The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

Average American
You are an average American. You sleep 8 hours, eat 2.5 hours a day, work 40 hours a week, and commute a quarter of an hour each way.* The rest of your time is split pretty evenly between things you Have To Do (cooking, cleaning, fixing things, buying things...) and things you Want To Do (watching TV, reading, playing guitar, having a social life, etc).

* Those last two are actually below average, but I'm being generous with the numbers in this post to make a point.

No Response Means No
You decide you want to be a literary agent. That means, in addition to your regular work hours which make money, you have to read query letters. Thinking a query letter is something like a resume -- you send it out widely and only hear back if you get an interview -- you adopt a "no response means no" policy.

Still, it takes you an average of 3 minutes to read and make a decision on each query. Getting through 200 queries a week, plus partials and fulls, means 12 extra hours of work. Fortunately you weren't very good at guitar anyway. And you probably don't have to see a new movie every week.

Form Rejections
Writers, you discover, are needier than the average job seeker. Without a response, they pester you endlessly wondering if you've gotten to their query yet. After talking to your agent buddies you adopt a form rejection policy. Copying/pasting everything, including the author's name and their book title, takes an extra minute per query -- over 3 hours more each week. No big deal, but it does mean you have to stop watching those reality shows.

Improved Form Rejections
After a few years of interacting with writers on your blog (which you do now instead of going out Saturday night), you decide form rejections aren't enough. You're eager to give writers what they want, so you personalize your rejections -- not all the way, of course, but since a query usually gets rejected for one of a few reasons, you create five "personalized" form rejection letters.

What you didn't realize was how difficult it is to stop and analyze every query for why it doesn't appeal to you. And some queries don't even fit into your categories. It ends up taking another 2 minutes per query, leaving you with only 4 hours of "Want To Do" time a week. You survive though, trading sleep so you can play Halo or read a book occasionally.

Personalized Rejection
It's still not enough. Instead of being thankful for your help, the writers are arguing with you over why you didn't like their story! Years later you'll learn it's just human nature, that it's hard NOT to defend your work even when faced with hard evidence. For now, you decide you'll write truly personalized rejections. It takes a while -- about 10 minutes per query, actually -- but it's worth it if it helps writers improve their craft.

Of course everything you eat is ordered online now, weekends are something that happen to other people, and cleaning is right out (and you can't afford a maid, of course, because you're not getting paid for any of this). But finally the writers will be satisfied.

Won't they?


Anonymous said...

At what stage in the game does the pie chart turn entirely light blue? :)

Great post, good sir. I do believe I shall pass this one along.

Matthew MacNish said...

I followed Simon's tweet here.

I can't draw but writing AND geekery? That was an instant follow for me.

Nice ta meet ya Adam!

Adam Heine said...

@Simon: At 200 queries/week, the chart goes light blue at about 50 min/query, or when the writers convince you that a query letter cannot truly represent their work -- you accept and critique unsolicited partials. And thanks for passing it along!

@Matthew: Good to meet you too! And thank you for single-handedly justifing the subtitle of this blog :-)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Awesome! I'm afraid the final step is along the lines of "agent drops dead of heart attack from too much Taco Bell" or "agent burns out and retreats to bedroom, watching reality TV 24/7." Neither of which do I want to see happen. And which makes me all the more in awe of agents that somehow juggle all the demands with grace.

Adam Heine said...

Agreed on the awe, Susan. But is it possible to have "too much" Taco Bell? ;-)

vic caswell said...

seriously, those agents are amazing people! now you should make one for nathan bransford specifically... how does he write while doing all that? and the help out as his forums... and the weekly crits... and keep up on sports? i'm thinking android... i just don't think there is anyway the numbers even add up to the awesomeness of productivity that is nb! :)

Adam Heine said...

Have to agree with you about Nathan, aspiring. Though my guess would be clones, probably 3 of them (I hear he's married).

Myrna Foster said...

And we wonder why some agents won't accept unsolicited queries. Love the pie charts!

jjdebenedictis said...

LOL! This post is brilliant! It's so easy for someone to think, "How long could it possibly take for them to just give me a hint why they said no?"

Answer: A loooooong time when there's a hundred other people just as deserving of that attention also.

Adam Heine said...

@Myrna: Seriously. Honestly I think all agents should go to "response to means no," (though preferably with an automatic "I got your query" reply). Maybe if it were the standard, people would stop complaining. Mostly.

@JJ: "But they don't have to tell EVERYBODY, just me!"

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

This is awesome, Adam. I totally agree with you. I'm fine with no-reply-means-no, as long as they use a auto-responder so that I know they got the query in the first place.

And we wonder why agents get so peeved when wanna-be authors respond to their rejections.... and why they don't like thank you notes. :)


Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Amy. Thank you notes are tricky. I really WANT to thank them sometimes, and I know some agents don't mind, but the last thing I want to do is add to their e-mail burden.

Victoria Dixon said...

Great post, Adam! This does help putting six-nine week waits in perspective. :D