Monday, March 9, 2015

On the Quantification of Things

Congratulations to the winners and runners up of the March Mystery Agent Contest! Keep your eyes out for the next one--we have them pretty frequently over here in the Operation of Awesome.

And with the word frequently, I segue into today's blog topic: quantification.

I see quantification a lot in my academic library job--mostly because what my department does isn't something that can always be measured. (Specifically, whether or not students become lifelong learners and researchers.)

Along the same vein, the disciplines that I work with (the humanities, mostly) are more difficult to measure than some of the STEM areas. As a result, I, and a few of my colleagues, were required to conduct a session where we explained what we did to other library departments, so they could see the value in what we did.

Which got me thinking--as a society, we seem pretty numbers obsessed, especially when it comes to measuring value.

The problem is, it doesn't always work.

Except here, maybe.

I see this a lot in the writing world as well as the librarian world, probably because the publishing side of things is more business (and therefore numbers) oriented. But that aside, sometimes, even some of the yet-to-be agented or yet-to-be published get worried when they see things like this:

  • Only 50-60% of first novels actually get picked up by a publisher.
  • You have to get at least ten full manuscript requests to land an agent. 
And so on. I get quantification when the business becomes reality, like advances and sales and such (and I'm sure there are countless other measurements), but I'm wondering if dwelling on hypotheticals like the ones above is a masked attempt to control a completely random process. Even worrying about word counts falls into this category--as if the perfect word count would guarantee an opportunity that might not otherwise come. 

I think, there, in the word, "category," we have our answer--it's not necessarily the quantification itself, but which category we think the quantification puts us in. If we don't have enough fulls out, we're in that other, lower, category. Same if book sales don't do as well as we hope (though it's very true that this sort of quantification has some very real effects). 

Our society's need to categorize is a separate blog post, probably, but we see it everywhere, lines that are put up that don't really exist. 

So I say--let's tear those lines down, and not let them limit us. And to put this more eloquently, I'm going to quote someone much smarter than me:

"Yes, you can calculate what percentage of writers actually sell their first book, but don't expect it to be meaningful information. In the end, it is just another pointless thing to fret about. Go forth and write something fantastic." -Amy Schaefer

So what about you? Where do you find yourself trying to quantify? Has it helped or hurt your process?


  1. I am one of those cockeyed optimists of song. When I read that The Help was turned down 59 times, I asked my husband, "What if she hadn't sent it out the 60th time? Obviously I haven't been rejected enough."

    1. I welcome all cockeyed optimists of song! And I love The Help--I'm glad she sent it out that lucky 60th time too.

      Keep singing!

  2. I'm with Elizabeth. When quantifying is encouraging, I let it help. When it's not, I don't allow it to depress me. After all, it IS just a number.


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