Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

This is the last question I'm going to answer before Shavous. Your comments may not get approved until Thursday night, when I come back online from the holiday, unless I get someone to do them while I'm gone. Just so you know.

Dear Ms. Rejecter,

I've been reassured at every turn that agents are bombarded with queries. Help me with the math. How many agents are there in New York City? Can we pick a safe number? Let's say 250-- who say they'll take a look at fiction queries. (Queries for fiction, not fictional queries, of which I'm sure you get a few.) If all 250 are receiving between two and three hundred queries a week-- Miss Rejecter-- that's up to seven hundred and fifty queries a week being mailed to 10010. You'd think the post office would be mad. I bet that's what the rate increase is all about, now that I think about it.

And on to the question: Who is writing all these books? I've finished two manuscripts (oh, 100 rejections on #1 and headed toward 50 on #2) and let me tell you, it didn't happen overnight. Are we to assume that seven hundred and fifty people a week finish and polish a manuscript? Do those people have day jobs? Car pool? Spa appointments? If it's fair game to query the agents over and over and over again? If you ask me, that has to be it. You're getting the same song, different verse, queries. You'd have to be. Don't you find that a little irritating? Maybe some people love those little rejection postcards. I know I don't. I sent a query last week, well, several, to an agent who had posted on her web site, "No news means I don't want your manuscript. I don't send out rejections." I like her.

Wanna-be (agented)

Let's put this into perspective. There are thousands upon thousands of businesses in Manhattan alone, many of which produce mass volumes of mail. I don't know any postal statistics, but I'm going to guess that we don't really show up on anybody's radar, and are not responsible for the postal increase. As a mailman explained in another comment, the main reasons for the price jump on stamps is the rising price of gas (necessary to drive those letters/packages around) and the rise in minimum wage, leading to a general increase in ages. Based on inflation, you can expect stamps to go up. A lot of people are mad that it was not announced very far ahead like it usually is, and a lot of us who ship books for a living are VERY mad that a lot of services (like international parcel post) were eliminated. Media mail, the main way to get books around the United States, went up by I think around 30 cents. That's huge. That's not two cents. It's 30. I had to raise all my shipping prices, as did Amazon, and everybody else who mails books, and we're all pissed. Some people over at the postal service have responded, "Well, we have so much competition now from other services like UPS and Fedex." Yeah, that's great. You know, when you have competition from another business, you're supposed to lower your prices, not raise them.

Okay, now that I'm done with the rant about the surprise raise in prices that dramatically affected my business, onto your actual question.

Who is writing all these books? Well, as the U.S. population currently clocks in at 301,902,252 people, I can safely say the answer is: Enough. There are enough people who find the time, however they can, because it's something they want to do and they make time for it.


WinterRose said...

That's a lot of people. And yeah... silly postal service. LOWER... not raise... LOW-ER.

K.R.Stewart said...

Being a math minded person, the question of how many people must really be out there trying to get an agent got me thinking. So I whipped up some numbers taking a broad range of assumptions and rough estimates.

The U.S. population is roughly 300,000,000 people. Let's assume most people trying to get an agent (and let's assume this is equvilent to a first novel, we're talking fiction only here) are roughly between the ages of 20-65. I don't know how accurate this is, but let's just pretend.

In this case, looking up some simple demographics in the United States, there are roughly 180,000,000 people in this age range in the U.S. Let's presume that a first time author spreads a "wide net" with their query, of about 100 queries for their first novel.

We're assuming the end result is about 250 queries per week per agent, and assuming roughly 250 agents (from the original questioner's numbers). So the U.S. is producing about 625,000 queries/week or 3,250,000 queries/year.

(Total Queries / Year) = (Total People in U.S. between 20-65 years old) * (fraction of U.S. citizens who try to publish a novel btwn the ages of 20-65) * (# Queries submitted) / (45 years within this "appropriate" age range)

3,250,000 = 180,000,000 * Fraction * 100 / 45

Which gives Fraction = 0.8% = 1/125

So, if 1 person in every 125 in the United States tries to get a single novel published (by first getting an agent) somewhere between the ages of 20-65, this easily accounts for the flood of queries you're talking about on a weekly.

And this isn't even accounting for people trying with one novel then trying again with a 2nd or 3rd or 4th when the first ones don't succeed. Nor does it account for people who land an agent then, for whatever reason, things don't work out and they have to go out and find a different one, which will push the fraction of novel-writers out there even lower.

I'll stop playing with numbers now. =P

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

First of all, LOVE your blog. I've been a lurker for a long time, this is my first comment.

I know that even among the relatively small circle of writers I know in Chicago (where I live), that the sheer volume of completed, unpublished (and mostly unpublishable) manuscripts is HUGE. As a novelist/memoirist/playwright in Chicago---where the writing community is pretty close-knit and insular---I can think up at least 100 people I know personally who are either trying to get agents, publishers, or already have agents who are trying to sell their books. (And you figure, only about 50% or so of agented books sell). I am just one person, and can rattle off a hundred people right off the top of my head. Granted, most of these people can be called quote-unquote "serious" writers. But multiply that figure by the U.S. population of 300 million (you can figure that at any given point, about 5% of the population is actively seeking publication for their writing, either cluelessly via crummy POD publishers or seriously via legitimate agents and publishers---and that figure would come to about 15 million people.

When you figure that less than one percent (at best) of that 15 million people will actually end up with a legit book deal from a royalty-paying publisher (99% rejection rates by agents/publishers is the norm), that's about 150,000 people. And given that there are between 150,000-200,000 new book titles published in the United States every year (across all legit publishers, large and small and niche), that gives a pretty decent breakdown of a) how hard it is to break through into publishing and b) a pretty realistic picture of the sheer volume of queries and manuscripts that are floating around out there. I suspect a fairly large portion of those 15 million querying people are ending up on the Rejector's desk. No wonder you're in such a bad mood.

God bless you, Rejector. I'd never want your job, not in a million years.

Anonymous said...

Not to be a math geek about it, but 250 agents getting 300 queries per week comes out to 75,000 queries on the mail truck each week - not 750.
Considering that there are 2.5 MILLION residents in Manhattan, and about a million business addresses, 75,000 letters is nothing. The heat and light bills to that one zip code alone are more than that.
There are 39 other zip codes in Manhattan in addition to 10010. If you are addressing all your queries to New York with that one zip code, chances are that a lot those queries went unanswered because they were never delivered.

Anonymous said...

That 39 other zip codes doesn't count the 43 buildings with their own, or the 16 that are for PO boxes, does it?

Anonymous said...

Wanna-be did ask for help with the math. Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

apathy said...

Dearest Rejecter,
I love your blog, and I'd love to be a NY literary agent when I grow up, and so was wondering if you could answer a very important questionfor me.
Those 3 hour lunches that agents have with editors - who pays for them?

Anonymous said...

...that's up to seven hundred and fifty queries a week being mailed to 10010.

Not that the numbers are meaningful to begin with, but your math's off: 250 agents x 300 queries = 75 thousand.

Lauren said...

Re: Are we to assume that seven hundred and fifty people a week finish and polish a manuscript?

Eh, I doubt it. I haven't read literary agency slush, but I've read literary journal slush and hiring manager slush (resumes via Craigslist), and my educated guess is that among those queries you have nonfiction proposals (since many agents taking fiction also take nonfiction), unfinished novels, novels claiming to be complete but that really need to go through five more drafts, emotastic poetry collections, rhyming children's books about Jesus and kittens written by well-meaning grandmas, poorly-edited memoirs therapeutic for the author and no one else, stuff that's a million miles away from the genres the agent represents, and stuff that doesn't even appear to be written in English.

That's what's clogging the P.O. boxes of the 212.

Dan Leo said...

I have done a rigorous scientific study on this subject and have determined that:

1. There are 10 million Americans who actually read books.
2. 15 million Americans have written at least one novel.
3. 30 million Americans have written more than one novel.
4. 60 million Americans have written more than one multi-volume series of novels taking place in a land whose name is very hard to pronounce.

Anonymous said...

If 250 agents each receive 250 queries a week, then that's more like 62500 queries hitting the 212, not 750...

Anonymous said...

Can I do some math nitpicking?

Let's say 250-- who say they'll take a look at fiction queries. (Queries for fiction, not fictional queries, of which I'm sure you get a few.) If all 250 are receiving between two and three hundred queries a week-- Miss Rejecter-- that's up to seven hundred and fifty queries a week being mailed to 10010.

Try 75,000. 750 queries a week would mean each agency gets three.

Are we to assume that seven hundred and fifty (or seventy-five thousand people a week finish and polish a manuscript?

Nah. Most people don't send a query to only one agency; a very conservative estimate would be that each person sends a query to ten agencies. (There are plenty of not-so-reputable automated services that send queries to many more.) We're already down to 7,500 a week. And some of these people may have been sending out queries for some time -- they may have finished the book a year ago.

Now we can move on to your math, Rejector.

Marion Gropen said...

Given that almost 200,000 new ISBNs are issued every year in the US alone, I think we can safely say that there are more than enough people writing books. Of course, more than half of those titles sell less than 1,000 copies, and can safely be assumed either to cater to a very limited audience or to be very bad. But still . . .

Anonymous said...

Total number of books published in the U.S. in 2005, all publishers: 172,000--according to the American Association of University Presses. That's for all publishers, not just university presses.

I'm not going to do the math here, but a considerable number of these must be books by previously published authors. So they're not on any slush pile.

But I'm assuming that the at least tens of thousands of first-time authors represent the tip of the submissions iceberg, which must number in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.


As for who pays for lunch, my agent told me it's always the editor. That way when they turn all your projects down at least you get a lunch out of the deal. It would also appear unseemly for the agent to be providing a consideration to look at his or her submissions.

Anonymous said...

You think a 30-cent increase is bad? I ship a lot of small items in bubble envelopes. A 2-ounce first class parcel shipment used to cost .77 with delivery confirmation. Now the same shipment costs almost 1.50. And let's not even get into some of the new international Priority rates. Ouch.

Yet we're still better off than the Canadians, according to the Canada Post rants I've heard.

facialanomaly said...

please come read my fictional blog journal,
and tell your friends


K.R.Stewart said...

Can't help to point out I made a typo in my original post. 250*250 = 62,500 not 625,000 queries/week. But the figure of 3,250,000 queries/year is correct, as 3,250,000 = 52 (weeks/yr)*250*250 (queries/week). So the rest of my estimate stands as is.

I'm a stickler, can't help it =P

Anonymous said...

This is very good but you are assuming, like most writers, that there are only agents in NYC. Maybe you should read the Guide To Literary Agents, or better yet, read Jeff Herman or look on aar-online.org. Wow, there are agents outside of NYC. Oh-my-God!!

apathy said...

Just wanted to thank anon at 9.47am for answering my question as to who pays for lunch - now I'm really sure I want to be a literary agent!
- apathy

My word verification, btw, was 'wotwud' - seems appropriate I think..

Anonymous said...

Wow, someone was stupid enough to spam a blog by "the Rejecter" with his/her fiction site.


But I guess those numbers intimidate a lot of people (mostly terrible writers), who then try to come up with some way, any way to leapfrog over the slush.

They never seem to notice that it doesn't work. The only thing spam will attract is con artists and flies.

ghlkg said...

Original poster here-- thanks for all the math help. Sorry I didn't specify I meant 750 queries per AGENT per WEEK, should have spelled it out. And Anonymous-- party foul-- claim your work, dude.

Moira said...

Yes, but who would want an agent outside of New York?