8.08.2006

You want to measure something, let me get that yardstick out of your asterisk

Dear Ms. Snark:


On the average, how many of your submissions are sold to editors? (1)

In most industries, closing ratios are analyzed, but in publishing, standards are difficult to find. Is there an expected threshold to gauge a successful literary agent's minimum closing ratio--10%, 40%, 80%?
(2)

When I ask, I'm met with defensive, emotional responses.
(3)

Is it not standard business practice for agents and agencies to know the number of submissions versus sales in any given year or what closing ratio to strive for?
(4)

Closing ratios should be an important question for all writers; it gauges their chances of publication with a particular agent. (5)

I hope you'll give me a straight answer.


1. I have no idea. I don't track that. And you're asking the wrong question. You mean to ask how many of the projects I take on in a given time period end up being sold. It's absolutely normal to submit a project to ten or more people, auction it to the highest bidder and walk away with a fistful of dough. I closed ONE deal out of ten calls. Am I less effective for doing that than an agent who sells something for no dough to a publisher after one phone call? Her closing ratio is 100%. Which one do you want for an agent?

You can only sell a book once (generally speaking..we're not talking reprints, and sub rights here, ok?) If you have 10 customers at the Widget Factory you can sell widgets to all ten of them. My dream is to have ten salivating editors and only sell to one.

2. No

3. Yea, cause it's annoying as hell to have someone ask a question that demonstrates both a lack of understanding of the industry AND is patronzing to boot.

4. No

5. Wrong. Books are not fungible. One book is not another. Becuase I sell Mr. Midget's Digits to FlitterGibbet and Giroux has ZERO correalation to whether I will be able to sell your book Sales Tactics for Gorillas to anyone including FlitterGibbet and Giroux.

Straight enough answer for you?

54 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've wondered about that too. But my slant is not what percentage of submissions to editors does an agent close, but what percentage of projects taken on does she sell. [I don't think that's the same thing, but then math was never my forte.]

Seems a simple enough question to me. But you do indeed never get a straight answer.

Miss Snark, you're being unnecessarily harsh to the poster. If agents want to keep that info confidential, that's fine, and they just have to say so. I don't think that asking, however, means that the writer has something up her ass.

CR

Anonymous said...

Our local RWA chapter hosts 2-3 agents a year. The question "How many projects do you take on, but not sell?" is always asked, and I can't remember an agent that refused to answer. The percentage is usually a little vague, like "0-20%," but they answer. I think that's what the author meant by "closing ratio," not what Miss S. seemed to think he meant.

Maprilynne said...

I think that if agents were expected to present a "closing ratio" as you called it, agents with less tact and ethics would be willing to accept low advances or bad contracts or simply send their clients' books to less discerning publishers just to inflate that number. I think a better way to judge is one you'll find all over on author and agents' websites. Do they have titles you recognize? Can you find their authors' books in B&N? And, of course,do other agents and author say good things about them? If the answer to all of those are yes, then this agent probably not only has a high "closing ratio," but also closes with good houses and fair contract terms. You are putting the cart before the horse IMO.

Aprilynne

Anonymous said...

Oy.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so the question wasn't posed well. But I for one, would really like to know the answer of the question I think this snarkling was trying to ask. It's okay to ask a surgeon their success rate of a particular operation or ask a defense attorney his rate of success. Why not ask an agent?

I realize the preferred method of judging an agent's success is by finding out how many books he/she sells each year. But what's wrong with knowing if this number represents 95%, 50%, 25%, or 10% of the manuscripts shopped that year?

I know any agent such as yourself who has sold 16 books in a year is doing well. And I know you don't rep that many people. But if you did rep 250 people and only sold 16, I'd run the other way! (Of course, I'd run the other way just because you repped 250 authors!)

So Miss Snark, would you be willing to tell us what percentage of the clients you take on become published authors?

beeyacht said...

I think that asking means that the asker is a new car salesman.

Perhaps they should switch to pharmaceutical sales. The whole supply/demand feature, yanno?(tm, pp)

Anonymous said...

I think the question is: what percentage of the projects you take on are you able to place? That seems like an entirely reasonable question.

Why the red herring of how many phone calls to close a deal? This doesn't sound like our Miss Snark...

Richard said...

I agree with anonymous. No one cares how many editors you need to contact in order to make a sale. That's your business. I really don't think that's what the original poster was asking. The question is, how many of the projects you take on wind up getting sold? I've read that with novels nowadays, it can run as low as 20%, even with the better agents. The fact that you got all huffy about it says something in and of itself.

Diana Peterfreund said...

She's not being harsh; she's being reasonable. These are all the wrong questions. Look at the answer to that last question. Books are not widgets or toilet paper. Asking for percentages of books sold is pointless. An agent could have one very productive client for whom they've sold fifteen projects to one house in the last year, but they can't sell you to anyone. They sold 15 projects they sent out for their one client. Woo hoo. But they're still a crappy agent for you. This is why "closing ratios" or any percentage of that kind means nothing.

Ask the agent what books LIKE YOUR BOOK have they sold to what houses and when. In fact, you shouldn't have to ask. You should know because you've done your research and you should be able to say, "I'm querying you because you have a fabulous record selling BLANK." You're looking for 1) several authors who 2) write books in your genre for 3) a viariety of houses. That's the sign of a successful agent.

Sherry D said...

I think the question sounds like a criticism. It's how I feel when I mention I'm a writer, and the first question is, "are you published?" I say yes, and the next question is, "What's your book called?" What if I don't write books? What if I write short fiction? People don't realize how presumptuous and judgemental they sound. I really get pissed when someone asks, "How much did you make?" It's really none of their business.

HawkOwl said...

You know, that makes no sense. You could take a block of submissions you decided to represent and see what percentage of them sold. That would give you an idea of how good a judge you are of what you can sell.

You could keep track of how many places you had to take each work before it sold, and the average of that would tell you how good a judge you are of who might want the works you're representing.

You could also keep track of how many places you took each work before you gave up on it, and the average of that would tell you how determined you are to sell the works you're representing.

You could keep track of the amounts your clients get when you sell their work, and the average of that tells you how good of a deal you can make. You could even break that down by first works vs. previously published authors vs. whatever else you want.

Those are four easy stats to compute and it tells a prospective client how well you know the market, how hard you're gonna work for them, and how small or large a cheque they can reasonably expect if you sell their work. It's not really that different from you telling us to make sure an agent sells books before we sign with them. Now we're just asking how many, to whom, for how much? No need to get snarky, really.

Publishing might not compare exactly to widgets, but within publishing, there is no reason one couldn't benchmark and compare two professionals by an objective standard. All you have to do is create it.

overdog said...

Because each book is different it requires a different amount of effort to sell, as well as a different approach. Each book is an individual, so trying to come up with closing ratios and such makes no sense.

If agent A sells one book for $100,000 and agent B sells ten books for $1000 each, Agent B sold more books but Agent A is still ten times richer. Ten times a better agent? Who knows? It depends on the individual book. So we're back to square one.

The first anonymous poster misunderstands: it's not that anyone's trying to hide anything. It's just that this type of statistic is irrelevant, and asking for such numbers displays a lack of understanding of the business, as well as major confusion about what an agent does.

Katherine said...

That's not the point, anonymous. To say an agent has sold X number of manuscripts does not mean she is or is not a good agent, or necessarily the right agent for any one writer. There are too many variables. Key to all this is of course the quality of the submission - the one thing in a writer's control.

Anonymous said...

I agree--Miss Snark, you seem to have misunderstood the question. The question is, what percent of all projects do you sell, not what percent of phone calls result in a sale. Do I smell a gin fog?

Elizabeth Guy said...

Anonymous, you're being harsh as well. The tone of those questions was downright disrespectful. How would you feel if someone you neither worked FOR nor WITH came up to you and demanded ratios on your productivity? The poster obviously crunches numbers for a living, and wants a guarantee. [If s/he invests X amount of time and thought into writing, her/his return will be X amount of dollars.] But there's no such gauge in the writing world.

blaironaleash said...

She could tell you but then she'd have to set KY on you.

It doesn't seem at all an unreasonable question to an agent who's offered representation. To a 'strange' agent on a public blog, it's like your neighbour at a dinnerparty turning to you and saying, 'Howdy! So what do you earn?'

Anonymous said...

Anon:

The numbers are meaningless. If you have a strong manuscript repped by Agent A, and Agent A has sold 30 of her first 100 projects, that doesn't mean there is a 30% chance that Agent A will sell your manuscript.

And Miss Snark didn't accuse this writer of having something up her ass, only up his or her asterisk.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have to disagree. I think the response was overly mild.

Plus, it's nice to see Miss Snark getting, well, snarky again. (She's been doing this kinder, gentler thing for a while.)

Some agents go to bat for something they love that isn't popular in NYC at the moment. Are they less effective agents than folks who are selling Da Vinci Code knockoffs (or any other flavor of the week) right and left?

Are three sales to JoeBob Press, of Codswallop, Kansas, really three times more important than a single sale to, say, HarperCollins?

Is an agent who takes on less clients and sells a greater percentage of the folks she takes on a better agent than someone who takes on more, and riskier, writers, and sells less of their product?

How many paintings did Van Gogh sell? (One, to the sister of a friend.) Does that say something about the quality of his art?

These are irrelevant metrics, and the question was posed in an annoying and patronizing fashion. Whaddya expect?

Lincoln Crisler said...

As annoyed as it sounded like you were with that questioner, I'm really happy to see that information out in the open.

I myself like patronizing questions about as much as you do, but ignorance can only be cured with knowledge and frankly, as much looking around on the 'net as I do, I've never seen indicators of an agents success.On hearing your points, I can understand why.

I don't agree with you ripping that questioner a new asshole, but on the bright side, most people who read the blog will probably be more understanding of the agents they work with because of this new knowledge.

Alex said...

The question of ratios is inane. A GOOD agent casts a wide net. Instead you should be asking to whom the agent has sold -- that way you can see if the agent has relationships at the houses where you want to be published.

Joshilyn Jackson said...

The kinds of numbers the original poster asked for won't tell him if an agent is right for his/her work or how hard an agent will work on his/her behalf. If I were agent hunting, I would look for an agent who is actively seeking new clients. Then I'd look at what books they sold to what houses in the last few years. If it was my first book, I see if they've had any success placing debut novelists, especially in my genre.

Their sales list (and no good agent is shy about trumpeting his or her sales) is going to tell a truer story than some numbers that can't take into account all the factors.

F'rinstance...An agent that takes on 10 debut novels and sells one may be a more passionate advocate for you than an agent who sells ten novels for ten established writers, takes on one debut novelist, and has no time to really get behind the new guy because the already established clients need his time to get covers changed, find blurbers, agitate for more of a publicity budget, etc etc.

A dedicated daily reading Publisher's Lunch will tell you exactly who sold what to whom and some listings even give you an idea of "for how much."

Malia said...

Oh dear dog, I'm not going to comment other than to reiterate what Diana said. If you've done your homework and researched this agent thoroughly, you shouldn't be concerned with ratios or statistics or WTF else your anal brain can summon forth. Her/His sales history and clientele will tell you exactly whether or not you two will do well together.

Richard said...

"These are irrelevant metrics, and the question was posed in an annoying and patronizing fashion."

Oh, I don't think it's irrelevant at all. In fact, if there were a place where you could find such statistics, I'm pretty sure you'd see the top agents like Amanda Urban and Esther Newberg selling well over 90% of their projects and the beginners and "hobbyists" selling less than 10%. And yes, it WOULD be interesting to know where her royal snarkiness, or any agent, fits in on that spectrum. Would it be the ONLY factor you consider in hiring an agent? Of course not. But it's not irrelevant. A lot of the folks on this blog who are dying to get an agent and would sign with the first one who smiles at them don't understand what it's like to have an agent who is unable to sell their work.

Anonymous said...

Good point about agents who take on and work with debut novelists. What we also don't know is how soon do agents write off a project.

I know a couple of writers whose agents submitted three or four times, then said "see ya."

A lot of the big name agents are in for the quick and easy sale. They have a big nut to crack, and are, shall we say, a bit jaded by the process. Some big name agents have such established relationships with editors that a sale of certain types of manuscripts is a given. One wonders if they did more than submit to one house to get it over with, rather than get the best deal for a client.

A great agent is someone who sells well, and who will take a chance and stick with someone she believes in even if it takes time.

Dwight The Troubled Teen said...

Y'all are missing the point.

If we can just get agents to start collecting and publishing the same set of statistics, then we can finally launch a Literary Agent Fantasy League.

Think about it. Poseable action figures. League magazines. Trading cards.

"I'll trade you one Killer Yap and two Kristin Nelsons for a mint Jenny Bent with no gum stain. (She's cute!)"

HawkOwl said...

Elizabeth Guy - An author talking to an agent is contemplating entering into a business relationship. It might "someone you work neither FOR nor WITH" right now, but it's also someone who's thinking of hiring you. Does your plumber get pissy like this when you ask for an estimate? Probably not. He wouldn't be getting a lot of jobs.

I think looking at the books an agent has sold and getting starry-eyed about it is a pretty poor way to judge his/her performance. So what if he representend No Great Mischief? Are you submitting No Great Mischief? No, you're not. So who cares that one novel the agent represented won the Dublin award. That's a credit to the writer, not to the agent.

What you want to know is whether the agent has the ability to move the average book, not whether he was lucky enough to be the first one to accept something excellent.

Personally, as I'm not Alistair McLeod, I'd want an agent who has a good track record of selling what s/he accepts, even though it is middle-of-the-road stuff, rather than one who lucked out with one big title out of an ocean of drivel they weren't able to sell.

It's business. Everything can be benchmarked if you apply yourself.

Maya said...

"Closing ratios should be an important question for all writers; it gauges their chances of publication with a particular agent."

The fact that the poster wrote the above sentence says a lot. S/he makes the assumption that if a book doesn't sell, the problem is with the agent. And, of course, the problem could be with the book.

At the beginning of this year, I signed with an agent who loved my manuscript. Over the past few months, I've been up and down waiting for "the call." My agent never lost faith. She just kept saying, "Relax, and let me do my job."

Yesterday, she called. We have a contract on the table from a NY publisher. I'm enormously grateful to her for her perseverance and, above all, for her faith.

MS is right. This ain't widgets.

Anonymous said...

The controversy surrounding this issue prooves that many of us have very weak understandings of the publishing business. Hence, the need for agents.

Richard said...

"I know a couple of writers whose agents submitted three or four times, then said "see ya.""

I had an agent once who said "see ya" after ONE submission! (I think the editor chewed her out and said don't ever send me such drek again!) It's true that if we had these percentages, they wouldn't tell the full story. In medicine, for example, some of the very best surgeons have the highest mortality rates simply because they take on the more difficult cases. In the literary agency business, however -- as Anonymous correctly pointed out -- most agents are looking for the slam-dunk project that they can sell with one phone call. So, no, the percentages wouldn't tell the whole story. But I continue to believe they would be very useful information for the prospective client.

Original Poster said...

See what I mean about emotional, defensive responses?

Sorry, I'm not convinced that asking a literary agent's success rate is a personal attack of some sort.

I don't believe this information should be withheld from writers. If that makes me a nitwit, so be it.

Nevertheless, I did learn some important information from the comments. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

See what I mean about emotional, defensive responses?

Sorry, I'm not convinced that asking a literary agent's success rate is a personal attack of some sort.


It isn't a personal attack, but you asked about closing ratios, not percentages of manuscripts successfully sold. Your question got a smackdown not because of Miss Snark's defensiveness, but because it was a dumb question.

Disappointed in Detroit said...

I don't feel emotional about this issue, but there's a related statistic that would be of interest when I research agents.

I had one. He claimed to have submitted one (just one--I have twelve other books) book to nine publishers. Of those nine, I got four responses back. Two "lost" the manuscript. One editor was claimed to have left that company (he's still there). One simply vanished in the ether.

I wonder if ratios like this are typical? Atypical? Did he actually send the MS out to nine people? I took it on faith that he did. I have no way to prove he didn't. But a 33% failure rate to even GET THE MS READ?

We're told to do our homework when deciding when an agent is a good fit for us. Knowing a given agent has an overall 20-50% "unread MS" rate would be good research in my book.

Sign me
Disappointed

Catja (green_knight) said...

The problem with this statistic is that it could go in so many directions.

The agent who sells almost everything they have on their books might take on only a few surefire clients, or else purge their books regularly to 'keep the stats sweet', or they might be as brilliant as they sound. Do I want this person as your agent? Depends on what makes their figures.

The agent who sells a lesser proportion of what they take on within the first year - say, 60-70% - might take a chance on new authors, might take on books they believe in but not have much luck - or they might be much lousier agents who exhaust their few contacts soon and will push their clients into any sale - including the sometimes quoted 'sales' to Publish America. Do I want one of them? Not without a lot more information.

And as for the agent who sells only half of what they take on, they're definitely not optimally efficient (agents should know the marketplace, should be able to say 'I can sell this' before they take on a client - otherwise, how can they afford to take on new clients and spend their time working for them? Doesn't mean they'll always be right, just most of the time) - but this might be an agent who is building contacts and learning all the time, or one who simply goes through the motions. Or one who is greedy and who takes on almost anything that comes through their doors and will send an editor a list of ten titles at a time - I've got this and this and that, and they're all the bestest evah! Do I want one of them? Well... maybe. It depends.

So, if the sellthrough rate isn't a good measurement, are there any that _are_? Average first novel advance the agent negotiated? Minimum and maximum time mss take to sell? Number of clients?

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

To me, this whole discussion represents the disconnect between the publishing world and the "real" business world. Not that that disconnect is ever going to be bridged - but I can understand how people coming to this after working in business end up wanting to pull their hair out. It's such a strange combination of art & commerce, opinion & statistics. My dear hubby - salesman extraordinaire in his job - still cannot figure out why I can't get real time sales figures, why publishers won't market books directly to consumers, etc., etc. And to me the original poster's question seemed exactly like the kind of question my dear hubby would ask.

It takes a while to figure out that publishing ain't like the real world. While I understand an agent's reluctance to try to do some kind of spreadsheet analysis of the number of projects repped and sold, because they know that Book A is not like Book B is not like Book C, etc., etc., and the market is always changing and editors are always leaving or moving around - I also understand how newcomers to this business need to try to compare it to a business model they - and the rest of the world - understand.

Richard said...

"Your question got a smackdown not because of Miss Snark's defensiveness, but because it was a dumb question."

I believe Miss Snark knew very well what he was really asking and chose to answer his question literally instead. (Granted, he phrased the question somewhat inelegantly.) When Miss Snark reveals her percentages, we can put this thread to rest. What do you say, Miss Snark? Would it kill you?

Richard said...

"And as for the agent who sells only half of what they take on, they're definitely not optimally efficient (agents should know the marketplace, should be able to say 'I can sell this' before they take on a client - otherwise, how can they afford to take on new clients and spend their time working for them? Doesn't mean they'll always be right, just most of the time) - but this might be an agent who is building contacts and learning all the time, or one who simply goes through the motions." -- catja

I hate to scare ya, catja, but my guess is that a 50% sales ratio would probably put you in the upper echelons of the business, maybe the 90th percentile.

Anonymous said...

Sure, Book A is not like Book B. But if an agent sells fewer than half of the projects she takes on, wouldn't you want to know that? It might mean that her taste is out of sync with the publishing marketplace, or that her connections aren't strong, or that she sends things to inappropriate editors, or doesn't follow up on projects that don't hit right away.

Someone who places nearly everything she takes on either has excellent instincts or great connections or both.

All of this would be good to know when you're trying to decide between two agents.

Anonymous said...

I'm the first anon, and someone just rapped my knuckles because I interpreted Miss Snark's 'asterisk' as 'ass'.

Lashings of apologies. How utterly, utterly dense of me. How could I even think of interpreting 'asterisk', in the given context, as a euphemism for 'ass'?

Lynne said...

I think the question is moronic - if you have ANY understanding about writing at all, then you know that it's impossible to do this realistically (Hawk Owl turned pigeon). Everything she sells depends on writers, taste, timing ... egads the potential variables are staggering.

I think we need a clue bazooka...

Stacy said...

I can sit in my office and measure everything then weigh what's left, type it all into Excel and get myself a nice, three-dimensional chart or graph or table to suit anyone's tastes. The only problem is that compiling all that data would take up all my time, leaving no more hours in the day for my substantive work.

Maybe MS was a little huffy, but I think it was made perfectly clear - she doesn't keep those statistics. I think implying that she was ducking the question because she was somehow afraid of the truth getting out (like a sleazy politician) was dishonourable, to say the least.

The poster needs to get some kind of grant, having proven how collecting all that data would be to the public good, and then start going from literary agency to literary agency, as well as publishers and bookstores and start collecting some statistics of which we can all be proud. I recommend pie charts. I love pie charts, with colours and creative labels.

I look forward to the publication of this Report on the Effectiveness of Literary Agents Worldwide, 2006-2007. It should be published in about 3 years, assuming the standardization period goes well. Of course, the data will be useless by then, but what the hell - the collection of data is the reward.

Anonymous said...

"But if an agent sells fewer than half of the projects she takes on, wouldn't you want to know that? It might mean that her taste is out of sync with the publishing marketplace, or that her connections aren't strong, or that she sends things to inappropriate editors, or doesn't follow up on projects that don't hit right away."

I disagree with this opinion. No agent can twist an editor's arm to buy a book. The agent's job is to get that book in front of an editor, and get it a fair shot. If an editor has an open slot and/or is looking for a certain kind of book, she might tell an agent who works with that sort of material and if he has that kind of book it may be a sale.

No agent can force an editor to buy a book(well, not unless they also rep Grisham or the like). Editors have their own agendas. If an agent sells less than 50%, he might be taking on new authors or good writing in not so commercial or popular genres.

It's a lot easier to generate sales the old fashioned way -- repeat them!

Anonymous said...

The only problem is that compiling all that data would take up all my time, leaving no more hours in the day for my substantive work.

Granted that the original question, as phrased, was dumb. However, I have a hard time believing that compiling realistic sales data would take up all an agents time.

Something like this: in 2005, Agent A shopped around 47 manuscripts on behalf of 35 clients. Of those 47, 28 sold to major publishers, 6 sold to non advance-paying publishers, 3 were pulled by their authors, 5 were dropped as unsalable, and the remainder are still being shopped in 2006.

It's probably not *quite* that simple, but what agent *wouldn't* have that information?

Are these statistics useful? I dunno--it's stupid to differentiate between an agent that sells 70% and one that sells 80%--but it's hardly the arduous chore you suggest.

HawkOwl said...

Catja - I don't think it's necessary to decide what's the best statistic to rank agents. Like Dwight said, we can just make scorecards with a half-dozen stats on them, and people can pick the one that's meaningful to them. :) I'm sure some people are more interested in large payouts, some in comprehensive coverage, and some in efficient closing. :)

To everyone who said it just shows the rest of the world doesn't understand publishing... Do you ever think that maybe YOU just don't understand benchmarking? Publishing has its idiosyncracies, just like any other business, but it's still measurable. You just don't want to admit it.

Richard said...

"I look forward to the publication of this Report on the Effectiveness of Literary Agents Worldwide, 2006-2007. It should be published in about 3 years, assuming the standardization period goes well. Of course, the data will be useless by then, but what the hell - the collection of data is the reward." -- stacy

stacy, you strike me as the kind of person who's gonna fall for the first agent who winks at you. so tell me how you feel after that agent has gone two years without selling your manuscript while essentially preventing you from shopping it elsewhere, okay?

Anonymous said...

On the one hand we hear every day that publishing is a BUSINESS, it's all about the bottom line. Agents are BUSINESS PEOPLE. Blah, blah, blah.

Yet when we ask a simple question, such as what percentage of the manuscripts you take on do you sell, it suddenly becomes this mystical, esoteric process, and there are no straight answers, and we're nitwits for asking, etc etc etc.

We understand the complexities of the literary marketplace. But it is not the only industry with such.

I think some commentors perceive that Miss Snark is somehow being attacked here, so they jump to her defence. This is not about Miss Snark. This is an anonymous blog and her affairs are private.

This is about agents' apparent unwillingness to be forthright about a simple statistic which, along with other factors, can help to give a writer some idea of her chance of a particular agent getting her work sold.

librisfb said...

Do y'all really think most agents don't know, to a pretty close approximation, what their sales ratio is? They're BUSINESS PEOPLE who also love art. Their job is primarily business and to suggest that it is inappropriate, stupid, sleezy or just plain wrong for a writer to ask a prospective agent what their sales to sign-on ratio is shows the writer is unprepared to deal with the BUSINESS side of writing. Should it be the ONLY critera on which to judge agent performance? Of course NOT. But it is ONE of several completely appropriate tools on which to make a business decision. As to books not being interchangeable wigets, ask any bean counter (and many editors these days) at any major publisher and they'll quickly tell you they are (or close to it). Actually, not wigets...UNITS.

Miss Snark is one smart lady and whatever her ratio is is between her and her clients. But those that believe this information is irrelevant are absolutely wrong. Sadly so...'cause I HATE thinking that what I'm sweating bullets to produce might someday be nothing but some bean counter's wiget... or UNIT. That's assuming I ever even get my wiget, er book, published.

Dwight TTT, when you get that lit agent fantasy league going, let me know. I got a half dozen agents in mind (Miss Snark, you're one of them!) that I could make a dream team with.

Talia Mana said...

While I can understand wanting to know the ratio of projects successfully sold, I don't think the questions go about it the right way.

I definitely think authors have a right to know that they are getting the best possible representation, but as Miss Snark says there is more than just selling the manuscript. She might be able to sell it to a teeny tiny publisher who only prints 1500 copies. It's more important to get the best possible deal for the author and to match the book and the author with the most suitable publisher.

But, yeah, in general I would want to check an agent out in advance of doing a deal with them to make sure they are successful. I don't think I would look at percentages so much as references/word of mouth/reputation from her other clients and some clue as to the client list of the agent and some of the "deals" that have been struck.

Just Me said...

I can see the logic behind the original question. From outside the publishing business, it makes total sense: if an agent sells every project she takes on, then she probably has a strong sense of the market and a good eye for what'll sell; if she sells 5% of the projects she takes on, she probably has neither.

The problem is that, as other people have said, in this business it's not that simple. Sale is not a sale is not a sale. The percentage approach implies that a no-advance sale to a tiny start-up publishing house counts exactly as much as a seven-figure sale to Random House.

I'd focus on how the agent's clients are doing, not on what percentage of their books have been sold. My agent has all his clients listed on his website, with an author page listing each one's books. When I was doing my initial research, I focused not on how many books he'd sold, but on how many of his clients write in my genre, how many I'd heard of, how many I'd read and loved, and how many were on the bestseller lists.

Just Me said...

P.S. Also, say an agent's sold only 5% of the books she took on this year: you have no way of knowing whether that's because she's ahead of the curve, she's behind the curve, or she's just clueless. Maybe she took on seven bazillion Dan Brown clones and the market is (please dog) oversaturated. Or maybe she's ahead of the curve, and by next year 90% of those authors will have great deals.

AstonWest said...

Here's a follow-on question, fairly unrelated to "closing ratios." MS mentioned in the answer to #1 that she would get a bidding war going between 10 different people and walk away with a "fistful of dough."

The question I have. Do all ten of those people want the book up front, or do you get interest of around 2 or 3 of them, and then go to the other 7 (who may have rejected it the first time) and subtly hint that these other 3 are interested?

Just curiosity on my part.

type, monkey, type said...

You guys are totally missing the point.

The statistics you may or may not want are not useful to the AGENTS. Let's not argue about why or why not. They just aren't.

The agents, unless they are totally lame, do not need to provide US, who query them by the pile load, with what we want. In other words, they don't need to hire extra staff to collect and process all that data which is useless to them.

If they are totally lame and need to attract clients, hot sales data won't do it. They have a Sobel Award contest.

When the day comes when all of us get incredibly good and the world starts reading again and they start fighting over our brilliance, you will see them providing us with all sorts of glammy statisitcs wooing us to them. But now? Just be glad if they have a web site.

Remodeling Repartee said...

Hah. This is exactly the sort of naive and arrogant question my husband asks me. He's requested a "balance sheet" for the production of my book. (I'm working up a Snarky one, and may post it later). I sent him Miss Snark's observation from the millionth hit roundup, to wit, books ain't widgets.

Do folks ask talent agents for closing ratios. Or fine art agents? Or sports agents? Closing ratios are applicable to the controlled world of commodities and defined services; not to industries involving creative endeavors or people.

This mind wants a guarrantee, or someone to blame if her/his book doesn't sell. He's barking up the wrong tree. Killer Yapp's perched on the first branch, teeth bared.
Hie thee back to thy hedge funds and pharmaceutical sales.

Emma Ray Garrett said...

This isn't related to an agents sales ratio. It's the cloning mentioned in the comments that sparked my curiosity.

How many clones does it take to completely kill off a plot idea in the marketplace? For example, are agents/editors/publishing houses canning biblically-themed mysteries or thrillers now?

Kara Lennox said...

If an agent "can't sell your work," it's probably because the work isn't saleable.

Maybe if someone did collect this ratio of sold to unsold manuscripts and compile a list, the very big agents would come out on top. That doesn't mean they're a good agent for you. The big-name agents focus 99 percent of their time on the sure deals and not so much on their unpublished clients, if they even have any.