Do literary agents know what they are doing? OK I appreciate that thinking about this is a reaction to getting rejection letters. I also do know that there are plenty of stories about authors being turned down and then eventually being successful. Keep trying they all say.
Put all that on one side and ask the question, do any of them keep score. So far, on all of the agent’s web sites I have looked at, I have never found an agent that says how good they are at spotting winners.
The sort of thing I am looking for is something that says we have looked at X number of submissions and approved Y new authors and of all the people we have turned down only Z have gone on to be published by someone else. If Z as a proportion of the rejections, is smaller than Y as a proportion of the submissions, then it would suggest that the agent knows what they are doing. If the numbers were the other way around then you would have to conclude that the average of all the other agents was better than the agent in question.
As I have never found any agent who publishes any stats, other than telling me how many submissions they get, I am leaning towards the conclusion that none of them keep score, or if they do then they don’t want to tell anyone about it.
So what does this tell me? I guess the obvious answer is that one might conclude that none of them are particularly good at spotting talent. Does that matter? Probably not. The key thing is whether the agent is any good at representing talent – getting you a good deal if they do take you on. Some data to help answer that question would be helpful, but I don’t see much sign of that either.
There is another problem, if most agents turn down most submissions then any author who gets accepted is likely to just say yes whether the agent is any good or not, so they are in a sellers market.
On balance then, I guess the right strategy is to get an agent, any agent, and get published. After that it must be a lot easier to get a good agent, because all of them are interested in making money and they would rather take on a published author than an unpublished one.
It actually feels like a rubbish system that is ripe for a new business model – I just wish I could figure out what such a model might look like.