This fall I dusted off an unfinished project, the first book in a fantasy epic trilogy, and spent a few weeks finishing and polishing it. It’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market, which is booming. Trying to write honestly and accurately from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl is perhaps a bit tough if you’re a guy and over 60, but I think I did okay. (Naturally, I’m not in a position to be objective.)
So now I have a complete novel sitting on my hard drive, and a detailed outline of the trilogy. The next step is to try to find an agent. And that’s where the plot thickens. Because the market is healthy, agents are inundated with manuscripts from aspiring writers. A conservative estimate, based on no data whatever, would be that as many as 1,000 times more YA manuscripts are hitting agent in-boxes as are ever published.
Think about that. You’re a literary agent. In the email every morning you receive maybe 20 query letters from aspiring writers. The next morning, 20 more. This year you have the bandwidth to take on maybe four or five new clients, total. Granted, 80% of those queries will be garbage. You can drag them to the trash without a qualm. But that still leaves 20 queries every week, among which a hidden gem may be lurking.
To make matters worse, your salary is 100% on commission. If you pick what you hope is a winner and put hours and days of work into pitching it to publishers, but it doesn’t find a home, you’ve been working for $0 per hour. The result is predictable: The agent is only going to take on a book by a new, untested author if the book dovetails in a precise way with what publishers are buying this season. If the publishers think paranormal romance (basically, girl-meets-vampire) is a glut on the market, it doesn’t matter how fresh or wonderful the writer’s paranormal romance manuscript is. Sorry, Mr. or Ms. Author — you’re not going to be able to find an agent.
You can self-publish, of course, and do your own book promotion. In the Internet age, the tools for self-publishing are very good. You may sell a few copies, or even a few hundred copies. But you’re never going to see your book on the shelves in Barnes & Noble. That door is shut, barred, and bolted.
Anyway, I’m not into self-promotion. I’ve always felt, rightly or wrongly, that promotion and marketing should be left to those who have a talent for it. I’d rather spend my limited time on this planet actually creating stuff. My goal is to find someone else who will market my stuff.
In a perverse way, though, I’m starting to get interested in taking on a creative project for which there is no market whatsoever. Not just because it’s one less thing to worry about while writing, but because I’ll have no competition. Whatever I do will be, as the Romans used to say, sui generis — of its own kind.
But in the meantime, I have a list of seven literary agents to query.