Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

February 24, 2012

Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer Beware hears from a fair number poets.

Much of the time, they're contacting us to ask about self-publishing, or to check the reputation of a journal or a contest. Sometimes, unfortunately, they've gotten mixed up with one of the vanity anthology companies, such as Eber and Wein.

Quite often, though, they want to know about literary 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? Can Writer Beware recommend good literary agents for poets?

I've never yet been able to answer yes--and not just because Writer Beware has a policy of not making agent (or publisher) recommendations.

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. Entering reputable contests can also be helpful, if you win (for instance, there are a number of reputable first-book contests, such as the Walt Whitman Award). Once you've built up a track record, you can submit your collection to small publishers on your own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines indicate that they are looking to represent poets, or who put out calls for poetry collections. Be especially wary if a literary agency claims to specialize in poets. Nearly always, they’re either unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of publishing. Even if they don't want to drain your bank account, it's likely that they have no track record of sales to paying publishers of any kind.

Here are some helpful links for poets looking to get their work into the hands of readers:

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

- Writing and Publishing FAQ from the Academy of American Poets. 

- Thorough, commonsense advice on how to submit and publish poetry from published poet Neile Graham.

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

- Poets and Writers has an extensive Grants and Awards section, which includes chapbook contests.

- More poetry contests, from the Poetry Society of America.


Anonymous said...

Any writer deserves a literary agent to advocate for them. And who says a poet can't ever write prose in her career? Writer Beware, your advice is ludicrous. An agent brings contacts to the writer, and that is the most important thing for one to get a foot in the door. Many great authors wrote poetry and prose. Poets need agents to look out for them too!!!

FigmentQueen said...

\Anonymous - Nowhere in this post did Victoria say that a poet is ONLY a poet.

If you want to write prose, AND poetry, why not seek an agent as a novelist, and when you have something published, asked them to represent your poetry?

You are also less likely to find an agent for a collection of short stories, than you are for a novel.

Prose writers get around this by:

a) Submitting individual stories to anthologies, zines, etc. With the possibility of putting a collection of their own together when they have proof that their work is something that sells.

b) Focusing on getting the novel published first, and when they have a name for themselves finding someone who wants to publish a collection of their shorter work.

WHY does it not make sense to do the same with poetry?

Victoria's post was simply giving advice to poets, when it come to their *poetry*, and not getting scammed.

It's up to you if you take the advice or not, but she's trying to help those who want to avoid losing their poetry, and/or money.

Sra said...

Ditto. No one ever said that poets don't deserve the same things. Simply that those things don't really exist reputably for poets like they do for other types of work.

Warnings against scammers aren't ludicrous if they're true.

Morgen M said...

My writing professor just published his 9th book of poetry. He does have an agent, but he also writes fictional stories-novellas and novels, and is recognized as one of the Southern Writers of stature. That said, he got his agent when he wrote his first novel - not when he wrote his first poem. He also suggests submitting your poetry to various magazines and journals. Good luck to all writers! It's a bear to break in, but once you do, it can be very rewarding - emotionally if not financially.

Unknown said...

I have many blog friend who are poets and could benefit from this post. I have Poetry Fridays on my book blog and I wonder is you'd allow my to repost this as a guest post some time.

Bonnee Crawford said...

Browsing out of general curiosity (and perhaps in a little hope of finding someone) I've noticed that most of the big publishers and agents don't want poetry. I think I'll be happy to simply attempting poetry competition for now.

none said...

No use arguing with the troll. Best to ignore it.

Doug Brunell said...

Yes,posting under Anonymous is the ideal way to be dismissed without having anyone even read the comment. I did read it, however, as it was the first one on this post. I think someone misinterpreted the post quite a bit there.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

This is so sad. How will the public ever discover the e.e. cummings or Sylvia Plaths of the day? Too bad that agents/pubs aren't on board with changing up the system. I've been blown away by some of the poets I've met on the web. I just hope they find a way to get their stuff into print. Poetry is for the PEOPLE!

Susan S said...

Agents and publishers don't necessarily have an aversion to changing the system - but they have a business and personal financial interest in making a living. There are only so many hours in a day, and publishing isn't the "get rich quick" area a lot of people assume. For an agent or publisher to try and change the system to expose the public to new poets would require a huge outlay of money and time with no promise of reward - and almost guaranteed losses.

There are good avenues for poets to be read - and published - in journals, anthologies and in online forums. In fact, poets have a bigger opportunity for discovery now than they did in Sylvia Plath's era - the Internet and reputable self-publishers lets every poet have a way of publishing his or her creations.

The point of the post is that poets should knowing that when the industry doesn't generally work with poetry, agents who claim to do so should be watched carefully before signing contracts, to ensure that the poet isn't being taken advantage of.

Anonymous said...

Doug Brunnell, I guess then that we should dismiss the comments of other anonymous posters like Miss Snark, Gillooly, Cao Paux and of course "Jaws" that scam artist who stole from The Steinbeck Estate!

sarah said...

Self-publishing can work well for poets - it did for me.

I also think, with all due respect, that this business of "you must have an agent to get published" is very much an American thing. In other parts of the world it is not necessarily a requirement to success.

Anonymous said...

getting poetry is tough enough already. the 'literary agent' deal just makes it more tangled.

Jessica Fellio said...

That is great thanks for sharing this. What if you only stick to poetry like I do is it just submitting to magazines and contests. I hope to publish a book with my wrok. Is the best way self publishing than?

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