This morning, I updated our author's page for The Royal Nonesuch. I can't even tell you how excited I am about this book. Our first boxes should be arriving any day. Obviously, I'm a little bit terrified too (like 'what if when I uploaded the files, I marked the interior file as the cover file and the cover file as the interior file? what if I did everything wrong? what if I totally broke the book?') In reality, I have seen a printed proof, and it looked pretty gorgeous, so I think this is just normal anxiety stress. Still, I'm not expecting to sleep much this week. Anyway, as I was scanning through the file looking for poems to showcase, I started thinking about acknowledgements pages, which is something I've been meaning to talk to you about (by "you" I mostly mean poets, but if you're not a poet, you should still keep reading because I might get distracted and actually talk about something else, and also, there's a pretty solid chance I'm going to sneak some good profanity in there).
So, acknowledgements pages. I look at a lot of full-lengths, like a lot. My process goes something like this: cover letter, first poem, acknowledgments page, second poem, random poem in the middle, and if I make it this far, I pass it on to a reader. If it comes back with a high enough ranking, I read the whole thing (even if the middle drags, even if I want to put it down).
Most of the manuscripts don't make it out of the gate. I mean, I usually read the first poem even if the cover letter sucks (like "Hey, Mr. Kaye!!! I totally love Spark Bottom Publishing!!! And I wrote this awesome book that you are going to love!!! My mom totally does! ENJOY!!!!" --okay, if I'm honest, I probably wouldn't open that file because I really, really I hate exclamation points.)
Where most of those manuscripts lose me though is the acknowledgements page. If I don't see at least 10 decent publishing creds, I just can't take the book seriously. Even if it's good. If it's spectacular, like, "holy fuck, where did this poet come from?" or so experimental that it would be hard to get journal space (and the poet has other solid creds listed in their cover letter), maybe I'll still look. This is why I read the first poem first. Honestly, though, this almost never happens. I have one manuscript in my inbox right now for which this is the case. First poem: stunning. Acknowledgements page: really weak. I'm going to keep reading, but every page is going to have to live up to a really high standard, and honestly, I'll probably still end up saying no. Here's why:
A weak acknowledgements page tells me you're just starting out. You don't have connections. You don't know how indie publishing works. You won't be able to sell your book.
Or (and this is worse) a weak page tells me that your work isn't very good. Maybe you're working your ass off, sending it out like crazy. Maybe your poems aren't very good.
Obviously, I can usually tell which it is because I've read the first poem. (You open with a really strong poem right? Because if you don't, we also really need to talk about that.)
So what does a strong acknowledgements page look like? Minimum of ten really solid creds (more if it's a first book). Honestly though, you should have at least a third of the manuscript placed. A third. In a 60 poem collection, that means 20 of them published (look at me, I just did math, obviously I used a calculator to check my work).
And not just published, well-published, published somewhere that counts. I'm not going to go listing journal names, but there are obviously tiers (and if you don't know what they are, get the fuck back to work and stop sending your manuscript out). The higher the tiers, the fewer credits you need. Like if you only have two credits, one of them better be the goddamn New Yorker. I don't expect you to be listing the really big guns, but every journal on your list should be respectable. I don't have to know them all (I should definitely know a lot), but when I look them up, I should think, "wow, this place is good. Maybe I'll send them work."
It is fine to take chances with newer journals, but you should have a sense from their web presence and their bios that they know what they're doing. Example: Sugar House Review (I know I said I wouldn't list names, but by that I meant call out the shitty journals). They published a Pushcart Prize winning piece in their very first issue. I think they have 3 to their credit now, and they're not exactly new anymore, but you get the idea. Before they published their first issue, they made it known that they were serious about this shit. (In the interest of full disclosure, SHR is also pretty much our journal bff. We're sharing a booth in Seattle this year.)
Here is the standard advice to young poets. "Start sending your work out. Start with accessible journals with higher acceptance rates. Get your work out there. You want to be read." Or (and I hate this one even more). "Start sending to the best, and then slowly work your way down." Bullshit. Stop doing that. I mean, yes, it's fine if you're really just starting out with writing poems, thinking about getting published, and you want to get your feet wet. But if this is your career? (and when I say career, we all know I'm talking about the kind of career that you work very fucking hard at without expecting to ever get paid, right?) Then no. Absolutely not. No fucking way.
You send to the good journals. You only send to the good journals (there are lots of them, really, there's still plenty of rejection to go around). When you've run out of good journals to try, you sit your ass down and write better fucking poems. I'm not kidding. Your work has to be good enough to be in the pages of some really strong journals or it is not good enough to be a book. (Does this sound mean? I'm not mean in person. I promise I'm not.)
So in one sense, the acknowledgements page is about proving yourself, but it's more than that too. It's about building your network. Every editor who takes a poem is invested in your book. They are more likely to buy it, to read it, to put a 'hey, our contributor from issue x has a new book out" note on their website. Maybe they'll even give you an ad. Maybe they'll write us for a review copy. Who knows, but the more people you have invested in your work, the more likely your book is to sell (and I'm not talking about this as a capital venture, I'm talking about it in the sense of getting the work out there, getting it talked about, giving it a real chance).
Maybe in the future we'll talk about evaluating journals and deciding whether you should send to them, but right now I'm tired. Have I mentioned I haven't been sleeping well? Before I go though, I'm going to circle back to Steven's book.
When our initial readers review a manuscript, they use a rubric. One category is not subjective at all. It awards points based on the acknowledgements page. When the report on Steven's manuscript came back, the ranking was so high, I thought it was a mistake (I was like, "hah! Poet math--should have used a calculator"), but no, it was the acknowledgements page. Every single poem in this collection has been published. I'm not exaggerating. Every poem. Every goddamn one.