Unreliable Statistics

Facts can lie…depending on how that are presented or understood. Today I’ll keep this blog post focused on writers choosing a literary agent, based on one question.

When choosing a literary agent, authors need to make assessments. Some authors ask agents questions such as, “How many deals did you make last year?” or other questions requiring a response involving some sort of number.

Unfortunately for both writers and agents, even the best numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, Agent A might have made 10 deals last month, whereas Agent B made one deal. So Agent A is more successful than Agent B, right?

But what if I told you that Agent A made ten deals for $10,000 each, while Agent B’s deal was for a $100,000 advance?

Now which agent is more successful?

If you are thinking, “I want to go with Agent B because his deals bring in more money,” that can be a valid response. But as a writer, are you in the league of an author who can demand a $100,000 advance? Authors at this point have usually worked extremely hard to gain this level of advance. If you are a newbie, this probably won’t happen for you, at least not right away. Perhaps you would be better off with the first agent making smaller deals.

Then again, the statistics might flip the next month, with Agent A making the bigger deal and Agent B achieving smaller deals. So now who’s the better agent?

And consider that, based on these simple facts alone, the writer doesn’t know the nuances of the deals. How many books were sold under each contract, for example? What if the $100,000 contract obligates the author to write ten books, while the $10,000 contracts obligate the author for one book each? (I don’t know of any author writing ten books for $10,000 each under one contract – this is just to keep the math simple.)

Please know that an agent cannot reveal contract details to other authors. Some publishers include confidentiality clauses in their contracts. Further, I advise my authors not to share their contract details. Those are too personal. Think about it: most Americans wouldn’t ask a doctor or dentist, “How much money do you make in a year?” So you will never know the nuances of other authors’ publishing contracts.

All this to say, don’t fall into the trap of using alluring and impressive statistics to make a crucial decision. They seldom, if ever, tell the whole story.

Your turn:

How valuable do you think statistics are when you make a decision?

What are some questions you would ask an agent?

27 Responses to Unreliable Statistics

  1. Loretta Eidson January 19, 2017 at 5:53 am #

    As the old saying goes ‘money talks,’ and is nice, but I look for integrity and honesty. Money isn’t always the best measuring factor. I wanted an agent who met God’s standards, with a personality and temperament I could work well with. Money added to these qualifications. . . Is a bonus! Thank you, Tamela, for being my agent!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 7:15 am #

      Thank YOU for signing with me and encouraging me today, Loretta!

  2. cherrilynn Bisbano January 19, 2017 at 6:26 am #

    Tamela, Great article. I will repost it at Almost an Author Facebook and Twitter pages. This is important information.
    I’m with Loretta, Integrity is number one on my list.
    Statistics are valuable in many areas of life, but not when it comes to my book. I desire an agent who believes in me and the message of my book, not just money. Thank you for sharing.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 7:16 am #

      Cherrilynn, thank you for sharing! I’m glad you and others can benefit from this post.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 19, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    It does not seem that I will ever have an agent; but there would be only one criterion – does she believe in my message, and do I believe in her mission?

    I’ll go with that, because it’s not about money. It’s about living well.

  4. Beverly Brooks January 19, 2017 at 7:43 am #

    Logical food for thought … thanks.
    Since I don’t have an agent, this is just an opinion …
    It seems like a decision as big as choosing an agent should have some balance between several factors such as reputation, relationship, and realistic expectations on both sides. A submission, subsequent conversation and some surfing for information should nourish the choice on both sides.

    Thanks for this post.

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 19, 2017 at 7:51 am #

    In thinking about this, I wonder if finding an agent isn’t a bit like getting married, with an important operative question being “Can we grow together?”

  6. Martha Whiteman Rogers January 19, 2017 at 8:11 am #

    I don’t think I ever thought about numbers when I was seeking an agent. When I first met you, Tamela, my first impression was of a lovely lady with a beautiful, friendly smile and a gorgeous hat. After talking with you in Kansas City, I asked a mutual friend about an agent. I said I want someone who will believe in me and not give up on me, like me as a person and not just a client, be honest in his/her feelings about a work and dealings with a contract, always have my best interests at heart, steer me the right direction, and be there when I needed help. She recommended you, and I’m so thankful she did. You’ve been all that to me and more.

  7. Elizabeth Van Tassel January 19, 2017 at 8:18 am #

    Thank you for this post Tamela. I attended your workshop at ACFW a couple of years ago with Steve Laube about working with agents and it was excellent. You continue to present clear and wonderful wisdom and encouragement. I’d say that another factor that speaks louder than words are actions. An agent can claim to be something, but it’s so important to see what their track record is and reputation is among the community of writers. If it seems too good to be true, warning bells should sound. Yet if there’s a consistent record of excellence and openness and accuracy, I’d hope that would be in the relationship going both ways with the right agent. I appreciate your insights here once more!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

      Thank you so much, Elizabeth! Yes, communication is key!

  8. Michelle L Lim January 19, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks for the fabulous article! There are so many times newbies and other writers ask these questions. So hard to get the answers to how much an author might make and if the information they’ve heard is actually clear or muddy. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 12:57 pm #

      Michelle, the fact that authors don’t make a set salary every year doesn’t help! But an experienced agent should be able to set expectations for her authors. 🙂

  9. Carol Ashby January 19, 2017 at 9:44 am #

    Mark Twain nailed it: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Numbers are useful in any analysis, but it’s easy to twist numbers. When I gave science talks to kids in middle and high schools, I always told them to ask what the numbers were if they were quoted percentages and the percentages if they were quoted numbers. We’re told we’re almost the same as a chimpanzee because there is only a 1.5% difference in our genetic makeup. That 1.5% difference between the human genome and the chimp genome is actually 45 million differences in the base pairs making up the human genome. (There are 3 billion base pairs in the chromosomes of a human.) Does a difference of 45 million sound almost the same to you?
    Any good agent can get a deal for a client if the client’s book has real market value. For me, the character of the person who helped guide my writing future would be more important than whether they landed a big one for a best-selling author. I don’t expect to be writing a blockbuster book, anyway.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

      What a great example, Carol! And you never know — you might write a blockbuster!

  10. Jon Guenther January 19, 2017 at 9:51 am #

    “How valuable do you think statistics are when you make a decision?”

    You’re right, Tamela, statistics aren’t reliable. It’s far more important to me that an agent first believe in my writing and is willing to mentor me through the business-side of agenting my work (not my writing, writers need to know that BEFORE they query an agent). So many times author’s gloss over this part of it in a rush to get to the “How much have you sold, and to whom, and how are you going to make me a billion dollars?” Do I want an agent with a sales record of some kind? Of course. But I figure if I can land an agent who has been doing this a long time, their age and experience may well answer the sales question without even having to ask. 😉

    “What are some questions you would ask an agent?”

    I want an agent who first and foremost is willing to be forthright about their Christian faith. The other night when Steve L. made some statements along these lines while being interviewed by Terry Whalin I nearly broke into tears. Powerful stuff! Then I would just have an open and friendly discussion for what a perspective agent’s typical expectations are of me as a client, and allow me to ask questions about what I can expect from them. And I would never DEMAND anything. That’s not collaborative, it’s pushy. I think that’s about it. Any agent worth their salt can be reviewed in the Christian market guide. Some even have authors willing to provide feedback to perspective clients, which is something I’d definitely do if my agent asked me to and we’d established some trust.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

      Jon, you are so right that an agent/author relationship is a partnership. I want my writers to be happy to wake up in the morning to get to work on projects they love — not dread every writing day. Each partnership is unique, and when you are with an agent who’s passionate about your work and has the ability to be successful for you, that’s a great place to be!

  11. Sheri Dean Parmelee January 19, 2017 at 9:54 am #

    Tamela, thanks for your advice- it’s really helpful to know some of the ropes for “when the time comes.” Like you have said, it’s important to do the research and crunch the numbers before reaching a decision.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

      Glad you found the post helpful! Thank you for letting me know, Sheri.

  12. Terry Whalin January 19, 2017 at 11:02 am #


    What a great post about how we can’t know the details of a publishing deal by just looking at the statistics of it.

    From my years in publishing, I know there is often more to the story than we can know on the surface. It’s a solid reminder for us to take these statistics with a grain of salt and grace.

    The Writing Life

  13. cheryl January 19, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

    Tamela, In recently researching agents, I did consider number of books sold in the last year as part of my criteria. I will definitely look at those statistics differently.

    I feel like trying to find an agent as an unpublished author is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Months and years could drag by in the query process. Finally if you happen upon an agent who responds, how can you tell that this agent writer team will develop a relationship that is a perfect fit? One I hope would be a long term business relationship which also encompasses a friendship.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

      Cheryl, you are right that it’s a challenge for a new author to find a great agent fit. I am very proud of the authors who debuted with me, and see all my author relationships as long-term, also.

      As for fit? What you can do easily is to look at the agent’s social media presence. Do you like her style and what she has to say? If she shares strong opinions, are you comfortable with that, whether or not you agree with her opinions?

      Once you talk to the agent, of course it’s hard to be relaxed right away with any new business relationship, but see if you feel comfortable. Do you click? Or if not exactly, can you live with that because she’ll work hard for you?

      Set expectations right away. For instance, I let my authors know my favorite ways of communication and this has worked well. Please do your new agent a favor and let her know your expectations, too. For instance, if you want a lot of hand-holding, don’t lead your agent to believe that you’re really independent and don’t want hand-holding. If you feel other agents are doing something your agent does not, let her know. In other words, don’t let your agent think everything is great when it is not. Again, communicate, which, judging from your entry here, I think you will! 🙂

      Hope this helps!

      • cheryl January 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

        Thanks Tamela for taking the time to respond. I’ll keep your message close at hand for when that glorious (find an agent ) day comes. All in God’s timing. My co-writer and I had tried to meet with you in Nashville, but as a mother who dropped three sons off at college and cried all the way home, I was glad you were there for your daughter. Steve knew your part by heart. Now that’s a team.

  14. Lani Forbes January 22, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such great information! As a newbie just dipping my toes into the querying process, I’m grateful for the advice! I would imagine that just like any partnership, you want chemistry with your agent. Someone you enjoy working with!

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