Boundbytheword Blog

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“Suck it up, buttercup” advice for writers: August 14, 2011


At the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop, several agents spoke with the crowd and delivered words of wisdom for finding success in the world of writing. Here’s the inside scoop to what was said (deciphered from my many pages of scribbled notes):

Single most important piece of knowledge for writers:

The only source of income an agent makes is the money they get from your published book. If they take you on as a client and your book doesn’t get accepted by a publisher – and therefore isn’t published – they don’t get paid.

Here’s the skinny – agents normally make 15% of your book sales. If your book goes international, your agent gets 7.5% and the international agent gets 7.5%, Basic math: if your advance is $1000 the agent gets $150 once the publisher takes it on. They make no money before that time for what they invest into a client, or any of the stacks upon stacks of books they have reviewed but rejected from the slush pile. Understand that fact when you send off a query and expect personal attention in a timely manner. Bottom line – agents are swamped.


What agents look for:

  1. Books that will make money.
  2. Writers who understand the publishing business and how it works.


What you need to know:

Publishers succeed when they find a book that readers want; agents succeed when they find a book publishers want. They all look for projects that attract attention of more than one publisher, work that can travel internationally. Publishers are profit minded and conservative when it comes to projects – essentially – will we make money on this book?


Scary fact:

Only 20% of books published in Canada are Canadian. We compete with big name US authors. The internationalization of the books sales has changed the industry in the last 5 years.


Comparing your book to another (in your query) can be dangerous because you may not know how it really did with book sales. Award winning books don’t always bring in sales. Regardless, it’s not at all valuable to compare your book to one that is more than 5 years old.


Getting Ready to Submit to an Agent:

  • Learn as much as you can about publishing.
  • Read Quill and Quire, Publishers Weekly to understand the business.
  • Get news alerts from New York Times on publishing.
  • Look at publisher websites.
  • Working at a bookstore can help you understand how the book gets into the readers hands.
  • Be a good listener. Absorb feedback from an agent (whether it’s a note on your rejection letter, or an agent representing you). Better to hear it from an agent than a publisher and lose your chance with that house.
  • Be open to criticism.
  • Pay attention.
  • Understand how your work fits into the commercial machine. Do your homework!


11 Responses to ““Suck it up, buttercup” advice for writers:”

  1. Lisa Llamrei Says:

    True, true, all true, but what a depressing way to wake up on Monday morning. The more I learn about the publishing industry, the better self-publishing looks.

    • I agree – try hearing it for a week! The bottom line is there is so much truth to it, and the more seasoned and “grown up” as writers we become; the more we realize it is hard work. Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Once again, Hollywood has made something look easy. Writers on the big screen have this romantic, wealthy life as writers. How come in reality we can’t do it that way? Shucks.

  2. To add to your does of reality…I believe these were numbers for 2009, but my guess is, they don’t change much year over year…

    1 – Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. as tracked by Nielsen BookScan – 1,446,000
    2 – Number of those books that sold FEWER than 99 copies – 1,123,000 (or about 77.7%)
    3 – Number of those books that sold MORE than 100,000 – 483 (or about 0.03%)

    Which reinforces what you say above, Noelle and adds the fact that, should you be lucky enough to land a publisher willing to publish you, you haven’t necessarily “made it” and you can’t count on them to do all your marketing, publicity and legwork for you…you have to do a lot of it on your own. It’s your baby…so you still have watch out for it in the big bad world.

    J. A. Konrath talks a lot about this on his site ( or blog ( By the way, Konrath’s the one that raised eyebrows by turning his back on mainstream publishing to go the self-publishing route.

    • Wow – that is depressing! Add to those facts that writers make about 10% of the cover price of books, and being a writer looks a little less appealing, right. Who are we kidding though? We’re lifers now…

  3. Norma Bickle Says:

    A real eye-opener Noelle. Luckily for you you are fueling your passion, if not your pocket-book.

  4. Dale Long Says:

    Flip this over, how much money does the writer make for the hours upon hours of research and actual writing? For a book that may not sell, or get over looked by a swamped agent?

    I’m with Lisa.

    • I hear you Dale. Truth be told though…successful self-publishing isn’t an easy road either. Unless of course you want to print boxes to sit in your basement, or do the on-demand ones and get a handful of orders. Bottom line – as writers, we have to hustle our butts until we feel the burn if we want to actually find success.

      I’m going the traditional agent/publisher way until I feel I have done all I can. Quite honestly though, it’s because I need the external validation of an agent and publisher loving my work. Love me….want me…need me. Classic issues…:-)

  5. John Says:

    It would be easy to get discouraged by these facts and statistics (which I do not dispute). However, I suspect that all of us here are writing because there is something inside of us (it will be different for each of us) that needs to get out — to be born, so to speak.

    I suspect this is true for all the arts — and the ratios for financial success are probably the same too. For example, I know many very very talented musicians that at best cover their travel costs and merger living expenses hoping for a big break that often is largely a matter of luck.

    As writers, if making money was the number one objective, I suspect that we should be writing formula fiction that has an element of a built-in commercial audience (or as the numbers suggest, perhaps we should just buy lottery tickets — our chance of hitting the jackpot are similar).

    So, I am happy to toil away on my project that means a lot to me. I welcome a better understanding of the industry and its realities — better to be well informed than naive. I have developed a tremendous respect for all writers that have finished their projects, have gotten them published, and have any readers. I can appreciate all the effort they have put in to get that far.

    I do a lot of cycling, and if I am going to have to ride into a headwind, I am glad to know it ahead of time so I can mentally prepare. As an aspiring writer I expect to be riding uphill into the wind for a long time.

    • Hi John,

      Your cycling metaphor is perfect really. It’s another level of preparedness, and in a way I feel Humber has a large hand in raising me into a grownup writer. No illusions about making a living by popping out the occasional novel or stumbling into meeting an agent and having them take me on before I am ready. This indeed is the new face of publishing, so we might as well brace ourselves and face it!

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