Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tracking Agents' Percentages

Maybe I'm out of line asking this, but could you give us a feel for the percentage of clients you take under contract whose work you go on to sell to a publisher?

Maybe someone needs to create an independent, self-reporting database for authors to register their sales success rates with various agents. I'll consider hosting it if enough people think it's a good idea.


I thought this was a really interesting concept. The problem is that it’s just not that easy. Do you want my fiction vs. my nonfiction clients? Romance vs. mystery? And when do they have to be sold by? I think that right now a very high percentage of my clients are published, however very few of them were sold on the first book they sent or the initial project I took them on with. And what about those clients an agent was able to sell one book for, but not any others? Or, how about this . . . what about career building? There are definitely agents who can sell books, but do they have the ability to take their clients to the next step and make the bigger deals?

I have no idea what the percentage is for clients I take on whose work I sell. What I can tell you is that right now I have a small handful of clients who haven’t yet been published. We’ll get there, I know we’ll get there, but for now we’re still plugging away. In all honesty, I hope that for quite some time I always have a small handful of clients who have yet to be published. It means I’m still giving new and unpublished authors a chance and hopefully that big first sale, because there are few things as exciting. I also take on the occasional risk, the book I will tell the author straight off the top why I think it’s going to be a particularly tough sale, but I’m willing to take that chance because I love the author’s voice, the idea, and I really want to give it a shot. Taking that risk could very well bring my numbers down, or it could account for a big success. Would I want to take those kinds of risks if I knew people were tracking my percentages?

I think the more important thing to consider is how long agents are willing to stick by clients, how well they can build a client’s career, and of course track record. You wouldn’t want an agent who sells no books, of course, but I think you want someone who is happily in the 60%-75% range. Someone who is willing to take a few risks, but also willing to stick by authors knowing that this project or that project might not sell, but the author’s voice is amazing enough that the next one will.

Publishers Marketplace does a great job of tracking self-reported deals (of course not all deals are listed and not all agents list deals). I think by looking at this you can get a sense for what agents are doing.

Jessica

16 comments:

Diana said...

I think that right now a very high percentage of my clients are published, however very few of them were sold on the first book they sent or the initial project I took them on with.

Thank you for this very interesting topic! I have a newbie question about this statement. As an agent, do you take on a new writer accepting the fact that the first manuscript likely won't sell? And if so, is your goal, in taking on a new writer, to work with that writer on a second or even third project that is marketable?

Mark Terry said...

I think that right now a very high percentage of my clients are published, however very few of them were sold on the first book they sent or the initial project I took them on with.

I thought that was an interesting statement as well. It doesn't surprise me, having been through this myself, as well as knowing many writers who have had the same experience. But I wonder how many unpublished and/or unrepresented writers don't realize that just because you're agented doesn't mean you'll get published and just because you've been published doesn't mean you'll have a consistent writing career with everything you write being sold.

Julie Weathers said...

Personally, percentages don't matter that much to me. I'm not handicapping a horse race. And, sticking with the horse racing theme, there are a lot of horses and trainers with misleading percentages, but the talent and drive are there. It's just a matter of timing for everything to come together.

I just want an agent who knows what they're doing and is excited about what I'm doing. Besides, if percentages were a deciding factor, why would an agent want me?

Anonymous said...

This statement -- "... However very few of them were sold on the first book they sent or the initial projuect I took them on with..."

I'm sorry, that's just depressing. True, maybe, but depressing. As perfect as your work has to be to get an agent, and that's only the starting point? I'm published but am having trouble selling my second book. So maybe I have this in reverse? Either way, yuk...

Sally MacKenzie said...

Anonymous, one of the nasty little secrets of publishing seems to be that it can be harder to sell your second book than your first. Many of my friends are in this situation. Part of the problem, I think, is that now everyone has "numbers" on you. Friends who have written wonderful books to glowing reviews don't have their option picked up because their sell throughs aren't good, sometimes due to something they had no control over, like a bad cover or poor distribution. So hang in there--you aren't alone.

Fwiw, the folks I know who have conquered this situation have either changed subgenres (this is in romance) or changed names or both. But this is also where a good agent--with good career building instincts--can really help.

Josephine Damian said...

One of the smartest things I've done this year is get a paid membership to Publisher's Marketplace.

A new feature they have is the top deal makers where you can see which agents have made the most sales in any given genre, or over-all fiction or non-fiction.

I especially made note of the fact that one of the top deal makers these days is a certain agent we all know and love, a gal whose initials are JF. :-)

Most impressive.

Mark: I've heard of the 1%/2% rule - that only two percent of writers get signed by agents, and of those two percent, only half actually get a book into print. Not sure how accurate that is, but thought they were interesting stats.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I'm with Julie Weathers. I think it's telling if an agent has a gazillion clients and very few books sold (usually easy to determine, because their website talks about them going to conferences and pitch sessions all the time, but talks very little about their clients' book releases), and I also think it's telling if an agent has ZERO unsold clients (usually harder to tell, but what it means is that the agent is only after the easy sale, and if you aren't selling for them, they drop you like a hot potato).

When I was looking for an agent, I wanted one that believed in his/her client's work, so would stand by a client if the first project didn't sell, or if they hit a dry spell, or etc. But also one who made a lot of sales to a lot of different houses on many levels (debut, bestseller, subsidiary, etc.)

But treating this like a numbers game is madness. We aren't widgets. Let the publishers and booksellers pull that one...

Heidi said...

Odds are such meaningless things sometimes. If only one in a million people is hit by lightening, but you are that one, do the odds really matter?

There are a lot of BAD writers out there trying to be published (not you who are reading the blog, of course!) Maybe they aren't represented by an agent, but all the same, if I use decent grammar, format my manuscript and query correctly, and know the agent's name, I'm already beating out half the other writers.

And if I can write well... well, isn't that the key?

I'm not worried about all the other people out there writing and trying to get published (although I wish them all good luck, because I know how hard it is). All I'm worried about is writing well. That's like putting a key on a kite in a thunderstorm: it drastically increases the odds that I'll be the one in a million.

getitwriten_guy said...

This is a great post!

I wasn't sure that Jessica or BookEnds would be the right people to approach about representation, but after reading this latest post, I'm leaning toward a query once I finish cleaning up my ms.

What did it for me were Jessica's comments about career-building, sticking by authors, and an expressed willingness to take some risks. Those are all things that are important to me as I try to figure out who I'd really like to work with and who might take a real interest in my work.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "All I'm worried about is writing well. That's like putting a key on a kite in a thunderstorm: it drastically increases the odds that I'll be the one in a million."

Maybe there is such a thing as writing too well? Which dramatically decreases your odds...

I think of it like painting. Traditionally a painter wanted you to see what they've painted...a portrait, a vase of flowers...you marvel at the illusion of depth, of reality. But then along came the impressionists, abstract expressionists, etc., who wanted you to see the painted surface, the color of the paint itself...I remember seeing one of Van Gogh's paintings, and there was a person in it, and the person was just a vertical brush stroke of peach-colored paint, thicker than all of the other brush strokes. I still remember that damn brush stroke person, in an irritating why-did-he-do-that kind of way.

So, the way this example relates to writing is: If you write really well, you may have to constantly fight your tendency to be clever, or draw attention to your "rich and dazzingly varied imagination" ...your "gorgeous language"...your "embarrassment of riches"...that is, the "painted surface" of your writing...because there are living breathing characters, suffocating underneath all that paint...

I only ramble on about this, since last night, I kept having to pull back from the "witty repartee" I was putting in my characters' mouths...no, don't write so well. Rub a little dirt into it. Let there be some slack.

The day begins. The one good thing about it: snow on the ground. If only it were November 5, 2008 - an unequivocal winner of presidential election determined - this era over - "some days I feel like a vertical brush stroke, and not a person" - maybe Van Gogh was on to something, after all...

Tammie said...

I agree - great post and I also agree with josephine and the subscription to Publisher's Marketplace - a great tool.

I found the statement about how many are signed with an agent yet have not sold a book absolutely amazing, something I never clued in on.

Aimless Writer said...

I have another question: What kind of self promotion do you expect/hope a new author will do once published?
What kind of things do you think work best to promote a new career?

Faye Hughes said...

Great post, Jessica!

Faye

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "I also take on the occasional risk, the book I will tell the author straight off the top why I think it’s going to be a particularly tough sale, but I’m willing to take that chance because I love the author’s voice, the idea, and I really want to give it a shot."

Yep, these are the words that will get my ears perking up! Hey! Yeah! But I especially like the idea of being able to ask the question of an agent, "how can I help to make this less of a tough sale?" I mean, that could be something generic that any writer could do for any book - but then maybe there is something specific to your book/project, that could be a publicity goldmine, if you just spent a little bit of time thinking it through...perhaps this is a bad example, but when Britney Spears tanked on the award show, there was some youtuber who got his 15 minutes of fame defending her...it's my hunch, if he said, "oh I've got a novel about a Britney Spears lookalike, a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of thing, in my drawer" - and turns out this guy actually CAN write... some publisher might have wanted to at least take a look-see...and then this Britney defender is launched on his writer's career.

Okay, a bad example. And maybe tough sells are best left to the agent's judgment. But media, mass media, the technology, is in flux...maybe there are opportunities for tough sells in all that flux...that aren't there for "easy" sells, even...

Kate Douglas said...

I'm an excellent example of the fact Jessica sticks with a client. She could not sell my first submission...actually, she could have if I'd followed the editor's request that I turn my food critic hero with sexual identity issues into a cowboy and, as the editor said, "I love your kick-ass heroine, but could you please tone her down?" Huh? Anyway, Jessica agreed with me that the changes were ridiculous, but my point is, she stuck by me for five years while I continued writing but not really sending anything to her that was marketable. However, when I finally found the right project, she took it and ran with it and I'm now contracted with releases well into 2010. THAT is the kind of agent a writer wants--someone who recognizes your desire to make a career out of writing and is willing to help you when you're ready to fly.

Aimless Writer said...

Kate:
A truly inspiring story! Congrats on all those releases!