Self Publishing Your Poetry – A Brief Primer

Self-publishing is an option open to everyone and it’s becoming easier and more powerful with different software and online options becoming available all the time. Why would you want to self-publish? Here are a few reasons:

  • There are no entry barriers. You don’t need a list of publications or any kind of awards to be considered, and your work can be on any topic.

  • You retain complete control over the look, quality, and promotion of your work.

  • You retain a far greater profit for your book. Most traditional publishers offer 10%, which isn’t a lot!

  • You learn a lot and it can be quite fun if you enjoy playing around with your computer and trying out new things.
But self-publishing isn’t all roses.You’ve got to do everything yourself and it’s hard work and often involves its own learning curve. You’ll have to learn about formatting, about graphics, about designing a cover, about ‘bleeds’, about document conversions,about distribution channels, about Amazon and other online stores and the list goes on and on. If all you want to do is write, then self-publishing is probably not for you (and believe me, it will take time that you would otherwise have been spent writing).

In addition, traditional publishing provides an important curation and editing function which you aren't advised to skip if you're going to self-publish. Instead, you'll need to curate yourself. That's not easy but it can be done.  You can hire a well-respected editor, and manuscript assessor to ensure that your work is up to scratch, or you can work with a mentor - something that is particularly useful for poets in need of objective and valuable input. How do you self-publish? The easiest way is to just add a cover and copyright information to your book and save as a .pdf file. Lo’ and behold you’ve now got an ebook which you can sell from a website or blog. When you do this, 100% of your sales are profits, but you may not get many sales!

Or you can send your digital book to one of the big copy houses like Snap printing, Qwikcopy, or take a file into your local Espresso Printer and have them print out what you need when you need it. The print copy is very nice indeed for the Espresso machine, with quality comparable to any high street book. You can hand print and staple your work too, although it won’t be very professional looking. You can also go with one of the print on demand companies, who will produce a professional looking product for nothing or very little, but take a cut of each sale and may also charge you for expanded distribution. Many of them will also provide you with a barcode and ISBN and make the book available for sale at a range of online shops. You probably won’t make much through direct sales, but the book will be attractive, and often you can buy copies inexpensively and hand sell, which is probably the best way to sell poetry. Some of the more well known ones include:  

CreateSpace: this is Amazon’s own publishing house and to my mind, it’s one of the best. It will take you a while to learn their particular formatting requirements, but everything is .pdf based, fairly straightforward, and they’ll give you all the templates you need. The cover maker is excellent and will give you a very nice lookng cover, with custom images. The one key advantage this one has over the others is that your book will be sold on Amazon once it’s complete for no extra (most of the other self-publishers offer Amazon only with a paid distribution package). Also their prices are pretty reasonably, especially if you want your own copies to hand sell.

Lulu: Self publishing / print on demand publisher. Lulu is very popular. You can sell your book directly from their website and they offer a pretty wide range of options including spiral bound, landscape, hardcover with dustjacket etc. 

Cafe Press: Self publishing / print on demand publisher.

Smashwords: ebook only, but they do have allow you to distribute your book free and do all of the format conversions for you with their "meatgrinder". They also have some excellent promotional tools and get exceptional traffic.  Note that, for poetry, conversions are not perfect and need to be fully checked on every device or you may end up selling something that is substandard (This happened to me. However, Smashwords is very responsive and will often help sort out any problems quickly.).

There are plenty of others out there and new opportunities/distributors appearing all the time. For a self-publisher, the intense competition has been a very positive thing.  However, and this is very important, bear in mind that none of them will edit your work (some offer editing packages, but I highly recommend hiring a professional) or go through the rigorous and often difficult process of telling you what works best and what doesn't - something that is important with a poetry collection, and of course, none of these places will promote your work for you.  All of that will need to be done by you, with help and support from clued up professionals, something that is mostly par for the course in traditional publishing. That said, you'll retain control over the finished product - with formatting, images, and the overall package completely in your hands.  If any errors or problems should creep in, you can usually fix them easily - something that's not the case with traditional publishing.  Also the speed to market can often be significantly faster. In any case, regardless of who you use, make sure you follow their instructions to the letter, and your book will end up looking as great as the poetry within it deserves.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of  traditionally published books Repulsion Thrust, Quark Soup, Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, and the self-published books The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson,Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red,Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. Find out more about Magdalena at


Margaret Fieland said...

I self-published "Sand in the Desert," the collection of poems that goes with "Relocated," the tween/YA sci fi novel published by MuseItUp publishing. I was lucky enough to have the collection edited by Michele Graf, who made some excellent suggestions on the order of the poems. The formatting took me quite some time to get right -- at least eleven iterations on the print version, plus at least six more for the kindle version. I heartily echo the recommendation to check over the various version of the product.

Magdalena Ball said...

Thanks Margaret. Having someone else do the editing is an absolute must. I think that poetry is a medium that lends itself well to self-publishing (for all the reasons above - you can tap into more targeted groups, use the work for promotion even if sales aren't huge, and because so few publishers are actually doing it). Love to hear other experiences too - this is one area where we can certainly learn from each other.

T. Forehand said...

Good advice and tips for those of us who have never self published but are considering it. Thanks for sharing.

Karen Cioffi said...

Maggie, great information. I've used CreateSpace for my first picture book and found them professional and helpful. It was actually BookSurge, which morphed into CreateSpace, but I revised the book recently using CS.

I'm trying to find time to get my ebooks onto Kindle and a couple of them into print - through CS. I'm not looking forward to the formatting learning curve. :) I think that's causing me to procrastinate.

Margaret Fieland said...

Karen, I hear you. I finally had to resort to generating the html and looking at that .. then I cut and pasted the poems into a unix window to get rid of the formatting (notepad didn't do it), spaces, tabs, etc, that were throwing the kindle formatting program off.


If/when you do try, feel free to email me.

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