Thursday, March 05, 2015

Query Question: so, what's your batting average?

I've been reading a small debate on a writing forum. Someone stated that only 50-60% of first novels (represented by an agent) actually get picked up by a publisher. Their source is an agent's blog post. Another person questioned whether that agent's estimates are accurate. I'm sure some agents have different rates, this is supposed to be a rough average.

Is it true that even if someone signs with an agent, their odds of successfully getting a publisher for that book are only 50-60%? At first glance, that seemed a low figure. I'm afraid it really is accurate. But I'm curious about your thoughts on this. I want to recall a post by you about this (though maybe it didn't give actual figures?), but I can't find it again now.


You're missing two key pieces of information: time period, and number of books.

First, if an agent hasn't sold a novel within a day of signing the client, that's not a problem. A month isn't a problem either. Six months either, particularly in this acquisition climate. I've got several novels I've had on submission for longer than six months right now. There are a couple strategic reasons, and a couple just have editors who are backlogged as hell right now.

So it's entirely possible that I won't sell half my novels on submission within six months.

However.
I have sold books that I've had on my list for nine years.

And let's all remember that Philip Spitzer, an agent I revere, had a James Lee Burke  novel on submission for something like seventeen years before selling it.

The amount of time is hugely important for assessing something like this.

And here's the other factor: if I can't sell the novel I signed a client for, generally s/he's going to write a second or a third.  We'll hit on one of them, we hope, eventually, but it makes the stats look bad if you're only considering the first novel an author writes.

But, more important here, your question tells me you're having doubts. Stop it.

As a writer, you must be determined to be the exception to any statistic that says you will fail. You must be willing to see that bleak truth, and refuse to let it apply to you.  There's a lot to be said for vision and tenacity as keys to success.

Don't focus on statistics right now. Focus on your writing.

51 comments:

MB Owen said...

God, I wish Janet could be cloned.

Susan Bonifant said...

"As a writer, you must be determined to be the exception to any statistic that says you will fail."

Best truth ever, put into perfect words.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

In this climate, I'd be a little surprised if the number were as high as 50 percent. Getting an agent is an important first step, but it's only the first step. It's a rocky, steep path to publication, and a writer has to be part mountain goat, and believe that she/he is going to be one of the lucky ones that make it to the top. That doesn't mean to give up trying to climb, just to recognize that there are no sure things. Perseverance! That's a key.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

So, if you have a novel on sub for seventeen years, are you allowed/encouraged to revise it every once in awhile? If necessary, that is. Time treats different stories differently? But I feel like "the best novel possible" one year might not be the same seventeen years later, depending on genre, setting, etc.


God. Seventeen years ago was when I was still writing my cringeworthy fantasy novel which will never see the light of day. However, seven years ago is when I wrote (most of) my first Steampunk novel and, though unfinished, I feel like it isn't terrible.

Tony Clavelli said...

I've only been visiting this blog for about 3 months now, but it is for things like those that three mini-paragraphs that I keep returning. Wow.

S.D.King said...

John, the mountain goat picture is perfect. Reminds me of a favorite verse:
"He gives me hinds' feet and sets me on the high places"

And Janet, once again you have pointed me back to my manuscript- "focus on your writing."

Ardenwolfe said...

This is why I love Janet's blog. Reality mixed with enthusiastic hope.

Colin Smith said...

So this sort of reminds me of my little rant-lette the other day about #MSWL, and how it's less important that a ms is the kind of thing an agent wants to read, and more important that it's the kind of thing a publisher wants to publish. Hopefully the two things coincide; I think a good agent would be looking for a ms that is both something they love and something they can sell.

What Janet says is a good reminder to those of us on the un-agented side of the biz that getting an agent, as wonderful and important as that is, is only the first step in becoming traditionally published.

MB Owen said...

It's a strange + twisted exercise: to think realistically which includes a great deal of depressing news whilst also maintaining hope.

For me, it's only possible when imbedded in the love of writing. To wake every morning wanting to be a better writer than I was the day before.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

While I appreciate the expansion of my name-twin's answer to this question, I think the basic answer is still, "yes, the book that led to your signing with an agent might not be the first book you get published". I have zero idea of the percentages, but I'll throw in my dollar ante:

1. This happened to me. I'd love to talk more in depth about it, but it's probably not prudent of me to do so at this time.
a. not because the story about it is bad
b. not because I harbor any ill-will towards anyone about it
c. I thought I would have been more devastated or even bitter about the current end result, but found I really wasn't. It's all good.
d. editor rejections, while still hard, are totally different than agent ones - always personalized and with many lovely things to say
2. I wish more people wrote about this, but it always feels like it is a semi-buried/taboo topic.
3. In the end, though, it really is all about writing more books. "Focus on your writing" indeed says it all.

F.Lowers McGrath said...

Love!

Joan Kane Nichols said...

Janet, it's your tenacity I admire. Several years ago, I had an agent who was sending around a children's middle-grade novel I had written. He sent it to six editors. It got some nicely written rejections, but still rejections. The agent then sent me an email saying, basically, we're through. Sorry, couldn't sell the book, you're no longer my client. Needless to say, I was devastated.

I assumed this was the way most agents conducted business. But you kept trying for 17 years! Bless you.

Dena Pawling said...


Janet would make a good lawyer.

Client: Is it true that even if someone signs with an agent, their odds of successfully getting a publisher for that book are only 50-60%?

Janet/lawyer: It depends.

Client: On what?

Janet/lawyer: Time period and number of books.

Client: Okay, what about time period?

Janet/lawyer: It depends.

Client: On what?

Janet/lawyer: How long are you talking about? One day? One month? One year? Seventeen years?

Client: But is it true that even if someone signs with an agent, their odds of successfully getting a publisher for that book are only 50-60%?

Janet/lawyer: It depends.

Client [looking for a crowbar to pry out information]: Okay, what about number of books?

Janet/lawyer: It depends.

Client: I'll refine my question to a debut novel.

Janet/lawyer: I have sold books [won cases] that I've had on my list for nine years.

Client: Nine years?!

Janet/lawyer: It depends. Just keep writing books.

Client: I plan to.

Janet/lawyer: We'll hit on one of them, we hope, eventually, but it makes the stats look bad if you're only considering the first novel an author writes.

Client: It makes the stats took bad for my first novel?

Janet/lawyer: It depends.

Client: On what?

Janet/lawyer: But, more important here, your question tells me you're having doubts. Stop it.

Client: But I'm an obsessive woodland creature!

Janet/lawyer [retrieving pompoms]: As a writer, you must be determined to be the exception to any statistic that says you will fail. You must be willing to see that bleak truth, and refuse to let it apply to you. There's a lot to be said for vision and tenacity as keys to success. Don't focus on statistics right now. Focus on your writing. [Rah!]

Client: But is it true that even if someone signs with an agent, their odds of successfully getting a publisher for that book are only 50-60%?

Janet/lawyer [with heavy sigh, repeats self]: Your question tells me you're having doubts. Stop it.

Client: Okay, you're right. I'll stop it now. You won't drop me just because the odds are long or the outlook bleak?

Janet/lawyer: No. You keep doing your end of the bargain and I'll keep doing mine.

An agent for the long haul. What we all dream of.

Janet Reid said...

Joan, that was Phil Spitzer who persevered for 17 years.

My all time record is 9 years.

SiSi said...

". . . you're having doubts. Stop it."

Just made this my screen saver.

LynnRodz said...

I prefer thinking positive, you get better results. Like Henry Ford's quote says: Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right. It's all up to you.

Julie Weathers said...

Years ago we showed Aussies. I showed obedience and working because I despised the trend the conformation Aussies were going to. We bred the old time working Auusies who were small, shorter, blockier, with a Quarter Horse type build.

The Aussies winning conformation were massive. They looked like Great Pyrenees with Aussie coloring. They were bred for size and coat. The longer the legs the better. The 3-month-old pups were as big as my bitches.

Then, lo and behold, a lot of the popular bloodlines started developing joint problems. People who tried to work them couldn't. The work had been bred out.

My pups started winning quadruple working champs, ducks, hogs, sheep, and cows. People started looking at the old time Aussies again, but they had almost been bred out of extinction.

The few breeders who had stuck with them became popular again.

So it goes, and ever has. It's all a cycle. Dark red Herefords are popular, now light, almost copper. Short bodies, long bodies.

A young lady was bemoaning the fate of her paranormal on twitter the other day, wondering if she should just give up writing because no one wanted paranormal anymore.

I said, "How about you write something so great it starts the next great rush to paranormal?"

If Far Rider doesn't sell, something else will, then the publisher will say, "What else do you have for me?" And I'll say, "Well, I've got this great...."

As for 17 years, well, I'm not sure what the nursing home policy will be on harassing agents and publishers, but I guess we'll see.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Thanks mom, I needed that.

bobiozzia said...

I love your blog because of the expert advice you dole out bare-knuckled.

From this post, the standout statement for me is "As a writer, you must be determined to be the exception to any statistic that says you will fail." It is a water stop on the writing marathon.

Thanks.

Laura Martin said...

"As a writer, you must be determined to be the exception to any statistic that says you will fail. You must be willing to see that bleak truth, and refuse to let it apply to you. There's a lot to be said for vision and tenacity as keys to success."

If you made this into a T-shirt, I would buy it. Just saying!

LD Masterson said...

About a decade ago I had a sci fi mystery picked up by an established, reputable agent who was certain (of course) that she could place my book. She offered me her standard two year contract and I accepted. She then suggested I start writing historical romance - a genre I don't enjoy. I offered to try sci fi romance instead. I guess that wasn't acceptable since she went into "Don't call me, I'll call you." mode. She never found a home for my book - I don't know how hard she tried - and at the end of the two years I receive a form letter releasing me from our contract. I imagine experiences like mine tilt that statistic somewhat.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: "Years ago we showed Aussies." Of course, my first thought is Gary Corby, AJ Blythe, and Sam Hawke. And I'm confused. "Showed them what? Or to whom?" Then I read on. OHHH!!! :)

A large reason for getting an agent is so s/he can sell our book to a publisher. That's part of the control the author loses when he/she decides to follow the traditional model. The advantage: it frees the writer up to worry about writing. The disadvantage: the writer has to trust his/her agent is doing their job, and sometimes woodland creatures can appear most distrustful. I suppose this is why it's so important to have a good agent-client relationship, so that trust is there.

Christina Seine said...

“It's a rocky, steep path to publication, and a writer has to be part mountain goat, and believe that she/he is going to be one of the lucky ones that make it to the top.”

John, perfect analogy!

Years ago, I went hiking with my husband on a particularly steep river valley. Now, bear in mind, our mountains in Alaska are steep to begin with. Ridiculously steep. We were aiming for a flat, grassy spot near a lower peak where goats and sheep were known to hang out. At one point, I wanted to give up. The rocky slope just below the grassy spot was so difficult, I was sliding two feet back for every three feet I went up. “Slightly alarmed” might describe my state of mind. I didn’t think we could make it, but we were so close, we gave it one last try.
We made it to the grassy area (maybe 20 by 20 feet in size) and collapsed. The sun was warm, so we took off out boots and jackets and sort of fell asleep. I was awakened by my husband gently nudging me. He said, “Ssshhhhh,” and nodded to his left where a family of 8 or 9 mountain goats had come to check us out – including wee babies! We held our breath and watched as they got just a few feet away from us before deciding we were less interesting than something to eat further up. I was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled.
On the way down, we happened to spot a mountain goat that had fallen to its death on that one difficult slope. Slightly unnerving, to say the least, but the thing is, because we didn’t know any better we succeeded where even a mountain goat failed! If I had looked down, I would never have made it to the top, and I would have missed a very special, once-in-a-lifetime memory.

Karen McCoy said...

On the theme of control that Colin brought up, I've always been mystified by hypothetical quantifications like these. I saw a similar one that said that if you have "x amount of books on submission" you're more likely to get published, which most people later dismissed as hogwash.

I get quantification when the business becomes reality, like advances and sales and such (and I'm sure there are countless other measurements), but I'm wondering if dwelling on hypotheticals is a masked attempt to control a completely random process.

Janet's right; it's better to focus on the writing itself, where quantification doesn't matter.

Julie Weathers said...

Colin,

Julie: "Years ago we showed Aussies." Of course, my first thought is Gary Corby, AJ Blythe, and Sam Hawke. And I'm confused. "Showed them what? Or to whom?" Then I read on. OHHH!!! :)

Yes, I always add, "the dogs not the people". However blogger ate my first comment and I forgot to add the caveat.

Mea culpa. At least I didn't say I bred them.

Julie

Julie Weathers said...

Janet's absolutely right. You focus on what you have control over, the quality of your writing and your persistence.

Christina, it reminds me of one of Charlie Russell's paintings I adore. Meat's Not Meat Til It's In The Pan.

If anyone has ever had any experience with Mary Kay, they will know the bumble bee story. Aerodynamically, the bumble bee can't fly. The body is too big. The wings are too small. Everything is all wrong. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the bumblebee it can't fly so it just flies everywhere. Now, I'm sure there's a scientific reason why it all works, but that's the theory and the story. Be a bumblebee and stop listening to people telling you what you can't do and just start doing.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, there are some things you can't do.

"much-needed workshops on feasible sex positions—too often Engler has given edit notes explaining that a woman cannot be bent over a horse unless her partner is very tall or the horse is very short."

You can't bend your heroine over a horse easily to get romantic. Maybe with a step stool, or a Shetland. Fifty Shades of Neigh indeed.

Amazon and Ellora are apparently fighting now. The things you learn when you try to keep up with the publishing industry.

Joan Kane Nichols said...

Janet: 9 years, 17 years, it still beats my former agent's less than 1 year.

REJourneys said...

Julie, you hit on the comment I wanted to make.

We mentioned this week that writing is like having a small business and all of us looking for agents are basically in the start up phase (I would argue approaching the start up phase, but whatevs).

I read an article on Business Insider yesterday about the number of businesses that failed in a year. They used an actual number, perhaps for 2013 or 2014, but the general percent I learned in school was 80% of businesses fail.

Sad, right? But the article wasn't focused on them, it was focused on what the successful people did that helped them succeed. The number one thing? Persistence. They never gave up. The article talked about how talent, while important, isn't what helps businesses succeed. There are plenty of talented people who don't. It's the persistence that was the differentiating factor.

Now, of course I'm not saying fly to New York (especially in this weather) and pound the payment in your best suit, looking for agents, editors, and publishers. I'm saying, don't give up. Just like an entrepreneur, you must be willing to tell yourself some lies that the world NEEDS your product.

Note: Now I question if I meshed two articles together, one about succeeding businesses and the other about what successful people never say. Either way, the advice, as said, was what I read (and believe).

*A cookie if you read all of my ramblings.

Karen McCoy said...

*eats cookie*

Christina Seine said...

*Notices that cookie is oddly bean-shaped, eats it anyway*

Amy Schaefer said...

I think this falls under the heading of Bad Math. Selling books is not a random draw; we don't all have an equal chance of being published (or repped, for that matter). Whether a book sells or not depends on so many things: its quality, persistence on the part of the author to get it to agents, persistence on the part of the agent to get it to editors, publishing climate, subject matter, genre, current trends, and plain old good timing, to name a few. Yes, you can calculate what percentage of writers actually sell their first book, but don't expect it to be meaningful information. In the end, it is just another pointless thing to fret about. Go forth and write something fantastic.

I just went and read the last few comments from yesterday, and I see that some of you have an issue with blue cheese. Even my beloved Roquefort was mentioned in a derogatory way. You poor misguided souls. As self-appointed captain of Team Blue, I assert there is nothing in this world better than Roquefort on thin Melba toast accompanied by a good Sauterne. Blue forever!

And while we're on the subject, darn you all for making me think about it. My sole option at the moment is buying cheese in 1 kg blocks. The manufacturer doesn't even pretend it is a certain type of cheese - it is simply labelled "cheese", with a vaguely-embarrassed-looking cartoon cow staring off into the distance and avoiding your eyes. Decent for pizza and sandwiches, but not much good for a nibble in the afternoon.

Megan V said...

*Opens a box of Girl Scout Cookies instead. Eats entire box. Reaches for second box of Girl Scout Cookies*

"Are you having doubts again?"
*hides box behind back*
"Nope. No doubts here. No cookies either."

Colin Smith said...

Amy: mmmm... Roquefort blue cheese. MMMMMmm. Makes for wonderful salad dressing. :D

Julie Weathers said...

Gads, you people. I'm trying to stay on this diet. Oatmeal for supper tonight and now I'm craving pizza and cookies.

That's it. You're on the ban list.

REJourneys said...

I'm sorry *tosses cookies*

Celery for you Julie? Or fruit? Fruit is good.

Colin Smith said...

*Cleans up after REJourneys tosses cookies*--I've cleaned up after 6 children... used to it. :)

Craig said...

I think that I would rather know about the fastest sale of a new writer. If you could tell who it was or maybe just the genre it would be appreciated.

@Colin: I thought you were a vegetarian. Are you one of those hybrid veggies? Like a Lacto-ovo or piscatorial? Or just one of those who doesn't eat meat?

What good is blue cheese on a burger if it doesn't have bacon on it?

Amy Schaefer said...

@Craig: The quickest sale I remember hearing was Kristin Nelson selling Sherry Thomas's first book. From query to sale was 25 days. http://nelsonagency.com/queries-an-inside-scoop-sherry-thomass-query/

And I am with you on the bacon.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: I don't eat meat, or any other produce from a dead animal (stock, gelatine, etc.). So I'm okay with eggs, cheese, and milk. I've never liked fish, but I would consider that "meat" anyway.

DLM said...

Karen McCoy said, "Janet's right; it's better to focus on the writing itself, where quantification doesn't matter."

I won't start the "what word count is 'right'?" conversation ... :)

A nice piece of cheddar and a slice of excellent, warm apple pie.

Hey, as long as everyone's on about food. :) (Actually, I am very likely to have pancakes for supper; mid ice storm, the idea has an alluring quality.)

Craig said...

@ Colin: I salute you. Years ago I tried to go Vegan and it was just too much work trying to get a balanced diet. That was in the days before Methyl B-12 and whey proteins. Even trying really had I found myself losing muscle mass though I do go meatless a couple times a week.

@Amy: Thanks.

Karen McCoy said...

Nice one, DLM. :) I'll add to that by deferring to the brilliant Amy Schaefer:

"Yes, you can calculate what percentage of writers actually sell their first book, but don't expect it to be meaningful information. In the end, it is just another pointless thing to fret about. Go forth and write something fantastic."

This context can be applied to word counts too--while it's good to have an idea of what they "should" be, let us not fret about it. Perhaps we should go to Amy's paradise instead.

*eats second cookie and boards plane*

Amy Schaefer said...

Boy, I'd better start preparing a guest room. Make sure you all visit Duty Free on the way; I'll send you a list.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Christina, I'm hate "oddly-bean" shaped cookies.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I've bred Aussies. Granted, mine were out of an American by a New Zealander, and I only got the two. But boy, do they make their Momma proud.

A book is a big, complex thing, until you look at it in the scope of a career. It's like how a city is a big, complex thing, until you look at it from orbit.

I can understand novice authors who've completed a book wanting the best for that book. However, the odds of selling it are a different story.

But write twenty books (assuming you learn something about the craft along the way) and those odds go up significantly.

Took me five pregnancies to get two living children. When you pin your hopes on the first pregnancy, you can set yourself up for a lot of heartache should it fail.

My question would be, "What are the odds of one of my twenty books selling within the next five years?"

I like metaphors.

I like blue cheese. Heck, I like any cheese.

I like cookies.

I miss Girl Scout Cookies, especially Thin Mints.

I tend towards a vegetarian lifestyle, but don't adhere strictly to it. Because bacon.

I am hungry now.

Colin Smith said...

Her Grace: I thought I couldn't give up chicken. But I did--cold turkey (har har). One day I thought I could never go without that wonderful white meat. The next day, I did. And I haven't eaten a bite of chicken in nearly 25 years.

Amazing what you can do when you're determined. Like getting a novel published. :)

Craig said...

But Colin, she said bacon. Not chicken. Everything, especially blue cheese burgers, are better with bacon. Not everything is better with chicken.

Besides, being a veggie really is hard work. Salads everyday don't cut the mustard.

stacy said...

I'm late to the convo on this one, but Dena, your "conversations" with Janet are hilarious. Made my morning.

Julie Weathers said...

I've bred Aussies. Granted, mine were out of an American by a New Zealander, and I only got the two. But boy, do they make their Momma proud.--

I laughed. Thanks for that, Duchess. And how impressive you know the correct terminology.

"Took me five pregnancies to get two living children. When you pin your hopes on the first pregnancy, you can set yourself up for a lot of heartache should it fail."

That is so horribly heartbreaking. I'm sorry you had to go through that. The first time, is when you realize it's real and it doesn't just happen to other people. congratulations on the two fine, young children. What a blessing.

Thin mints. yum

Julie

karen said...

Wow, I think you're all looking at this the wrong way.

If you woke up tomorrow with your manuscript in hand and the publishing fairy appeared and said, "That book has a 50/50 chance of being published," wouldn't you all be ecstatic? I mean that's so much better than what feels like 1 in 10,000 chance when you don't have an agent and are relegated to sending out to slush piles or hunting down opportunities at conferences.

I'll take 50/50 any day.

And what it means is ... you are really really close. If this one didn't make it, you are almost there.