Last week, I was astounded when an editor mentioned she had received 12 submissions in two days. That seemed like a huge number to me! I tweeted it out, and sure enough, it astounded a lot of other people, too—other agents, and writers as well.
The editors, of course, were not surprised. Some said the number of submissions had gotten quite a lot higher than usual fairly recently, like with the start of 2021; others said it had been that way for a while. Many commented that it’s not just the number of submissions that’s gone up—it’s also the number of auctions.
When I became a literary agent in 1999, there were maybe a dozen of us specializing in children’s books, and a few more adult agents who dabbled in middle-grade and/or YA fiction. The general belief was that the children’s side of the business was one that didn’t require a literary agent to get access, but publishers were becoming overwhelmed with unsolicited submissions. Many had begun to close the transom. Suddenly agents were in demand.
Since then, the number of children’s agents has seemed to increase every year. And yet the number of editors does not seem to have grown; some have observed that the opposite has happened, and although I don’t have any data to back that, it seems logical that mergers have shrunk the editor pool, and we see more instances of an editor leaving the business and not getting replaced.
As discussion continued on Twitter, many observed that there are a lot of new agents and this must be driving part of the volume. With all of the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, People of Color in Publishing, and other organizations and cohorts to penetrate the overwhelming whiteness of publishing, we’re just starting to make inroads with BIPOC literary agents coming onto the scene, although there is still a very long way to go. Complaining about the number of agents runs counter to these efforts. We need more agents if we are going to correct the disparities.
Naturally, some new agents became offended, and others were offended on their behalf. However, I don’t believe that in general people on Twitter were complaining that there are new agents, so much as pointing out that this is one factor in the whole ecosystem. However, many were questioning whether some new agents (BIPOC or not) were being properly mentored. I have heard anecdotally about agents who are sending to far too many editors on the first round, and to too many at the same publishing house, or treating every submission as an auction.
Literary representation is not a profession that requires licensing or certification. “Anybody can hang out a shingle,” as they say. It’s why the word “schmagent” was born—for people who call themselves agents and never bother to get to know the industry well, taking advantage of authors and then disappearing.
I hope the newly named Association of American Literary Agents might step into the breach here. Writers (and illustrators) need help determining whether new agents are schmagents and if not, whether they have access to proper mentoring. New agents, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, need help learning the basics of this business.
But it’s not just about the number of agents or the number of editors they are sending submissions to. I believe that the efforts to create more equitable access to and within publishing have been going on long enough that marginalized creators have now had time to realize they may have a shot at getting published, develop manuscripts, and secure agents. Perhaps also, we’ve gotten far enough from the start of the pandemic that writers who weren’t able to be creative early on have found their footing again, and because we’ve all experienced so many of the same things at the same time, the resulting manuscripts have broader appeal thematically. We’re all just seeing stronger, more timely projects.
These explanations, if they bear out, should bring us all a lot of hope. Change is needed, and change is happening.
It doesn’t do a lot of good, though, if we burn out editors and other publishing employees along the way. It wasn’t surprising when the Twitter conversation turned to stories of dismal starting salaries and burnout. Editors, especially (in my mind anyway) on the children’s side, have always been overworked and under-supported. Children’s publishing has always been dependent on employees who love children’s books and who are willing to work nights and weekends. I’ve been astounded at the number of editors I know who are managing successful lists without the help of assistants—and the number of editors who are given a portion of a colleague’s list as that person departs, without taking any duties away. Add in all the BIPOC editors who are actively working to change the industry for the better through professional groups and social media conversations, not to mention how much they’re asked to do that kind of work for their publishing company without additional compensation or recognition, and of course burnout is high. It always has been, and I didn’t think it was possible to get worse, but it has.
One thing within my control in my own little sphere is giving editors an out for passing on submissions without taking the time to craft a thoughtful reply with explanations of why the piece didn’t work for them. Most editors have had it drummed into them that part of building a relationship with an agent is giving them good feedback on their submissions, and it’s true: my clients and I do learn a lot from thoughtful rejections. But truly, something’s got to give here. From now on, every submission I send out will include a note about how it won’t bother me if they pass on the pitch or the manuscript without explanation.
I suspect that many editors won’t take me up on that. I know that a lot of editors won’t do that when the submissions are by marginalized writers, especially unpublished ones, just as I have a hard time doing that in response to queries I receive from marginalized writers. Giving them good feedback is part of what we’re all doing in an effort to make right what has been wrong for so long. I’m sure editors will do the same with new agents whom they find promising, as is right. We give help where we can.
This is just a small remedy to a gigantic problem, though. Publishing companies are going to have to step up here. According to a recent BookScan webinar, comparing 2020 numbers to 2019 numbers, “juvenile fiction is the leading growth category contributing to 1/3 of total market growth.” And yet editors in that category aren’t seeing publisher support rising commensurate with that growth. Editors are doing the lion’s share of the work—and it is so much work—of bringing new voices into the industry. Numbers of agents and numbers of submissions are increasing; where are the numbers on the other side of the equation? Where are the new editorial hires, the new assistants, the new efforts at retention? Diversity and Inclusion seminars and committees aren’t cutting it. Truly changing this industry takes real action. Publishers: you talk the talk of wanting to do better with bringing in BIPOC authors and editors. Your people who are on the ground and in the trenches need you to put your money where your words are.
Erin Murphy is the founder of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, which specializes in children’s books.