Last Monday Kristin Nelson posted a valuable blog entry titled “White Noise” which dealt with authors’ need to know-but-ignore the overwhelming statistics regarding the query, agent acquisition and publication process.
I spent some time over the past week thinking about the issue, and it seems very similar to something I used to tell my students (back when my day job title was “Professor” instead of what it is now): the only statistic that matters to you is binary, not percentage-based. The answer is either “yes” or “no.”
That oversimplifies the issue a little, but it’s no less true for the simplification. Either you have an agent now or you do not. Six months from now, you will have an agent or you will not, your book will be published or it will not, manuscript: sold or not. The question is not how many heads you stepped on to get there, or how many other writers got shut out in the cold in the process. (The answer, incidentally, is “none.” Good authors whose work merits publication eventually find it, assuming they don’t take themselves out of the game.)
Statistics about numbers of queries in in-boxes, percentages of requests for full manuscripts, and all other agent data essentially boils down to a binary too. Either the agent was drawn to the manuscript and wanted to represent it (“yes”) or not (“no”). The other numbers are helpful to the extent they help us evaluate larger questions, like the average quality of the work offered to agents for representation (which seems to be fairly low) or whether to send out a query that’s anything less than the absolute best work an author can produce (statistically, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than succeed, but go ahead and take that metal boat out on the lake in a thunderstorm if you want to).
The problem is, those numbers tell you nothing about whether your work is ready, your query reads like a siren’s song, or your agent-selection process has honed down the list to the ones who might relate to your material best. For that, statistics can’t help you, though other things can. Beta readers, critique groups, conferences and other non-agent-based support structures – including objective analysis of the responses you’re getting to your query letters and/or requests for partials and full reads – all provide important signposts on the way to success.
Never, ever let other people’s numbers get you down. Even your own should serve as educational tools and inspirations to work harder, work smarter, and hone your craft. At the end of the day, the only statistic that matters to you is binary – you succeed or fail by your own efforts and at your own hand.
That doesn’t mean “don’t read blogs” or “don’t know the score.” More information is almost always better, provided you use it properly. Don’t let it lead you into despair. Remind yourself that the only statistic that matters to you is binary, and find a way to shift it from the lonely 0 to the much-celebrated 1.
Then come back and tell me you got there. I’ll be the first one to cheer for you.