Making Poetry Pay: Five Ways to Increase Your Poetry Income
Erika Dreifus | July 2017
Not everyone writes poetry for financial profit. But for some writers, earning payment beyond bylines, copies, and karma matters.
Sometimes, it matters a lot.
In 2016, I earned more than $500 for my poems—and that was without a contest win or a book contract/sales. In other words, I received all those checks and electronic transfers only through individual (or occasionally, small-batch) poetry publications.
No, $500 isn’t a fortune. But it’s not nothing, either.
Moreover, these were my poems. They stemmed from my own intrinsic and artistic impulses and weren’t commissioned or conceived with commercial motivations. When I did the math at the end of the year, I was happily stunned. I thought it could be helpful to try to understand what had happened so that I might try to replicate—or maybe even exceed—the amount this year.
As I revisited what had occurred in 2016, I consulted a useful online reference: Along with several other poets that year, I’d tracked my submissions (and rejections, acceptances, publications, and payments) as a contributing blogger for Jessica Piazza’s Poetry Has Value project.
Each month, we bloggers reported in with news and tallies about our poetry. Most of us included details and statistics about submissions, rejections, acceptances, and publications. Importantly, we also included how much we were paid for our poetry—and how much we were spending on fees charged by journals and presses as we sought publication.
Having taken some time for reflection and analysis, I can now recommend a few strategies for other poets who’d like to earn (more) money from their work. (Bonus: These methods can work for writers in other genres, too.)
1) Send your work to publications that pay for poetry.
It sounds obvious, right? And I’m not casting aspersions on literary journals and websites that don’t pay. There are valid reasons for sending your work to such publications; on occasion, as I explained in an article last year, I do exactly that, myself.
But it’s worth pointing out that you can’t complain that you’re not earning money for your work if you’re sending that work only or primarily to nonpaying publications. Paying publications do exist, as do resources to help you find them. See, for example, my own monthly newsletter and weekly posts on my Practicing Writing blog.
2) Send your work to publications that don’t charge you fees to do so.
As I mentioned, as part of the Poetry Has Value project, many of us tracked how much money we were spending each month on submission fees and postage. Thus, at the end of the year, when I realized that I’d earned a total of $517.65 through poetry publications, I saw also that I had spent all of $8.94 to do so.
This, frankly, was far less than some of my fellow bloggers had disbursed. And, equally frankly, it goes a long way to explaining my net poetry income. Simply put, limiting the amount of funds expended just to submit my work made a difference. A big one.
Let’s consider what would have happened had I spent even $3 (which seems to be the most common fee leveled for online submissions) each time I’d sought homes for my poems. Thanks to my Poetry Has Value posts, I can tell you that I sent out 134 poetry submissions in 2016—from as few as 7 individual poems or batches in March to as many as 17 the following month. Had I spent $3 each time, I’d have shelled out $402 on submission fees. Which would have left me with $117.65.
Considerably less than the $508.71 I actually kept, isn’t it?
As before, I’m not setting out here to vilify any journal/website or business model. The ethics and justifications of these fees are matters are frequently debated, and I’ve already confessed to having handed over a few dollars myself.
But again, I’m talking about practicalities here: If you want to be taking home more money for your poems and other literary creations, you need to think about how much it costs you to get the work out there in the first place. And, again, it is possible to locate and focus on “fee-free” publishing possibilities. (Two that I’m fond of are Cathy Bryant’s Comps & Calls and many of Trish Hopkinson’s posts. Both Cathy and Trish are also kind enough to indicate up front which of the fee-free opportunities they share are also paying ones.)
3) Adopt the “Aim for 100 Rejections A Year” strategy.
Remember Kim Liao’s June 2016 article for Literary Hub? I’m talking about the one that cited a writer friend who had advised her: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
Liao’s piece went viral for good reason. (See above and note the number of poems or groups of poems I sent out last year: 134.)
4) Look beyond “literary magazines.”
Speaking of publishing possibilities, some exist beyond the litmag-world. (Yes, even for poetry!)
Some of my 15 poems published in 2016 appeared in “literary” journals or anthologies that you, too, have likely seen listed or advertised in the usual places poets look when they’re seeking publication. But quite a few of those poems didn’t.
In my case, venues that feature Jewishly themed content proved especially receptive to my work. (Much of my poetry these days stems from a study/writing group in which we analyze sacred texts and generate work thus inspired.)
But other “niche” possibilities do exist. Take the Medical Journal of Australia, a peer-reviewed medical publication that happens to include poetry alongside clinical research. That’s where my “Homage to My Skull” found a (paying) home.
At times, too, I’ve been bold. If I’ve read and enjoyed poems on a website that doesn’t seem to include submission guidelines, I’ve done something daring: I’ve asked. In one case, I was told that unsolicited poetry isn’t considered—but I was then invited to submit my work; that (paying) venue has since published two of my poems. In a couple of others, I was informed that only poems from forthcoming books are considered. Noted for the (optimistic) future.
5) Keep good records—and follow up (politely).
Alas, not every publication pays promptly. More than once, I’ve had to follow up in order to receive the money that I’d been promised.
It’s not fun to “nag,” but it’s important to keep careful records and check in gracefully when necessary. In fact, I had to do it again for one of my more recent poetry publications the day before I began writing this essay.
After all, 2017 is half-gone—and I have a bar from last year that I have yet to meet.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Erika is currently at work on her first full-length poetry manuscript. Since 2004, she has published The Practicing Writer, a free and popular e-newsletter for poets, fictionists, and writers of creative nonfiction. She lives in New York City. Web: http://erikadreifus.com; Twitter: @ErikaDreifus.