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.