A Decade of Reflection–on Writing and Literary Agency Work

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Filling in for Wendy Lawton, who is traveling  today.

I first stepped into the offices of Books & Such Literary Agency ten years ago this week. I’d agreed to come in to help Janet get the taxes done for 2003, for just one month. I’m still here and getting ready, for the tenth time, to run the 1099s!

A lot has changed in the decade I’ve worked in the publishing industry.  I want to reflect on those changes today.

*Paper and Mail

A large percentage of the literary agency’s business was conducted through the US postal service in 2003.  We processed a lot of paper and the recycle bin was filled each week. We used a case of paper on a regular basis.

We’ve worked hard to reduce paper consumption at Books & Such. Most of our business is conducted through email today–along with phone calls, of course. “Manuscript” submissions are now usually read on Kindles or Ipads. I don’t remember the last time we bought a case of paper.

How has your paper consumption changed over the last ten years?

*Queries and email


Two shelves worth of books written by B&S clients

I spent countless hours responding to queries when I first began my job. Janet read every one and wrote “yes” or “no” on the outside of the envelope and sometimes added a comment. I then opened up the WORD template for the response she wanted to send and typed out the letter.

I folded the letters, licked the envelopes and mailed them. Some days I’d process as many as 60 query letters. On days like that I’d come home so discouraged by having to type out the bad news, my husband would worry: “Are we even eating dinner tonight or are you too depressed?”

Several years ago we switched to  email-only queries. We feel badly about not replying individually, even though all queries still are read, but there simply isn’t enough time in the workday to respond personally.

We received 5,893 email queries in our office in 2013; or nearly 500 a month (125 per week/ 17 per day).

How has your usage of email expanded over the last ten years? Do you even have stamps?

*Writers and craft

Ten years ago I poured through the 808 section of my local library to examine books on the writing craft. (Among my favorites: Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages; James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel; Stephen King’s On Writing; and lately James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure).

The quality of writing  has increased tremendously over the last decade. Writers are far better informed about the process of querying and writing proposals. They know where to go for help, and critiquing opportunities abound

While writers conferences like the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference (where I met Janet) have been going strong for years, the last decade has seen a rise in on-line opportunities like the American Christian Fiction Writers organization, which has many tools to help writers–whatever their level of experience.

Have you attended any sort of conference or craft-building opportunity since you began writing? What have you found works well for you and why?


Writers did little marketing ten years ago. I remember few discussions about it.

Now marketing and platform are key elements of the nonfiction writer’s proposal. Fiction writers are expected to use their creativity to help sell their books. The days of sitting in an ivory tower and writing the great American novel are over; writers now have to hit cyberspace, as well as the road, to help sell their books.

Where have you gone to find creative ideas for marketing books?

*Writing Life–research and other options

Ten years ago, we were urged to get magazine credits before moving into the world of book publishing. That’s always good advice, but the magazine market dried up with the explosion of cyberspace.

While the writing life always has been full of distractions, opportunities abound for research online and blogging. Hours that may once have been spent crafting a great sentence or query letter, now can be spent writing a blog, fan fiction or just responding to blog posts like this one.

Are you writing more now than you were ten years ago?

I didn’t know a lot about publishing when I stepped into B&S’s cramped office space piled high with books and papers ten years ago. Today, I sit in a roomy office with the paper neatly filed away and the books lined up on the shelf.

Writers are better at crafting their proposals now. I “speak” to most of our clients through email or Facebook these days. We applaud the creative marketing schemes our writers come up with, and we celebrate as they zoom through cyberspace and their stories delight audiences again and again.

My life has changed for the better in countless ways over the last ten years. I can hardly wait to see what the next decade will bring–all the while knowing this job probably will not look the same when it’s time for my 20-year pin!


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  1. Fascinating!

    Looking back at my writing (and general) life, I find that it’s changed a lot, but the changes have been so incremental that I really didn’t notice them until I consciously decided to look.

    I do have stamps. Wish I had someone to whom I could write real letters!

    One resource that has come of age in the past few years, and one that I think many writers overlook, are the directors’ and writers’ commentaries that are available on most movie DVDs. The 2009 “Star Trek” commentary, for instance, gives a good overview into the changes in pacing that audience taste has driven in the past 30 years. The same thing seems to be true in print, and the show-and-compare insights are worth the investment of time.

    • Andrew, that’s fascinating. I’ve watched some of the commentaries for the movies I’ve watched. I’ll have to look at what other directors share. 🙂

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Excellent reference suggestion, Andrew. It’s so instructive to see how the creative mind works–aven in a different art form. Certainly movies have contributed to the different pacing and way books are read. I know I write sorter sentences and paragraphs as a result.

  2. Hi Michelle! So glad to see you here today!

    My paper consumption continues to change. I’m good with email and FB messaging, but I’m a visual person. I remember my to-do’s better when I can see the list written on paper. My husband wants me to go paperless and throw away my little lists on the desk and kitchen countertop, so just yesterday I set up a bunch of lists in a new app on my iPad, Wunderlist. Now if I can just remember that they’re there. 🙂

    Congratulations on your ten years, and happy new year!

  3. Mary Keeley says:

    Congratulations on 10 years at Books & Such, Michelle. I so appreciate you. It’s a privilege to call you friend and to work with you. I loved following the last 10 years from your perspective.

  4. Great to hear from you Michelle!

    My dad was a letter carrier for 30+ years, so he witnessed the slow down of snail mail. I use napkins, post its, and my new I Love Bacon notepad to scribble various scene ideas, but admit to a lack of paper messages placed in the mailbox.

    Regarding conferences, I’ll be heading to Mount Hermon for the third time this April (it was great to meet you there last year). I can’t recommend it enough. The redwoods are a perfect place to tuck into when my introverted tendencies take over. I’ve met some fantastic people and talented writers each year.

    I am writing more than I was ten years ago, and hopefully it’s much improved. Sharing, and being open to critique is a huge part of improving, and I can always get better at this.

  5. Wow,these changes are so sweeping, but to see that they’ve happened in a mere 10 years? That’s just wild!

    The amount of queries SLAYS me!! That is insane!! But, it also shows how many people respect the agency itself, and want to be a part of the Books and Such family.

    This agency is second to none.

  6. Happy anniversary, Michelle. Congratulations!

    When I look back–usually after one of my kids calls me Oldielocks–it amazes me how much has changed.

    I never thought I would be an eReader person, but my desire to keep clutter down and still review books moved me in that direction. While I prefer working on my laptop, I still write longhand from time to time, if for no other reason than I’ve left the house so I can write without being tempted by the Internet.

    I made a tough decision this year and resigned from the planning committee of a local writers conference. They rarely had workshops or panels that matched the genres I write. I’ll miss it, but I’m looking for conferences that match my work more closely. Even if they cost more, I’ll get much more out of them.

    I definitely write more now that I’m not working fulltime. I could never have accomplished what I do if I had to balance a fulltime job in addition to my writing. I am constantly amazed by those who can manage it.

    Here’s to another 10 years for you at Books & Such. Many blessings.

  7. Michelle, how fun to read the changes you’ve seen! Like Jennifer, I was flabbergasted to read how many queries came to B and S last year! Wow. No wonder you can’t respond to each one with a personalized note.

    We still have stamps in our house. I send an occasional card because it’s always nice to receive these rarities in this day and age. We also make our sons write thank you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts, and they go out snail mail. I confess though, a majority of my correspondence is done via email now.

    I’ve only been writing for three years, but in that time I’ve attended a number of retreats and two ACFW conferences. Definitely life changers, these. I’ve learned so much about the craft of writing through My Book Therapy and ACFW.

    Thanks for sharing what the last ten years have looked like through your eyes.

  8. Lisa says:

    What fun information! I’m a paper girl, but I’m learning to adjust. I even stopped writing my first drafts by hand. 500 email queries a month! That’s an example how much your agency is respected.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      We are honored that so many people contact us looking for representation. The expanse of imagination among these projects is truly amazing and our agents have many riches to choose from.

      In this day and age, writers are fortunate they have other avenues besides traditional publishing to share their work–as needs to be true given the numbers who contact us.

  9. Michelle, great post. I love the comparison of the way things were to the way things are now. So often change happens, and we don’t even realize it, but this look at the differences within the ten-year span amplifies the fact that we are in a communications revolution. (I think that’s how the history books–which will be e-books–will refer to this period of time. 😉 )


  10. Judy Gann says:

    Michelle, I can’t imagine Books & Such without you. Congratulations on your anniversary! Thank you for all you do for the Books & Such clients.


  11. Michelle, congrats on ten years! And thank you for this fun peek into how your job (and the industry) has changed in the past ten years. It’s amazing to think how quickly paper faded away. I worked in a hotel for a year (in the reservations department) in 2001 and, looking back, we used a LOT of paper. I’m sure things have changed for the hotel, as well. Here’s to many more blessed years with Books & Such!

  12. Michelle Ule says:

    Thanks to all for your congratulations and sharing your own reflections on paper! I’m amazed at how quickly things have changed in the last decade. While I did a lot of reading on a computer screen in 2003, it never occurred to me I’d be reading books on a Kindle or an Ipad–because I’d never dreamed of them!

    Perhaps I should mention I’m just in from the post office–where I bought all their first class stamps since the price is going up on January 26 . . .

    Some communications we still do the old-fashioned way! 🙂

  13. Michelle Ule says:

    Thanks to all for your congratulations and sharing your own reflections on paper! I’m amazed at how quickly things have changed in the last decade. While I did a lot of reading on a computer screen in 2003, it never occurred to me I’d be reading books on a Kindle or an Ipad–because I’d never dreamed of them!

    Perhaps I should mention I’m just in from the post office–where I bought all their first class stamps since the price is going up on January 26 . . .

    Some communications we still like to do the old-fashioned way! 🙂

  14. Jenny Leo says:

    Congratulations! Wow, that’s an insightful look back to all the changes that have happened in what seems like the blink of an eye! Coincidentally, this is my tenth year of freelancing (articles and copywriting for business–now called “content provision.” Fiction writing came later). I do go through less paper now. I still enjoy handwriting many things (lists, brainstorming sessions, journaling, outlines), but I don’t print nearly as much off the computer as I used to. I still use stamps. Like Jeanne, I enjoy sending cards through the mail. I wonder what changes we’ll see over the next ten years!

  15. Way to go, Michelle. Unbelievable how many queries you process. Wow! Congrats on the first decade, and many blessings on years to come.

  16. Congratulations on your ten year anniversary, Michelle! That was quite a break-down of the changes in the publishing world. Love the bookshelves filled with Books and Such books!

    What I find so encouraging is the love of reading and writing continues into a new decade of dramatic and unprecedented change.

    And yes, I still have stamps and I use them to send handwritten notes on snippets of paper I love to touch, smell, and post. I will always appreciate paper.

    I am enjoying your books Michelle as much as I enjoyed getting to spend some time with you.

    Blessings in 2014!

  17. Michelle,

    A special ten year congratulations from Oregon Christian Writers.

    Please join us this August at our Summer Conference on the beautiful Columbia River in Portland. We’d love to have you attend. I’ll even give you a pin!

  18. Her Grace says:

    At my Day Job (a library), we had an issue with people printing lots of stuff from the public computers, but not claiming their print jobs. So we introduced a print queue (thenk-yew; my idea) and paper usage dropped by 75%. Also, when we started charging for printing, people decided they didn’t need to print out that fifty-page web page after all.

    I’ve been online for over 25 years. Email’s been my staple for all my adult life. That said, I did send several snail-mail letters last year. I chose snail, because to get an actual letter in the mail has a wonderfully emotional impact.

    Nowadays, all the snail we get is in the form of mass-marketing addressed to “resident”, and a few bills from small beans who haven’t gone completely electronic yet.

    So, what is my favouritest jot-down notepaper? The backs of empty envelopes. Love ’em. Will miss ’em when they disappear completely.

    I am writing more than I was ten years ago because I realised (a year ago) that if I wanted my career to progress faster, I really ought to write more. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get *really* serious about the craft. ‘

    I took a good, hard look at myself and made some tough choices. I’m confident, with a bit of stick-to-itiveness, I’ll succeed.

    I hate marketing, though. I’ve never been good at it.

    If there’s such a thing as an anti-talent, Marketing is mine.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      I’d miss those envelopes, too–they’re the same width as a reporter’s notebook and perfect for note taking!

      Marketing always seems at odds with the more introspective writer’s temperament. Unfortunately, it’s a need in the current publishing climate. Best wishes.

  19. Sondra Kraak says:

    Michelle, I worked in an office ten years ago and did a lot of letter mailing. Amazing how much things have changed in only ten years. Also, I was amazed to read how many queries ya’ll deal with, and to think you read every one. That’s impressive. Blessings on your work!