I’ve been doing a lot of posting on AbsoluteWrite.com lately. This website is one of the most active communities of writers out there and I love it for that reason. But, well, I also hate it a little. Why? Because the information on there is often not that accurate. And the mentality is often an “it’s us against them” approach. “Them” being agents and editors. And I think that’s just wrong.
Authors often seem to think that agents and editors are sitting up in their own version of the ivory tower, passing judgment on all who try to reach them. And that’s simply not true. No agent or editor got into the publishing business to make money. Sure, some do very well, but many more make far less than they need to in order to live comfortably in New York City, where most of publishing resides. They got into publishing because they love books. It really is that simple. And nothing makes an agent or editor happier than finding a great book they can help get published. I love finding new clients.
What I see causing the most problem in this business is volume, pure and simple. Thanks to technology, it has become very cheap and very easy to make submissions to dozens of agents or publishers. And, yes, I know “cheap” is a relative term. But let’s think about how it all used to be done.... (Play weird flashback music here.)
Before there were computers, authors wrote their books on these mechanical devices called typewriters. Most wrote their books by inserting page after page, one after another. Mistakes were laborious to fix. Typing paper was expensive. If you wanted two copies of what you were typing, you had to buy carbon paper to insert between the sheets. Imagine your horror when you made an error then. The typewriter could not check your spelling or your grammar. If you wanted to check those, then you needed a strange book called a dictionary and another called The Elements of Style. Some authors might invest in a very expensive book called the Chicago Manual of Style.
An author who finished his novel generally now had one copy of it. If he wanted two, he could hire a typing service, to make a copy, which he would then have to proofread carefully. As technology improved, he could take it to a print shop, which could produce very expensive copies using printing technology. Later, there were copy shops, where it cost anywhere from twenty-five cents to a dollar a page to make a copy.
Generally, back in the typing service days, the author got one or two copies made, and then he started to mail it off to publishers. There weren’t that many agents. At the publishers, an editor would receive the manuscript, perhaps one of two or three that might show up that week. He could read it and might write an encouraging letter back to the author. Or maybe not. The manuscript was always returned because everyone knew how expensive it was to produce.
Now, let’s fast-forward to about twenty years ago, when I came into the business. Desktop PCs were common enough, but not laptops. “Portable” computers were bigger than a typewriter. The Mac Classic was the most futuristic technology a writer might use. Editors didn’t have computers on their desks. As an assistant, I shared a Wang workstation linked to a departmental printer. My boss banged out letters on his typewriter, or typed them on memo pads and gave them to me to type up on letterhead. After I printed the letter, I had to walk it over to the photocopier and copy it onto letterhead. The system did not check spelling, nor did it do mail merge. It had no database of agents’ addresses. I had a Rolodex, as did my boss. Want a best-selling author’s address to hit him up for a quote on a book? Stroll down after hours and “borrow” it from the editor-in-chief’s assistant’s Rolodex. Hey, I’m trying to get promoted here!
Many of the submissions that come in were written on computers, but very few were printed on laser printers. Most came on dot matrix printers, where you could discern each and every dot in every letter. No wonder I am nearly blind. The paper was nearly tan or gray computer paper that had had the perforated sides torn off.
Agents invested in photocopying, but the originals were as described above. The copies were not much better. A 400-page manuscript probably cost $40-100 to copy. The box it came in probably cost $2-5. Then it was put in a Jiffy bag—nearly always the kind made from shredded newspaper that erupted all over your lap when you opened it wrong—and sent over by messenger, at a cost of $5-10. So that one submission from that one agent probably cost between $50 and $115.00 each, not counting the agent’s time, his assistant’s time, etc.
As an assistant, I spent a good portion of my day opening those submissions, date-stamping the letter and typing up a little submission card, which was a two-part card with a piece of carbon paper in the middle. I had to type the author name, title, agent name, and address, as well as the date received, on each card. Then I had to walk all the way down to the publisher’s office and file it in a card file behind her secretary’s desk. I filed one in my own card file on my desk.
After cleaning up the shredded newspaper, I took the submissions into my boss’s office and plopped them down in an in-box that sat on the radiator cover behind his desk. He would then decide if and when to read them.
My boss had about five standard rejection letters that he’d typed up on his typewriter. He then made photocopies of them. He would stick one on each submission, trying, obviously, not to send the same agent the same letter on two submissions. That could be hard. One agent in particular, Jay Garon, would send over two or three submissions per week. Nearly all of it was drek, but one was The Firm, which resulted in many editors having to take Jay’s submissions a lot more seriously.
Still, an editor might only get two or three submissions per day. Photocopying still wasn’t that cheap and there was no email between agents and editors. Agents would call to pitch a book to an editor before sending it over. The phone tag alone would take two days.
One day my boss produced twenty-six manuscripts for me to reject. I had to type up twenty-six letters, twenty-six labels, mark the rejection date on twenty-six cards, photocopy all of the letters from white paper onto letterhead, then have my boss sign them, then staple a copy to each of the original submission letters and file them. And I had to pack up, into #6 Jiffy bags that had to be stapled closed, all twenty-six manuscripts and put labels on them. Finally, I piled them by the out-going mail pile for the mail room to take away. Needless to say, I did nothing else that day. I was making $15,000.00 a year, plus overtime, and my rent was about $425 a month. I’m sure I learned a lot about being an editor that day of my publishing “apprenticeship.”
Today, many agents still get copies made and send them by messenger over to editors. And editors’ assistants—now making $25,000-$32,000 a year and paying $1,000 a month in rent—still kill entire days packing them up and returning them.
Fast-forward to today. I rarely make a hard-copy submission. Generally, I make submissions by email, even full manuscripts. What I do, though, is take the Word file I get from the author, clean up whatever needs cleaning up—this can take hours and hours—then convert the file to a PDF document. Then I upload it to my server and I send an email with a submission letter and a link to the file to those agents I think are interested. Every once in a while I get an editor who wants a manuscript, in which case I upload it to Kinko’s or Staples, or whatever, and have a copy printed out. Nowadays, I can just include the submission letter with the upload and have Kinko’s ship the entire package out for me. I don’t even have to go pick it up. But that will cost me $50, minimum.
In the “olden” days, an agent might send a book out to eight or ten editors, wait for those to come back, then send them out again. The out-of-pocket costs were enormous and the waiting time brutal. Now I can send an email submission to fifty editors in the US and UK if I want. They can read it online or print a chapter or two. If they want to read an entire ms, they can print it and throw it away if they reject it, saving them the cost of packing it up and sending it back, which includes postage, office supplies, and the time of their assistant. It’s break-even at best and a savings at worst. Certainly on the ones where they print only a chapter or two before passing, it’s a saving, both for them and in terms of the amount of paper wasted. In this case, email means we can simultaneously submit to many editors at once for next to nothing but our time. This means agents can be much more aggressive about where they send submissions. When a submission costs $40-$115 each, you think long and hard about that submission list. When it’s just an email, it’s easy to take long shots, for better or worse.
But multiply me times 400 other agents out there doing the same thing. Imagine what that means to editors’ workloads. Is it no wonder their response times are lagging?
Agents aren’t in a much better position. Cheap printing options and cheaper paper costs make sending out queries much easier than in the days of typewriters. An author can query 500 agents for about $250.00 or so. That’s not a huge investment if you’re trying to start a career as an author, is it? When it comes time to send out more material, it can certainly start to add up. But let’s get back to the 500 agents who got the query and have to read it and request more or reject it. Multiply that one author querying 500 agents by the thousands and thousands of authors out there, trying to find an agent. I recently saw one agent say on her website that she got 30,000 queries in the last year. If that’s true, I don’t know how she got any work done. It’s more than 100 queries per day. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that many, but I’m very picky and make that clear on my website, so I probably discourage a lot of authors from querying me. I’m also very grumpy and that’s clear from my website and my blog—I think—and that probably discourages a few more. If needed, I can be sneazy, too, but it tends to make my keyboard yucky, so I keep tissues handy for when the hay fever kicks in.
Every month, I post on this blog my monthly stats. After a very long time of being closed to new queries, I’m open again, and the stream is slowly picking up. But certainly I’m not overwhelmed at this time. Which is good for authors. I can get back to them quickly. But I imagine in very little time, I’ll be one of the 500 times 5000 queries going out every week and I’ll be overwhelmed again.
Maybe I should invest in building a means to query me electronically. I would make it a bit like a game. You’d have to answer twenty questions just to get to the page to query me. If I could make you manually type your manuscript and put in some real sweat equity before showing your material to the world, I would. But I cannot. But technology still won’t let me easily take a pile of queries to read in the dentist’s waiting room, or on a train or plane, so I’ll keep asking for paper (I know, I know, I could read them on a PDA or laptop, but I am not going to read them on my Blackberry or schlep my laptop everywhere). It’s not banging out a manuscript on a manual typewriter (and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to read a manuscript typed on a manual typewriter from an eyestrain perspective), but it’s a little bit of effort that helps me know you’re the real deal, at least spiritually, if not in terms of talent.
If you’re read this far and decide to query me, then by all means write “I love paper” on your query and I’ll try to put it on top of the pile. It’s the least I can for you after you spent all this time reading my meanderings.