Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Literary Agents for Poets?

Writer Beware hears from a lot of poets. Much of the time, they've either gotten mixed up with, or are inquiring about the legitimacy of, vanity anthology companies such as Poetry.com. Often, though, they have questions about agents. Is the brand-new agency with an interest in poets a good one to query? Is the agent who just asked for the entire manuscript of their poetry collection reputable? Is the representation offer they just received legit?

I've never yet been able to answer yes.

Listen up, poets. Apart from celebrity projects and writers who are already well-known, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while. Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Once they've built up a track record, they can submit their collections to small publishers on their own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines say they represent poets or that they're seeking poetry collections. Nearly always, they’re unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of the business. Most have no track record of sales to paying publishers of any kind.

To many of you who read this blog, the above will be old news. Judging by the number of questions I get from poets seeking literary agents, however, for many writers it will be a news flash. I'm hoping that websearches will bring them here before they pay that $80 critique fee, or hand over that $250 submission fee, or are steered into a deal with an expensive vanity publisher.

For poets who have read this far, here are some helpful links:

- The top ten questions poets ask, from Poets & Writers.

- A comprehensive FAQ from the UK's Poetry Society.

- Poet Beware is my own article detailing some of the schemes and pitfalls poets may encounter.

- Thorough, commonsense advice on how to sell poetry, from published poet Neile Graham. This is one of the best resources I've ever found on this subject.

- Solid tips on writing and publishing poetry, from the Academy of American Poets.

- An article on how to submit poetry to literary magazines, from author and editor Charlie Hughes.

- A large list of poetry journals and presses, from the Poetry Society of America.

9 comments:

Red Pooka said...

Ok, here's how you - legitimately - get a book of poems published.

Publish a lot (say, 80% of your book) as single or groups of poems in literary magazines. Use the Pushcart Prize list as your guide

Then start querying places like Tupelo Press, U. Pittsburgh, Wesleyan, Coffee House Press (a personal favorite), Copper Canyon, Louisiana U., etc. Look for the places that publish real poetry, and send them manuscripts.

Or win a big prize. If you want to win a big prize, it helps to be in an MFA program, preferably one with a teacher who both likes you and is a judge for the prize. (Yes, nepotism works.)

Agents will represent poets as long as they're also novelists, or at least short story writers. But generally, it's a losing game for them.

Sorceress said...

Thank you for that. What you've written is so important for poets who wish to see themselves published that I'll be linking to this post.

The Quoibler said...

I think it's very interesting to hear that there isn't much of a market for poetry. After all, it plays such an important role in our development...

At home, most children delight in learning verses (simple poems, really) and rhyming stories from the time they are infants/toddlers...

In school, kids are exposed to it (in typically uninteresting ways, unfortunately), and there's an underlying sense of awe about the ability to write poems...

In college, anyone in a literature course reads plenty of poetry... again...

But once in "real life", most people abandon poems as if they are "too old" for them. Sure, they might write one after a catastrophic personal event, but they don't seem to seek them out for inspiration or education. That's so sad!

I guess I was foolish to assume that the mass marketplace would be teeming with people who wanted to spend money on a book of poems that could eagerly be read before bedtime or at the beach.

Call me a sentimental fool, but I hope for a rebirth in poetry's popularity.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Actually, the main way most people consume poetry these days is via music lyrics (including rap). So one could argue that the genre is alive and well---just not in print.

That said, unless you count multimillionaire rap artists, I don't think there is anyone in the history of the world who has made a living exclusivly by writing poetry. Even famous poets have other sources of income (teaching, etc) and their books are published mostly by university presses in small print runs, which are not financially feasible for agents to represent.

Phillip A. Ellis said...

I know of at least one agent that represents poets, but the one that I know about represents Les Murray, the Australian poet, and wouldn't be interested in any other than large name authors. Even then he still has to do the hard slog of sending out to markets, submitting to prizes, giving readings, and literary editing to make ends meet. And, from what I hear, he still can't get a credit card.

madana said...

i just want to say thank u for this. i was looking about to find a agency that publish poetry. none of them wants any poetry.

Thanks for putting up the blog

Sana Rose said...

I agree with what The Quoibler said in the above comment. It is indeed sad. I published my first book with a huge amount - huge because I am from India and the publisher in USA. But I am determined to do my 2nd book without spending on it. I don't know what to do, but I think they are so determined to keep the market tight. Poetry could get some real fans if people did look back to how they grew. LOL. May be I am another sentimental fool, but oh, well, thanks for this article. I am also working on a fiction, so I think I will have to see what I can do with that. :(
www.sanarose.com

Anonymous said...

I made the horrible mistake of using a vanity press for my book of poems. It cost a lot of money and they canceled my contract before it took off. So I have all of these sales and resales and lost money!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your valuable advice and contributions. Kind of sums up what I always knew.

Of all the arts, Poetry is very much the runt of the cultural family. That's because there is no money to made from it.And even within this very narrow remit I confess myself just another runt. But I have always written poetry and always will, so I don't care.

I'm sorry but in the West Poetry is largely viewed as elitist. I live in the Sultanate of Oman and every week they have a 30 minute TV programme showcasing local poets. They really love their poetry.

Its great that some modern musicians have given poetry an alternative life,a branch, but that's not the future for poetry.

Personally I don't think schools do enough to introduce poetry to young people. I'm a bit old but the study of poetry was a part of my parents generation; they all memorised and could recite a variety of poets. When I was introduced to it at school I knew it was something I liked and would learn.

My solution. Print 500 copies off your own back. The local book shops will generally stock it, and to increase their own cut they will let you do a signing.

Once the book has paid for itself it is no longer an exercise in vanity. Then you give the remainder away to people who might really appreciate them.

None of us were ever in this for money, but we all want to reach a wider audience. One way to do it.

Good luck all.

Mikey