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A Writer's Greatest Challenge - The odds of getting published.

The odds of getting published.

Are you serious? Those are the odds? How are you supposed to get discovered amongst the piles of the mundane? After all, you love what you’ve written and you know it will make a great read. In fact, it could be a huge success, if only you could get it out there. Right? So you’re doing your research on how to submit to agents or perhaps you’re already on that treadmill, but it’s natural to wonder… what are the odds?

Wendy Keller Media says, ‘Agencies like mine typically reject 99.5% of everything they see. Out of close to 500 queries a month … we invite perhaps 50 proposals for review. Out of that fifty, perhaps one or sometimes two is ready to be delivered to publishers.’

Ouch. That’s more like 99.8%.
Though the key words there are ‘we invite .. 50 proposals for review.’ There are more companies making money ‘helping’ writers than there are writers making money. But the statistics do hold up across the board. The reality is most agencies will only take on one or two new authors a year. Before you become further depressed think of the poor one to two authors who are being dropped. Just when they begin living the dream it’s all over. But that’s a whole other story.

Other figures suggest that it’s more likely 1 in a 1000. Forget the calculator. It's not your friend. The reality is, there isn't' a conclusive study on the amount of submissions made per year. It’s almost impossible to calculate. However the top tier publishers will receive the most submissions, provided they are open to it. More and more will only receive them through a legitimate literary agent. However obtaining an agent is in the same ballpark as securing a publisher. Tough to get one unless you’ve been published. Yes, a vicious cycle and enough to send you into a spin (pun intended).

First time authors will struggle more to get their work out there and publishers will usually only publish a set amount of first time authors. One figure I encountered suggested that a company received 8,000 unsolicited manuscripts and only published four new authors, making the odds 1 in 2,000. That’s roughly twenty two submissions per day or almost three per hour. The days of full time ‘slush pile’ sorters are over. Publishers are forced to do it themselves as well as looking after their clients and all the other work they do, such as writing blogs.

The chances are that your carefully worded query and opening pages will be dismissed within seconds. More than likely, they will not read your work at all. They know what they are looking for and probably aren’t looking at all. It’s terrifying to think of how many gems have slipped through the cracks. More likely gaping chasms.

It is frustrating when we’ve come across books and wondered, how the hell did that get published? A further bit of research suggests that the author is the daughter of an agent, or was a book reviewer or even worked for an agency at some point. A very well-known agent quit to become an author. What I read of the book was mediocre but it didn’t stop it getting published. Which makes you wonder about the material this person once rejected. One writer’s festival I went to had all four panellists reveal that they were published by ‘getting in the back door.’ In other words, through an inside contact.

It’s easy to get cynical and jaded once you've been on the treadmill for a while. You’ll start to downsize your potential publishers and in the process, increase your odds. The smaller publishers receive far less submissions, perhaps only one or two a day. Your odds are still less than 1% but if you want your book to get out there, even if it may only reach a reduced readership, then you’ll do what it takes.

These figures are of course, very subjective and they differ from each publisher. You may hit the right agency at the right time. Take Stephanie ‘Twilight’ Meyer. Her book was no better than a thousand others but she struck a chord at the right time to a young agent at Writers House after only nine rejections and five no answers. She quotes that she has still kept ‘all her rejections.’ Oh Stephanie, you have no idea.

There are a few stories like Meyer’s but there are many thousands of others whom we will never hear of. These are the silent majority. Chances are, this will be you. But if you never try you will never know. Timing and luck are important factors and there’s little you can do about those but you can prepare by researching the agency/publisher you submit to and follow their submission requirements to the letter. Deviating from this will only make them think you’re not professional and dismiss you before they’ve read a word of your work. Ensure your query and beginning pages are the very best you can make them. Assuming of course, that you’ve given your novel/book countless rewrites already. You have to give yourself the best chance so you better make sure it’s better than great. Because if you don’t, others will.

And while you’re doing all this, keep writing. Get working on your next book. Stephen King never got published until his fourth book. It took author Karl Marlantes over thirty years to get his epic Vietnam novel Matterhorn into print. That’s patience. Of course, we are assuming that you’re not a terrible writer and just don’t know it. In which case you will never get published. Unless you decide to self-publish, like hundreds of thousands of others and are prepared for the hard sell. Or perhaps it may be your second or even fifth book to get the job done. And by then you’ll be a much better writer.

And remember; try not to take it personally. It does hurt, but it’s not about you. It’s the industry. It’s just how it is. All niche industry’s such as film and music have many people trying to make their name with very few opportunities. It’s like trying to squeeze a rhinoceros into a fridge. If you knew how difficult it would be you wouldn’t do it.

And yet, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, no one can take your work away from you. Your book is part of your life’s achievements. You should be proud of yourself. Just remember to leave the rhinoceros out of it.

Good luck. You'll need it. And while it may be a big silly game but one that you want to play, it’s always worth remembering Han Solo's famous quote; ‘Never tell me the odds.’ 

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  1. Good Post Anthony. Either you did a bit of research for the article, or you have been busy submitting.

    It is possible to rationalise the number of manuscripts that get rejected. A lot of manuscripts submitted would simply not be ready. I wouldn't dare submit any of my first draft novels to publishers, but many would submit similar unready manuscripts. Once unready manuscripts are taken out, the odds of a near ready manuscript getting published would be much higher.

    Then there are manuscripts or queries sent to agents who don't publish that genre.

    If all else fails, self publishing ebooks will probably be the dominate way books are published within the next few years, especially books from new authors. Writers worrying about getting a traditional publishing contract might just be like a company that after years of trying finally signed a contract to build a nuclear reactor in Japan just before the earthquake.

  2. Cheers for your thoughts Graham. I've done both, researching and submitting.

    I think some people do get a bit eager when querying agents etc, and don't do their research but I'd like to think that most take submission requirements seriously.

    I think your right though, self-publishing is going through the roof. There are so many doing it that I heard of one very famous agent who recently hung up her hat to start a company 'assisting' writers to self-publish. This is where the money is. My concern with that is the sheer volume of material out there. It's a veritable ocean. And some people are good at marketing and not so good at writing. In other words, I think it's easy to get lost, even if your material is good.

  3. 30 years? Gulp. Well, I had 15 years between my two small (articles) publications. I just hope I live long enough to see my name in print again.
    Great post, my friend.
    Let's beat the odds!

  4. 15 years.. ouch.. that's a long time... I first got 'published' at 8 in the school paper... I don't even want to add those years up. lol..

    Power on fellow Ranger!


  5. It's like trying to find that needle in the haystack. If you can afford to self publish, do it to test the market and see where your publication goes. Again, it does pay to have a good PR agent to help with the promotion of your book. It's all $$$$$, isn't it. Well, all I can say is keep your aptitude for writing and passion together and you're definitely living in your element. At least you KNOW what you want to do!

    Gina :)

  6. I really don't like the politics and red tape behind publishing companies. There are 2 ways around it. 1. If you write your own work try to self-publish it. 2. Try to do writing projects that are customized for publishers, that way the publisher may agree to purchase your work beforehand and kill your negative doubts. Both of these suggestions are for small-time/independent writers like myself, going after the big publishers is not a good place to start, but once your work starts getting recognized the big fish may come to you. Thanks for putting the numbers out there Anthony, they have reassured me that I am in the right place... NOT running after publishers unless I know I am the right fit for what they're looking for.

  7. Hi Anthony,
    Great Post.
    I'm all for beating the odds by being as pro-active as I can as a writer and having a kick-ass author platform.
    Also by listening and following advice.
    Submitting and re-submitting, never giving up. And keeping up to date with the industry.
    Good luck everyone :)

  8. What is very funny, or more like ironic, is that the one in a thousand book that does get published, is often the WRONG choice. Maybe it's just me, but sometimes I think they haven't a clue as to what is a good story. That's just me and I'm saying it as a reader, not an author.

  9. Thanks for your comments.
    I think alot of it is pure luck. And I agree Pat, quite often they just don't know what constitutes as a good book. We've heard from some of the greatest writers of the last 100 years who talk about all their rejections, often the novels that became famous. What is worth thinking about is how many did not make it, great works that we're never discovered or ignored by those who may love books, but are often not artistically minded and cannot recognise art, only the business of selling.
    There's something said for persistence, but ticking all the boxes doesnt mean you will get there.

    I think N. makes a good point about starting with the small publishers and hope to get noticed that way. It's a big sea and getting published is just the beginning. It's still easy to get lost.

    I think of stories like those of John Kennedy Toole, who gave up in despair. His novel was only published by a stroke of luck 11 years after his death. How many JKT's are out there? I say thousands.


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