In the past week I've come across some fascinating numbers regarding the literary submission process:
• Some literary agents are reporting 300 submissions per week (1,200 per month).
• Writer Amy Deardon said she recently read an online essay by a literary agency assistant who assigned to reading about 50 submissions a day. (The article includes his observations about query letters, which is enlightening.)
• Perusing a sampling of some 30 agencies in Writer's Market, about 20% require that queries be sent by mail; another 30% allow mail and email submissions; while the remaining 50% require email submissions only.
• In her Publishers Weekly article (Feb. 2010) titled Slush Pile Queen, Agnes Birnbaum, founder of Bleecker Street Associates, writes, "I estimate an increase of about 30% in slush with the advent of technology, as more would-be writers can find us online and send off a query with the click of a mouse."
• In his illuminating article What It Takes to Publish a Book, which is funny, empathetic and very depressing, suspense writer Jack King lists his query statistics for his first manuscript:
Submissions to literary agents: 423 (200 snail mail, 223 electronic)
Results: 6 requests for the manuscript, no contracts offered
(For those ready to tear their hair out, Mr. King attended a major book conference where he connected with an editor at a major publishing house. Mr. King sent his manuscript to the editor, who then offered a contract. He subsequently went on to write Ditch the Agent for writers who would like to do so.)
• Whereas literary agents (even the prominent ones) used to provide an approximate date by which they'd respond, submission guidelines now often give a non-response date: if you don't hear from them within that stated time, you're not going to.
1. Email submissions are free, quick and easy — they don't require a trip to the post office and can be sent from anywhere around the world — but they're also quick and easy to lose and delete. And while many agencies say to send only a query letter by email, they'll often say you can include sample pages if you send via snail mail.
2. If it seems like you're having to query twice or three times the number of agents you did on any past occasions, you're probably correct.
3. If the "we'll respond if we're interested" makes you feel like you're in limbo, you are.
4. If you're overwhelmed by the submission process, consider 1) doing what freelance writer Rebecca Sebek does by setting a number of queries to send each month, 2) doing what Mr. King did by connecting directly with the publishing house editors who work on books like yours, 3) submitting directly to small publishing houses like McPherson & Company (publisher of this year's National Book Award winner, The Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon) that allow author submissions, or 4) go the self-publishing route.
5. Do your best to remember that the submission process is the most difficult task of the writing business. It's easy to lose perspective. If you're having trouble finding that perspective, while you submit, commit to working on a piece of writing that brings you joy and delivers you, at least for awhile, from the brutal realities of the publishing world.