Or, in non-academic speak, the part where I haz all the feelz.
I haven’t done any serious agent-blog-stalking in about a year. Once I figured I had a good picture of the field, I hit Query Tracker to start my first round of letters. Since then I’ve been working on a separate manuscript and composing became more important than stalking. I lay all this out to indicate that I might be outdated in my perspective. Here’s a post from D.L. Orton in 2011 that estimates your chances in being offered representation by one given agent as 1/2000 assuming all things are equal (which, of course, they are not).
When I was in grad school, I ran into one of my profs in a coffee shop. “How’s it going, Gregg?” He gave a relieved chuckle (which, from a such a phlegmatic man, was rather out of character, I thought). He held up two fingers, indicating about a 2″ distance. “Great. I’ve only got about this much to grade left.” Given that something he was grading was mine, I was appalled. “You go by volume?” He shook his head. “It’s the only way you can.” Of course, after I started teaching, I knew exactly what he meant.
We are volume.
The whole process that agent-less writers are going through, as I explained to a friend is:
1) Write amazing manuscript, but now you need
2) An amazing query letter (different writing style) so that the agent in question will read
3) Your opening pages or chapters and be so wowed as to request
4) Your full manuscript, which is so amazing that said agent will
5) Offer representation
Orton guesses that her agent will consider representing about 1/15 of the full manuscripts that she has requested. That’s about 6.5%, and for all I know the agents who requested mine figured they should only do full requests – not every agent did, but I don’t want to assume that they’re not going to treat my first three chapters in the same way that they’d treat the three chapters that they requested from someone who straight up queried them. That is to say, if they’re not wowed after 3 chapters, and then after 4, and 5, they might not finish. And let’s say they do finish – is my writing a good fit?
I’m not trying to downplay the delight I feel in what’s gone on so far. I mean, come on, 1/15 is a lot better than 1/2000, and that’s what participation in PitchWars has meant. It’s also meant that my query letter has been dramatically improved and that puts me in a better position with this manuscript with other agents.
BECAUSE. 6.5% is not good odds. I am delighted at how far I’ve come and I’m battening my brain down for the storm that will be probable rejections. And I will be disappointed but disappointment doesn’t mean abject failure. It definitely means “not now” and “not this person,” but there are other agents and other times. Life after query.
This is how I keep myself sane. I try to balance hope and optimism, but I use different scales for each one. Hopeful? Damn straight. Super hopeful. Very excited. Optimistic? Not so much, because statistics and percentages.
So the next things to do:
1) Get that query letter out
2) Work on next manuscript.
What else is there?
In the middle of PitchWars I began filing data into an Excel spreadsheet to give myself something to do in between bouts of hitting REFRESH to see if any more comments had appeared on my entry. In pretty short order, I realized that I’d better pay a little more attention than simply treating this as “something to do” because the agents who were passing on my pitch and first 250 were not likely to be wowed by a query letter follow up. I could be wrong on this. I could be playing this too conservatively. However, and this is the rationale where I finally came down, seventeen agents signed up for PitchWars (and an additional six began to participate during the course of the two days). There are plenty of other agents out there and there’s no reason for me to hit up ones who’ve already passed on the hopes that they just haven’t seen enough to fall in love with my manuscript yet.
I’d rather try and be professional about querying than off-putting.
Warning: This is a long post with less concrete data than lots of ideas for interpretation. I’ve put forward my thoughts and nearly every one has a big ol’ caveat that goes along with it.
The columns in my spreadsheet, from left to right, read Entry Number, Coach, Target Age (of ms), Setting, Genre, followed by individual agent names (at the end of the post there’s a link if you want to download it). I pulled the first seventeen agents from Brenda’s website and added the following six over the course of the 23-24th. You’ll notice that what’s not on this list are author names and titles and here’s why. As I thought more about this information, in addition to wanting to know whom not to bother, I wanted to see what specific agents’ preferences were and if there were any useful tea leaves to be read. Author names and titles are too unique and too idiosyncratic. From all I’ve read, any ms that’s picked up and sold will not end up with its author-chosen title anyway. The most that does is give some additional insight into the author, and that’s too ethereal for me to make sense of. Likewise, our names are irrelevant until we’re clients.
Setting and Genre were a bit tricky at times. I used the categories that we selected with our coaches, but in terms of clean categorization? Ha. A fair amount of massaging went into this. I also did not make any distinction in the kinds of requests. That is, I treated all ms requests as “fulls,” even though there were very many requests for 50 pages or for 3, 4, or 5 chapters. In other words, you can go a great deal farther into this than I did. Feel free to take that ol’ XLSX file and have your way with it.
The top-requested book was listed YA Fantasy (though with time travel, maybe more sci-fi?) with 8 requests.
Three books received 7 requests, all YA: historical fantasy, steampunk, and contemporary.
One book received 6: YA psychological thriller.
Four books received 5: YA Contemporary and YA Sci-Fi; and Adult Foodie Thriller and Adult Urban Fantasy
Four books received 4: YA Sci-Fi; and three Adult, Post-apocalyptic Horror, Romantic Suspense, and Paranormal Romance
Six books received 3: one Adult Fantasy Retelling; four YA with Paranormal, Paranormal Romance, Magical Realism/Literary, and Supernatural Thriller; and the first MG, Fantasy
Thirteen received 2: three Adult with Historical, Contemporary Romance, and Women’s Fiction; eight YA with Contemporary Romance, Fantasy, two Paranormals, Horror, two Contemporaries, and Historical Fantasy; and two MG with Steampunk and Contemporary.
Twenty-six received 1: four Adult with two Women’s, one Historical Women’s, and one Contemporary Thriller; seventeen YA with three Contemporary, two Horror, five Fantasy (one Epic in here), one Retelling, four Romances (Historical, Sci-Fi, Contemporary, and Thriller), one Sci-Fi, and one Speculative Thriller.
In the “primary” section, six received no requests: two Adult Thriller (Contemporary and Speculative), three YA with Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Contemporary, and one MG Paranormal.
What’s It Mean?
Maybe nothing in the grand scheme. This is a small group and anyone with real statistics chops (of whom I am not one) will certainly say that this is too small a group from which to derive lots of details. General ones? Different story. This group of agents skewed very heavily toward YA. MG was a distant third. However, the Alternate section of Adult books generated a great deal of interest (8 of 15 titles got requests). If you were an alternate, did it matter what section you were in? 4 of 12 MG titles got requests. K Section had 6 of 12; M had 3 of 11; B had 9 of 12. Luck of the draw? Does Brenda skew more strongly as the host of the whole enterprise (I mean, we know she’s great, but how much influence does she actually have? Spooky!)
My suspicion is that this kind of thing is less useful for trying to get a big picture overview than it is for ciphering out information about a particular agent and how she works, but there are still difficulties. For example, Jennifer Mishler only requested one manuscript, an Adult Contemporary Urban Fantasy. Does this mean that she’s very selective about what she requests or that she’s very selective right now because she’s got a lot on her plate at the moment? Compare this selection to her stated preferences for historical romances, strong female characters, and YA (link here). It’s not like some of these weren’t on offer. The problem is that there’s simply not enough information from which to gather information. Contrast this to Louise Fury, who requested 37 full and partial manuscripts (this is where my data falls down, as I made no distinction). Her website shows wide-ranging interest (here) with a couple of specifics (“a sexy steam/cyberpunk romance”) but broadly generalizes with write well with a distinctive voice. She’s currently closed to queries – was that because she knew she was going to be doing PitchWars or because of what she requested at PitchWars? (If you’re a stalker, maybe you know this? I don’t.) My guess is that she has a good sense of how much time she needs with a manuscript, which is why she asked for a variety of lengths from authors, ranging from the very promising (send me a full) to the interest-piquing (send me three chapters). I would take this analysis as: make sure my first chapter kicks ass; make sure my second chapter complicates or raises the stakes; make sure my third chapter jumps into the deep end.
Which, if you think about it, is probably what most books should be doing anyway (even in a literary or non-thriller kind of way).
I suspect that this PitchWars data is mostly good for use right now and not for much longer as it probably also reflects things that don’t and can’t show up. Maybe Jordy Albert knows that a particular acquisitions editor is looking for a YA Paranormal, so that’s high on her radar at the moment. I can’t even imagine the number of other factors that might come into play. I would guess that comparing an agent’s website to her current request pattern (and paying particular attention to any “closed to queries” notes) might help tailor a query letter right this very minute. The downside, of course, is that many of them have filled up between PitchWars and #PitMad.
Which might make this information more relevant for non-PitchWarriors?
Another aspect that is longer term that I’d be curious about. How many offers of representation come out of PitchWars? (Tell Brenda!) Agents who post data about their queries and offers frequently note that in a year they only take on one to two new clients at most. 109 writers had work up with Brenda’s contest. If even one of us were to receive an offer of representation, that beats the average for any random set of 109 writers. If there were two? Or three? Here’s where I’m going with this thought. Brenda had over 1700 applicants to take part in this contest. If results are positive, she’ll be encouraged to do this again and agents will be encouraged to take part because she’s got a good track record and more authors will be encouraged to submit and pretty soon there could be 2000-3000 applicants. Admittedly, this is a logical extension, but an easy to imagine one.
(How many times have I demonstrated I’m not a numbers guy so much as a throw-stuff-at-the-wall guy?)
That’s it. I’m going to try and link the XLSX doc here for downloading, otherwise you can trawl through the various sites and re-create your own version, or take mine and make it better (won’t be hard).
Final PitchWars thoughts on Thursday.
Pitchwars Rough (This link takes you to a separate page from which you can download the file – I’ve checked its functionality on Chrome and Safari only.)
January 16th is the next deadline, to wit, I have to have my pitch (up to 3 sentences; up to 50 words) and the first 250 words of my manuscript to my mentor, the inimitable Michelle Painchaud. Check.
The agent round is January 23-24, during which the 17ish literary agents in question go through not only the 31 mentees’ works, but also the 62 shorter pitches from the various alternates – at least, that’s how I understand it. At that point they have the option to request a full manuscript from any of us.
This seems like a remarkably generous scenario. In theory we’re all in “competition” with one another to see who can get the most requests for a full, but what’s great is that it’s not a zero-sum game. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say that all 31 of us mentored writers have 300 words of masterpiece. All 17 of those agents could request a full from each and every one of us. Right, right, no way that’s gonna happen, the odds against, blah blah, XKCD calculates something infinitesimal (like XKCD does). The point is that there’s not a FIRST PRIZE, although there may be a “you got more than anyone else,” but those are entirely different things. It encourages effort (and, one hopes, excellence) without encouraging competition. We can all win.
In a great and grand way, I’d say we have. I don’t know how the coaches are working with the alternates, but from skimming #pitchwars on Twitter, there’s a fair amount of traffic between and about coaches and mentors. What this suggests is that regardless of what happens during the agent round, a great deal has already happened. Our coaches have read our manuscripts (no more than once) and given notes, gone over our pitches and query letters, given more and different feedback, et cetera and so on. In other words, we’re getting one-time critique partners who are all, to a one, authors with agents and publishing deals, industry interns, or editors. They know whereof they speak.
In my own case, Michelle sent me back a very particular critique (gently couched). In fact, another reader, upon hearing her words of wisdom, looked at me with deep suspicion and said, “Uh, didn’t I tell you that exact same thing?” For which,
a) could be!
b) don’t remember!
c) either way, confirmation that this was sound advice
In other words, this has been already been great. I’m happy with my pitch and I’m falling-over-the-moon delighted with my query.
Here’s the thing about queries – there’s all kinds of information available about them, probably first and foremost of which is probably Janet Reid’s QueryShark. The archives are available to peruse, including all of her comments. She’s not a gentle teacher, but she’s not mean and she’s performing a giant service to any and every aspiring writer by maintaining that particular blog. I’ve read through most of the archives and I’ve submitted to the odd website that does critiques and I’ve taken the odd webinar from Writer’s Digest – which often include a query critique as part of the deal. In other words, I’m not a total neophyte when it comes to query letters. I know what has to go into them. I also know that I’m not very good at them. Then I get Michelle’s notes and the clouds part and the light shines down from above and I think, “OH! That’s how they’re supposed to look!”
I’m not sure I can replicate this again on my own, but DAMN. It helps to have someone on the outside, actually, who doesn’t have ego-issues about saying nice things. The whole point of the query is to sell the book, right? Why shy away? I know this in my head but I think about differently when my fingers are typing.
Let me sum up and reiterate points from a month-ish ago. I entered this contest figuring I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’ve gained more than I could have hoped for and put in some newly-directed, good editing on the manuscript to boot.
It’s all rather amazing and mind-boggling and heartwarming and restorative in a feel-good, hippie kind of way, which is not something I’d normally go for, except that it’s coupled with some good, hard work on top of it all.
By the way, do yourself a favor and mark as “to-read” Michelle’s book (here) over at Goodreads so that you’ll be reminded in 2014 that it’s been released and you’ll know to go read it. Srsly.
There are writer-bloggers out there who are better than I am about developing an online community. There are any number of reasons why I’m not terribly accomplished at this, which is not really the point. The point is that they’re better and they do much more with their site and their readers than post 600 word folk tale variations for 50-some odd of you to read (for which I am immeasurably grateful, by the way).
This is where “Pitch Wars” comes in to play. It’s a contest run by Brenda Drake that is intended to help polish up writers’ query letters and first 250 words – basically, the parts that are going to grab an agent’s attention. Given that the whole point of the query letter is to get said agent to request your manuscript and reading your manuscript is the bare minimum that will be done before anyone will even think about offering representation, any and every kind of polish is a good and useful thing. (more…)