December 28th, 2006 | Agents, Proposals | 12 Comments
People have been sending in a bunch of questions regarding writing and publishing, so I thought I’d try to hit several of them quickly…
1. About how many novels do you sell in a year?
–I spent several years as a literary agent with Alive Communications. We were the big dog on the CBA book scene — the oldest and, arguably, the most successful literary agency working in Christian publishing. (Great people at Alive, by the way.) While I was there, I focused more on nonfiction titles, but I sold about 35 to 40 novels in a year.
2. How many queries or actual proposals do you receive?
–Queries? Tons. Proposals…fewer. When I was at Alive, we received something like 300 novel proposals in a year, plus another 1000 or 1200 nonfiction proposals. Now that I’m on my own, that number has dropped. In the past couple of months I’ve received a total of 100 proposals — and interestingly enough they run about 70% fiction.
3. Of the queries you receive, how many make you want to ask for more?
–If the book is coming in completely cold (that is, I don’t know anything about the project or the author, not did I request to see it), I probably ask to see something on fifteen percent of them.
4. Of the novel proposals you receive, how many make you want to ask for the entire book?
–Again, if it’s completely cold, I’d say I might ask to see one per month. If I know the author, or have some sort of relationship with the work prior to the proposal coming in, that number is much higher — at least half.
5. After having looked at your slush pile, about how many clients do you expect to take on?
–I don’t have a set number in mind. The fact is, I represent really good writers and I’m happy with the folks I’ve got. But if I see something I love, I’ve got the margin in my life to be able to take it on. That just happened, by the way — somebody sent me an idea, I asked to see the manuscript, and I think we’re going to work together. It was a situation where I loved the idea, and the actual words didn’t disappoint.
6. What are agents really looking for with fiction?
–That’s a huge question, of course, because I can’t speak for all the agents. But here’s a thought: The best fictioin I ever read MOVED me. I was never the same after I read Tom Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE or Leif Enger’s PEACE LIKE A RIVER. I love to pick up a novel and feel changed by it. It’s a rare event. For that matter, sometimes I feel like I’d love to pick up a novel and feel anything. Too many novels seem to be exercises in angst ("I’ve had a hard life!") or narcissism ("Look at me!") or merely creative crap ("I’m going to try something completely different, just to show you I can do it!"). They don’t move me toward knowledge or emotion or growth. But that’s what I’m always looking for — a novel that moves me, that leaves me changed. I think every agent is on the lookout for the "wow" moment, when some writer’s work smacks them as fun, moving, fresh, and well-crafted.
7. What makes a novel move from the midlist graveyard to the bestseller list?
–GREAT question! Of course, most early novelists would be perfectly happy to be in that midlist graveyard, as you call it. There are plenty of writers who make a good living in that midlist. But while most folks would probably answer you with words like "a great story" or "incredible ability," I don’t know if I can point to many common denominators that automatically move a novelist to the bestseller lists. I’ve seen dynamite stories go nowhere, and I’ve seen really crummy writing sell extremely well. (So…this isn’t an exact science.) But since I don’t want to answer with something like "a great marketing effort and a committed sales staff," I’ll encourage you to do one thing: improve your craft. An author doesn’t always have control over some of the things that will happen to his or her book (store placement, which chains pick it up, who chooses to review it, etc), but the one thing an author DOES control is the quality of the manuscript. I’m convinced that greatness will out — a great writer WILL get discovered. That’s been proven time after time. So if you’re feeling a bit stuck, consider what you could do to improve your writing. It’s still the best investment an author can make.