Never tell me the odds

November 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, everyone and their brother wants to write a book. The more seriously I’ve taken writing, the more aware I’ve become of this fact. If you don’t believe me, just follow #amwriting on Twitter for a day. The Twitter-verse is absolutely lousy with people who are working on their first novel, memoir, poetry book, whatever. If you have any doubts about this, follow #amwriting for an hour and allow your comfortable ignorance to be washed away in a sea of tweets.

Or for another example: I love to follow literary agent Jennifer Jackson’s blog out of some sort of masochism in this regard. Jennifer Jackson does something she calls “Query Wars” wherein she reports the statistics for queries she’s received and the number of manuscripts she’s requested. (For anyone not up to speed on how the publishing world works, once a fiction author has a completed manuscript, they “query” agents with a one page synopsis of what the story is about and who they are.) For example, last week Ms. Jackson looked at 173 queries and requested 0 (as in zilch, nada) manuscripts or partials. The week before, she read 186 queries and requested no partials or manuscripts. For a slightly more optimistic view, you can look at the month between September 20 and October 20 in which she reviewed 900 queries and requested 3 manuscripts/partials. So for every 300 authors querying her, she asks to read 1 of their manuscripts. And that doesn’t even mean she decided to represent the authors (in most cases she doesn’t).

I also love to follow sci-fi author Tobias Buckell’s blog. He’s a fellow glutton for data and charts and has some really interesting information on writing, publishing, and science. In 2006 he did a survey of 150 fellow authors (mostly of sci-fi and fantasy) to see what percentage of them got their first novel published. Only 35% broke into publishing with their first novel. A staggering 13% wrote seven or more novels before they broke in. Blerg. As if that isn’t daunting enough, he had conducted another survey the year before on the average advance paid to first time authors. The results? The median advance for a first time author is $5000. Now money isn’t everything, but to anyone who dreams of writing full time it’s worth looking at.

Fortunately, there’s good news too.  For some reason an overwhelming number of people, after taking months or years to write a book, don’t take the time to research agents, queries, or the publishing industry. They either disregard query formatting and guidelines, or don’t take the time to edit their query. This completely baffles me, but I’m not complaining. Less competition for me. Don’t believe me? Take a peek at #10QueriesIn10Tweets on Twitter.  Each week (I think) agent @SaraMegibow picks the top ten queries off her stack and explains in one tweet whether or not it’s a pass and why. Each week, the majority (usually 6-8) are passed up either because of grammar, improperly formatted letter, or they queried her for a genre she doesn’t rep (information which can be easily found on any agency website).

None of that helps with the low pay for first time writers, but it makes me a lot more optimistic. The way I see it, I just need to keep working towards that 10,000 hours of writing practice and following Heinlein’s five rules for writing, and with enough persistence and hard work it will all pay off.

If you’re looking for good advice on creating a query letter, @SaraMegibow’s #10QueriesIn10Tweets is a great place to start, and Janet Reid’s Query Shark is an absolute essential for as the day draws near.


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