Agents for Poets: An Investigation

Kevin Larimer
From the July/August 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For too long, poets have largely been left out of the creative calculus that informs our understanding of how literary agents contribute to the economics of the book business. The familiar equation—reductive in its variables, misleading in its simplicity—goes something like this: X (talented writer) plus Y (literary agent) plus Z (engaged editor) equals A (advance against royalties) plus B (net sales) minus C (agent’s commission). To put it another way, for too long, literary agents have been left out of the equation when X equals talented poet.

Novelists and nonfiction writers often seek representation from agents right out of the gate, before they’ve published their first book, but not poets. Why?

It is generally accepted that when beginning or emerging poets are ready to publish a book, they can choose one of three avenues: submit to contests, usually for an entry fee; submit directly to small, independent presses, often for a reading fee, unless they’re fortunate enough to have an editor solicit their work; or self-publish, with all costs falling directly to the author. Pursue the services of an agent who will work on your behalf to secure a book deal? Not so fast. Sure, there are some poets who have agents, but by and large those poets have already achieved a status and a level of success—both critical and commercial—that most poets can only dream about. Novelists and nonfiction writers often seek representation from agents right out of the gate, before they’ve published their first book, but not poets. Why?

Often the answer is delivered atop a convenient assumption: The financial rewards of the typical poetry book deal are not worth an agent’s time. An agent is entitled to 15 percent of a client’s gross domestic earnings (and 20 percent for foreign rights), so if that client has written an edgy novel or an explosive memoir that could fetch an advance from one of the so-called Big Five corporate publishers upwards of, say, $70,000—not an unreasonable expectation when the market is bullish—the agent would stand to make $10,500 from that advance alone. And that’s not counting the 15 percent of royalties once the book has “earned out” (a term used to indicate when the author royalties from its sales surpass the advance the publisher paid the author). That additional money is a decidedly shakier assumption, however, as it has been reported that only about 25 percent of books ever earn out. Still, from the advance alone the agent would be looking at a five-figure commission. Not too shabby.

While it is difficult to track down data on the amount of money most publishers—most small, independent publishers—are willing to pay for a poetry book, most will easily agree that it’s a fraction of what novelists and nonfiction writers can reasonably expect. For argument’s sake, let’s say a poet is able to get a $10,000 advance, which is still high for many indie presses. Not a bad deal for a debut poet, but what about the agent, who is looking at a commission of just $1,500? From a purely financial perspective, maybe there’s a good reason agents and poets don’t mix. 

Or maybe not.

Recent comments from a number of agents, editors, and poets indicate the calculus may be shifting, and the view from within some circles is that there are now more early- to midcareer poets with literary agents than ever before. Might this be a result of a rise in the popularity and cultural reach of poetry in general, with its unique ability to respond to issues of social justice and reckon with political and environmental realities that the reading public sorely needs? Is social media—the speed and ease with which poetry is shared on its channels—playing a role? Does the power of Twitter and Instagram to transform poets into influencers, attracting tens of thousands of followers, have something to do with it? Are agents simply following the trail of cultural capital? Are they finally catching on to the increased demand for poetry? Or are they mostly interested in poets with an ability to write in other, more profitable genres—using their poetry as a platform from which to launch a novel or memoir? 

“Everyone always says that publishing is shrinking or that books are dying, but we’ve seen some really big growth areas in poetry and audiobooks,” says Monika Woods, a literary agent who founded her own boutique agency, Triangle House Literary, in Brooklyn, New York, in 2019. “I’ve always been a big poetry fan, and I’ve always wanted to work with more poets.” Woods got her start as an agent at Trident Media Group in 2010 and moved to Inkwell Management and then to Curtis Brown before starting Triangle House, where her clients include poets Alice Bolin, Ben Fama, Elisa Gabbert, Mira Gonzalez, Diana Hamilton, Niina Pollari, and Fariha Róisín. The close reader will note that some of those poets have also published books in genres other than poetry, including Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018); Gabbert’s essay collections The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018) and The Unreality of Memory, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August; and Róisín’s novel, Like a Bird, forthcoming from Unnamed Press in September. It’s not a coincidence. “One of the things I love about poets is that they are so interested in language and so interested in doing something new that it always takes them to other forms of writing as well,” says Woods. “I love working with poets just for the poetry but also because they’re doing some of the most interesting work in memoir and essay and fiction as well. A lot of my clients who are better known for their essays or their fiction started out in poetry.” 

Monika Woods of Triangle House Literary and poet Kadijah Queen. (Queen: Michael Teak)

Woods acknowledges that the immediate financial rewards for selling a book of poetry can pale in comparison to fiction and nonfiction, but she prefers to take the long view. “Even if there’s a poetry collection that I’m working on, and I’m doing the contract, and I’m not going to make a ton of money off it, I think it’s worth it for that poet’s future and whatever they’re doing next,” she says. “And even that [poetry] book…could really sell well.” Woods compares the rise in popularity of poetry to another genre that was initially considered too short, too “difficult” to be financially successful. “I had the same experience with essayists when I first started out, building a list,” she says. “They were thought of like, ‘Don’t make it an essay collection; they’re small, they’re hard.’ Now some essay collections are amazingly successful, and we’re definitely more open to them than we were ten or fifteen years ago. I feel the same way about poetry.” 

One of Woods’s clients is the poet Khadijah Queen, to whom Woods, in 2018, sent a note and a finished copy of Bolin’s Dead Girls, the introduction of which includes a mention of Queen’s most recent book, the hybrid poetry collection I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On. The agent’s note was more than a courtesy; it was a fan letter. “My favorite thing about being an agent is being someone’s fan and then getting to work with them,” Woods says, “and for Khadijah that was really how it started out.” For Queen it was the start of an unexpected relationship. “I had never thought about it, not even until Monika wrote to me,” Queen says about getting an agent after ten years of writing and publishing books without one. “It wasn’t a thing that I thought we could even do as poets.” Her first book, Conduit, was published by Akashic Books in 2008, followed by Black Peculiar (Noemi Press, 2011), Fearful Beloved (Argos Books, 2015), Non-Sequitur (Litmus Press, 2015), and I’m So Fine (YesYes Books, 2017).

Shortly after Queen signed on with Woods, Tin House Books inquired about new work, so Queen sent them a manuscript, and Woods negotiated the contract for Anodyne, the poet’s sixth collection, forthcoming from Tin House in August.

But Queen has another, longer project that she has been working on for the past fifteen-plus years—a memoir, about her experience aboard the USS Cole as a sonar technician before it was attacked off the coast of Yemen in 2000 and about the history of women in the Navy. Queen says Woods has helped her with strategies for organizing the wealth of material and encouraged her to think about her writing in a different way. “She has gotten me to think bigger about my work and what it can do in the world,” Queen says. “The success of I’m So Fine was a little unexpected for me. A review in the New Yorker by Hanif Abdurraqib was kind of like the ignition point. And she just helped me think bigger, like I can publish with bigger presses and have the work reach a wider audience, not just the poets.”

Woods says this kind of strategic thinking is at the core of an agent’s work. “What agents can do really well for poets—and this is applicable to any genre—is to help you achieve your goals. If you say, ‘I want be published by Graywolf’ or ‘I want to be published by Coffee House,’ or I want this or I want that, then it’s a good idea to look to an agent and ask, ‘How do we make that happen?’” she says. “That’s what an agent is for: long-term planning and strategy. That stuff is just as applicable to poets as it is to writers of any other genre.”

Jacqueline Ko of the Wylie Agency and poet Kaveh Akbar (Akbar: Hieu Minh Nguyen)

Jacqueline Ko of the Wylie Agency agrees. “From my perspective, it’s really similar to any other kind of project,” she says of representing poets. “I don’t see it as being different.” Having worked at the agency’s New York City office since 2007, representing poetry and literary fiction as well as history, journalism, cultural criticism, science, humor, narrative nonfiction, and graphic/illustrated work, Ko has helped to support an impressive roster of poets at Wylie, which is home to the likes of Frank Bidart, Jericho Brown, Louise Glück, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Ilya Kaminsky, as well as the estates of James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, and Czeslaw Milosz, among others. 

Ko, whose clients include poets Kaveh Akbar and Ishion Hutchinson, resists the notion that the financial picture for poets is markedly different than for other writers. “If you look at the market, actually, you see that there are works of poetry that sell better than works of literary fiction, for example. It’s not always the case that the financial rewards are going to be less than, say, a very literary novel or another kind of book. And obviously, when you’re taking on any client, whether that’s a poet or whoever else, you’re looking at the projects that they’re likely to do over their career, and you’re taking that into account.” 

Still, Ko says, not many poets seek out her services. “I rarely ever get queries from poets. I think a lot of poets just assume they are not a part of the querying process or it’s not for them.” 

Although he is now a client, Kaveh Akbar didn’t send a query to Ko either. Instead he was referred to her by a friend and fellow poet, André Naffis-Sahely, author of The Promised Land: Poems From Itinerant Life (Penguin, 2017), after Akbar already had a first book under his belt. That debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published by Alice James Books in 2017, after editor Carey Salerno took note of Akbar’s poetry—he had recently won the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America for his poem “Heritage”—and got in touch to ask him if he had a manuscript. It wasn’t finished, but he did have a manuscript, and he found in Salerno and Alice James a publisher who was willing to wait while he finished writing it exactly the way he knew it needed to be written. “That turned out to be this really lucky thing, because she both got what I was doing and respected that it was still a ways away from what I wanted it to be, and she gave me a long-enough runway to allow it to become what I wanted it to be,” he says. “Alice James did an amazing, brilliant, wonderful job with it. And I have an eternal debt of gratitude to Carey.” Salerno says they have printed twenty thousand copies of the book, which was named a 2017 NPR Best Book of the Year.

When it came time to shop around his second book, however, Akbar had an agent in his corner, and the process went a bit differently. Ko fielded a number of offers from interested publishers, and an auction elicited bids from several presses, including Alice James. For Salerno it was the first time she had been involved in an auction of that scale. (While the process is different depending on the agent and the book, a typical round-robin auction starts with all interested editors making their first bids, then the agent calls the lowest bidder and tells them the highest bid, at which point the lowest bidder needs to exceed that bid or drop out, then the next-lowest bidder has an opportunity to raise their offer, and so on.) “I had really unsure footing in the entire endeavor,” she says. “And I found myself sort of crowdsourcing from other individuals who are on our board and who may have had similar experiences about the process and trying to think about, you know, how long is this process supposed to go on, how many back-and-forth exchanges do we have? How much information do I give at the beginning? Do I make a big offer, or do I come in low and then wait for them to come back to me?” 

Salerno, who has been at Alice James for nearly twelve years, says she never received queries from agents until a couple of years ago; now she gets an average of three to five agented manuscripts each month—on top of referrals from Alice James poets and approximately 1,300 submissions to the annual Alice James Award. 

For Akbar, having an agent suddenly meant that his manuscript was seen by editors he would not necessarily have had access to on his own. “Jackie ran the manuscript up the mountain and put me in conversations with so many of my heroes in publishing and editing, people who had worked on books that indelibly shaped my consciousness and the algorithms of my thinking. Just getting to have those conversations was an incredible occasion for gratitude in and of itself,” Akbar says. “Jackie was also unequivocally supportive of my goals in this process. And I never had the faintest whiff of her just wanting me to go with whoever was offering the most money. I really felt like she had my holistic interest as an artist at the core of her mission.”

In the end Akbar went with Graywolf Press, and Pilgrim Bell will be published in August 2021. His new editor, Jeff Shotts, says dealing with agents is a common part of his job—but that wasn’t always the case for poetry. “There’s no question that when I think back to when I started in publishing it was a very rare occurrence that we were getting a poetry submission via an agent, unless that author obviously was writing a memoir or writing novels or writing screenplays or something that agents could understand and put forward to publishers in a packaged, nuanced, and appealing way. I would say in these last maybe two or three years, it has happened much more frequently. It no longer feels unusual to get poetry submissions from agents.”

“The agents are coming a little bit late to this conversation from where I sit,” Shotts adds with a chuckle.

While Salerno at Alice James admits that an agent’s e-mail will likely get her attention faster than an unsolicited manuscript, both she and Shotts are quick to clarify that having an agent is by no means a requirement for poets to get their manuscripts considered and their books published. “I want to blow up any idea that there’s a new ladder: You have this big first book like Kaveh had, then you get your agent, then you get [a bigger deal],” says Shotts. “I think everybody’s making a career that’s individually theirs, and ultimately that’s far more appealing and exciting.”

“We’re all sort of living unprecedented experiences and trying to serve the visions of our unprecedented projects,” says Akbar, “but I talk to a lot of people for whom being a poet and having an agent seems mutually exclusive, who never imagined that it would be possible for them without also publishing novels or essays or whatever. And that’s certainly not the case. I know dozens and dozens of poets who have representation, and they’re not all Sharon Olds. They’re not all titans.”

Although an agent’s job, at base level, is to get the highest possible advance for any client—while also finding the best publishing team for the specific author’s project—Shotts points out that a poet will not get a more lucrative book deal at Graywolf just because it was brokered by an agent. “That’s not how we’re handling these submissions,” he says. “We gave Kaveh an advance that looks very much like the second-book advances that we give regardless of whether there’s an agent. That feels very important to who we are. We are not interested in having agents inflate advances in a way that we have seen is incredibly harmful elsewhere in the industry.” 

While that may come as bad news to those poets holding out hope for a seven-figure advance, it ensures a degree of equity in a press’s allocation of resources: The poet who got the big advance won’t suck all the air out of the room. It has long been a criticism of corporate publishing that a single book, often the one that elicited the high-profile advance, is identified as that publisher’s “lead title” for the season, so it has the full weight of the company’s marketing and publicity efforts behind it to help ensure a return on the publisher’s investment—perhaps at the expense of the other titles in that season’s catalogue. 

When we talk about agents for poets, it’s important to clarify whether we’re talking about literary agents—those professionals who do the work of finding the best publisher for your next book, negotiating the terms of your publishing contracts, and generally overseeing your own personal book business—or speaker’s agents, who serve a different yet equally important and sometimes even more income-generating role in poet’s careers. 

Anya Backlund of Blue Flower Arts and Tabia Yapp of BEOTIS. (Yapp: Taryn Carter) 

One of the most well-known speaking agencies for writers is Blue Flower Arts, founded by Alison Granucci in 2005, which boasts an impressive list of about a hundred clients, approximately eighty of whom are poets, including recent Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown, Tina Chang, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, current U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, Major Jackson, Marilyn Nelson, Charles Simic, and Jenny Xie. According to Anya Backlund, who took over as president of Blue Flower Arts in January, there is sometimes a bit of confusion surrounding the differences between literary agents and speaker’s agents.  

“Our primary service is representing [poets] for their appearances: one-time teaching gigs, keynotes, readings. We are their agents for speaking engagements,” says Backlund from her home office in Northampton, Massachusetts. “Of course, things do come to us; we get called in to negotiate all kinds of things, and we look at all kinds of contracts—we read a lot of contracts.” She adds, however, that Blue Flower Arts doesn’t try to stake a claim on any services beyond negotiating terms for speaking engagements; it sometimes just happens as a matter of course. “Someone came to me who felt a little uneasy about a contract that wasn’t one of our speaking engagements—it was for something else; it was for a fellowship—and in addition to having a lawyer look at it, they were like, ‘Will you just look at it and tell me if I’m crazy for this one clause, particularly around coronavirus cancellations and postponements and the payment schedule? What would you say here? And, if it’s appropriate, would you have a conversation with them for me?’ Blue Flower Arts is more hands-on than some others; we take an approach of really supporting our artists in any way we can.” 

Unlike literary agents, who are entitled to 15 percent of an author’s domestic earnings (and 20 percent of foreign rights), speaker’s agents charge anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of each speaking fee.

At BEOTIS, a boutique talent agency in Los Angeles that represents multi-hyphenate artists and writers of color, founder and director Tabia Yapp says she takes a managerial approach with her clients, and the agency offers services that support them in speaking and brand partnerships as well as literary and creative consulting. “I think that agents can sometimes be put into a box that’s very transactional,” says Yapp, who began her career in the global brands and licensing division of Creative Artists Agency before founding BEOTIS in 2015. “I tend to be much more holistic. Part of what I see as my work is helping artists build out their teams. And that has been a very rewarding piece of all of this. When they’re interested in finding a publicist, or when they’re interested in finding a literary agent or maybe it’s a film or TV agent, I love to be a sounding board for those conversations.” 

As a literary agent, Yapp has sold poetry collections by Nate Marshall (Finna, 2020) and Safia Elhillo (Girls That Never Die, 2021) to Random House imprint One World Books, as well as a nonfiction collection by poet Hanif Abdurraqib (Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, 2019) to the University of Texas Press. BEOTIS’s other clients include Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asghar, Eve L. Ewing, Clint Smith, and Danez Smith. “I’m in this work to advise and help uplift them and hopefully help promote their careers,” says Yapp. “But I am also very interested in protecting their creative energy and protecting them as artists. I think there are some folks out there who are looking to capitalize on creatives and who try to get as much as they can for the dollar amount, not actually understanding that behind that [work] there is a person.”

Yapp says she doesn’t have hard data on the larger trend of poets with agents, but the work of her agency—which she started to fill a gap in representation for emerging talent of color—runs parallel with the rising popularity and cultural reach of poetry. (According to a 2018 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly 12 percent of adults, or 28 million adults, read poetry in the previous year, which was five percentage points up from a similar study in 2012.) “I’d like to think that there is certainly a shift that is taking place,” Yapp says. “I think it’s due in part to the fact that poetry is gaining a wider audience, day by day. And I think online performances and video have helped cast a wider net to those who are engaging with poetry. I think it is only a matter of time before people catch up and realize that this is a viable business. It’s a viable art form that is paying creatives. The speaking component may have come before the literary agent component, but I think that the literary piece of things is certainly becoming more and more robust. And I’m excited to see that happening.”

For poet and performance artist Jessica Care Moore, the decision to get an agent came after twenty years of successfully publishing her own work and the work of poets she admires, including Danny Simmons and Saul Williams, through Moore Black Press, which she founded in 1997. After two decades of being her own publisher and bookseller, selling her poetry collections at venues while she performed on the road—she has performed her poetry at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and elsewhere—she hadn’t even realized how well she was doing on her own, at least by traditional publishing standards. It was only after she started working with Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency in 2015 that she learned about the sales expectations of big publishers—and that they might actually be lower than what she accomplished alone. 

Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency and poet Jessica Care Moore. 

“I’ve sold a lot of books on my own, like more than I realized, to be honest,” says Moore, the author of five poetry collections, including The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth (1997), The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto (2003), God Is Not an American (2009) and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes (2014). “I’m used to selling literally thousands and thousands of books. I didn’t realize how well I was doing from my own house. My little press was kicking ass. I didn’t know because I never pulled the numbers of other poets, of books on major presses. I thought selling ten thousand or fifteen thousand copies of a book was low. And Regina was like, no, you’re killing it.”

So why get an agent and go the traditional publishing route at all? The answer, perhaps not surprising, is that like Khadijah Queen, Moore is working on a memoir. She has been working on the book—about motherhood, art, and her experience growing up in a Detroit neighborhood bordering the largest Arab American population in the United States—for several years with the help of Brooks. Meanwhile she wrote another poetry collection. “I considered putting it out through Moore Black Press. And then I really had a moment where I paused and said, ‘This is a good book. I don’t want it to be hard to find.’ And distribution as an independent publisher has been the Achilles’ heel for Moore Black Press [which sells books directly through its website]. I’m not twenty-five anymore. I know I deserve the space on bookstore shelves. So I told Regina, ‘I love that you are interested in my memoir, but if I’m going to put a book out first on a very large press with major distribution, it has to be a book of poetry first,’ so we shifted gears and I gave her my manuscript.” 

Brooks, who founded Serendipity in Brooklyn, New York, in 1999, shopped the book around to a number of publishers and found the perfect editor in Patrik Henry Bass at Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins specializing in African American literature that has published books by Gwendolyn Brooks, Yvvette Edwards, Edward P. Jones, Jacqueline Woodson, and many others. Bass had previously worked as the books editor at Essence magazine, which has featured Moore several times, and he was familiar with her work. So for Brooks the real work, as it so often is for agents, went into connecting two ideal partners. 

Brooks, who is coauthor, along with Brenda Richardson, of You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir (Griffin, 2012), has a phrase for the kind of pitching she does for poets: soft-sounding. “It’s kind of a soft pitch, you know, like I’m not really pitching this to you. I just want you to be a sounding board. It’s like a combination of soft pitching and having a sounding board,” she says with a laugh.

Moore’s poetry collection We Want Our Bodies Back was published by Amistad in March to glowing reviews. “I’ve been in tears watching them come in, because I never received reviews,” Moore says. “This is my fifth book, and I think I had a few for Sunlight Through Bullet Holes just because I know writers, and they love my work, so they’ll do it, but Ms. magazine? No. If I didn’t have Regina, I wouldn’t have [reached] them.”

Whether there are indeed substantially more agents interested in representing poets these days remains a point of conjecture, but one thing is certain: There are agents out there who are eager to do so, and it behooves poets to consider it as an option. Still, the wise poet starts with the real work of writing and revising and pushing the manuscript as far as it can go. Any agent or editor will warn you not to put the cart before the horse. “I think the work comes first,” says Yapp of BEOTIS. 

But what if you have a poetry manuscript that you consider finished and you’re ready to place it with a press—maybe you’ve had some success placing individual poems in various literary magazines, perhaps you’ve even won an award—how do you know whether an agent is the way to go? “I think one good marker is if editors are reaching out to you about your work,” says Monika Woods of Triangle House. “If people are reaching out to you and asking you if you have any work to show them, that is a good time to maybe look for an agent. If you had a really successful book—and in poetry ‘successful’ is measured a little bit differently, but if you had a book that maybe won a prize or your platform is growing—I think that’s a really good time to look for an agent.” 

Khadijah Queen points to poets such as Fatimah Asghar and Hanif Abdurraqib, “folks who have a strong social media following and perform widely so that they’re more well-known” as examples of poets who have reached a level of popularity that would get an agent’s attention. “That makes it a little bit easier to get an agent. I think it boils down to the work, you know, is the work able to access a wide audience?”

It also helps to have an understanding of your work that goes beyond the page—an awareness of what your project as a writer really is: how you’re trying to reach readers and what you’re trying to say. “When I’m evaluating talent and getting to know creatives, one thing that’s important to me is whether they have a language for their work,” says Yapp. “That indicates some momentum, as well as an ability to communicate their needs as creatives. I think that having a little bit of that business sense is critical.”

Brooks also advises poets to be flexible and open to possibilities they may not have already envisioned for themselves, such as writing a book for children or young adults, or building out a collection of poems on a timely or culturally relevant theme. “Okay, you’re a talent; you have some content I can work with,” she says. “Allow me to shape it in a way that I can sell it.”

Part of being flexible, of course, is remaining open to the possibility that getting an agent isn’t the right course of action, at least not at this particular juncture in your career. For instance, Jessica Care Moore’s positive experience with an agent hasn’t changed her mind about the merits of self-publishing, especially for a poet with a first book. “I would say if an agent’s going to be interested in you as a poet, then you have to already have an audience. Because poetry is already a hard sell.” Indeed, Jacqueline Ko advises writers to be open to the many different routes to publication. “There’s a point where you have to say, ‘Is this something I want an agent and a traditional publishing route for? Would that be helpful for me? Or is this something I should enter in a contest or self-publish?’”

In the end, poets should probably think about literary agents as “an extra tool in their toolbox,” as Carey Salerno puts it. Not every job requires the same tool, but perhaps it’s time for poets to be more fully aware that it’s an option, and it’s just as viable as contests, open reading periods, and self-publishing. You may be unable to find an agent, but, as Kaveh Akbar suggests, there’s certainly no harm in trying. After all, it doesn’t cost any money; no legitimate agent will charge you any money unless they sell your work. 

“The worst-case scenario for a poet who thinks that they’d maybe like to be represented is that they write a query letter—and they continue to not be represented. The worst-case scenario is the status quo,” says Akbar. “I think that it can go hand in hand with submitting to contests and working on a manuscript. You know, you can submit to contests and query agents, and if an agent is interested, maybe you withdraw from the contest. There is no one right way to do this, but I do think that poets should take agents seriously as an option.” 


Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc. He is the coauthor, along with Mary Gannon, of The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer: Everything You Need to Know About Craft, Inspiration, Agents, Editors, Publishing, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Writing Career (Avid Reader Press, 2020).

Thumbnail: Tabia Yapp of BEOTIS by Taryn Carter.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Elisa Gabbert’s name.