I Need an Agent for My Poetry

As some of you may have guessed, I get a lot of e-mail both at my professional and personal inboxes. I try to respond to as much as I can, but it’s occasionally an electronic tsunami that completely overwhelms me. So I was recently spring cleaning my inbox when I got an idea to start a series of posts in which I tackle recurring questions. We can consider it the Poet Inbox series, and I’ll try sharing them on Fridays.

Here’s the first one. I get a variation of this question every couple months: “I am looking for an agent to assist me with marketing a book-length manuscript of poetry. This collection has gone through three major edits and is currently placed with a number of contests. I have a sense of what I want to do with this collection; however, I think it would be a good time for me to get some feedback from a person with a marketing/editing background before I begin another edit.”

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For the most part, poets and literary agents do not mix. When they do, here’s what is usually happening in 99.9% of situations:

  • Poet has already made it. Big time. Poet Laureate, books published by one of the big NYC publishers, and so on. Or…
  • Poet has a novel or memoir. Or something else of value that sells. Because poetry, for the most part, does not sell well enough to keep an agent in business.
  • Poet is being exploited by someone who calls themselves an agent. In this case, the “agent” is representing the poet for an upfront fee (and usually fees).

So why is this the case?

How Agents Work

Literary agents are hard to please, and the reason is easy to understand: They don’t get paid until the author gets paid. Literary agents make their money by taking a cut (called a royalty) of the author’s payment. This royalty is usually 15%, though it can fall anywhere in the 10-20% range depending upon the circumstances.

As such, agents need projects that bring home the money for their authors so that the agents can take a little of that money for themselves to pay for things like rent, utilities, employees (if they have any), and their own livelihood. Unfortunately for poets, poetry–as a whole–doesn’t sell, especially when compared to fiction and nonfiction projects.

If you don’t believe me, check out any chain bookstore’s poetry section and compare it to the rest of the store. There are exceptions, surely, but not enough for agents to spend their time representing poets who have not already “made it.”

What About Feedback

With literary agents eliminated as potential feedback experts, what’s a poet to do to receive some feedback? There are a few options available to poets:

  • Join (or start) a writing group. Many successful writers of any genre point back to their writing groups. Some of these groups get up to a dozen (or more) writers. Others are as concise as two or three participants. The important thing is finding serious writers who will give you worthwhile feedback.
  • Pay for a critique. You may find these opportunities at conferences, on publisher websites, and as parts of poetry contests. Some poets offer paid critiques on the side.
  • Join a poetry workshop. You can go through an entire writing program at a college or university, or you can do something online. For instance, Writer’s Digest University offers a regular poetry workshop.

As a poet who has gone every route, I know first hand that all methods are valuable. That said, all final decisions should be made by you, because you’re the poet. Read widely and seek feedback, but use it to build confidence in your own abilities to judge your work.

Have a question/comment? Send me an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwcommunity.com. Your question and my answer may be featured in a future blog post.

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roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, which means he maintains this blog, edits a couple Market Books (Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market), writes a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine, leads online education, speaks around the country on publishing and poetry, and a lot of other fun writing-related stuff.

He graduated from the University of Cincinnati after spending more than 40 credit hours in writing-related courses. And he’s the author of Solving the World’s Problems.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.

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2 thoughts on “I Need an Agent for My Poetry

  1. PKP

    Poet Inbox Series – great idea. Today’s column is right on target – As someone who does have a rather well-known agent for non-fiction books published looooooong ago – well let me put it this way… I privately refer to my agent as my “check-clearing service” … because in my naiveté after writing my first book and finding two INTERESTED publishers I THEN contacted an agent – who of course was “happy to take me on” for 15%-20% of my royalty. Agent negotiate contracts – and you are absolutely correct (of course you would be) that agents are far more likely to take on a “project” that they imagine will give them a reasonable sum for the 15-20% that is the standard rate. As far as poetry – anyone wanting to be published is far far better served looking through something like the Writers’ Digest to find markets … BTW I will always have a soft spot for Writers’ Market as that is how I found my original publishers back in 1984! The edition of that volume is still on my shelf!

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