Monday, 22 September 2014

What We Do When We Process Submissions

A few weeks ago at the Poetry Book Fair, I was on a panel discussion called 'What Do Poetry Pamphlet Editors Look For?', chaired by Joey Connolly. It was a short session, so we only had time to give the briefest of outlines of our submissions policies, but one theory which was floated was that it was impossible to say what editors looked for, because they are always looking for something new and also will just go with their gut anyway. I agree with this to some extent, but I'm not sure if it's the most helpful way of looking at it.

For starters, you probably can get a decent idea of what a single editor is interested in by examining their history of commissioned works. This might not work for a team of editors, but most small presses operate on teams of one anyway. You'll be able to glean clues about the styles they like as well as their main concerns, so you can use empathy and imagination to consider whether yours would fit with this or perhaps provide a refreshing change. Either is good!

My inbox
The Emma Press runs regular calls for submissions, with the proviso that people submitting must join the Emma Press Club, so it's especially important for me that the submissions process is as transparent as possible. Part of the thinking behind the Emma Press Club (where people must buy one book/ebook/set of poem postcards from our website in order to submit for that calendar year) was to ensure that everyone submitting would have to engage with our website and buy something we had created, and in doing so get a better idea about what we like. On our flyers, we describe ourselves as specialising in 'books which are sweet, funny and easy on the eye', which is fairly accurate although it doesn't take into account the darker direction in which some of our books have wandered. I hope that people find this helpful when deciding whether – and what – to submit.

It occurred to me that something else which might help potential submitters was an account of what we do after the submissions deadline. It might be useful for you to imagine what your poems will have to face after you've pressed 'send', and you might also find it reassuring that your poems are in hopeful, encouraging hands. We want to choose your poems, and we open every email hoping that this will be a 'MAYBE YES'. This might also explain why we're sometimes late in responding to submissions...

What We Do When We Process Anthology Submissions (from my point of view)

  1. I read all of the poems within a submission twice, and then label it 'NO' or 'MAYBE YES', which feels as alarmingly harsh to do as it sounds. But! At least the labels aren't 'AWFUL' and 'OBJECTIVELY GREAT' – all we're doing at this stage is deciding which of the poems might be the kind of thing we like and which might be suitable for the brief, and which are not so much the kind of thing we like or not really suitable for the brief. This is not a statement about quality, and I know that we have turned down lots of great poems just because they didn't quite fit our vision for the anthology or because they just didn't click with us. About a third to a half of the overall submissions usually end up on this longlist.
  2. I read all the poems on the 'MAYBE YES' longlist again and create a shortlist, this time noting down my thoughts on the poems. By this point, I'll have a better idea of what the book is going to look like, so it's slightly easier to decide if a poem will be right for it. I start reading the submissions with a very open mind, but by the shortlisting stage I'll have formed some ideas about what areas the book will focus on and the general feel of the book. I'll also be thinking hard about whether this poem grabs me and has stayed with me since I last read it. My shortlist usually contains 60-70 poets.
  3. I meet up with Rachel Piercey, my brilliant co-editor, and we compare our shortlists. We'll discuss each of the poems and how we feel they could work in the book. Like Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry deciding whether to expel Kate or Richard on The Great British Bake-Off, our discussion can become heated. I like to keep our anthologies fairly slim, so we aim to select around 30 poets for each book.

I hope this is helpful! Our calls for poems about 1) UK politics and 2) voting are ending on Sunday, so do check our our guidelines on our Submissions page. We're also currently looking for poems about 'Slow Things', and we'll be announcing still more calls for submissions over the next few months. Sign up to our newsletter so you don't miss out.

* If you want to hear me talk more about poetry pamphlets and see some of our pamphlet poets in action, book a free ticket for our Special Edition event at the Poetry Library now:


  1. Thanks Emma, it's really interesting to get some insight into your process. I think what people like me find hard is never knowing if your poem was say, number 31 on the list and therefore didn't quite make it, or if it went straight into the No folder with a grimace! Personally I'd be encouraged just to know I'd make the longlist, but if you hear nothing your over-wrought creative angst kicks in and you decide you're the worst writer in history!

  2. Hi Nicola, I know what you mean but I think if we did that then the people who were 'Nos' would get dispirited about their work. This would be unfair, because there are many reasons why a poem might not work for an anthology, and sometimes people's styles work better on some themes than others. We've accepted several poets whose work we've turned down several times before, so I'm really glad that they did keep sending us things. Hope this makes sense!

  3. I think this is a very fair and encouraging way for editors to read/consider all submissions. It makes me feel better about the process and we can all imagine we were No 31 and keep going with the writing!

  4. Very candid, transparent and encouraging. Love how you own personal and subjectivity features in final yay or nay. As does the shape of (what is likely looking to be) the final collection and whether or not a submission fits within that.
    Reading above, that you have knowingly turned down some great poems is really encouraging and a good motivator to stay strong! And grow that resilience. As tough as iron man. Sniff sniff. Bottom lip wobble. "Can someone please pass me the oil can? My super resilient iron she'll is rusting..." Another rejection letter to pin to the board.

    All joking aside (I'll try hard) isn't it just unfair that good or bad news is usually notified by email? I love thr tangibility of a paper letter to validate my rejection. I did a presentation once about Stephen King and his writing process. He took pride in his rejection letters and vividly painted them as part of a collection.;)