Quality, Not Quantity

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Lately we’ve heard a number of literary agents citing the number of sales they’ve made, comparing those numbers to other agents. Don’t you think it’s time to dig a little deeper?

Let me state from the outset that this is not a blog post intended to compare Books & Such agents to any other agency, whether an agency that specializes in the CBA market or in the general market. We shy away from making claims comparing our sales to anyone else’s sales for the following reasons:

  • There is no way to know how many sales an agent makes unless that agent honestly discloses those numbers.
    Most do not disclose those stats for a number of reasons. I can speak for one agent who could easily get caught up in that kind of competition and yet that agent knows that attitude does not please the One she serves.
  • Sometimes an agent will make claims based on statistics gathered from Publisher’s Marketplace, an online service that announces recent publishing deals, sometimes including the approximate size of the advance. The site also ranks the number of sales for agents and editors, both for the year and for all sales ever reported. Few of the longtime agents in CBA report all their sales to Publisher’s Marketplace. Some, like Books & Such agents, rarely report sales at all, believing that until a book is released for pre-sales, the information regarding that book is up to the publisher to divulge or not.
  • Many times the claims of sales are on par with the claims made by fishermen about the size of a fish that got away. ‘Nuff said.
  • There are no rules about what constitutes a sale. Are we talking about foreign sales of the same book? These are legitimate sales but they are very different from the initial sale.
  • How about reported “sales” which are little more than placements with a small indie publisher who offers no advance and historically shows precious few book sales. Is that a sale?
  • If an agency helps its clients self-publish an out-of-print book or a ministry book, is that a sale?

I could continue to ask questions to qualify what makes a sale, but again, I’m not participating in this numbers game. It’s important for a potential client to ask these questions and hope that the answer is accurate and forthcoming. If I were to seek an agent who claimed “top” sales, and if my goal was to have my book published by one of the respected traditional publishers, I’d ask what percentage of those sales were made to my target publishers. If I were looking to be published by an up-and-coming indie publisher, I’d ask what percentage of those sales came with an advance over x-number of dollars– whatever my bottom line.

I guess I’m just irked when those in my profession sound more like the snake oil salesman of old than the professionals we are. All sales are not equal and one cannot compare quantity to quality. All anyone needs to do is look at an agent’s clients and the books on the bookstore shelves to sense quality.

This blog is not aimed at any of our CBA agents in particular. For the most part we have a fine group of professionals who strategize carefully and take great pride in considering the career path of each writer when we sell a book. And those professionals sell an amazing number of quality books– just look at the shelves!

17 Responses

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  1. Very informative behind-the-scenes post, Wendy.
    * In the calculus of quantity vs. quality, I have always tried to live the maxim of a certain segment of my once and chosen profession:
    “Beware the man with only one gun; he probably knows how to use it.”

  2. Statistics, like humans, are prone to deception.

  3. You made me laugh with the snake oil reference. I haven’t heard that one in a long time. I have always been taught that statistics are just numbers manipulated to make whatever point a person wants. Framed in whatever light needed, you can spin a statistic that may be negative into something positive and in your favor. Raw data is just vulnerable to whatever the cook wants to turn it into.

    When I look for an agent, I look at their character and whether or not they are who God wants for me.

    Thanks for opening this window to the behind the scenes on numbers. I never paid attention but it has broadened my understanding. God bless.

  4. We humans are a seeking lot. We (the general “we”) tend to seek affirmation and getting ahead. And some people do this in any way they can. It seems like when we know to Whom we belong, those stats, that craving for acknowledgement (or one-upping) is greatly reduced. I’m thankful most CBA agents use discretion in their public/online interactions.

  5. David Todd says:

    Interesting.
    .
    I’m curious, though, as to whether you have some kinds of stat/stats you track in-house, but which you won’t release. How do you measure agent or agency performance this year vs last year? Simply on commissions earned? Or are there other things you track internally?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Good question, David. We set our individual and agency goals in the week after Christmas. Much thought goes into these. We usually figure out about what we think we can reasonably expect in the way of contracting new books (dollar amount of advances) and then stretch until we are slightly uncomfortable.
      We chart every sale on a colorful spreadsheet in our shared agent files so we not only see how we are doing but how each Books & Such agent is doing. We take it seriously but we make it fun. Janet and I (in typical Baby Boomer fashion) tend to play a game of competition with each other. The others are far more mature 😉 — mostly just offering attaboys and encouragement.
      Sometimes you’ll find one or another of us celebrating on FB because we met our goal in September or October.
      But we keep those goals an in-house motivational tool. We are so aware that there are much more important things than our goals. We understand that God cares more about how we do our business and how we treat people than how much we sell.

      • What does the Lord require of you? In modern terminology, that’s integrity, compassion, and common sense. Your agency has all of those characteristics. Thank you.

      • Thanks for sharing that inside look. I really like the way you hold each other accountable while encouraging each other. Setting a goal is good no matter the profession, but you guys seem to have a great philosophy. “We usually figure out about what we think we can reasonably expect in the way of contracting new books (dollar amount of advances) and then stretch until we are slightly uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable moves us forward, slightly makes it an attainable goal. Books & Such is definitely an agency which reflects God in all they do. How amazing.

  6. In the quality vs. quantity question, does God not have the final Word? After all, He only needed one begotten Son.

  7. You “shy away from making claims” … I love that Books & Such doesn’t jump into Comparison’s boat. Comparison wants everyone to stay on his path, all eyes on Him, to take us all down the waterfall. But the truth is … we all have a different path. I think we need reminders that it’s okay to love our own path. I adore learning from others, which is a huge blessing for me. But if we covet another’s path, we’ll miss the sweet wildflowers blooming specifically for us. * Reminds me of Pride & Prejudice where Lady Catherine says, “You have a very small garden” … 🙂

  8. Thank you, Wendy, for quality. This is why I read each and every post here on the Books and Such Blog. And I’ve met many quality people here too–bonus! Thank you for helping us reach and write for a higher reason. Although the truth sometimes hurts writers, ignoring the truth hurts our writing more.
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  9. I appreciate this and B & S’s perspective. Even when accurate, the numbers don’t tell the whole story anyways. In education during No Child Left Behind, instruction was driven by test numbers. Assessments failed to measure lots of the good stuff going on in the classroom. Some of my students worked their tails off to achieve, and they made phenomenal progress, but it didn’t transfer to formal testing, the statistics didn’t confirm that side of the equation. Not a perfect analogy, but just saying numbers are imperfect in some ways.
    Interesting information and good to know. Thanks.

  10. Hmmm … what does constitute a sale? Interesting question. Unless all agents agreed to report the same things, I could see how Publisher’s Weekly info could be terribly confusing. I wonder how many publishers go ahead and report the sale?

  11. Amy Debrucque says:

    I think by making comparisons, integrity is immediately compromised. Always better to take the high road, discard the negativity that feeds off claims like that and focus on quality work.

  12. Thanks Wendy for explaining this important information in this post. It gives me greater understanding of the publishing world, and I appreciate it. I am so glad Books and Such keeps that info quiet, and celebrates when appropriate. God loves both humility and celebration. It is the wise person or business that understands how to do this.