I offered to represent half or less than half of one percent (between 0.0035 and 0.005) of the writers who approached me during my first two years as a literary agent. It’s too early for me to draw many conclusions, but I think that’s a normal percentage.
My list of print and digital magazines that publish creative writing is nearing 3,000. Of those 3,000, it could be argued that only about 15 are highly visible and widely read. Try naming them off the top of your head, and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe we pay attention to only the top one-half percent of literature no matter where we encounter it.
I’m not saying that good writing can’t be found in places where few people are looking. I am wondering whether the demand or the market for creative writing, especially fiction, hasn’t always been naturally limited to about half a percent of what’s produced. It would be wonderful if this selection phenomenon were addressed on the Freakonomics blog, don’t you think?
2010 agency statistics
I accepted queries and sample pages from prospective clients for only one month in 2010, the month of June, instead of continuously throughout the year as I had done in 2009. In 2010:
- 562 writers sent queries and, usually, the first five manuscript pages
- 25 of the 562 (4.4%) were invited to submit manuscripts for consideration
- 2 of the 25 (8%) whose manuscripts I read were offered representation
- 2 of 562 is about one-third of one percent
Less than half of a percent of the writers who contact me are individuals I can work with. For those I can’t take on as clients, the knowledge that they’re among vast and good company ought to take a little of the sting out of rejections, but I know it doesn’t. What goes unsaid is that only the most talented, potentially marketable writers have the ability to enlist an agent to do the amount of work agents do on speculation. By speculation, I mean the agent takes on the work because she believes she’s likely, at some point, to earn a commission fee. You’d assume that’s a worthy objective.
Neither of the writers I offered to represent in 2010 ultimately became my client. One of them received and accepted a simultaneous offer from an excellent, larger literary agency. Signing with that particular agency is precisely what I would have done in that author’s shoes. I’m looking forward to seeing his book in print. Not only is he a nice person, he’s destined for success.
The second prospective client vanished after telling me his manuscript was incomplete. Disappearing acts aren’t uncommon, I’ve learned. Nor is it unusual for one of the phantoms, as I like to think of them, to reemerge many months after breaking off contact with me and act as if nothing unusual happened. Almost no explanation will suffice in such circumstances. At least 500 other writers are waiting to demonstrate that they’re more reliable and professional. I can’t afford to represent a disappearing client any more than authors can afford to be represented by disappearing agents.
In 2009, I took queries all year long. In 2010, I accepted queries for only one month, yet I still received half as many queries as the entire previous year. Making my agency more accessible doesn’t appear to offer a good ROI, so I’ll continue the practice of accepting queries for only one month each year. I also receive referrals from acquaintances in the publishing business, and I take pitches at writers’ conferences.
Efforts that haven’t paid off for me include offering to reconsider revised manuscripts, accepting referrals, and perusing self-published material. With so little data, however, I can’t conclude that I should stop doing any of these things just yet.
In 2011, in addition to being open to queries during the month of July, I plan to experiment with discovering prospective clients through literary magazines, websites, and blogs. It will be a switch for me, but other agents have been relying on such methods all along. Only by trying something different can I compare the results, statistically, to what I did in 2009 and 2010. I’ll report on my findings in January 2012.
Also coming in 2011
The first title for which I negotiated the rights deal, Mini Nair’s women’s novel, The Fourth Passenger, will be published in hardcover in 2011, which I consider a testament to Mini’s enormous talent. You’ll soon see for yourself. I can’t wait to find out what else she has in store for us.
To onlookers, surely it seems as though this business moves at the pace of a snail. In fact, my clients and I have been quite busy behind the scenes. We’re in contact with each other no less than every two weeks, and often daily. Believe it or not, the open lines of communication exist because we like each other.
The past two years have been good, and this year already promises, in every way, to be even better.