Doing the Math

Yesterday, along with my five fellow agents, I took part in a Twitter chat (at #knightagency, if you want to go back and read). We called it a lunchtime chat because it took place at 12pm ET, but of course that meant for me it was more of a coffee chat, 9am being well past breakfast but certainly nowhere near lunch. And for anyone joining us from other parts of the world, well, yes, there’s math there. You get the idea.

And math is actually the focus of this post, because I was surprised at the number of questions that were, in fact, math related. Things along the lines of What are the odds of getting published as a debut author? or What percentage of queries actually result in your signing the writer?

My answers to these questions, respectively, are It depends on how good your book is and whether there’s a market for it, and I have absolutely no idea.

Here’s the kind of math I do as an agent. I look at contracts and figure out what’s a reasonable percentage of the advance for the publisher to pay on signing, on delivery, and in some cases, on publication. I read royalty statements and make sure that the numbers of books sold per market adds up to the number sold total, and that those numbers jive with the money being paid — taking into consideration that a percentage is held against potential returns. I don’t really count my submissions, unless I’m terribly behind and want to depress myself.

I realize that some agencies have a system for determining how many queries come in and how many clients they sign as a result, but in my mind, this process is completely subjective, and any numbers I could hand you wouldn’t actually tell you anything about what you need to do for me to represent you. Because I don’t say to myself Oh, I’ve read one hundred partials, I’m due to request a full-length manuscript, or I’ve read thirty manuscripts, so I have to sign one of them, or I haven’t signed anyone new in six months — better hurry up and fix that. I read until I fall in love. I read until the story and the writing excite me, until I find something that keeps me up all night and that I’m loathe to put down. I read until I find a project that clicks for me and I really, really want to talk to the writer. That can happen once or twice a year, or twice in a month. It’s the luck of the draw, depending purely on what’s appeared in my inbox.

We receive a huge number of submissions each year, just as any established agency does. Many start as queries in the general submissions folder — per our submissions guidelines. Melissa Jeglinski, our submissions coordinator, probably has a good idea how many per month, give or take. But that’s not our only source of new material. We all attend conferences where we meet with writers and request partials or complete manuscripts, and those come directly to us, bypassing the submissions folder. Existing clients and editors recommend writers to us, and they, too, will submit directly. And on occasion, we will find some bit of writing on the internet or a periodical, or hear of someone with a fabulous story to tell, and we will approach them to see if they have a book in the works or would be interested in writing one, and if they have representation.

In other words, our clients come from many sources, and approach us in different ways. We could take the time to maintain meticulous records, but there’s not much point in it, and that time is certainly better spent elsewhere. For agents where the process is much more direct — at agencies where each agent fields their own queries directly, for instance — it’s probably an easier task, but those statistics only show you how busy the agent is. Knowing you’ve read 500 partial manuscripts and 65 full manuscripts in a year — and these are simply numbers I’ve pulled out of thin air for an example — doesn’t tell the writer the odds of your signing them.

If you want to improve your odds, do the work, and I don’t mean the math. Polish your manuscript, get feedback from people you trust, find a teacher or mentor who can help you get your story where it needs to be. Then read the agency websites and see what books the agents represent — and read a few of those. Find out if an agent’s taste seems suited to your writing style. Target the professionals who love what you love, who love the sorts of books you are hoping to write over the course of your career, and who seem best suited to represent your work. And remember that, at the end of the day, you only need one.