Poets & Writers

Agents for Poets An Investigation

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.

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

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