Monday, October 5, 2009

Literary Lore

As I have grumbled about this agent process, and read the articles by the pros, you hear again and again, “It's who you know.” This has an intuitive feel to it... that a connection might get a foot in the door. Certainly a 'real contact'--one you know well enough to ask for a read or a personal favor would help the process. But that is really depressing for those of us in the middle of nowhere, literarily speaking. [Did I just say that from the town where Borders is headquartered? I actually KNOW people who work in Borders marketing—but the BUYING and promoting already published things seems so far—and these people are parents of my children's schoolmates. Frankly, I just don't have enough brass to ask them for that kind of favor, and I don't really know that it would help.]

So being a good nerd, I got all excited on Saturday to run across this Article on statistics of first novels (via Nathan Bransford, Kristin Nelson and THEN this blog).

Megan Crewe's Blog

It definitely doesn’t say ‘contacts are no good, poo on the contacts!’ but it DOES give hope to those of us who have none.

Methods: (or what I can surmise of them)

Participants: 270 published authors (51% adult/49%YA). I’m guessing this is skewed here because I think in the overall book biz, YA is a percentage closer to 25-30%--totally pulling that off the top of my head, but I can’t believe for a minute it is near half. HOWEVER, it isn’t so skewed that I don’t think this is all meaningful, AND results are broken down and separated, so it doesn’t matter all that much anyway.


Only 55% of people had an agent when they first found a publisher. (Say what?) That’s right, 45% of people had NO agent the first time they got a publisher. Some of the non-agented then went and GOT agents, publishing offer in hand, but they went to (and succeeded) with the publisher first.

BUT there are ginormous differences by genre.

[copying and pasting here. This is directly from Megan]: 86% of the picture book debuts sold without an agent, followed by 54% of the adult genre, 36% of the middle grade, 25% of the adult literary/mainstream, and 16% of the young adult.

My take home from this is: artwork sells itself. And actually, based on what I’ve read elsewhere, this breakdown with genre fic doesn’t surprise me at all. The thing I’ve seen is that there are publishers who specialize by genre and there are genre SECTIONS in book stores, and there are dedicated genre READERS who don’t browse reviews. They just go to the section of their genre and read the backs of books, so a good cover pic and description sells the book with nearly no marketing. Commercial or mainstream adult fiction requires a ‘guide’ if you will, to get a book decent placement and publicity, or it will not break out of the large pack it is running with. Apparently that competition is even fiercer for YA.

Now here is the piece that is heartening to me (who is selling commercial, and therefore committed to the agent process): 62% of people who had agents, had no connection to that agent. They got their agent through cold querying. Now this means 38% had a connection… no small number when we think of the numbers probably out there looking. I’m willing to bet the total number of people TRYING to get agented and published is far more skewed… I bet 80%-90% have no connections (pulled that number out of the air, but considering agents seem to all be in New York, Denver or San Francisco… and what portion of writers are?). I think the chances are better if you know someone.

But the important point, is the chances are not NIL if you DON’T know someone. I believe what a connection helps with is getting read. Your query may not have to be so polished because you will get the benefit of the doubt. But in the end, the agent is a business person who is going to want what is good, and reject what is bad.


The who you know seems to be even lower here. 72% of published first works went to an editor with whom the author had no connection (28% cold, 44% via agent). I am more skeptical here though. I am willing to bet those agents DID have connections, so really only 28%... which… when looked at with the numbers above… if 45% had no agent, and 28% got through with no connection, 17% must have had a publisher connection… but I think not all the numbers are here. I think the important one is the 28% of books get published with a cold send to a publisher… (that isn’t actually very high if you then apply the skewing above—picture books and genre fic… Hmmmmm)


What is not clear here, and I couldn’t figure out how to find, is how participants were chosen and invited. Were they randomly selected from some list? Or was the poll posted on some social networking site? Maybe people with connections don’t need to BOTHER with social networking? You can see why this might give an inaccurate picture.

That said, I believe this is a hopeful image. At the very least, it gives hope that I will really find an agent one day soon…


M.J. Nicholls said...

Thank you for this investigation! Very illuminating and reassuring words.

My own naive mind suspects that the most talented ones out there start out agentless, contactless and hopeless. I believe in the power of good writing to triumph in the end.

I have to. Otherwise I'll go mad.

Watery Tart said...

M.J. I think the necessity of agenting is even lower in the UK (I know it is in Australia)--the US is just full of a lot of people who think we can write, and the agent acts as the tier-one weeding body. Neil Gaiman insists nobody (from his UK perspective) needs an agent at first.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I had no agent for my first two books...but then, I write genre fiction and started out with a small publisher (1st book) and a middle-sized publisher (2nd book). My Midnight Ink I sent in as an unrequested full. :) You're going to do well--you have talent and perseverance--even with no connections.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Cruella Collett said...

I know you're a statistician, but still - I'm in awe with all the numbers!!!
I definitely think you're spot on that it differs according to genre, market and geography. Not that I have done extensive research on the matter, but from what I gather, in Norway it is completely unheard of to have an agent before you're published (or at least before you approach the publisher). All the major (and the minor too, I think) publishers have directions on their websites for how to submit manuscripts. But we're small-scale, naturally, compared to the US (or for that matter the UK).

It is reassuring, though, that the stats suggest that there is still other ways to get somewhere in this world than through social networks. Not that I specifically have anything agaist social networks, but I like the idea of multiple options.