Q: What's Your Sign? A: Dollar

Dear Miss Snark,

These questions are for those who have an agent and are wondering about the next step. What percentage of agented manuscripts sell? I'm referring to legitimate agents, not scammers or well-meaning but gormless agents. Do you sell a majority of the projects you represent? I read somewhere that only 1 in a 100 agented manuscripts is sold. Can this be true?

What is the average time it takes for a ms to be sold? I know it varies, but on average, does it takes 2 weeks to sell a ms or 2 months or 6 months? Beyond what time frame is there little hope for a ms? In other words, if a project hasn't sold in say, 8 months, is it fair to say it probably won't sell at all?

Thanks for your help! Your blog rocks, your rock, and KY rocks!

We're not rocking quite so much today...more like skating. iceeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

You're trying to apply science to art and sadly for your (and my!) peace of mind it doesn't work that way. There is no "average" because there is no uniform product. Books aren't widgets, and authors are not fungible.

It doesn't matter to you what the average is, even if we could determine it. What matters is -will YOUR book sell. If you have an agent, you have someone who thinks it will, and is willing to stake some time and dough on his belief.

I truly doubt that the sell through rate is 1 in 100. For starters, no one could afford to stay in business if they spent all their time flogging things that never paid off. Contrary to what you might think, it's a whole lot easier to earn a living by making big juicy sales than steaming the stamps off SASEs or dunning the no-sales for expense money.

It is the very nature of humanity to look for logical explanations in the face of the unknown, or failing to create a system that explains the unexplainable (numeroloy, astrology, speed dating). Publishing is many things, logical isn't really high on the list.


Eileen said...

In my experience everything with publishing takes longer than I would have expected. Waiting for a contract from the publisher? 4-6 weeks. What are they doing? having it hand scribed by virgin monks in the Alps? Who knows- it could be a ploy to feret out which are the weak writers- the ones that crack under the strain. Whatever the reason it just takes a long time. I would ask my agent how many projects do they have on their desk? how many unsold? How do they submit- one at a time, multiple submitions etc. Then focus on what you can control- writing the next book.

Anonymous said...

1 in 100? That's more like the ratio of manuscripts accepted by agents for representation. (At least according to what the agents say; some of them say more like 1 in 1,000 for partials. And some of them say about 1 in ten bazillion for queries, but that's because they are swamped with effing queries.)

I don't think anyone has any stats, much less stats that break down agent sales by Gormless/Non-gormless (or do I mean 'Well-Gormed?'), but in my limited experience, when a good agent with a solid track record fails to sell something she offered to represent she kicks things and sits around with her mouth hanging open in astonishment.

In other words: most agents don't take on projects unless they think they can sell them. And any agent who has only a 1-in-100 intuition of what will sell is going to go out of business flogging the other 99. Selling these things involves real costs in time and postage.

If you really want to write, don't do the numbers, because they work out about like George V. Higgins put it:

'The success of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was termed “overnight” in several quarters; that was one hell of a damned long night, lasting seventeen years and disgorging fourteen previous novels, none of them ever accepted for publication…

The odds against prevailing and surviving in the trade are mountainous: my guess is that the 624 young men listed on the rosters of North American major league baseball franchises have a mathematically better chance of success than the few rookie writers promoted each year—and those ballplayers represent only 0.0000024 percent of the American population.'

Makes 1 in 100 look good, huh?

Kirsten said...

Man, the comments around here are like the proverbial icing on the cake . . .

Jarsto said...

People interested in this might also want to look at the Slushkiller post Teresa Nielsen-Hayden posted some time ago on Making Light. It includes a list of 14 categories into which the unsollicited manuscripts in the slushpile can be sorted. I suspect what agents accept will generally be those manuscripts that would make the top 4 categories if they'd been sent unsollicited. So I'd say the odds of an agent selling something are quite high. Certainly better than 1 in 100.

ray said...

Hey, we're not fungible! For decades I've felt like Mister Fungibility. My high school class voted me the most likely to be outfunged. Several relationships ended up with cruel fungigation, one that nearly led to fungicide. We have several fungiphiles living in our neighborhood, which is fine by me but the pay is insulting. Makes you feel like a fungistute.

Now I know the way out. Everybody must get unfunged. Each and every waking moment, and dreaming if I can swing it, I shall work on my nonfungibility, my antifungibilinarianism. Death to fungibilism, I spit on thee, patooie!

Anonymous said...

I can only speak from my own experience with my own agent.

We both thought I had a terrific novel, ready to sell. We both worked really hard to sell it. My agent worked tirelessly on my behalf for a long, long time.

I did whatever I could to support my agent's efforts, whatever re-writes and edits we thought would make the book a better fit... and the book still didn't sell.

That just happens sometimes. My agent is still the best agent on the planet, and I'm working on another novel. Perhaps with the lessons I've learned from the first one, we'll sell this one.