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Michael Bourne wrote an interesting article about navigating the world of literary agents. No doubt others have already mentioned it and I’m late to the party, as they say. In his article Bourne says that one agency he spoke with receives more than 100,000 queries a year which translated into 200 queries a week for each agent in this particular agency or 10,000 queries a year assuming two weeks off for vacation.

When I sat down with another agent … as she read her slush pile, I watched her power through 19 query letters in 14 minutes, rejecting 18 of them and putting one aside for more consideration.

Yikes. Imagine that query letter you sweated hours over being glanced at for a mere 44 seconds.

BUT … agents have to earn money too. As does everyone else in the food chain connecting writers to readers. Just like other commodities – let’s face it, a book is a commodity – consumers exert pressure on the economics of publishing by demanding lower prices. Have a look at those shrinking $$$ in the diagram below.

What else has happened?

  • Writers are proliferating. More and more people are writing stories, self-help books, memoirs, non-fiction books, blogs, books based on blogs and so on. Many are writing for free, for the sheer pleasure of expressing themselves in a public forum.
  • Agencies are relatively small. Agencies are often one to five person outfits which means they don’t have scale to invest in technology, news ways to operate, extra manpower and so on. They only make money when they sell a writer to a publisher and subsequently when that writer sells sufficient books to payback the advance. They need a lot of writers to make sufficient income or a small number of authors who sell mega-quantitites of books. If they serve a lot of writers, they have to parcel out their time in small bits.
  • Publishers are taking fewer risks. Which means agents are taking few risks. Just like publishers, agents have an incentive to remain with the tried and true.
  • Retail is dominated by one very large outfit. Not only has Amazon rewritten the rules for book distribution, but it has opened its own author publishing platform. And the Kindle has changed the way readers experience books.
  • Readers can access writers from around the world, not merely their own locale. A writer from Australia can access a reader in Chicago almost as easily as a US-based writer can.
  • Writers are bypassing agents. Faced with an increasingly daunting path, writers are taking indie publishing and self-publishing models seriously. Writers have found that they can secure a larger portion of the revenue stream associated with book purchases using direct to reader mechanisms. And why not? Writers have already taken on roles like marketing, brand building, responding to readers, blogging on the side.

What does all this have to do with historical fiction? I suppose I just needed to rant!