Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Many of the writers who contact me with Writer Beware-type questions seem to be convinced that the process of getting published is equivalent to a crap shoot. There are enormous numbers of people trying to sell a book, and very few publishing slots to go around. What slots there are go mostly to insiders and celebrities, rather than new writers. Agents and editors are so [pick one] busy/arrogant/sadistic that they’re as likely to toss your query as to read it. All in all, you’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting published.

This kind of thinking makes me crazy. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in it–there are thousands of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. The number that find publication is very small. Agents and editors are overworked. But the assumptions that accompany these nuggets of truth are incorrect–and so are the conclusions drawn from them.

The first assumption (unless you subscribe to the “you have to know someone” myth, which we’ve debunked several times on this blog) is that all those thousands of manuscripts are on an equal footing in the marketplace–that they all have basically the same chance. This isn’t so, as anyone who has ever looked at a publisher’s slush pile, or judged a writing contest, knows. Most manuscripts are terrible. Maybe 10% (some people would say less) of what’s out there even approaches publishability–and of that small number, even fewer are polished, original, or interesting enough to be attractive to an agent or publisher. Granted, agents’ and editors’ decisions are at least partly subjective. But if you’ve written a marketable book, you’re not in competition with every other writer scrambling to get published–just with the publishable less-than-10%. In other words, the odds are better than you think.

The second assumption is that the publishing industry doesn’t want new writers. New writers, this assumption holds, are lonely outsiders banging on the doors of an elitist club hell-bent on excluding them. Risk-averse agents and publishers are only interested in reality-show stars or the latest Stephenie Meyer clone. And if you haven’t already established an audience, forget it–no one wants a writer who doesn’t have a platform.

The importance of platform, unfortunately, isn’t a myth. But it’s much less of an issue for fiction than for nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring fiction author, a marketable manuscript is still a lot more important than how many followers you have on Twitter. Over the past few years, most of the fiction writers I’m acquainted with who’ve found first publication have had little or nothing in the way of platform (or previous publishing credits). As for agents and editors being unreceptive to first-timers, that’s a notion that’s not only easily disprovable (by reading the reviews section of Publishers Weekly, for instance), but defies logic. Every published writer was once unpublished. If the industry shuns newbies, how could they ever have sold their first novels?

In fact, all other things being equal, A. Newbie can be a lot more attractive to a publisher than Joan Midlister. True, A. Newbie is an unknown quantity, which means his book may tank–but also means it might succeed (J.K. Rowling was once A. Newbie, and every publisher is looking for one of those). Whereas Joan Midlister, who’s got several books under her belt but has never quite crossed the line into wide popularity, is a completely known quantity–and not in a good way. Perhaps her books sell steadily but not in spectacular numbers. Perhaps her readership is dwindling. Either way, A. Newbie may seem like a better bet–which means Joan is out, and the newbie is in.

I do understand, if you’re constantly receiving rejections, how tempting it is to believe that there’s something at work other than the quality of your work. In fact, this may be so. There’s no question that good books fail to find publication–for a whole range of reasons, including what a publisher is already publishing, sales or marketing concerns, poor publisher/agent targeting on the writer’s part, or sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But far more often, rejection is based on quality and marketability, or the lack thereof. No writer wants to believe this, of course–which is one of the things that keep scam agents, dishonest publishers, and incompetents of every stripe in business.

If you’ve written a marketable book, if you done your research, if you’re smart and persistent, you have a very reasonable chance of finding publication. If you haven’t…you don’t. Either way, though, it’s not a crap shoot.

10 Responses

  1. Kat Richardson

    Thank you, Victoria!

    Had I believed any of the “crap shoot” ideas when I started querying agents back in 2003 I think I wouldn’t have dared. I knew no one in the book business. No one at all. I’d never been to a writer’s convention or a genre convention, I didn’t read PW or Writer’s Digest or do any of the things people seem to think you “must” do to get a book contract. I just worked very hard and pursued the queries in the most professional manner I could. I persevered.

    The writer must have talent, they must work hard, they must approach the search for publication/representation with a businesslike and professional attitude and they must stick with it.

  2. Gary Gibson

    Nathreee: to my mind the definition of a marketable book is one that, having read the first page, it makes one immediately want to turn to the second; and upon reading that page, makes you want to turn to the third, and so on, until you reach the end.

  3. Anne Lyle

    Hear, hear! Only the other day I heard a well-known self-published author whining on a podcast about how you can only get published if you were room-mates in college with an editor from Penguin, and I just wanted to scream at him down my iPhone *lol*

    I think these people look at some of the admittedly far-from-brilliant novels that do happen to get published, and assume that their even-less-brilliant novel deserves exactly the same breaks – or there must be a conspiracy to keep them out. But I can promise them, publishing is not some secret society or old boys’ network that’s closed to outsiders – in fact, the SF&F scene here in the UK is very friendly and welcoming to anyone who genuinely loves the genre. Of course you need to actually write well in order to wow the editors, but that’s always been the case. In my experience, a little networking backed up by a pleasant, professional manner can get you a surprisingly long way…

  4. antares

    I’m sorry to say this, but Ms Strauss’s assertion that “the process of getting published is [not] equivalent to a crap shoot” is not corroborated by history.

    Dune: 88 rejections before it was published by a little-known press. None of the big SF publishers bought it.

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 12 rejections before Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury’s chairman, had the good luck to give the manuscript to his 8-year-old daughter to read. Still, the first printing was only 500 copies.

    The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula LeGuin’s rejection letter is famous. The novel won the Hugo and Nebula.

    Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections.

    Okay, the majority of the submissions are unpublishable crap. But even the good stuff (Dune), the brilliant stuff (The Left Hand of Darkness), the game-changing stuff (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) gets tossed aside time and time again unless 1) the writer persists with submissions until 2) the right editor reads the MSS at the right time.

    Publishing is a crap shoot, because the publishers are lazy. They do not do their homework to discover what their readers want. Instead, they stick with known writers and known formulas. Why? Because the market went that way last year, and they bet will go that way again. Publishers believe readers will want tomorrow what they wanted yesterday.

    Plus the fact that none of them — NOT ONE — runs his slush pile in anything that approaches an organized fashion. And, yeah, I can do better.

  5. heteromeles

    Have to agree with Antares. Sort of. There are a lot of ambiguities in publishing. However, it’s nothing like craps. In craps, you know the odds (if the dice or honest), or you can figure them out pretty fast (if you’re in a real game). In publishing, NO ONE knows the odds, and no one has accurate information. It’s not craps, it’s Calvinball.

    So what are we left with?
    –NO ONE is good at detecting freak publishing events in advance, despite the hype and publicity. One huge problem that will never go away is that classics are black swans in the technical sense: they are not detectable in advance, by anyone, including the author. Antares rightly points out a bunch of famous examples. When an unknown rockets to bestseller status, the editor was lucky, not talented, whatever they say.
    –Editors ARE good at negative evaluations, so if they say it sucks, it probably sucks. Personally, I’m enormously glad that editors play this role. Thank you!
    –Unfortunately, editors do suffer from two statistical problems:
    a) A high false positive rate, at least in financial terms. This is Sturgeon’s law (“90% of everything published is crap”). Here I’m not talking about quality (because tastes do differ), but about revenue. Most books don’t earn a lot.
    b) A medium false negative rate. Editors can detect real crap, but they also reject a number of reasonable works, including the classics mentioned above. Again, this is a matter of luck.

    Grind all this through the mill, and unsophisticated authors will think it looks random. The problem is, it’s neither random nor predictable. It’s a mess. Randomness has knowable statistical properties, and I don’t think this is true for the publishing industry. The best strategy for authors is still to write the best they can and find their audience, whether it’s the staff at their publisher or a large group through the internet. Good luck to all!

  6. Jay Kristoff

    I just signed with a top notch Literary Agency in NY. I’ve never been to a convention, bunked with somebody from the publishing industry, learned any secret handshakes. I have no previous publishing credits – shorts, mags, nothing. At the time I signed, I had 12 fulls out with agents, and four offers of rep on the table. And I am *nobody*. If I can do it, anyone can.

    Antares – 12 rejection is *nothing*. If any author received a $750,000 offer after 12 rejections like J.K.Rowling did, they’d be dancing on the ceiling. Her story is one of phenominal success in an extraordinary short amount of time. I’m not sure how citing her case supports your arguement. 88 rejections for Dune? Sure, that’s a alot. But 12? Jesus, some writers get 12 rejections in a DAY.

  7. WriterBeware Post author

    The problem with using much-rejected classics as illustrations of the crap-shootiness of publishing, or the blindness of publishers, or the futility of the search for publication, is that they disprove the argument. Because they DID get published.

    You need a marketable manuscript (which is absolutely the biggest “if” for any writer). You need to be smart about submission (do your research, and do it BEFORE you submit). You need to be persistent (perhaps even insanely persistent). If you are or do all those things, your chances really are pretty decent.

  8. David Alton Dodd

    Actually, it is a crapshoot – a crapshoot for both the writer and the publisher. Dune received rejections because it was pretty far out there at the time it was written. Someone rolled the dice and it came up seven. Good for both the author and the publisher.

    Meanwhile, there is more information than ever on the internet concerning the formula, some magic set of rules and steps it takes to get published. There isn’t any formula. Good writers that spend most of their time writing and submitting instead of worrying about getting published will eventually succeed.

    William Saroyan was rejected over 7,000 times before getting his first short story printed. Imagine that.

  9. DA Munroe

    The problem with using much-rejected classics … is that they disprove the argument.

    Except that most authors don’t submit their manuscript 88 times. These stories demonstrate that great manuscripts can get rejected, repeatedly.

    Your basic thesis is sound – it’s a lot less random than people usually think; and great manuscripts are far, far more likely to make it to print than middling manuscripts. But surely you don’t want to take your own metaphor literally and argue that there’s no random element at all; that editors might misjudge a manuscript’s saleability. Clearly, it’s possible for an overworked slush reader to pass over something that, given a lazy afternoon and little to do, might have proved to be a very entertaining piece. There are numerous bestsellers that I found unreadable, and would have rejected, had I been in the editor’s shoes.