Tuesday, January 05, 2010

It's not about the odds.

Yup another resolution post. Everyone's writing these. Everyone's making them. Why not jump on the bandwagon? I like the music they're playing and it's being pulled by horsies.

So, here's mine:

Stop comparing myself to others.

And there's kind of an interesting story behind coming to this conclusion. It has been something I've been thinking about for a while (and um maybe have been told a few times by others), but what made it finally click was the following:

Before the holidays many agents, as has almost become tradition, posted their stats for the year. How many queries they got, how many full manuscripts they requested, how many clients they signed. Here, for example, are some of the lovely Kristin Nelson's stats -

books sold

number of new clients (Kristin & Sara combined)

estimated number of queries read and responded to (and yes, that is up from last year)

full manuscripts requested (down from last year)

These stats I think are always interesting as a glimpse into the world of publishing. And yup. The numbers do paint a pretty intimidating picture.

How do I know they are so intimidating?

Because for the two weeks of holiday that followed the agent round up posts, writers on various forums spent hours upon hours analysing what the stats meant. Some were depressed by the odds, others invigorated, many many were overwhelmed. And then there was me.

I couldn't have cared less.

Well yes you would say that Adrienne, you have an agent, you've been published.

But, lest we forget, I didn't always, and I'm still trying to get other stuff published out there and still trying my hand at this insanity that is acting - where the numbers I imagine are ten times more terrifying.

I know the odds my friends, but again . . .

I couldn't care less.


Because they don't matter.

There is luck in the arts. Yup. Totally. You need to find the right person who likes the same stuff as you do, the market has to be just perfect for the kind of book you've written. And I will always maintain that the crazy successes (Harry Potter etc) get the crazy success because of good timing, not a good story (I think good storytelling would have still resulted in books that were published and had a following, but the degree of success of those kinds of books, in my mind, is not about talent - oh, btw, I think Rowling rocks, not trying a diss here).

But despite all the luck, publishing still isn't a lottery. It isn't. I've written about that before. There are very solid steps you can take that will get you published. You need to learn the craft, read a lot of books, write a lot of words. You need to then write a killer book, edit said book, have others look at the book, perfect the book. You need to write a fab query, submit to the correct agents/publishers. You need to be professional. You need to also not give up if the first book doesn't get you where you want it to. Perseverance is just as important as talent in this business. If not, arguably, more important.

And because publishing truly isn't a lottery, you can't look at the agent stats, or any stats, as meaning anything to you.

Yes, for Kristin, she signed 6 new clients out of 38 000 queries. But this doesn't lead to the conclusion that 6 authors get agented out of 38 000 queries. It means that this year, there were 6 authors who suited what Kristen was looking for, could write more than competently, and who in turn accepted her offer (she has blogged about writers turning her down in favour for other agents). It doesn't mean that there weren't authors out of the 38 000 queries who didn't sign with other agents.

Nor does it mean that if you submit your book to agents chances are they will reject it.

Basically the key point to all of this is: all books are not created equal.

When you buy a lottery ticket you have as much of a chance as the person who bought it just before you of winning that cash. You are equal.

When you submit your manuscript you have no idea how it compares to the thousands of other manuscripts that are submitted to that same agent. Chances are it is better than some, hopefully not worse than too many others. But I bet, if you're reading this blog as a hopeful as yet unpublished author doing some research, you are probably writing something better than 90% of the submitted works out there.

But let me do a little quiz just to make sure:

1. Can you write in coherent sentences, with proper spelling and grammar?

2. Do you do your research which agent is best for you to submit your work to?

3. Did you learn/or are planning to learn what a query letter is and how to construct one?

4. Are you professional and thoughtful?

If you answered yes to these questions, congrats! You are now in the top 10% of submissions.

Yes. You read that right. The lion's share of submissions sent agents are pure crap. Crap. Would you like to know how crap? Please read this lovely post by The Rejectionist. Warning it's a bit blunt, and meant to be cynically funny, please take the attitude as one as being a little over the top.

Here's another very famous post called Slushkiller over at Making Light (to which I've linked in the past). Scroll down to find a much more comprehensive quiz than the one I just made.

So, fine, Adrienne, fine. We get it. So we aren't competing against 38 000 queries for 6 slots. We are competing against 3 800 queries for 6 slots. Awesome.

No. No you're not. First of all, there aren't 6 slots. You have no idea how many new clients an agent is going to take on in a year. Guess what? Neither does the agent. They don't have a quota to fill. They are taking on new clients because they want to represent their work. This means they could take on no clients even. Hmm . . . that might not be that inspiring . . .

Second of all, and in my mind, most importantly, you aren't competing. You aren't. If you're competing against anyone it's yourself, but in a far more metaphorical way. To compete means there is a winner and a loser. Competing is what happens in acting. 100 actresses vying for one role. Only one person gets that part. End of. But anyone can get published - in theory. If you've written a quality book that suits the current market. Every book written by every author is different. Except if you've plagiarised. But that's wrong. Don't do it. You have agents who represent sometimes only one genre and yet have many clients. They can do that because there are enough differences between author voices, choices, characters etc. I mean look at the YA section these days, all urban fantasy romance, but look at all the different choices within that. All these authors co-exist. And sure some do better than others. But who knows, maybe ten years down the road, the roles will be reversed.

Agents want good books. Books that speak to them by authors they think they can work with for several years. The only numbers that matter to you are your numbers. How many rejections are you getting, are you getting requests for partials and fulls? Those matter because you can tell if there's something wrong with your query or manuscript. But what do those other numbers matter to you? In the end. What do they matter?

Nothing. The only thing I can think of is to point out just how many people want this and that we have to make sure our stuff is as awesome as possible. But. Were you not already working really hard on your novel? Were you not already making sure that everything in your query was so crystal clear so you won't alienate a potential business partner? Were you not intending on being thoughtful and professional?


Back to me.

After all my trying to comfort others that the stats don't matter, that we need not compete with our fellow authors, I realised that I spend far too much of my life comparing myself to others ironically. I felt like a hypocrite. And I want to change. My career is my own. And that author I'm comparing myself to has her own journey to travel. She's taking care of herself, why shouldn't I take care of me? (btw, I just used "she" so I wouldn't have to get all messed up with the "they" thing, I'm not talking about anyone in particular in case an investigation ensues post reading this)

And I hope this resolution resonates with some of you. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the lives of others, I mean, isn't that the essence of Twitter? We need to remember that we are different, and we know what works best for us, and that might not be what works best for someone else. We might want what others have, but who's to say we won't get it, in our own way. And then in turn have others comparing their lives to ours.

It's time to strip away the excess. It's too much energy taking on board everyone else's life as well. So I'll focus on the people I care about, and I'll focus on me. But the rest? It's time to let go.

It's not about the odds. It's about what I can do so they don't matter.


Clifton Hill said...

Great post, thanks for the insight and the notes. I always try to keep the thoughts of "needing" to be published out of my mind. Yet when I do think on the stats it is, yes, daunting. But ultimately I write because I want to tell a story...if someone likes it enough to publish it...FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC! 'Course I sure would like to do it full time, so...

Michell Plested said...

Excellent article and you are absolutely correct. Timing plays a part, finding the right person another. Stay motivated, keep submitting and keep writing.

Good luck on your continuing adventures in writing and acting.

Jamie Eyberg said...

And in the meantime I will research agents and write and then research some more and then write a lot more. . .

Thanks for the insight.

Alan Orloff said...

Excellent analysis of the agent/query numbers "fallacy."

Work hard, learn from those who know, stick with it. Then let luck find you.

Good luck with your resolution!

Angela Corbett said...

I think that if writers took the time they spend obsessing over statistics and put that effort into writing instead, they would be a lot more likely to get picked up by an agent. Nothing determines your success as an author more than hard work. Thanks for the great post!

Tanvi said...

This was insightful, such a great post!
I don't think much about stats myself.

Oh, and yes, Rowling rocks!

Jo said...

Great post. Thanks for it (and the honesty). And thanks for mentioning timing and luck as far as the crazy successes go. Two things we can't as writers control and all the more reason to work on the things we can.

Adrienne said...

Thanks all! I'm glad it resonated with you guys.

Clifton - it's tough to deal with our "real" feelings about publication, which is in that dream come true category. Of course we want it, of course we think we "need" it. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't. But it's also about how we get there, and we won't get there by crippling ourselves with meaningless statistics.

Michell - it's all about perseverance, truly. I'm slowly learning that myself. And thank you on the luck, these days I really need it :) .

Jamie - exactly. Spot on. And thank you.

Alan - thank you. Stats can be really intimidating, numbers always feel so definitive. But they aren't and are manipulated as much as we writers manipulate words. What's the saying? "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Angela - oh absolutely! The amount of energy used in fretting and complaining is just staggering to me sometimes. Not that I'm not guilty of it myself at times too. Still, time to just get on with it right?

Tanvi - thank you. And yes, the Rowling is just all kinds of awesome.

Adrienne said...

Ah Jo! You posted as I was replying to the others, didn't mean to ignore you.

I do think it is important to mention the luck factor, but I understand why so many in the industry don't want to. It goes with the whole writing isn't a lottery point. Too many authors think ALL it comes down to is luck, which isn't true, so then people in the industry say the complete opposite: write a good book and it will sell.

But there is SOME luck involved, and to deny that is silly. And as far as the crazy success stories go, well it is ALL luck to get that successful. Which is why I find it staggering that so many publishers these days are looking for books that will be the next Rowling, Meyer etc, often turning down smaller books because they won't have the huge blockbuster appeal. But there is no predictor what books will be that crazy huge success. So they are basing their business model on luck. Truly mind boggling.

(I should add that smaller books do get bought, as do different and unusual books, but these days with the industry struggling as it is, publishers are looking more and more for a sure thing, which, as we all know, does not exist)

Claudia said...

Oh comparison: the curse of every artist, isn't it? (or is it really the curse of everyone? not sure) Thanks for the honest post. I'm sure it has resonated with many people.

Riley Roam said...

Thanks for the reminder. I too find that I compare myself to others and their careers way too much...um...including you! I too was an actress once upon a time, but gave it up because I couldn't take the rejection. Then I decided to write...ha! I also was a perfume sprayer in the mall once. There's nothing like people screaming NO!!!! and running from you in fear to toughen up ye 'ol hide.

Anonymous said...

I think you mean "in the top 10%", if the majority is crap.

If we're in the top 90%, then only a small minority (10%) is crap.

Adrienne said...

Claudia - glad you liked it, thank you!

Riley - ooh, we should all be perfume sprayers at some point to experience such rejection! Excellent suggestion (though I must admit to being one of those people running away in terror).

Anon - Noted, and corrected (obviously that's what I meant, lol).


Stephen Duncan said...

Just to dork it up a little, Han Solo said, "Never tell me the odds."

Be like Han.

Ellie said...

And that is why I have a blog instead of a very large word document.

Polenth said...

I think I'd die if I was a perfume sprayer. I barely survive when I have to walk through the perfume department, and that's holding my breath.

Fortunately, writing has less chemical warfare involved.

Nate said...

In 1989, an instructor told me I may as well not bother trying to get a job as an airline pilot with my experience. In 1990, I was hired.

In 1994, a neurosurgeon told me I'd never walk again. In 1995, I walked back in to work and flew my trip.

Odds only tell us how bad we have to want something in order to get it.

Work like it all depends on you. Pray like it all depends on God.

Erica said...

Wow, fabulous post. Thank you! I feel like I was meant to read this. I was just telling a non-writer friend about the dismal odds of getting an agent, err how I felt the odds were after reading the stats...

I know it's still a long shot, but I really needed to read this tonight - I can't thank you enough :o) Good luck to you on all your resolutions ;o)

Sara McClung ♥ said...

Wow. This post rocks! I'll definitely be passing it on because every writer who's been scared by the numbers game should absolutely read it :-)

Patti said...

Great post. It's hard not to get overwhelmed when thinking about your chances. I think luck is when opportunity meets preparation (Oprah quote) and I think that's so true.

storyqueen said...

I really love your resolution. I, too, need to focus more on what I can do and less on what others are doing. Thanks for the little wake-up.


Kay Richardson said...

Great post. V much enjoyed reading this. And I think I remember you from a writing forum ages ago, pre-publication, so v good to see how successful you've become. I'll visit more often, I promise.

Alexandra said...

I've been languishing in the slush pile for almost a year at this point, and it's very easy (even when I do get requests, etc.) to be discouraged. This post was really encouraging, because you're so right. I compare myself to others, and I think about the stats or the odds way too often. I'll be returning here whenever I'm feeling like it's an impossible journey. Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

Good stuff.

If only I could kill the procrastinator in me.