Before I worked in publishing I believed that all agents did all day was read submissions. I genuinely believed that 9-6 – with an hour for lunch – they would be sat at their desk, wading through piles of paper submissions, probably smoking a pipe and wearing tweed. I thought that when they took an author on they would post the submission out to a few editors, and then wait for the money to roll in. But mostly, it was about the reading.
I asked authors on twitter what they felt about how long agents took to respond and the answers I received reaffirmed for me that perhaps quite a few people believe – like I used to – that agents spend all day with the slushpile. (Maybe they also believe the pipe/tweed thing, I can’t be sure.)
‘… it’s slowly soul-destroying…’
‘… it takes too long…’
‘… response times give me a measure of their respect for my time…’
‘… when it’s a no you want it to be quick. Nothing worse than being rejected after months…’
‘… the longer it takes, the more the rejection feels insulting…’
I thought that a bit of myth-busting might be in order, and also might soothe the RSI writers develop from clicking refresh on their inbox.
WHAT DO AGENTS DO ALL DAY
The vast majority of our day has to be spent working on existing clients. I’ve blogged about my job before HERE and emphasised the fact that I read submissions in lunch-breaks, in evenings, and on weekends. Obviously when you’re just starting out as an agent, with very few clients, you have more time to spend just reading slush, but when you have 30+ clients, 99% of your time is spent dealing with them. I can normally be found editing, troubleshooting any issues clients have, dealing with foreign publishers, negotiating contracts, writing submission letters, answering emails from clients, answering rights inquiries, dealing with covers and page proofs and late edits and auctions and offers and anything in between. I can get up to 500 emails in a day relating to existing projects, and those have to be dealt with before I can even think about new ones.
I work FOR my clients, which means that money processing, doing deals, chasing payments, dealing with their queries and reading their manuscripts comes first. And that’s exactly what authors want from me if they sign with me! They want to be my priority, and for me to work hard for them. I am always looking for new talent – I’ve sold 5 debut authors thus far this year – but the time I spend on reading unsolicited submissions tends to be my free time, rather than during work hours.
When I receive a submission I immediately file it in my ‘submissions’ folder, and flag it. I then tick it off once I’ve read and responded to it. Submissions can hit my inbox at all hours – some at 3am, some on weekends, some when I’m out of the office at meetings – and I don’t get a chance to read and consider each one as and when they arrive.
Sometimes (maybe 1 in every 300) a submission will hit my inbox when I’m on the bus with nothing to read, and it sounds AMAZING, and I read and respond right away. But I can count on one hand the number of times that happened last year.
If you don’t hear from me it’s not because I know I want to reject your novel I just haven’t got round to it yet, it is because I haven’t read your novel yet. As soon as I’ve read it, I’ll respond.
It sounds obvious, but it’s important to consider that it takes time to read. It’s not a matter of me simply looking at something and, Johnny-5 style, immediately absorbing what is on the page. I have to stop to consider it, weigh up if it fits my list, consider if the sample chapters have worth, worry if it needs too much work, analyse how strongly I feel about it. And that takes time.
Amy Boggs, an agent at Donald Maass literary agency, did some number-crunching: ‘I get an average of 100 queries a week. Because I ask for a synopsis and the first five pages as well, that comes to around 700 pages. So my query pile alone amounts to two books' worth of reading each week. Some weeks this is totally doable. Other weeks I receive two client manuscripts in my inbox and thus read zero queries. Each week I fall behind means more that need to be read the next week, and so pile up occurs.’
For the writer, it’s just one submission, but for the agent it is one of many each day and all of them add up. I received 3,500 submissions of the first three chapters last year, and it’s no quick task to read them all.
Juliet Pickering from Blake Friedmann added, ‘I completely understand that an author is at home alone, wondering why it takes us up to 2/3 months to reply to an email and few of their pages. But times those pages by ten (approx. ten subs a day) and you have 300 pages; that's 2,100 pages a week to read.’
INCREDIBLE SUCCESS STORIES
A lot of writers get hung up on the stories of people who send their book in and overnight have agents clamouring to represent their book. But it all depends on how busy I am at the time and the thing to remember is that the overnight success stories are the exception rather than the rule, and the time taken has little effect in the long run on the success of the book.
Jodie Hodges at UA said, ‘I've taken people on within a week or it's taken months - same end result and didn't affect if/how quickly/for how much money their book sold for.’
Sometimes the quickest agent isn’t the best agent for you. I always say that it’s better to wait, to consider your options, before jumping at the first person to say yes.
TRYING TO HAVE A LIFE
Sometimes I’m behind on submissions because I’ve gone away for the weekend. Sometimes I’ve gone to the theatre, or out dancing, or for dinner.
As Jodie Hodges says, ‘Does an author want an agent who has no grasp of other cultural influences because they have no time to read different books, watch films and TV, go to the theatre?’
Sometimes I do spend all weekend reading manuscripts, but sometimes I want to watch TV, or read for fun, or visit my family. We work long hours and it’s important to get downtime. I took two weeks off from reading submissions over the Christmas break – which put me further behind in my submissions pile – but just like a teacher or an office-worker has annual leave, it’s only fair that we do too.
I think it’s important to learn patience because publishing in general is a slow process. From finding an agent you can sometimes then spend six months drafting and redrafting, another three months out on submission, and then it can be 12 months before the book is published. Ironically, the process of finding an agent – which feels like it goes at a snail’s pace – can be the quickest part of all. I asked a few of my writers how they felt about how long the process takes, and all agree that once you have a book coming out a sort of amnesia takes place: those months of waiting fade away compared to the excitement of knowing that you have realised your dream.