One Way to Publish Your First Book (For Contest Losers like Me)

wow, i’ve been receiving many emails from folks asking me how my first book was published if i didn’t win any contest. i’m happy to share since it seems too many people are feeling anxiety about never winning a contest.

as i mentioned, i felt bitter towards the entire contest system (what i think about contests now will have to wait for another post). so i stared at my bookshelf and all those book spines, dreaming that i might someday be stacked between Sharon Olds and D.A. Powell.  and a funny thing happened: I started noticing the names of the publishers as opposed to the names of the writers. perhaps like many young writers, i purchased books based on the writer. what if, i thought, i began buying books based on the publisher–even if i had never heard of the writer before.

this practice changed my life as a poet. i still bought books by writers i loved, but i also began following publishers, trying to figure out the story of their catalogs. since i wasn’t rich, i requested review copies. reviewing took time, sure, but i got free books out of it.

as time passed, i started to think about what publisher my work would fit with and not what contest would bring me the most prestige. in my journal, i wrote down four dream publishers: Omnidawn Publishing, O Books, Apogee Press, and Tinfish Press.

I loved Omnidawn partly because I studied with one of its editors, Rusty Morrison, during my MFA, and I knew first hand how much care and love they put into their books (which eventually led to me interning for Omnidawn–which I still do). They’ve published some of my favorite writers: Martha Ronk, Elizabeth Robinson, Aaron Shurin, Paul Hoover, Myung Mi Kim, Hank Lazer, Tyrone Willions, and so many others.

I loved O Books because I loved the poetry and poetics of its editor, Leslie Scalapino. i thought it would be cool to say that she was my editor. i also loved many of their authors: Aaron Shurin (my most important MFA teacher), Padcha Tuntha-obas, Brenda Iijima, E. Tracy Grinnell, Will Alexander, Norma Cole, and many others.

I loved Apogee Press because they published several books of another MFA teacher: Truong Tran. His work is so amazing and Apogee puts great care and attention into his books. I also loved the work of other Apogee writers: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Maxine Chernoff, Elizabeth Robinson, and Cole Swenson.

Additionally, all these presses were at one point based in the California Bay Area–many of the authors I mentioned (tho not all) were at some point based in the Bay Area. I was living in Berkeley at the time, so I was thinking regionally. I also did my MFA at the University of San Francisco.

The last press, Tinfish, is of course based in Hawai’i. Barbara Jane Reyes’s Tinfish book, Poeta en San Francisco, was very influential to me. I also loved that they published many Pacific writers, including Lisa Linn Kanae, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, and Jacinta Galea’i. I knew I fit in with Tinfish regionally (in terms of the Pacific) and aesthetically.

So I wrote a query email to these four presses. In my letter, I told them a little about my self and my work, included a short excerpt and an offer to send the entire manuscript if they were interested. Four shots in the dark.

And I got lucky. All four were willing to take a look at the whole manuscript. Susan Schultz, editor of Tinfish, emailed me a few weeks later and she was the first to accept the work. I can’t express how thrilled and honored i was to receive her kind letter. I promptly accepted and emailed the other presses to withdraw my manuscript/query. And thus began my rise towards fame and misfortune.

A funny story: after I emailed O Books, Omnidawn, and Apogee to withdrawal my manuscript, two of the presses emailed me back to congratulate me, but one press never responded. At the time, I thought nothing of it. A year later, my Tinfish book arrived on my doorstep and I held my book for the first time.

Two months later, I finally received an email from the press that never responded about my withdrawal: You guessed it, they sent me a very nice rejection letter! Apparently, they never received my withdrawal email!

That very same day, I was notified that my book was the #1 bestseller on the Small Press Distribution (SPD) list! I responded to the rejection email with a “thank you for your consideration,” and a link to the SPD bestseller list! LMFAO

For other folks out there who published your first books outside the contest system, I would love if you would share your story in the comment section here or on my Facebook.

Thanks for reading!

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9 thoughts on “One Way to Publish Your First Book (For Contest Losers like Me)

  1. right? thanks for this post. it’s realistic, resonant, just goes back to the core of the work, i believe, and some good old fashioned hustle, based upon your growing knowledge of the publishing industry, the work and not spectacle.

  2. Nice. I haven’t commented here before, but this post laid out the exact thought process I have been going thru today! I have experience of entering some comps in England, & found them to be corrupt exercises in raising funds for the publisher, exploiting the mass pool of aspirant authors, whilst ultimately publishing writers who the press had already published in pamphlet form, or who had Google-able links to the editors. The usual po-shit. with my current manuscript I am going to rely on the ancient arts of relationship cultivation, performing the work & creating an audience, & targeting publishers with whom there exists an affinity. I’ll never enter another competition. Thanks for your post, very inspiring.

    Best wishes from England

    Miggy Angel

    1. thanks for your comment miggy! sad to hear about how the po-shit exists in england too! but i love what you say about “the ancient arts of relationship cultivation” and creating an audience. from experience, i know that those things take so much time, but they are definitely work it in the long run i hope.

      good luck!

  3. Neither my first nor my second book were contest winners. In fact, my first book was actually solicited by Bruce Covey, who was launching a new poetry press. He had seen my poetry (ONLINE!) and wanted to publish an e-chapbook, which was quickly followed by a full book offer. It was both flattering AND scary to be asked to help launch a new press, but I decided to go for it.

    My second book came about after I queried Factory School Press, a press I really love and admire, to ask if they were reading work. I sent a nice letter with a short description of the project I wanted to submit. Bill Marsh got back in touch with me and told me he was interested, but the project as I described it was not what he was looking for: he likes to published numerous books that resonate with each other. I let him know about a project I was still working on, and he was quite excited about it. I’d send him updates as it developed, and he ended up taking it.

    That being said, my first chapbook WAS a contest winner. Octopus Books was reading, and I decided to send them some work. To this day, I don’t know who picked my little collection. Go figure.

    I’ve submitted to contests *three* times in my career. I think they can be great opportunities for folks, but overall I have had much better success simply researching a press, querying them, and remaining in contact with interested editors!

    1. dear juliette–thanks for sharing your story! so cool to hear that a book was solicited from online publication! another reason to publish online too. and glad to know the query process worked for you–and of course you know i love your factory book! and congrats on the chapbook contest win! yeah, contests can be good for some, but i too have found better success contacting editors.

  4. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your journey through the murky system of the publishing industry. I’m definitely planning to go online and buy your book from Tinfish. ❤

    1. thanks for your comment melissa! i hope you enjoy my book (NO REFUNDS!) and thanks for complimenting the cover art! the designer was awesome to work with. xo

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