This is the post that you've all been waiting for. It contains the top secret information on the screening process by which an established agent decides to take on new clients.
I'm writing this post now because we have elected to take on an electronic intern. I'm sure you're asking, what the hell is that? With all the electronic changes in publishing, it's obvious to me that an intern no longer need to come to my office to go through the unsolicteds. Since half of them are electronic (the submissions, not the interns), I can work with him/her over the Internet (during non-office hours, which is great for me because training someone during my work day has always taken away from my hardcore job of selling). So this post is my internal memo to our new intern, who has a college education in English, has written a book already, and wants to work in publishing, but does not live close enough to the tri-state area to do it from our offices (in case you were wondering what qualifies someone to be an intern with a literary agent).
A little background on me, in case you've forgotten. I have 78 clients (just took another on). I sell both fiction and nonfiction, but about half my clients write both. I like to have a somewhat even list, meaning I like to sell about 50 novels and 50 nonfiction books a year. Since I have a fairly full list, there are not a lot of openings on my time because my existing clients ALWAYS come first. So what I'm looking for has to knock both the socks off of me and the wind out of me.
We receive about 30,000 queries a year, half snail mail, half electronic. It is almost humanly impossible to go through the snail mail in a timely fashion, so we are at least six months behind there. Sometimes I have an intern sifting through it. I send boxes to Jenny three or four times a year(I know she loves me for it). Once or twice a year I grab a U.S.P.S. tub of mail and do it myself. Each tub contains about 1,000 queries. The last time I did this (Nov/Dec, I took on one client and asked to see two partials, which I haven't read yet). I think I forwarded three queries to Jenny.
This past Tuesday, I did the Jan/Feb electronic emails. I asked to see 5 partials. I sent 5 queries to Jenny - she asked to see one. The two that were nonfiction, I believe I will take on. One needs structural and content revisions. The other is a completed manuscript, which I'm waiting to see. One is in pop culture. The other is in fitness/self-help, which I rarely take on, but this project seems perfect and I like the author, so go figure.
Of the 30,000 queries that come in, at least half of them are too long (over 120,000 words for sci-fi and fantasy, way over 80,000 words for anything else) or too short (under 70,000 words). There is always more fiction than nonfiction, so it's just statically harder to crack my agent barrier with fiction, because there are more of you. And fiction always needs more work.
Of the 15,000 remaining, more than half of them are just not the kind of thing I sell - screenplays, plays, short stories, poetry, plain mysteries, regular romance, political thrillers, historical fiction, children's books, mundane WWII or suicide/abuse/drug memoirs, cookbooks, photo books by the unfamous (sorry), novels in someone else's licensed universe (Star Trek, Warcraft, Buffy), and nonfiction that has already been written before but the doctor, psychiatrist, nutritionist, life coach is too lazy to search amazon for similar books.
Of the remaining 7,500, at least a third of them are not written well enough to even begin the editorial rewrite process. I am blunt about this and often send a letter that says, "clever idea. Now get yourself to a writer's workshop and hone your craft. Then requery."
Of the 5,000 remaining, half just don't interest me. I know what I like and when I take a client on, I expect to work with them for a few books (meaning a few years) and my bells just have to be rung.
The remaining 2,500 are probably publishable. That's about 10%, so it's not bad. They're just not for me. Many of them need a lot of work, and I know I don't love the idea enough to want to do the work. I would say that I ask to see about 200 partials and proposals a year. In 2006, I took on 15 new clients (mainly because I was expanding my erotica list), some of whom came from queries. Others came from referral. This year, I've already taken on one client from the unsols, one who is the boyfriend of one of my clients, and a pair of writers who came from a referral.
I did have one client leave this year. He shifted from horror to mysteries and thought someone who concentrates more directly in that genre would be better for him. I agreed. The next day I got another email from an unbelievably talented short story writer (who is now writing novels) I had been trying to fold into my list, so I immediately gave him that spot in my client list.
I have also forwarded queries to Jenny, as she has a wider range of interests (she does take mysteries, romance, thrillers and a broader range of fantasy than I do).
Next post: What Turns Me On!!!