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.

3 comments to Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

  • Gregory T. Polk

    I have a book I have written need help on
    Getting it published help I can be reached at 901 347 7834

  • Jake Starr

    Honestly the writing business is a sea of constant strife. If your looking to make money, then writing is most likely not for you. Without some sort of corporate connection or large amount of money to market and promote your writing it is pretty much in vain to publish through any one. I have researched this up and down. It doesn’t matter if your a poet, researcher, blogger, novelist or what ever else it is you write; unless there is major funding and a market of interest then all efforts are for yourself and your small fan base. Even Legitimate Contests is a horrible way to build a reputation. If you rely on a system of people trying to make money with 1-3 judges there is several problems that can arise… If every one is there to try and make money, then no one really cares about your writing. The judges may just toss your work in the trashcan cause it isn’t in their taste or style they love. It is a ridiculous industry with a ridiculous system. Once upon a time i used to enter contests and would never win and then read the winner’s material which was absolutely incomparable on every imaginable level even to non-fans of my writing. These contests would then turn take my writing and post it in books of their own and profit. The lyrical industry is even worse yet, they will just steal your material and use it any way for profit. You name it and i have been there… I have had crazy offers to sign with publishers, record labels, movie studios and etc… So my advice is to file your copyright not only with the Unites States CopyRight offices, but also file globally to entirely protect your writing. From there you can develop a fan base via social networks. Once a fan base is built by sharing your work for free, you can now make a actual physical book. I recommend just making what it is you desire to share. It is not terribly hard to make a book. There is a selection of materials like paper type, size, illustrations, hard or soft cover, etc… After physically making your book, it can then be marketed via your social networks. Now when orders come in take your physical book down to a printing press and place orders for copies of it. The printing press will gladly fill your order if your waiving money around. Never invest money without having orders!!! If you are investing money at it to try and make money, then you might as well go play blackjack… If you make it that far and actually build a fan base and develop orders, then other problems will come into play. Say your book is providing competition against a corporate funded book in sales. That corporate company will stop at nothing to slander you and tear your self built world down to keep their profits up, if they cannot own you. So no matter how you approach the writing industry, it will always prove to be a very challenging event in your life. I personally instill much love and work into my writing as it is a great passion of mine. I hand make books to order and sell them myself. I will never get rich doing it and i don’t really care. What i create is a piece of art and my fans understand that… So the real rule of thumb is; unless your looking to be exploited for profit, then you have no choice but do all the work yourself.

  • Morris Derry

    Good Morning and how are you? I am a recent published author and poet. I have been writing since I was 13 and now at the age of 39 I want to establish my mark in the world of writing. I am lost and need guidance with where I want to go next and how to market myself. I wasn’t going to go the route of finding a agent but with the route I want to take myself an agent would be nice to have. If you think you can assist me please email me at m1974chop@hotmail.com or call after 4:30 215-317-1959

    Any information or direction will help.

    Best regards,
    Morris Derry

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