Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

NOTE: One of the most frequent search phrases that brings people to Writer Beware’s Literary Agents page is “literary agents for poets” or some variation thereof. I originally published this blog post in 2012, but given a recent rise in the number of writers who come to us with the question, I thought it would be worth running again.


Writer Beware hears from a lot of poets.

Often, 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.

More frequently, 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, writers who are already well-known, or as a favor to established clients, 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 reputable trade publishers.

A few examples:

– WL Poetry Agency, a (now-defunct) division of the company that currently calls itself the Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency (SBPRA). SBPRA, which was sued by the Florida Attorney General for deceptive business practices, is the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware.

– Clark, Mendelson, and Scott, a fee-charging agency that’s actually a revival of another long-running scam.

– Writers in the Sky Literary Agency. Not scammish but clueless, this agency never made any sales and went out of business just two years after starting up.

– Helping Hand Literary Agency was run by scammers who eventually went to jail for their crimes.

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.

– 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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