on my computer. Before I started the research, I thought maybe a publisher would be able to publish my book this year, but after researching, I realized they have their own timeline, and it's much longer than I thought.
They have to schedule books for months, maybe even years, in advance. Meanwhile, with self-publishing, I would only need a minimum of three days to get my book available for purchase on Amazon. The longer I waited, that means the longer I would have to wait for these royalties.
I didn't rush through the process because I wanted to make sure that I did everything possible the right way. But even then, the entire process from having a final manuscript to publishing the book took about four months, which is much faster than a traditional publisher would be able to do.
I used to work as an editor-in-chief for a literary magazine, and instead of turning away every submission, we would workshop with writers to ensure that everyone was accepted into the journal. Instead of being the people who determined good or bad poetry and writing, we dedicated our time to helping writers grow.
With traditional publishers, they're not interested in helping you grow as a writer; they want to make money. They used to be the gatekeepers of the literary community, but self-publishing has broken those gates. There are many great writers who don't get accepted by publishers because they don't know how to market. Or they don't know how to write to a marketable audience.
At the end of the day, a publisher is a business, and they will accept what books they think can make them money. You could be a fantastic poet but not have a large market that a publisher will care about. I believed in my work, and many of my followers did too, and I believe that I could market my work the best right now, which is another reason why I decided to self-publish.
While everyone's situation will be different, I hope that poets aren't afraid of self-publishing. If you're like me, you may have seen it as cheating or "the easy way out." But after doing all of the processes to get there, I will say that it was not the easy way out. And even if it was, I'll be making more money for my hard work, and it's out there now. It has the ability to help someone heal in their life by being self-published more than it would by waiting on a traditional publisher to see its value.
If you’re interested in reading the book that I just spent all my time and money publishing, check it out here! If you want a signed copy, there are still some available on my website!
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