Wednesday, September 05, 2018

About those numbers agents are always brandishing about on Twitter

Long time reader of the blog from Western Australia here. I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights on the publishing biz.

JR: Since I love maps, I thought I'd post this with the question!
I have a question regarding the numbers I see agents use about how many queries they get. Numbers like "I receive 10,000 queries a year and may take on 4 clients". (I just made those up but you get what I mean).

Those are the kinds of numbers that make a writer weep. But I'm wondering if it's wrong to take those numbers at face value. Because as we all know, there is the cliche of the slush pile being stacked full of unintelligible and derivative manuscripts.

An agent may receive 10,000 queries a year, but how many of them are any good? Quality is pretty subjective, but there is probably a baseline competence everyone can agree on. If an author is capable of writing a decent story in a marketable genre, are they really competing with 10,000 other authors? Or are they realistically competing with a far smaller number? I've thought about it like the London Marathon. If you want to win that race, you're not realistically competing against 10,000 runners; you're competing against the 50 people at the front who have trained for years and years to win.

You're smart to realize who your competition is.
It's not the dunderhead who queries me for dino porn set in Czarist Russia.

It's the author who queried me for something I DO want to read; it's the number of requested fulls in any given year.

I may get 100 queries a week, but I've requested only 69 manuscripts so far this year. Last year, 100. 2016 about half that.

Your competition, if you're writing a book I want to read, is 100, not 10,000.

This really isn't a numbers game. I can request as many fulls as I want. There's no limit. Yesterday
I requested four (two weeks of vacation will do that). Today, zip. Some weeks, nada. Some weeks
it's a deluge. (It does seem to come in spurts; I have no idea why that is.)

Thus: don't let the numbers scare you. The only question I'm asking when I read your query is  do I want to read this book?

A couple ways to catch my interest: vivid writing, plot twists, deft use of language. All that is entirely in your control. You just have to know it when you see it. Or don't.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

But mom, how will I know when the right man comes along?
Dad, when will I know that she is the one for me?
What’s the right name for our baby?
I have doubts about the car I want to buy, performance, mileage, color, how do I decide?
So many houses, which one is right for my family?
My best friend has been diagnosed with cancer, what do I say, how do I act?
I’ve written a book. Does it have merit? Will an agent want to read it?

"All that is entirely in your control. You just have to know it when you see it. Or don't."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yeah. I have learned that I must ignore the numbers. Or I will lose what is left of my fractured mind. The real number is 1.

1 writer + 1 book +1 agent + 1 publisher + x = success.

We simply must solve for x. How hard can that be?

PAH said...

This is probably both naive and cliche, but in my eyes, my only competition is myself.

Having played baseball for most my life, when I was on the mound, staring down a batter -- that was "versus" competition. I had some control over the outcome of the at-bat. My performance could affect the batter's -- and his could affect mine. Every pitch was a battle.

Writing is different. I cannot control what anyone else is writing. I can't control the market or trends or whether or not the agent's cat died right before reading my ms.

I can control how good my book is. The only thing stopping me from writing the best book I can is myself. The batter staring back at me is me. And I'm going to swing for the fences... or strike him out... or, oh dear me, the metaphor is really breaking down, innit?

What were we talking about?

Morgan Hazelwood said...

Which is why researching agents is key. You don't want blast-emailed queries as sent to ALL the agents. You want ones that are in your wheelhouse, anything else is just wasting your time -- and ours.

Liz Penney said...

That's why when I had over 20 full requests on a book, I almost died of anxiety and hope. Did get rep for that book but it took a while, even with that many.

Amy Johnson said...

So, you're saying Czarist Russia isn't a good setting for the genre? Back to page 1...

Lennon Faris said...

I realized years ago that statistics don't mean anything to the individual. To me, or to you, it's either a yes or a no.

I love to obsess over numbers, but it never changes anything.

Anonymous said...

Morgan Hazelwood,
Researching agents is breaking my heart. I've queried 36 of them so far. I researched every. Single. One.

About half were simply agents whose wish lists didn't actually exclude my genre. The other half? Ones whose wish lists seemed to be describing my very book. For every single one of those, I had a good feeling when I queried. I thought each might be The One.

I thought this querying thing would get easier as I went, but it's the reverse. Every time one of those reject, its gets harder.

I will say that agents who seem like a better fit, do tend to actually reply promptly with rejections rather than be NORMANs. I do appreciate that.

Craig F said...

I am self-employed in a screwy business. It started as a hobby and i was in the right place, at the right time, with the right kayak. The hobby became a business.

From that first big sale, I failed to hit the mark four times. I still miss the mark more than not, but I know I have it in me to succeed again.

Writing is the same. I have failed a few times but I am starting to figure it out, I hope. I think with this next one I just have to be in the right place, at the right time.

You have to step up confidently, so know that statistics only work with a large enough sample size. We aren't that. We are on the high end of the bell curve because we know more that those closer to the middle of that curve. We know more because we hang out here. Thank you, my Queen.

Joseph S. said...

I'm with Jennifer Mugrage on this one.

Colin Smith said...

Just don't ask how many of those requested mss become clients. That's the really depressing number. Of course, we all have our agent lists and we don't have any "Dream Agents" so all it takes is for any one of them to say "yes"! You don't have to be the one client Janet takes on that year... just the one client ONE of those agents takes on. That really really really small number of clients/per year doesn't have to be depressing, soul crushing, or drunken-stupor-inducing...

... really...



Julie Weathers said...

Years ago there weren't as many queries, though there were a lot. Now it's so easy just about anyone can do it.

When a person was paying to have the manuscript pages printed off fresh each time, you were more discriminating about who you submitted to. Regardless of how well you packed that submission, it always came back wadded up.

Then there was the postage both ways.

Now, it's slap together a query and you can shoot it to dozens of agents free within minutes.

The guy who shall remain nameless, mainly because I can't remember his name, who made a game out of querying agents and told them point blank they were going to keep receiving queries until someone signed him is an example. He proudly sent thousands of queries.

If you follow along on twitter while agents are going through the slush pile, you'll get an idea of why they're passing. Most of the time, the writing doesn't draw them in.

Your main competition is yourself.

Brenda said...

No dino porn in Czarist Russia! There goes my WIP.

We writers are always trying to imagine what the other side of the desk is like because if we only knew, really knew the mind of an agent we’d be in like a slot-machine token. Some agents are writers themselves—a combination I find alarming—but I wonder if the agents who don’t write are as curious about our minds as we are about theirs. We are a bit odd after all.

John Davis Frain said...

Nice map!

From the Learn-Something-New-Every-Day, Aussie Edition: (Apologies to all you smart folks around here)

I'd never heard of the Great Australian Bight. Assuming it meant something along the lines of a dingo attacking one's cattle, I'm happy to discover it's a bend in the coastline opening up to a bay. So next time someone says "Bight me" to me (it's a daily occurrence, but I'm sure it's not my fault), I'll assume it's their way of inviting me to the beach.

Also, thanks E.M. for introducing algebra to the blog today.

Keep writing.

Steve Stubbs said...

I read something somewhere Michael Korda wrote when he was at S&S, They did not use agents then, but they did not publish anuthing from the slush pile, either. The reason was that of 5,000 MSS maybe one would be publishable. That was his number, not mine.

Some people tried to get published by sending Mafia type threats to the editors, so they had a secretary sort through all this crap to find those and presumably send them to the police. People who did not send threats did not get read even by the police.

It's a tough biz, yes a very tough biz.

Write for your own enjoyment. Putting myself in the publisher's socks, with all the movie stars, ex convicts, bestselling authors, billionaires, newspapermen, politicians, and gifted BS'ers out there banging away on laptops like crazy, I don't see how Mr. or Ms. Nobody would stand much of a chance. Of course I have seen books that were published as a tax writeoff. Agents say on line that those authors get published exactly once and when their one shot flops, it's toodle-oo. So in a sense it is a numbers game and the number is 1 or 0.

Above all, maintain a sunny, positive attitude. Keep that upper lip good and stiff. Optimism will carry you through anything. Always look on the bright side.

Panda in Chief said...

I've mostly lived my life ignoring all those pesky facts about how hard, if not impossible, it is to support yourself as an artist. This attitude has served me well all these years, so why not apply it to getting published, too? I know I am among the fortunate. Relatively healthy, unencumbered by the need to be responsible for the welfare of descendents, well educated if not well funded. So, if 100 competitors might as well be 10,000, I may as well keep my head down, butt in the chair, and do work that I love.

Swing for the fences!
Panda on!

The Sleepy One said...

Colin, I think the concept of "dream agents" is silly. Mainly because an agent can seem awesome on Twitter and social media without having any sales. You don't know if it's a "dream agent" until you work together.

Fun true story: Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction site--which is a best selling picture book--was found in the slush pile. The editor who read it thought it sounded so brilliant someone had to have already have published a similar idea. But she researched and realized it was a fresh idea, and offered publication to the writer.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Sandgropers represent! Woot Woot! (or is that OI! OI! OI!)

FYI, publishing in Australia is rather different than publishing in the US/UK. Here, you don't need an agent until *after* you've made it. Most of the publishers here are small press who accept unagented MSS. I know several, no, many authors who are making a career in writing without an agent.

The problem with Aussie publishing is we're marketing to a very small audience. There's only about 20 million Australians. Compare that to the half BILLION US/UK audience.

But if we wanna swim in the big pond across The Pond, we do need an agent. So yeah. We're encroaching on your agents, running ahead of you in that race.

(Please don't kneecap us until after we've kneecapped everyone else ahead of us. There's only a hundred or so, I'm told.)

Kae Ridwyn said...

Woohoo - a map of home!

Well, kinda. That red arrow needs to point to South East Queensland to be anywhere near me. But still - it's the same country! :)

And yes, Mr Manuscript Frain, our bight is 'a bit of alright', from what I've heard. (Again, distances are pretty huge down here; I've never been) but I can definitely attest to the beauty of our beaches up here! Come visit when you can :)

Alex said...

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale

Sandgroper here! (In fact the one who asked the question).

It's funny you say that about not needing an agent. I was listening to a Wheeler Centre interview with Jane Harper and Christian White (the big profile winners of the Victorian Unpublished Manuscript Award, who have in a few years become best sellers and had their books optioned), and Jane said she figured she had, on numbers, a better chance of winning that competition than getting an agent. Which kind of makes sense when you think about it. Another example is The Banjo, HarperCollins new unpublished manuscript award. First prize is a book deal and $15k advance (presumably they are also scouting for other cracking reads they can make money from). You know how many people entered in the Australia-wide competition? Just over 300.

I mean, if you've got a decent book, and there is that many people applying, maybe it *is* better to submit to publisher-run competitions than to agents.

AJ Blythe said...

And the Aussies all stick their heads up... You can see my home town (Canberra) down in the bottom right corner, although I originally come from somewhere between Bundaberg and Noosa Heads (further up the east coast).

Much easier to think of geography than the numbers.

Iamanoldvampirechild said...

Alex Dook,

Melbournian here ) Thanks for that info regarding the Banjo award, had no idea so few people entered them. I see such awards come up now and then in my fb feed or linked via a friend and just let it roll by without entertaining the idea that I have a chance.