3.31.2007

Slush pile ROI

A well articulated comment to an earlier post


I'm a little confused, Miss Snark. You posted stats on 3/21 that, extrapolated, show you receive about 4800 queries per year and only take on about 4 new clients. Kristin Nelson receives 20,800 queries and last year signed 8 new clients (but doesn't say how many of those came from referral or slush). Likewise, Lori Perkins says she gets 30,000 queries and signed 15 new clients last year between referrals and slush. And I recently read an agent's blog who admitted she had NEVER taken a client from the slush pile.

Yes, people do get pulled out of the slush. And one blockbuster client from the slush may be worth the time invested. But is it worth the gamble? What the person posting the question seems to be asking is whether or not there's a better business model. Obviously not, or everyone would be on it. But the ROI really isn't there for agents with the current model.



ROI means return on investment for those of you French majors who think it means Louis XIV.

Return on investment measures what you get back for what you put in. The only thing ROI should be used to measure are quantifiable things: capital investment, income earned, those kinds of things.

When you use ROI to discuss the slush pile, what I'm investing is my time and my knowledge. Knowledge can't be quantified, so it doesn't have a place in this discussion. Time however can be measured, and there's a finite amount of it in a day (even for Miss Snark in her 36-hour alternate universe)

When I invest my time reading the slush pile, I can't invest it doing something else (opportunity cost) but the key piece of information you're missing is how much time I'm investing in reading those submissions.

Kristin takes her submissions electronically so she can read them quickly and efficiently.

I received a very sweet email from a Snarkling who blogged about her "fastest rejection ever"

Here's the calculation you're missing: 100 queries a week takes less than 200 minutes to read on paper; and about 100 minutes probably if you send it electronically. Truth be told, some of the stuff I get doesn't get ten seconds let alone 60.

So, the investment is two hours of my time. Kristin obviously spends more, Lori Perkins too.

The thing is I don't have to pay myself for that, and the opportunity cost (doing something else) is marginal. If I were to use the two suggestions of the origianal querier, my opportunity cost rieses dramatically: attending conferences is a MUCH less efficient way to see a lot of people.

In the course of two days or 16 working hours I might give a workshop to 100 people, chat with another 100, and do face to face presentations with 50. I can read 250 query letters in 500 minutes at the most (8.3 hours for you divisionally challenged). In addition, there's travel time and the inconvenience of being out of the office.

Here's the other piece of information you're missing: even people who meet us at conferences have to send queries. EVERYONE gets counted in the slush pile. I don't track how many of those 100 queries a week came from people I met at conferences, or are referrals. I did it one week solely for discussion on this blog, but I don't keep those stats cause it doesn't matter how you get here. It only matters to me if you write something I think I can sell.

Publishers "pay" agents in the form of higher advances and more author favorable contracts when they insist only on agented submissions but they also save payroll costs for people to read incoming submissions.


The thing I find interesting is the only people who think this model doesn't work are not-agents and not-publishers, in other words the people IN the slush pile.

Rather than tell you you're wrong though, I'll ask you: what other model do you suggest, and given this information, show me how it's to my (mine, not yours!) advantage and I'll be glad to read it. Feel free to email me and I'll post it.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

How to Pan for Gold

Place your pan under water, keeping the pan under water at all times, filling the pan nearly full. Throw away the large stones and break up lumps of mud and clay.

Hold the pan level with both hands and rotate the pan with swirling motions. As you rotate the pan the heavier gold loosens from the sand, gravel and settles to the bottom. Tilt the pan downward to let the dirty water, sand and gravel wash over the edge of the pan.

Continue to raise and lower the lip of the pan so the water will flow over it and remove more of the lighter material.

Continue this process until nothing but gold and heavier minerals are left in the pan Carefully inspect the black sand for nuggets or tiny specks of gold or other precious minerals.

Tammy said...

Lots of e-mails pouring in for this one huh?

Wait! I meant to ask if there were lots of intelligent e-mails pouring in about this.

Didn't think so.

great writing = no slush pile

Yep, I think that model would be better. LOL

Quit whining about ending up in the slush, and write better manuscripts. It really is that simple.

M. G. Tarquini said...

My fastest rejection was three minutes. No lie. My longest rejection was one year.

I love this business.

Judy Schneider said...

My agent found me through the slush pile--oh, praise the higher powers that she even has a slush pile and that she actually reads the stuff!

I didn't know anyone in publishing. I found her the old-fashioned way--by researching agents who sell my type of book--querying 20 or so of them; receiving a handful of rejections, a handful of acceptances, and a third handful (can that be?) of non-responders.

Of those interested in reading more, I ranked them (based on reputation and...okay...big-name-ed-ness), sent exclusively to her first, and waited. Before long, I was signing a contract!

Take it from one who's lived through it. The system works!

Anonymous said...

Right on, Anon.

The idea that there might be a more efficient way to pull the nuggets from the slush (to extend the metaphor) is appealing.

But judgment can't be mechanized. There is no substitute for the application of informed taste, regardless of what logistical system is at work.

Nobody has come up with a computer that can write a credible -- or, more to the point, saleable -- novel. Similarly, there is no way to reduce the process of literary assessment to the kind of productivity tools that can grow ROI.

Human hands write, human eyes read, something connects or it doesn't.

And thank dog there are keen eyes like Miss Snark's out there eager to do the job.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if panning would be any better as it tends to cause numbness of the extremeties.

That water is COLD.

Anonymous said...

This is perhaps the most reasoned and rational question and response that I have ever seen in a blog. My compliments to both of you.

If I may summarize: Publishers need to find new material to publish. Some of that will come from existing authors, some from new authors. In order to reduce their costs and risks, they have moved the job of finding new authors to independent subcontractors called Agents. There are many ways for agents to find new authors. The one that has worked the best is described by Ms Snark as The Slush Pile.

There are at least two requirements in this end of the business: In order to be evaluated, the work must be read. There are vastly more potential authors than there are publishing slots. Efficiency is rarely achieved by radical changes to business methods. More often it is obtained by the application of numerous refinements.

The greatest improvement in the time it takes to read submitted work has been computerizing it. Electronic submissions of bad writing can be discovered and rejected in less time than it takes to open letter and document its contents. There are not likely to be any significant improvements on this front in the near future, if ever.

This leaves us with the job of filtering the submissions that an agent receives. How can we eliminate the bad or increase the quantity of the good? The classic method is to make someone else do the work. (It worked for publishers, didn’t it?) Unless you want pay for that service, you need to get creative in a Tom Sawyer fashion.

My suggestion is to change the format of your Crapfest. Run it on a regular schedule. Pick five Snarklings whose literary taste most closely resembles yours. Have them vote on the submissions. You only read what they rate as the best.

- Edward

jamiehall said...

How long does it take you to read a one-page letter? Not long. Queries are one page. Furthermore, some queries are so badly written that you can give up at half a page with a clear conscience, or the first sentence will indicate that the book isn't in the agent's genre and thus can be rejected at once.

Agents decide on an individual basis whether it has a good ROI. If they have all the clients they need, they may shut down the queries completely for a while. But it's sure easier than conferences or contests.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

The slush pile would be a more efficient system if the nitwits would do their research before they sent queries. I seriously wish when I was 15 and writing someone would've grabbed my wrist before I sent out queries. I did. I regret adding to the slush pile. I wasn't ready. So . . . .

I think Miss Snark's compatriots should have three form letters. One says: This Doesn't Suck, But We Can't Take It.

One says: This May or May Not Suck, So We Can't Take It.

One says: This Sucks So Bad I Can't Take It Anymore; I'm Slicing My Throat With the Edge of a Query From the Slush Pile.

Oh, maybe one more: This Is So Boring I Can't Even Tell If It's Bad.

Presumably if I'd gotten a handful of the last sort when I was 15 I would've ceased and desisted and looked at my material again before sending out queries.

Trigger Finger said...

The problem with electronic submissions is that the agent is more likely to reject a good query. It is all too easy to hit delete or say 'not quite right for me' without really reading what has been sent.

Michelle said...

I am not sure why people get so hung up on the inefficiency of the process and the ROI and all that. Reading the slush pile is business development, plain and simple. Most professionals who have clients (versus products) have to do business development on some level-investment bankers, lawyers, what have you. In my line of work, sometimes business development has brought our firm $0. Sometimes it has brought our firm $10 million. You just never know.

Elektra said...

I knew there was a reason I've always hated math...

SAND STORM said...

I think the slushpile works for some genres but not all. I personally don't know any author in my genre of (thriller/suspense/mystery) who was accepted over the transom without some outside reference, assistance or previous pub credits.

Maybe we could start a poll of authors who have been accepted just from a Query letter, name of genre, etc.

Twill said...

Trigger finger -

If that agent missed your query by not being able to recognize your brilliance immediately, and deletig it with insufficient care, then you really want a better class of agent anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing the slush pile works because it mimics a reader's browsing behavior.

If an agent prefers to find new authors through referrals - well, so do readers. We're far more likely to pick up books recommended by friends (or Oprah). But there's also the thrill of discovering a new author on one's own - and the only way to do that is to stand in the library or bookstore, reading backcover blurbs and the first few pages, until one book grabs you and won't let go. If a new author can't stand out from the slush with a fresh voice and focused pitch - they'll likely never stand out, period.

pjd said...

When I started writing my comment, I was in full agreement with Maggie and tammy. The slush pile is inefficient for writers because it contains so much bad writing. Write well, and an experienced agent will see the quality among the trash.

The irony is that in order for the slush pile to be more efficient, bad writers have to leave off submitting and good writers have to be encouraged, even through rejection. Yet bad writers rarely recognize how bad they are, and agents have no incentive to tell them.

It is, as Miss Snark says, a lot easier to stay arm's length and say "not for me" than tell someone their writing sucks. The additional advice we all get is "query widely and often." This perpetuates--in fact, it increases--the amount of junk clogging up the system. Bad writers not only continue to query, but they begin to believe that persistence is what will make them successful, so they query more.

Thus, agents have no problem with the slush pile. In fact, it eliminates the need for them to render any negative judgment, just a simple "nope." Until the slush pile becomes painful for agents, it will persist as the mechanism for clearing the silt from the gold.

For my part, I will continue to focus on improving my writing and won't worry much about the selection process. We all know the rules, and we all dream of instant success. But just because we can type words into a computer doesn't mean we write good stuff. Write good stuff. It's really that simple.

Huh, I guess I do agree with Maggie and tammy after all.

Danika said...

It also seems worth noting that many of Miss Snark's referral clients probably originated in a slush pile, even if it wasn't her slush pile--some of them may have been friends or students or what have you of the referrer, but surely many of them were blind queries of the "this-is-good-but-not-right-for-me" variety.

And maybe there are one or two more people to whom Miss Snark suggested names of other agents--people who found their way to representation through her pile, even if they didn't end up at Snark Central. You know, tequila drinkers, or something

Anonymous said...

Publishers "pay" agents in the form of higher advances...

Except publishers don't really pay agents. Publishers pay authors. Authors pay a percentage of their earnings to agents. Big difference there.

Helen DeWitt said...

I've only met one agent, Andrew Wylie, who gave me some sort of intellectual profile of himself. He said he'd studied with Albert Lord at Harvard (Albert Lord and Milman Parry transformed Homeric scholarship by doing work on oral composition in Yugoslavia). He said he'd translated Ungaretti. He talked about the time he'd met Beckett. Talked about quite a lot of other writers he admired (mainly not on his client list). Didn't talk about money.

Most of the things Wylie talked about are not in the public domain, and no amount of research will turn up that kind of information on other agents, or, for that matter, editors. (I've never seen any of the things I know about my former editor, Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins, in the public domain.)

If I know that A loves Fellini, Sterne, Leone, Kurosawa, Gilliam's Brazil, Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, Pamuk's My Name is Red, while B likes Coelho's The Alchemist, I am unlikely to trouble B failing abduction and brainwashing by aliens.

If agents and editors gave better information about themselves they would give themselves a very good chance of attracting writers they might want to work with, and a reasonable chance of eliminating many they wouldn't.

The written word is by no means an infallible means of communication; it's odd, all the same, to find the publishing industry rejecting it so systematically in favour of telepathy.