Formatting a Poetry Book for Publication

You’ve written a lot of poems, many have been published in various journals, ezines, and anthologies and you’re ready to publish your first book. How do you organize them into a collection? How do you choose a title, a book cover? How do you format them into a document? I hope this will help someone. I was given this task when a judge for the Mississippi Poetry Society (MPS) chose my poetry submission and selected me as MPS 2014 Poet of the Year. I had no idea how to do any of these things and had a quick deadline. I hope this will help you. I will add more hints as I remember them and time allows.


In Jeffery Levine’s post, On Making the Poetry Manuscipt Mr. Levine offers 27 things to keep in mind. Here are my own:

  1. Choose your poems. As poets we often write about the same things in different ways. I didn’t realize I had several poems that used a lot of the same words or thoughts until I started making a collection. Do they have the same voice?
  2. Think about what your book is “about,” and think of the entire book as a poem itself. To organize the poems, some suggest grouping them by the time frame (and creative period) in which they were written. I tend to group mine by subject, but find that often they fall into the same general period of time in which they were written.
  3. Another way to organize them is to spread them all out on the floor. I know this is a lot of printing, but this really helps me, since I am a visual person. It’s impossible to see all your poems at once on the computer (unless tiny) and it’s time consuming scrolling up and down, copy/paste, etc…
  4. The first few poems should establish voice, what your book is about, and credibility. I had a hard time with this, as I thought my best poems fit chronologically later.
  5. Another thing to remember when arranging your poems is mood and images. I would not have more than two “downer” poems in a row before having a little relief with humor or an upbeat poem. I gave a group of poems, arranged from dark to light, to a critic once and he wouldn’t read past the dark ones. He said no one wants to read depressing poems. Yet a LOT of people who read those poems told me they were my best because they could relate, they could feel the pain, so I do not agree with him. BUT I will limit the number of them in a row.
  6. Read your poems out loud. I especially like to read the end of one and the beginning of the next to see if they fit together.
  7. Rewrite if necessary. In reading poems I’ve already published I find a word here and there I want to change. It’s OK to do this. You should own the copyright, so go for it! I’m all about rewriting!Weed out unnecessary words, abstractions and flowery words. Ezra Pound in Don’ts by an Imagiste said, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.”
  8. A new author should have some blurbs on the back cover. Did you meet someone famous at a workshop or book signing that might do you a favor? That’s how I got mine. It never hurts to ask. Just don’t do like I did and wait until the last minute.
  9. Line up a friend photographer or artist for the cover pic. If you don’t have one, look on facebook for local photographer or artist groups. Luckily my photographer sister made the 2 hour trip to Red Bluff and got a pic for me! Do NOT get a picture off the internet without written approval!
  10. If you have time and patience, figure out how to make your own cover or fork out the money and pay someone. I’m okay with my createspace cover maker cover, but I spent so much time (and I was on a deadline) and spent about $70 on 4 proofs (fastest shipping is what cost so much) that I could have paid someone to do it for me. Next time I will!
  11. Find a place to submit or publish it yourself. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the Mississippi Poetry Society as Poet of the Year, so they were the publisher, but I had the task of choosing where to have it published… and the daunting trial of formatting my book. After talking to several authors, I chose Createspace because 1) it’s free, 2) the giant Amazon will get your book online as soon as you approve it. 3) You can still sell it elsewhere. They provide a free ISBN (I had one from MPS, though).
  12. You do not have to pay for a Library of Congress Catalog number.; it’s free. You DO need to go to that website about a month ahead of time and apply. If  you do not have a publisher like I did, it is a different route. Whatever email you give them is the one they will send the  info to, so be sure it is one you have access to or that of a person you have informed about this!
  13. Format your poems following the guidelines for where you are submitting. If you use Createspace, for a 6″ x 9″ set your margins to .76″ all around with a .25″ gutter and mirror margins for the whole document… at least that worked for me. Put your page numbers in the middle on the bottom and you won’t have to worry about the mirror problem. When you want to start new numbers go to page setup and choose different new page. I can’t tell you how frustrating this was. I wanted to add blank pages in between sets of poems but never figured out on Word 2013 how to do it without messing up the page numbers.
  14. Use a well-known author’s book as an example for acknowledgments, table of contents, etc…
  15. Spell check and have friends check for any grammatical errors. When you have read a poem a zillion times it is hard to catch your own errors. I think this should be done ahead of time, and I’m sure I need to watch this: abstractions, flowery words. Ezra Pound in Don’ts by an Imagiste said, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. “Now you may see the book falling into sections. Once again you may want to reorder them. If you think a poem is weak, leave it out. Your book should be 48-64 pages. Mine was 70 pages counting front & back material.

Choose a Title

  1. Levine suggests the title come from the title of a significant poem or line of a poem in your book. I had the hardest time with this!
  2. According to Cinders in Titles you do NOT want to choose for your poem or short story,  the abstract words like  Love. Hate, Death, Life, Friendship, or Emotions like Sad or Happy should not be used as titles “because they are generic, and inspire nothing in the reader. They are dull. And they are EVERYWHERE.”
  3. Get opinions. I ran different titles by Facebook friends, coworkers & family. Everyone had their own opinion, but they may make you see a title in a different light.
  4. Print out a title page and see how it feels.
  5. Is there another book by this name? I like to Google potential titles and see what comes up–wouldn’t want my book to be confused with someone else’s book. I had thought about naming the book Devil’s Due, but decided it was a misleading title. Then here is a movie just released with that title. How strange is that? Pay attention to these things.
  6. Think about the cover–are you going to have a related photo or drawing, or will it be abstract?  I decided on a poem that seemed to bring it all together–From the Depths of Red Bluff and another that placed the poems Where Muscadines Grow. I could see a beautiful country scene with a winding dirt road, or a closeup of muscadines. Unfortunately they were out of season and no one I knew had a picture.I could also picture beautiful Red Bluff (Mississippi’s Little Grand Canyon) on the cover. People either loved or hated the latter.
  7. Consider connotations and double meanings. I asked ONE more literary friend with great insight to talk it through with me. After discussing connotations & how Where Muscadines Grow sounds like Where the Red Ferns Grow, and how another choice I had that mentions God might make some people think it was a religious book, we then discussed “Red Bluff“–That sounds like a history or tour guide book, we decided. Plus the word “bluff” is meant as a canyon in this instance, and might be misconstrued as its other meaning.  She did like the connotations of the color red, (heart, blood) and said it made her think about rivers, Mississippi, even Indians. Most of all, she said it made her curious about what was in the depths of Red Bluff. So, I decided on the full name, From the Depths of Red Bluff .
  8. For heaven’s sake!! MAKE YOUR OWN COVER or PAY SOMEONE. No one told me you HAVE to do this in order to have the price on the back cover, an industry standard.

I hope this helps someone. I always find things out for myself, but it is so time consuming.From the Depths of Red Bluff


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