Life of Pie

Hello writers! After much fussing with Photoshop, I've managed to make my Excel chart (created this way as a model for the markers-and-poster-board version) into an image. It's a bit tiny (sigh) but, I hope, still readable.

A bit of explanation: genre problems--more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency--weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately--and that it's an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control.

Next after genre/fit, we have a concept that is not marketable--18%. This is, as I mentioned, often ambiguous: Curtis Sittenfeld couldn't, at first, sell Prep because she was told there were too many prep school novels already on the shelves--yet when it became a bestseller, she says, everyone shrugged and said that of course it did so well--it was a prep school novel, after all, a tried-and-true concept. Some say that you'll know you have the right idea for your book when you simply cannot wait to get working.

My suggestion is to audition possible concepts by telling them to everyone you speak with. See how they react, and give them multiple concepts you're considering--then ask for their favorite. This not only results in an informal poll, but your interlocutors won't feel rude by favoring one idea over another--they may, however, feel badly about telling you not to write that alien abduction memoir if it's the only idea on the table. Go to Amazon, and your genre's shelf in your local book store, and make sure that there's something similar and successful--and that you have a new twist. Ideally you will also have a platform (if nonfiction) and know others in your field who can give your work a look.

After this we have a tie: 10% and 10%. The first is the percentage whose writing is simply not yet strong enough. This is where professional editors, like the lovely Marcela Landres, come in. The other ten percent refers to writing that is excellent--but writing on a topic that isn't right for us. As you can imagine, both concept and writing are necessary for a successful book.

Note the nearby 4%, which is a concept that is great, but writing that is not. Most of these authors got, "We love the concept, keep working on the writing" notes.

(A statistical note--when writing was good enough but the concept wasn't, this is differentiated from the 33% by the fact that not only did we not find the concept right for us, but we worried others--even those who do work in the genre--would agree.)

Another 9% go to projects that, intuitively, didn't seem right. I thought, before deciding to quantify my decisions, that this would be a much larger number--at least 20%. My boss likens the process to meeting eyes with someone across a crowded room: when regarding a query, something either happens, or it doesn't. However, only 9% were rejected for this reason alone--which is fortunate, as this is one aspect over which writers have little control.

6% of queries were rejected because the project simply required further work. Again, you can control this by doing all of your research--and not, for example, telling us about the great book you will write (never mind that not a sentence exists yet), once you can afford to do so with your advance.

5% to those queries rejected because of an unprofessional approach. Granted, if you write brilliantly on kitten stationery, we'll give you a look. However, I've yet to meet a perfumed/lavender-colored/typed in a spiral query that made it to the next level. It's also unwise to demand (as one author did) that the book make $40,000 in royalties a year--or that it's just not worth it. Other unappetizing ideas include reprinting other rejection letters (including them as proof of...what?), ranting about the unfairness of the business, and telling us that if we're real agents we'll see that your work is better than Harry Potter. Right.

3% Oversaturated market. Sorry, but if you're writing on a topic that's already been done--where every publishing house already has their version--we doubt we can sell yours. Prevent this by doing your research, and making sure to emphasize why your work is new and better.

2% Platform lacking--again, thought this would be a much higher number--but, then again, to get to this point and be rejected because of platform requires a few preliminary hoops. Platform is, as Marcela said, your responsibility--no one is born with one, including Oprah.

That's all for now...please feel free to ask any questions you may have.


Rebecca @sometimesnonsense said...

This is a really insightful post. Thank you so much for giving the inside scoop in such a clear way. Pie charts are so much easier to digest than a bunch of numbers.

I just discovered your blog today after seeing your interview on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog. I haven't had a chance to go through all the older posts but it's already one I'm thrilled to discover.

The Rejection Room said...

Thank you, Rebecca! I always seem to do better with quantitative data--and I wanted, for my own writerly interests, to know exactly what was happening.

If nothing else, I find the numbers encouraging--so much of the pie is stuff that is within the author's control. It's a way of saying, "Yes, you've heard these terrifying statistics...but they're misleading." And they are.

Thank you for commenting!

Stef Kramer said...

Great post. I also found your blog from the Guide to Literary Agents. I particularly liked your analogy of meeting eyes with someone across the room. It's chemistry, right? Anyway, best of luck to you and I look forward to reading more.

Mary said...

What a delight it is to find your blog. It is smart, incisive, and helpful--a fabulous resource for anyone looking to get their work into an agent's hands.

I've just bookmarked your blog and plan to return often. Not only does it inform, it inspires.

Amber Argyle-Smith said...

First, I love the pie chart! It seems that us literally minded folk have a very hard time with math, so good for you. Very informative.

I checked out your blog, the agency website, and your recent interview, but I'm still not sure what subgenres you take.

I see you take YA, but what about subgenre? In the interview, it seemed like a contradiction that you take any subgenre and yet rejected 33% of MS based on genre.

Could you please clarify?

Theresa Milstein said...

This is the most detailed list of why writers receive rejections that I've ever seen. Pie charts just add to the clarity. Thanks!

John said...

Thanks so much for the insight!! I am just about to publish my first non-fiction memoir through Mill City Press, a self-publishing company.

I went down the road of sending out queries and proposals to well over 100 companies and was rejected for many of the same reasons you listed in your post.

My next non-fiction memoir will be targeted at a much broader audience and may get past the initial query stage.

Thanks so much for this blog!

tenstorytreehouse said...

Pardon me for coming into the discussion a bit late, but to clarify: what percentage of manuscripts actually get accepted?

Agency Gatekeeper said...

@tenstorytreehouse: well under 1 percent.

Varity Sinning said...

Thanks for the post, it was certainly informative. I look forward to discovery where I might fit on the pie and how I might combat my potential placement.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Thanks for this revelation -- it's interesting to see what is within our control and what isn't when we submit our work. I especially love the suggestion for road testing potential concepts.


Tara McClendon said...

Thank you so much for the post and for a snap-shot view at a very complicated process. Cheers.

StephKaye said...

I have no link, so I don't expect to win the contest, but I DO have a winner of a typo, from a student of mine: "Hamlet suspected foreplay all along...." Gulp.

dadwhowrites said...

I do love the pie chart and I suspect I've been guilty of most of the crimes it documents, though (bizarrely) my screen resolution presented segments of it as referring to 'Whiting'.

That is, 10% rejected for 'Whiting', 'Whites well but not for us...'

I got there eventually but it was a teeny bit discombobulating for a minute.

dadwhowrites said...

I do love the pie chart and I suspect I've been guilty of most of the crimes it documents, though (bizarrely) my screen resolution presented segments of it as referring to 'Whiting'.

That is, 10% rejected for 'Whiting', 'Whites well but not for us...'

I got there eventually but it was a teeny bit discombobulating for a minute.

Jo-Anne said...

Where would the comment "Thank you for thinking of me with your query. Unfortunately, this is not something I'm able to consider pursuing. Best of luck and success to you with your project." be in this pie chart. What was she trying to say exactly - Anyone know?


Jo-Anne said...

Where in your pie chart would you put the comment from the literary agent "Thank you for thinking of me with your query. Unfortunately, this is not something I'm able to consider pursuing. Best of luck and success to you with your project." What was she trying to say.

Deborah Serravalle said...

Thanks for the inside scoop. Very informative! And I love the title.

I'm curious - of the queries you receive, do you know the percentage that you accept and represent?

Wanton Redhead Writing said...

Stalking your blog to see if I should query you, but now I am dying for pie. Ugh!

Strawberry Rhubarb...

Jim Gilliam said...

Very helpful. I am amazed at how little time is spent in researching an agent by some writers. This is a hard business to break into and talent is not enough. From the agent's point of view she has a lot to lose by taking a chance on a new author. And yes Virginia agents get rejected too. A new author may receive (for a number of reasons) a hundred rejections and not suffer any loss. An agent, on the other hand, who starts showing a pattern of rejection of new authors from her stable of editors and publishers will end up selling shoes at Macey's. It's all about credibility. Agents today are forced to triage (your pie chart) if they want to do things like eat and sleep. Maybe I breezed through the article, but I don't recall seeing my number one reason for why agents reject a query, "Failure to strictly comply with the agent's submission guidelines." Why is it that when an agent states that a query consists of a one page letter and a SASE, some writers send a five page query and the first six chapters of the book. If I were an agent that would be an immediate reject and I would move on to the other 4,999 queries I received that week.

Jim Gilliam
Author, Point Deception

Rich said...

This was an interesting read. Although I've been told that most agents come by way of a few short drinks or that cocktail party at Metropolitan Club or some other denizens of preppiedom - there is where you can say to Pheobe or Faye, "say, I've been working on this book..." and then into print it goes. I believe they call it "word of mouth" darling, and it still rings true. I've been sending my queries out ad infinitum - without much avail, but hope springs eternal. I guess the time may come when I will have to avail myself to cocktails parties and the like, but for the time being I believe your article and do it the old fashioned way - throw the old boy network into the fire and come out and find the agent I love! Richard Smiraldi (author of Seven Murders In Sussex).