Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer BewareWriter 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.

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