The Great Divide

By Bob McCrillis

Leaving the cloistered world of writing a novel to take a few baby steps into the arena of publishing has been as sudden and sharp a change as stepping out of a spruce thicket to find myself standing on the head of the Old Man In The Mountain with the whole state of New Hampshire spread out under my feet. For many, that would be awe inspiring. For me, it was terrifying.

Bob cropped tight

Terrifying and, at first exposure, insurmountable. The numbers speak for themselves according to UNESCO in 2013, there were a little over three-hundred thousand new titles published in the United States. If we assume that those that were published were a small percent of the manuscripts submitted, I think it’s fair to say that my novel is competing for attention with ten or fifteen million other works. The experts say there are around one thousand literary agencies in the United States so…well, you can do the arithmetic. Even if all of my assumptions are off by fifty percent, there’s a huge number of manuscripts fighting for attention.

Okay, so I need to come up with a great pitch in my query letter, which we talked about a little last week. But…as always there are “buts.” I’ve had a few additional revelations that I’d like to share.

The first revelation was that my book is a product, or more accurately, the raw material for a product. It is not a work of art to be cherished and admired. The publishing industry’s interest in my book is directly proportional to how quickly it can be brought to market and how many copies it might sell.

As thinking, feeling individuals, an agent or publisher probably values beautifully-crafted, insightful work, but they’ll put their money down on the eleventh book in a series that has already sold four-hundred thousand copies.

The second revelation was gaining an understanding of the position of the literary agent. These are the folks who face the great wave of unsolicited manuscripts every day. They work on straight commission and, if you’ve ever been on commission, you know well how focused you have to be on making sales. This means that a big proportion of their time is spent working with publishers and proven authors to get the next best seller onto the shelves.

Publishers also use agents as a means of filtering the tsunami of manuscripts down to a manageable volume. When I started, back in the dark ages, even the largest publishing houses accepted “over the transom” manuscripts – and they even had people read them looking for gems. I can remember being thrilled to get a manuscript back with crinkled pages and coffee stains – someone read it! No more. Publishers have largely outsourced the filtering to agents.

Before anyone objects, we can talk about alternatives, e.g. small presses or self-publishing, in another post. For now, we’re talking about publishing for my first best seller through the traditional channel.

The third revelation is that agents really want to find my best seller in their slush pile – the traditional name for the backlog of unsolicited manuscripts. According to a survey by NY Book Editors (, between thirty-five and fifty-five percent of an agent’s current list began as unsolicited queries. In the same survey, working agents said the biggest mistake we make when we query an agent is…(drumroll please)


We fail to follow the submission requirements, fail to address a particular agent, and sadly we submit to an agent that doesn’t handle our particular genre. A blanket query addressed “Dear Agent” will never be read because it screams I’m too lazy to do the basics.

Next week: Genre (agggghhhhh!)

2 thoughts on “The Great Divide

  1. Good reporting Bob.
    It is a climb not unlike reaching the clouds. We generate deathless prose, of course, and it should never die on the vine.I have gown old enough to agree with my Mother-in-law’s Creed, “if it is meant to be…”
    Thanks for your thoughts on this rough road.


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