A very interesting topic was discussed on Writers Net the other day. It posed the question about agents’ sales rates to publishers, and answering this got me to thinking about why this question should come up in the first place. It’s a legitimate question, of course, but it also hints at this lack of trust issue that keeps cropping up—a testing of credentials to find out who’s the toughest kid on the block.
There seems to be a trend here, a kind of new millennium skepticism and testing of everyone’s credibility. You see this continually on CNN where someone states that he or she is an expert in an area and the talking heads seat a panel of pundits specifically designed to tear down what someone has spent years to build. I can understand the general public’s cynicism because there’s been a long-term trend of authority testing that has found many of those who are challenged lacking. But does that mean that everyone has low or non-existent moral character or ability because a few have been found guilty? Has anyone considered how they were found guilty? Was it in the court of public opinion, was it just a slow news day, or was it something that threatened the general security and well-being of our citizenry in general?
But I digress. In an industry that’s built on the strange marriage of flights of the imagination and the need for information at best, do writers want exact numbers so they can make better choices? Possibly. Okay, I’ll give you that. So let’s parallel this exactness and place some of it on the other side of the chart. As agents, we’d like some exactness too. If I rephrase the question, it comes down to what is the writer’s sales percentage rate?
As a writer, what’s your success rate? How many books have you written versus how many have you sold? Wouldn’t that level the scale? Wouldn’t that make an agent’s choices easier? So you’ve written one book but sold none—would your success rate be zero? Would an agent want to take a chance on you? These are things to think about, but really, it’s not that dismal.
I feel that if a writer has written more than one book, he or she has learned quite a bit in the process and probably is a better writer. I actually have more of a problem with writers who have penned one novel and very possibly won’t ever write another. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve written ten novels and say that nine of them were practice, I want to talk to you because I feel that you’re at a point were I can do something with your work. First novels usually don’t sell unless you have that natural talent that appears once in every million or so writers. Writing is what makes a good writer out of a beginner. Of course, a little failure for humility never hurts either.
Cynicism breeds a lack of trust, and that’s why I think many writers try to make tangible a business that is, on a good day, nothing but complete nonsense. It would be great to be able to say I sold a certain percentage of books I took on, just as it would be great for a writer to say he’s written a certain amount of novels and a certain percentage have been published. We realize, though, that publishing credits represent a fluid and odd business, and so we don’t ask for percentages of books sold. Strangely, though, agents feel they have to provide this information when asked. I don’t. If someone asks me what percentage of client projects I’ve placed, I will tell them that at any given moment, I don’t know. There are too many different factors to be able adequately answer that question—are you talking foreign rights, 2nd novels, reprints, etc.?
So it boils down to trusting your own judgment, not some percentage rate. Once you figure out what you consider success and whether you trust yourself to make decisions about your writing, your career—or the attempt at building one—life will be much less stressful.