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Agencies That Hate Technology

Here's the deal: I'm not good at sales and marketing, but I do know one thing - it's all about math.  And I'm very good at math.

All sales analysis in any industry can be boiled down to just a few basic figures and statistics.  The most important one is your conversion rate.  And once you know that, then the rest is just a matter of keeping a high enough output of sales calls and letters.

I have this hunch that many literary agencies - not most, but at least some of them - either don't get this or don't want to apply it properly.  In order for an agency to make money, it would have to sell B number of books to publishers, and in order to sell B, it needs W number of good writers, and in order to find W, they need S number of submissions.  Since the conversion rate from S to W is ridiculously low, and the rate from W to B is even lower, you're going to need a metric shitload of S to keep the machine going.

The good news for agencies is that there's never a short supply of ambitious writers who dream of being the next Stephen King, so you'll always have eager writers.  The bad news is that many agencies are closing doors to new writers by putting up arbitrary roadblocks.

Why?

I've written before about how I'm not a fan of query letters.  I understand why we have them, but the Internet has made it easy to drop that process altogether. As an agent, I can assume that you're mainly trying to find out two important pieces of information when you read a query letter:

1) Does the writer have an idea that could make any money?
2) Is the writer any good at writing?

You can find out both of these things much more easily with a simple web form.  So why are web forms so rare on literary agency websites?

Query letters made sense back when we didn't have the Internet, because it was a short and simple way to answer both of those questions.  You get a one-page thing that quickly hits both points, and then you move on.  Sometimes, you request a letter with a sample chapter or two so you get a better idea of the writer's quality.

The unfortunate downside is that you received a lot of physical paper that you had to deal with and you had to spend money on paper and postage to mail out rejection slips.  Just trying to find new talent meant that you had to spend a lot of money on basic practical costs.

But now that we have the Internet, those concerns are moot.  You really want to attract writers?  Here's all you gotta do:

1) Create a web form that has some short and brief data points - contact info, word count, genre, and then a large free-text box where the writer gives you a quick summary of the story.

2) (Optional) Have a form where the writer can paste the first chapter of their novel.

Presto - you're done.  Once a day, go to your inbox (or data dump, or wherever the web form will send this stuff).  Skip to the "pitch" section of the form, read the blurb, and decide if it sounds interesting or not.  If yes, then go to the sample text and read.  If not, push the "decline" button to send an automated rejection letter, and move on.

Simple.  Direct.  Fast.  Voluminous.

The vast majority of agencies do not have a web form.  I've only come across two so far.  I'm not sure why everybody else is afraid to do that.  Is it just a matter of preference?  Is it because things have always been done with letters, and everybody is reluctant to move forward?  I find it hard to believe that the web form format would be somehow disadvantageous.

I'm not speaking entirely out of my ass here.  My legit day job is a (small) part of the publishing/media industry, and I can tell you from experience that we would be going nowhere if we didn't use the Internet to our advantage.  We require input from our clients in order to output technical documentation.  A few years ago, we had to do almost everything manually - calling the clients to obtain data, writing things out by hand, passing notes to each other, printing out each document for a review, etc.  It was a massive pain in the ass and it meant that everything took forever to get done.

Now we've improved on everything so that 80% of the process is done electronically.  And guess what?  We're making way more money out of it because we're not wasting our time dicking around with paper and correspondence.

But, fine, maybe you just don't like web forms because you feel like queries are much more personal.  I guess I can understand that.  You better at least accept those suckers by email, though.

There is a significant number of agents out there who just plain refuse to look at electronic queries; they will only read stuff that is physically mailed to them.  Why?  What's the point of that?  They probably look at this positively; in their minds, by refusing email submissions, they're saying, "If you're not willing to make the effort to print your submission out and mail it to me, then I don't want to represent you."

But what I'm hearing is, "I'm not willing to be flexible or adapt to new technology, which means that even though my system is archaic, inconvenient, and inefficient, I'm going to keep doing the same goddamn thing until I die.  You've got no hope with me.  What are e-books again?  Does the 'e' stand for 'educational?'"

Some of these agencies don't even have websites.  Anybody can have a website!  Even a shaved monkey like me!  If you can't be pained to take five minutes to set up a Blogger account and make even just a bare-bones, two-page website with your name, a short bio, some guidelines, and an email address, then you've either got to be a golden child in the publishing industry who doesn't need new clients, or you're just lazy as hell.  Either way, I'm not going to get anywhere by submitting my stuff to you.

I understand why the system works the way it does.  I understand that ultimately, it's only ever about whether or not your novel will be marketable.  I understand that nobody has any idea whether something will or will not work.  So I totally understand why the industry is so difficult to crack.

But what I don't understand is how the industry works.  All business always comes down to a matter of volume.  How do you manage to make money if you keep putting arbitrary caps on it?