Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: How Relying on Numbers Can Get You Into Trouble

 Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today I saw the following statement used as justification for choosing a fee-based publisher that charges its authors nearly $4,000, and actively presents itself as a real publisher, rather than a vanity publisher or a (very costly) self-publishing service:

A couple ratios I read a while back convinced me I did the right thing by publishing through [pay-to-play publisher's name redacted]. One ratio involved an author finding an agent – 1-in-5000 – and the other involved an agent finding a publisher – 1-in-100.

I’ve seen these sorts of statistics (most of which appear to be plucked from thin air, and few of which are ever linked to actual sources of information) used again and again to justify bad decisions–from settling for fee-charging agents, to paying huge amounts of money to deceptive “publishers,” to defaulting directly to self-publishing (there are good reasons to self-publish, but believing that it’s impossible for a new writer to find an agent or a commercial publishing deal isn’t one of them). It’s unfortunately very easy for writers to buy into these faux numbers–whether out of fear, or inexperience, or simply because they vindicate writers’ own frustration with rejection. But if you look at the numbers closely, they don’t hold up.

The problem with the first statistic is that it assumes that all authors and all manuscripts are equal, and thus equally in competition with one another. But manuscripts fall into markets and genres, and the competition within each market or genre is different. Beyond that, the hard truth is that most of the manuscripts that are circulating at any given time are not commercially publishable (anyone who has ever looked at an agent’s or publisher’s slush pile will confirm this). Perhaps 10% even approach publishability; a much smaller percentage is actually marketable. If your manuscript is marketable–which really is the biggest “if” for writers whose goal is traditional publication–you aren’t competing with every writer out there, just with the very small number whose work is also marketable. Your odds, in other words, are better than you think.

The problem with the second statistic is that it is very clearly illogical. Agents earn their income from commissions on sales–i.e., they get paid only if they sell something. If agents sold only 1 in every 100 manuscripts they represented, they couldn’t make enough money to keep their doors open–except maybe the disreputable ones who charge fees. (Nor, with so few sales, is it likely that trade publishers would be able to churn out over 300,000 new titles a year in the USA alone.) And imagine the work load, if for every success you also had to market 99 duds! No agent will manage to sell every single manuscript–but no agent could possibly remain in business with such a high failure rate.

The fact that not every manuscript will sell punctures another common myth: that it’s harder to find an agent than it is to get a publishing deal. Publishers have a one-to-one relationship with the manuscripts they acquire: every single manuscript they take on gets published. Agents know that not every manuscript they represent will find a home–but they need enough sales to keep their businesses going. In other words, they need spares. So while a publisher will only take on manuscripts it will publish, an agent will take on any manuscript he or she thinks may sell–within the limits of his or her workload, of course.

It is certainly tough to find a reputable agent. But it is very far from impossible. And even if your agent search does strike out, there is a huge alternative market in the large number of small presses that don’t charge their authors a penny. Unless you want to self-publish (in which case you don’t have to shell out anything close to $4,000), there’s no reason ever to pay for publication.