Last week I had an interesting lunch when I finally caught up with an old friend. Lillian works for a leading London literary agency (how’s that for alliteration for you?). She isn’t exactly an agent herself, although that remains her ambition. She’s fairly new to the whole business, having spent two years since her English degree as an editorial assistant with a publisher.
At the moment a big part of her job is to steam the stamps off the slush pile. You see, they receive about 200 unsolicited manuscripts a week. That’s around 10,000 a year, for those of you who blushed in the Maths classroom. In her first twelve months, Lillian was able to generate almost £12,500 in free revenue from the stamps she painstakingly peels off the SAEs.
It’s a lucrative source of revenue and brings in more than the agents are able to make on many of the books they tout to publishers. It also covers most of her salary. The steaming only takes about four hours each day, which leaves her enough time to take on other responsibilities like driving the rejected manuscripts down to Kent to the pulp merchant for recycling. At £140 per ton, the agency is able to bring in a good chuck of extra cash that way too.
Recently Lillian had a flash of inspiration. She’s found a way to increase the revenue eightfold. Her idea has been supported by the head of the agency and Lillian’s been given a pay rise. What they do now is ask for a full manuscript from all the writers who submit to them. By requesting the full via email they don’t have to use the SAEs that come with the original three chapters. They require a second SAE for return of the full, and the beauty of it is that this one comes with a whacking great average stamp value of more than £5.
That’s for an industry standard literary novel of 80,000 words. Blockbusters that weigh in at 120,000 to 140,000 words are even more profitable. They come plastered with stamps worth £7-8. Recently Lillian amended the submission guidelines on the agency website to say, We are particularly interested in longer fiction – please send the first six chapters (don’t forget to include an SAE) and we will promptly inform you if we would like to read the full manuscript.
This increases the whole steaming business to an annual value of over £80,000. In fact it’s a lot more when you add the scrap value of all those eternal reams of double spaced white paper. Lillian now gets a fifty percent bonus. When I questioned the ethics of this over an extra glass of Montagny, she pointed out, somewhat defensively, that her labour means that many writers who would never normally receive more than a standard rejection slip now have the frisson of being asked for a full manuscript. It’s an experience they will treasure for life. And you have to admit that, in these troubled times, it’s encouraging to hear that someone is able to make a living out of literature.