Now it's time to discuss the results. :)
Participants: In "genre of first published book" I got a pretty even split (51/49) between adult writers (mostly genre) and YA/children's. So I would hope that the results are reasonably applicable to both.
I also know from the comments that the respondents sold their first books across a pretty wide range of time--some decades ago, some this year, the rest everywhere in between. Do connections matter more now than they did in earlier years? Possibly. I didn't realize until I downloaded the results that I would be able to cross-reference them; otherwise I'd have included a "when did you sell your first book" question. But I think you'll see that the results lean so clearly in one direction that even if they matter *more* now, they're still far from essential.
Agents: Only 55% of the respondents had an agent when they sold their first book! Pretty surprising, isn't it? Cross-referencing the data, the genre in which the fewest people sold without an agent was young adult. 86% of the picture book debuts sold without an agent, followed by 54% of the adult genre, 36% of the middle grade, 25% of the adult literary/mainstream, and 16% of the young adult.
(Note: A few of the adult genre writers mentioned that they were known because of short fiction publications when they were shopping their debut novel and felt that this helped them sell the book. Also, a few of respondents mentioned seeking out an agent to negotiate the deal after they got a publishing offer but before it was finalized.)
The majority of the authors who had an agent, got that agent with no prior connection (62%). They simply cold-queried the agent, submitted their book or proposal, and were offered representation. The others got a referral from a client or another agent, met the agent at a conference or workshop, or had some other prior connection.
If you don't like percentages--of the 272 respondents, 121 sold without an agent. 103 got an agent by cold querying.
Editors: Authors were even less likely to have a connection to the editor who bought their first book. 72% sold to an editor they had no connection to (28% cold-queried or submitted on their own, 44% had their agent submit to an editor the author didn't know). The others had talked to the editor at a conference, workshop, or other public event, been referred, or had some other prior contact with the editor.
Were unagented authors only able to sell their book if they had an in with the editor? The data suggests not. 48% of those who had no agent also had no prior connection to the editor who bought their book!
Breaking down the percentages--of the 272 respondents, 197 sold to an editor they had no prior connection to.
My thoughts: The poll wasn't perfect, but it seems pretty clear to me that having connections in the publishing industry is far from necessary when it comes to both getting an agent and getting an editor to buy your book. So if you have connections, sure, go ahead and use them. Certainly can't hurt. But if you don't have any, if you can't afford to go to conferences to meet agents and editors, don't despair. Cold querying works just fine!
Other people's thoughts: Dozens of people gave me additional thoughts on the subject.
Some felt contacts were completely unnecessary...
"I have dozens of contacts in the publishing industry, ones that would make a pre-published author drool. They helped not one iota in getting my book published."
"I did have a contact in publishing, who sent my stuff to her agent, but he ultimately rejected it, so I went the cold query route, which worked!"
"I sold my first book on my own, sans agent, via a cold query to an editor. The next book I sold with an agent, which I again got with just regular email query. "
"I sold my first 10 books without an agent, to an editor I met at a conference, but that meant nothing. She met 50+ authors that day and nearly half pitched...I'm the only one who actually sold to her and that was two years later after I revised the book for her three times. As for my agent, I was already published by the time I went looking. I had two agents in mind--one I'd met many years ago and had kept somewhat in touch with and another I'd never met. The one I'd never met read my work faster and offered representation with more enthusiasm than the one I knew.
It is NOT about who you know!!! It's about the work."
"While I had been active online for years, reading agent/editor blogs and websites--and occasionally taking part in discussions--I didn't end up with a professional relationship with any of those people. It was all cold query."
Some thought contacts were very useful...
"Becoming published is harder now than when I first sold. I firmly believe that contacts in the industry make one's path easier. One can sell with no contacts, but it is easier with them."
"I think contacts can be important for getting an attentive read. They will not garner a sale. But if you're a good, marketable writer, they can get you the attention you need to sell.
I think contacts may in fact be more useful AFTER a sale, to get buzz going. But it's good to start making those contacts prior.
I'd say contacts can be helpful, but they won't sell a bad book. They can, though, greatly help a good book get noticed, especially after it's sold."
"I feel strongly that meeting my publisher before selling my book to her had some influence on selling to her. I am very convinced that current authors (even w/only one book) in any publishing house stand a MUCH better chance of selling another book to the same house than someone who does not have that contact."
"Publishing is like any other business. People like to work with people they know. It's such a long-distance business, that editors like to get to know someone in person because you can get an idea more quickly of what someone will be like to work with.
And if you think your book is so good that your personality and work ethic don't matter -- it isn't. Someone right behind you has a book just as good and is great to work with"
Some authors had rather complicated paths to publication...
"Online acquaintance who asked to see my book turned out to be an editor at a major children's publishing house; this editor referred me to an agent she knew; that agent didn't love my book enough to represent it but referred me to another agent who did; and then the editor who'd been working with me on uncontracted revisions wasn't able to buy my book because her house turned it down, so my new agent found me a totally different editor/house. So even though I didn't end up working with either the editor OR the agent with whom I had direct contact, I probably wouldn't have got my contract without them!"
"My first three middle grade books were work for hire, to an editor I'd already sold short fiction to, sold without an agent.
My fourth middle grade book was sold to an editor I'd never met, without an agent, though I friend with the same publisher had recommended I submit and I used her name in the query.
My fifth book/first YA was sold by an agent I'd never met and cold queried, to an editor I'd never met -- and so far, it's been my most successful."
Some emphasized the importance of have contacts with fellow authors...
"While I didn't have any contacts, I DID have a friend find my agent via a posting on Verla Kay's blue boards... so it DOES pay to have contacts w/ other writers who watch out for you."
"Belonging to an established writers group helped me get an agent."
And some just had plain old good advice...
"You don't have to know anyone in the publishing industry to get published. However, you will have a better chance to get published if you learn about the publishing industry, including what types of books various publishers want, what criteria they use to judge submissions, what publishing contracts look like and which clauses are dangerous to writers, what constitutes a realistic income a writer can expect, etc. The best way to establish a career is to study the industry before you get an offer on your first book."
I hope you found that interesting and informative. :) You might also want to check out:
The full poll results
A related discussion at the Verla Kay forums
A related discussion at Sherwood Smith's blog
Feel free to discuss this further here, and to share this information with others, especially aspiring authors who fear their lack of connections will hold them back.