Playing the Numbers Game

Harriet Gordon Getzels | August 2005

The day I sent my manuscript off to five literary agents-agents recommended to me by published authors-I left the post office feeling hopeful, relieved, and a bit -inebriated with thoughts of what might happen next. After seventeen months of full-time writing, I’d completed a narrative nonfiction book proposal and three sample chapters. The day before, I’d phoned each of the agents’ assistants in New York and briefly pitched the project, naming who recommended them to me. All agreed to have a look at the material, and now I wondered if the replies would come by phone, letter, or e-mail. Would they arrive first thing in the morning or late in the day? Would my efforts be doomed for the literary morgue, or launch into the stratosphere of worldwide acclaim?

I’d have cringed with despair had I known at the time-mid-March-how long I would be waiting (five months), or how many more agents I’d be contacting (seventy-five) before my search came to a close. All I could think about on that sunny day, as I passed the window displays of Barnes & Noble, was who among the five agents would bring good news in the coming weeks. In my inept mathematical brain, I calculated that even if one declined, I’d still have an 80% chance left; if two declined, 60%; if three, well, then, I’d drum up a Plan B.

A few days later, I grew restless. My habit-my puritan, hard-driving work ethic-was to labor at least from nine to six, no matter what. Before I began my writing venture, I’d made documentary films around the world for British and American television. As a film director, I worked to tight deadlines. During the editing process, I was sequestered with an editor in a cutting room for eight hours a day, five days a week; forced, on demand, to be creative until thirty or forty hours of raw material were successfully reduced to a viewable, enjoyable, and hopefully provocative fifty minutes. This would be done in no more than six weeks. The concentration and discipline of compulsory creativity-constructing the story, selecting scenes, creating meaning through words, imagery, and sound-taught me to work productively for long hours, a focus, I found, that transferred effectively to my writing ambitions. My book proposal-called "My Tribe Comes Too!"-traversed my career as a madcap travel adventure in film, family, and anthropology (lite), written in the voice of a mother, filmmaker, and wife.

Staring at the dust on my computer screen, I opened Google and pecked in a few things on my mind: Writer Agent Waiting. Scrolling down the page of results, one venue caught my eye: "How long should you wait to resubmit? Writers Net Discussion." Clicking into the Writers Net website, I discovered a world of discussion among published and aspiring writers of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, who seemed to be burning with the same questions as me: How long should it take for an agent to respond? Is it better to send multiple submissions, or give an agent an exclusive read? How do you distinguish a personal letter from a form letter? What does a particular rejection-"the market, unfortunately, is very poor at the moment, for this type of material"-really mean?

Not having participated in a website discussion-something in principle I automatically felt I loathed-I proceeded to read with caution, but soon found myself unable to let a day pass without spending a couple hours buried in the exchanges of information on Writers Net; reading postings by people who called themselves Wonky, Happy Soybean, Robo Man, White Out Girl, and more. Departments for topics to discuss-which had over 200,000 entries-were entitled Literary Agents, Other Ways Into Print, Published Writers, Publishing & Editing, Smoko Time, Unpublished Writers, Writing Craft, plus a search engine for any subject that had previously been discussed on the site, including peoples’ experiences with particular agents, publishing houses, and editors.

My education took off. I learned that it might take six weeks or more to hear from my agents. I also discovered that it could be a mistake to count on as little as five agents for a positive response. One day, a major battle broke out and I watched, like a voyeur glued to a window screen, as a "troll"-an attacker, in cyber-speak-dragged another writer through hell, having somehow hacked out her true name and identity. The troll screamed that this particular first-time author would never succeed, was doomed to failure and would never sell another book. At issue was the fact that her publisher, anticipating a mega-hit, had ordered 240,000 copies of her first novel. Normally, I learned, a first run consists of no more than 10,000–20,000 books. The troll-probably a failed writer himself-claimed that this young newbie would never sell her run, and would be blackballed from publishing for the rest of her life, a fate bestowed on many writers, evidently, whose publishers miscalculate their sales potential, steering the writer’s books to the ‘remainders’ pile rather than the best-selling displays. Many experienced book sellers and distributors came to this newbie’s defense, explaining the vagaries of this business.

I learned even more. A writer called Gerard, who’d submitted a humorous novel about Oprah Winfrey to every agent in New York, posted all his rejection letters-the complete and detailed correspondence-from every agent on his new, controversial website, "Everyone Who’s Anyone." Gerard categorized the agents (listing their addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses) from page one to five in order of what he deemed their level of success in the business. Not surprisingly, Writers Netters claimed that Gerard was barred for life from contacting these agents in the future; but his book, Ginny Good, did find an agent and is now on sale.

One Writers Netter posted a site that listed bestsellers and named their agents; another announced that if you go to and enter an agent’s name in the books search, you can often find a reference of acknowledgement to that agent by the author. Another site someone suggested, "Agent Research and Evaluation," listed bestselling titles and named who represented them. One day, another war broke out. This time, a braggart who’d made a six-digit film sale of her novel had her true identity "outed" along with the name of her agent, whom she’d bitterly criticized on the site. I read in horror and fascination as vicious postings flew.

Someone named Hamish from New Zealand-who manages the site-came on now and again to reprimand everyone and banish the occasional troll. Despite my wish for privacy-and with a fear I’d one day be the victim of an "attack"-I made up a screen name and joined discussions that seemed benign, under the heading of "Smoko Time"-topics writers just want to chat about during a break: favorite authors, pros and cons of Oprah’s selections, who owns the publishing houses, and how much a writer should do on behalf of their own publicity.

Occasionally, I’d offer my critique of a query letter posted by someone who complained they were having poor results. The quality of writing rarely wowed me, but the information available on Writers Net seemed enormously helpful. People offered advice on the pros and cons of self-publishing and e-books, as well as scams-naming names of unscrupulous agents who demand money upfront for reading. People also discussed the ethics of contacting a second or third agent within an agency where one had already declined the material. And hard facts were hammered home: "Congratulations," to BPM, or Leslee, or Queen V, for getting an agent. "But," writers would warn, "you’re only halfway there. Plenty of agented writers never make a sale."

Five weeks after I sent out my manuscripts, my first rejection arrived, by e-mail, on a Sunday afternoon.

Dear Harriet,

Thanks for your patience. You guessed right-I was on an overseas trip for nearly two weeks and have been catching up. I have actually just finished reading your manuscript. It was enjoyable to read and well-written. I’ve thought very carefully about what the publishing prospects might be for the book. While I do think it is possible that you might be able to find a home for it, I’m not completely convinced that I’d be able to achieve this for you. The market has tightened up for many books that might have only a modest sale. The business has simply become enormously competitive for those few slots for what publishers deem "mid-list" books. Without complete conviction that I could overcome these obstacles, I would not feel comfortable taking on the manuscript. Other agents may well take a different view and I wish you the best of luck in finding a home for the manuscript.


(She could have signed it "Dorothy, from Oz")

I felt shocked. Mid-list! Me? In retrospect, I knew I shouldn’t feel disappointed. This was a rejection from a woman whose list of authors included household names. Yet that first rejection felt sharp. Was this a form letter, or something composed especially for me? I refrained from posting it on Writers Net to ask my colleagues their opinion. It didn’t matter. My chances were now reduced to 80%. Still, not bad. But I felt impatient. On the basis of what I’d read on Writers Net, five agents were probably not enough. My agents were all on Gerard’s first page; perhaps I’d aimed too high despite the personal recommendations.

So I created Plan B. I made a list of five more agents, all of whom I’d met at various writers conferences and venues; people I’d managed to share drinks with, and decided weren’t quite right for my material, but who I enjoyed meeting nevertheless. I e-mailed all of them, asking if they’d like to see my work. Each of them replied almost immediately and said, ‘Yes! Send it!’ A few even said they’d been wondering what happened to me. So I skipped the post office route and submitted via e-mail. The rejections came more quickly, and often took the same tone as the first:

You’re a very talented writer. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding an agent and getting this book published... It did arrive and we read it with great interest. I think it’s a difficult sell in this tough market... You are clearly a talented writer. Unfortunately, however... Clearly this is a business of taste and sensibilities and I trust another agent will feel differently and champion this work on your behalf... I have a feeling I may end up kicking myself for not working with you on this one….

This last comment came from an agent who represented a super-star travel book author. I took comfort in his flattery and hoped, indeed, his kicks would leave him bruised. In June, I attended the Washington Independent Writers Conference (WIW), which offered five-minute pitching sessions with a choice of three agents from a list of twenty-five. I did some research, and chose people who requested twenty pages of material to read in advance. And that’s when my first breakthrough occurred. After two dismal agent meetings at the conference, I was greeted by the third-from one of New York’s top-selling nonfiction agencies-as if I were a queen.

"Harriet!" she exclaimed sweepingly, as if I’d waltzed into the room. The tall, striking, dark-haired woman thrust out her hand to shake mine. "Here’s the woman who’s leading the life we all want to live!" I felt she’d summarized my entire marketing plan in that brief, welcoming sentence. Remembering that she’d requested my entire manuscript by e-mail a week before the conference, I was disappointed to hear that she hadn’t had time to read it in its entirety; but her assistant loved it and had urged her to read more. We spoke about the project, discussed our favorite authors, and she asked me to phone her in two weeks if I hadn’t heard from her by then.

By now, Writers Net had taught me that two weeks in publishing time means four. Buoyed with hope and consumed by worry, I decided to ask my fellow writers in cyberspace what they advised in my situation. Should I wait for this agent who I really liked, and who seemed to love my work? Or should I keep querying? Up until now, I explained, I only contacted agents recommended to me, or who I’d had the chance to meet. Responses came quickly.

"It’s a numbers game," wrote an author. "You have to keep submitting, relentlessly, no matter how much hope an agent’s raised, until you get a firm deal and a contract. Keep trying. Do your research, and don’t contact anyone you wouldn’t want to work with." Another writer told me to make charts, keeping track of names, dates, and contact information, why I chose that agent, and how I sent my query (by post or e-mail). Someone else said that the best-case scenario would be to get a "yes" from one agent, which would allow me to phone up all the other agents who still held my manuscript and give them a deadline to read my material, hopefully winning additional offers of representation. This was an optimal situation, I was told, because it would give me a choice.

I duly set up a color-coordinated Excel table and proceeded to search the Web and read the guide books, including Jeff Herman’s Writers Guide, which listed personal information about agents’ tastes in fiction, nonfiction, and professional expectations on the part of their authors. From the start, I’d vetoed the ‘spray and pray’ approach to finding a literary representative, but now, with rejections coming, I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to throw back a few punches. The Association of Authors’ Representatives-a membership of vetted, successful agents-named at least a hundred literary agents on their site that could be good for me. Within their companies, I reckoned an average of three to five more might do business in my genre. Based on that, I figured there could be as many as three hundred good, solid agents I could contact.

Everyday I sat at my computer surrounded by my reference books, studying the names and tastes of agents. I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace, which posts details of all the latest deals: genre, author, agent, editor, sum advanced. I set a goal of querying ten to twenty agents per week and, when possible, I tried to personalize each letter. My colorful chart grew. I moved away from the superstars (on Gerard’s page one) and turned to up-and-coming younger agents hungry for new authors and fresh work. I kept all my rejections, hoping one day to discover a pattern in their critiques.

By late June, I’d contacted eighty agents. Some of the big ones who’d rejected me referred me to younger agents they’d mentored. I studied my lists carefully, reviewing names and references, trying to assess my prospects, as if a crack in the structure might reveal a new opportunity. According to Writers Net, a slow response is often a good sign; rejections come quickly. Of my first ten agents contacted in March and April, I hadn’t heard back from four. When I finally plucked up the courage to phone them, a pattern emerged: all the assistants-people quite young-loved my material, and were trying to get their bosses to read it. This made me realize that my writerly voice was young; my market, most probably, a thirty-something crowd: If only their bosses would see this and catch on. I also knew, going by what I’d learned on Writers Net, that a good take-up rate for query letters-meaning, a request from an agent to read a full or partial manuscript-was 20%. My requests were double that, at 40%.

But one of my close friends-an author whose first nonfiction book sold at auction, then went into remainders-told me I was wasting my time. He claimed that a rejection I received from his agent in Washington DC should be viewed as the final, sweeping response to my work.

"If that agency didn’t take you on, nobody will," he said. "They’re top-notch and really know the market. When they say something isn’t going to fly, nobody’s going to know better than them." I considered his convictions, and decided to stick with my battle plan.

Then, in mid-July, the ball dropped. The lovely, interested agent who greeted me with a flourish at WIW sent me an e-mail saying she wanted to work with me, but an editorial letter with suggestions for changes would soon follow. Five weeks had passed since we’d met. I felt thrilled, and guilty that I’d contacted so many other people in the interim. I e-mailed her back, thanking her, and said I looked forward to reviewing her comments after I returned from the Southampton Writers Conference that weekend.

On Monday morning, after my return, I got a phone call from an agent in a high-flying company whose name I’d never heard.

"So-and-so here passed your manuscript on to me and I absolutely love it!" she said. "I really want to take this on." I went silent in disbelief. From zero yeses, I suddenly had two!

"Is there any other interest?" she asked, sensing my hesitation.

"Yes, but I’d love to meet you and talk about it." I decided to visit New York. We agreed to set up a meeting soon, and when I hung up the phone I pulled out my chart, counting the number of agents who still had my material: fifteen. I phoned and e-mailed each of them, explaining this latest development.

"I’ve had some interest from another agent," I said, feeling guilty I hadn’t spelled out just how many I’d contacted. Self-preservation and survival in this business had plunged me into the thick of the ‘numbers game.’ Now it seemed to work like a well-oiled machine, just as the faceless friends I’d made on Writers Net had promised. I gave each of the fifteen agents until Friday to read my material. By the end of the week I had six appointments in New York, including one with the WIW agent, who wanted to take me to lunch.

I brimmed and beamed at the magnitude of my luck. All the published writers I’d met-at Bread Loaf, Washington Independent Writers, and Southampton-had advised me to choose my agent carefully. For a first time author, this was a Catch-22: I’d be lucky to find even one. No one I met in real life had advised me of this ‘numbers game,’ but I kept my secret source of information to myself.

Over two days in August, I spent an hour or more with each of the six agents in New York. Between the meetings, I hyperventilated with anxiety or excitement. I couldn’t settle down, walking up and down streets-mainly around Union Square and Fifth Avenue, where they all seemed to be based-reviewing what each agent said and what their companies felt like. Each made an offer, but their approaches differed.

One agent handed me a list of successful books on the Independent Booksellers list, and explained that she could see my material slot in successfully there. She didn’t see the need for many changes in my work, but wanted to reformat the proposal in her company’s house style, and work up a more pointed plan for publicity. Another agent felt that changes were imperative. Some wanted more facts and histories about the countries I was writing about; others wanted more emotion from me toward the stories I was telling. All seemed to agree that the writing, the story, and the marketability-with my media background-had clinched their interest. But I also learned that one agent’s gold is another’s lump of clay. Most felt energized by the prospect of a fresh and new travel memoir by a mother, filmmaker, and wife. But one agent-with a weary soul-felt the words travel and memoir could work against each other and jeopardize the sale. Was it travel? Or was it memoir?

Dizzy with information, clutching my moleskin book of copious notes, I returned home after my meetings, knowing I needed to make a decision quickly lest they all lose interest. I decided to veto the agents who didn’t want manuscript changes. After collecting a stack of thoughtful rejections from some of the most successful people in the business, my instincts told me that my writing needed another round of work. In the end, I narrowed my choices down to two. Both wanted revisions, but their styles diverged. One was passionately involved in the material, but I worried that it might take forever to get the proposal right for her. The other seemed straightforward about the revisions she wanted, but more importantly, she was a veteran in the business with years of editorial experience behind her. And she had a precise marketing plan.

"This is definitely a travel memoir," she said, seeing no contradiction in genres. "And its strength is its complexion and humor. That will be its success."

I’d learned-again, from experienced posters on Writers Net-that an agent’s job nowadays is to shepherd a work through all the instabilities modern publishing presents: editors who commission and leave, publicity departments that fall short on their promises, advances that don’t meet financial needs. I wrestled with my choices, and began working my personal contacts, trying to track down authors who’d worked with these two agents.

"Who should I go with?" I asked. This plunged me into a literary minefield.

"That agent never answered my calls," said one writer.

"That agent was incredibly responsive," said another.

"Whatever you do," a third author told me, "don’t sign a contract with any agent, ever. Do not."

"Whatever you do," I heard an hour later from someone else, "sign a contract. Don’t do a thing until you have a lawyer check it."

"Haven’t you figured it out?" said a New York writer. "All writers are whiny. They love to whine. No matter what, you’ll never get any answers to your questions; only complaints."

Confused, but somehow not surprised, I e-mailed a few authors I’d met at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference the year before and discovered that each was on their second, third, or fourth agent.

"How on earth can I avoid making a mistake and having to change?" I asked a young, hot thirty-something writer.

"Just pick the one that feels best," he said.

"And how will I know?"

"You’ll feel it and you’ll know."

"Just resign yourself to the fact that your first one may be a disaster," said another author.

Wishing for an agent who’d wine, dine, and flatter me every few months on my visits to New York, I opted for the steely woman who seemed to live and breathe deal-making in the book business. I’d given up nearly two years of a long, successful film career to start this book. My professional instincts told me to go with the agent who had the most editorial and business experience. I recalled why I originally contacted her: she’d edited women’s fiction for over twenty-five years. When I sent her my query I thought that if she rejected me, the message would be clear: drop writing, go back to film. And if she accepted me, then I’d be very encouraged. I thanked each of my other agents for their time and consideration and, leaving the door open, suggested that one day we’d meet again.

Now I’m back in the throes of that endless phase in a writer’s life: waiting. Waiting for my agent to read my revisions and go forward with the plan she originally proposed. I didn’t tell my friends on Writers Net that I’d landed an agent until weeks after I’d signed the contract. I didn’t want to invite any trolls or attackers telling me my ego had grown too big, or my dreams and fantasies loomed beyond the realm of possibility.

But as I wait, I find myself checking in to Writers Net. I know I’ll be needing them if I turn frantic with worry as I wait for responses after my agent sends my work out to editors; or if I don’t feel I’m getting copies of all my rejection letters, a concern often voiced by writers in cyberspace; or if she doesn’t answer my e-mails the minute I send them. If I hadn’t found Writers Net, I’d be stumbling around in darkness and despair, believing that the first ten agents I contacted were gurus and genies whose rejections comprised some irrevocable truth about my work. I have no idea if I’ll sell my book, but one thing I know for sure: if I hadn’t stuck with the "numbers game," I’d never have given myself the opportunity to find out.


Harriet Gordon Getzels has a long track record of award-winning documentaries for British, American & European television. Based in Oxford, England for sixteen years, Harriet relocated to Washington DC in 2001 where she directed for National Geographic Television in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and the Republic of Georgia before embarking on writing My Tribe Comes Too, which she describes as madcap adventures in film, family and anthropology (lite). Harriet divides her time between writing and filmmaking. She won Honorable Mention for Personal Essay from Writer’s Digest in 2004, published features in The Independent and The Listener (UK), and attended Bread Loaf in 2003.

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