By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats

Tell someone that you’re an aspiring author, and that you’ve written a book, and they immediately want to know when they can buy it. When you explain that it’s not quite that simple, and then chronicle the convoluted steps that take one from creation to hardcover, they’re shocked. Their look suggests you’d have a better chance at winning the lottery or the world poker championships.

Sometimes it seems like that, like aspiring writers are just tilting at windmills.

It’s been a long, difficult, rewarding year. I had the idea for two novels kicking around in my head for three years before I starting writing last February by liberating three or four hours every day even as I held down a full-time job. I finished my first draft in July, and I revised the manuscript four times by November. I cut 10,000 words, added new chapters and scenes, and reworked thousands of sentences so the meaning was clear.

Even though I’m a professional writer by trade — I’ve published thousands of articles, won national awards, and written for a couple of top food & wine and travel magazines — writing fiction was the undiscovered country. Sure, just being able to make things up is a wonderful advantage. But otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read on writing: crafting a novel puts you on equal footing with the real estate agent who hasn’t written a creative sentence in his or her life. You both want to build a world surrounded by words and ideas, and you both have to figure out how to do it.

Even after completing extensive homework assignments, I made all the mistakes a rookie novelist would make — because that’s what I am. I’m still making many mistakes. I wrote five chapters before I realized that my novel actually begins in chapter four, so I jettisoned the first three. (One early reader argues that my current story should begin in chapter 4 — what would have been chapter seven in my original draft.) I had written several thousands words of back story, explaining how Jacob and his family found themselves in this dire predicament, only to watch those words vanish in a puff of smoke (only 400 remain).

My main character might still seem too whiney. I’m worried about that. Fortunately, Kristina has worked hard with me to provide color, to make Jacob feel real and alive, so you sense his potential. As the book is intended for tweens and young teens, I needed to cut whole paragraphs where I tried to write too prettily, so my favorite parts of my first two drafts are nowhere to be found. I spill over into sentimentality at the drop of a hat. Gone. Mostly. I struggled with voice, with maintaining an early-teenage perspective, but I got better. My beta readers made invaluable comments that helped me cut the boring parts, and ensure the story moves quickly. Readers who have read the whole book have suggested that the story and writing becomes more assured, layered, and textured with each chapter.

That’s why I’ve been confident enough to begin the querying process. Three of nine agents who have been in touch have asked to read additional chapters. Two have since passed, though both with warm personal notes. On Friday, an agent told me that the Secrets of the Hotel Maisonneuve was enjoyable and admirable, but not quite right for her list. She told me that she was certain an agent would offer representation soon.

So I continue to be encouraged, but my optimism is guarded. Consider these statistics from a couple of agents who help people like me and the real estate agent understand that the odds are stacked against us.

Kathleen Ortiz, at Lowenstein & Associates, reports that her agency received 12,819 queries in 2010 and, from that, requested 478 partial manuscripts (a 3.7 percent success rate for the mathematically challenged). After reading the partials, the agency requested 87 full manuscripts, and offered representation to just seven authors, five of whom accepted. (So 0.05 percent of queries were successful.)

Rachel Gardner, at Wordserve Literary (who represents Jody Hedlund), received more than 10,000 queries in 2010, and offered a contract to no one.

Of course, finding an agent is just a first step. Most agents will request revisions, and help you polish your manuscript until it shines. While it’s true that agents will only take on books they’re confident they can sell, no agent sells every potential book. If an agents finds a publishing house that express interest, writers will be required to rewrite and revise yet again.

And that, my friends, is why both the real estate agent and I would be wise not to quit our day jobs.

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9 Responses to By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats

  1. You’ll make it. If three of nine have requested fulls, and if you’re willing to rewrite as often as necessary, you’ll make it. The only thing standing between you and success right now is a pigheaded refusal to quit.

  2. Richard says:

    Stephen… Thanks for the support! Fortunately, 17 years of martial arts training and two decades of chronic illness have made me a stubborn curmudgeon.

    I plan to hang in there.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jack Flacco, Author and Marni Mann, Richard Levangie. Richard Levangie said: New blog post: By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats #amwriting #amediting [...]

  4. Tori Scott says:

    You can do it! BE THE ONE!

  5. June (@So_Meow) says:

    You know, even when your talk turns technical your writing is music. Your words ebb and flow like Hemingway, Fitzgerald,Hunter S–

  6. Richard says:

    Tori… thanks for always encouraging me. I’ll keep trying.

    And June… You’re just the sweetest person ever. Your kindness warms my little heart! If I could write 1/10th as well as those guys, I’d be very happy indeed.

  7. [...] lost our jobs and had to scramble wildly to make it through the holidays, I finished my book and started querying literary agents, and then a long-term illness decided to further complicate life. Now that I’m more settled, [...]

  8. [...] It’s not you, it’s me. Haven’t heard back on your query to your favorite agent yet? Maybe Richard Levangie can help you understand why. He’s laying it all out for us, in black and white–turns out, agents get a few query letters here and there. Ok, maybe more than a few. Read Richard’s post and find out just how stiff the competition really is in literary-agent-land. [...]

  9. [...] also decided to stop querying my late middle-grade adventure, the Secrets of the Hotel Maisonneuve pending a major revision. Ten [...]

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