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The Odds of Getting Published Stink--and Why You Shouldn't Care

The Purple Crayon Blog May 2010
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Recently, a student in the current session of the Kids Book Revisions class Eileen Robinson and I teach asked about the odds of getting published, citing a statement that only 3 out of 10,000 manuscripts get published. The writer went on to wonder if there were areas where the odds were better--if some types of picture books have a better chance than others, for example. I'm going to address this question here because it's one I've heard a number of times, from my perspective as a children's book editor. I believe the points I make apply to other areas of publishing.

Where Do Those Numbers Come From?

Editors and agents are often asked about "the odds." I've heard different numbers given, and I've given them myself, to try to get across the difficulty an author faces when sending out manuscripts and hoping to get published. All of them are in the ballpark of 1,000 to 1 or worse. Where do these numbers come from? No one knows the total number of different manuscripts sent out every year by writers to all of the publishers in the country, so the numbers are usually (if not always) based on the number of submissions a particular publisher receives in a year. The editor then contrasts that number with how many books her house published by first-time authors in a year. So if the company received 8,000 unsolicited manuscripts and published 4 first-time authors, the editor says that only 1 in 2,000 manuscripts get published. It's hard to say if such a number is accurate for all publishers, since it's based on only one publisher's numbers.

But the real problem with it is that it may not say anything useful about a specific manuscript by a specific author.

Those Odds Are Terrible--and Not Very Useful 

The numbers are daunting. But what do they mean? Crucially, they don't mean what odds in a game of chance mean. Those 8,000 manuscripts received by the publisher do not all have an equal chance of getting published. Of those 8,000, at least 7,500 are going to be rejected almost as soon as they are opened, as a reader notes poor writing of one kind or another, a type of manuscript that the publisher never publishes, or some other critical flaw like the ones I discuss in Getting Out of the Slush Pile. Those manuscripts never had a chance. Another few hundred may be read in full, but will be found wanting in some other way: the characters don't quite come to life, the story is a familiar one and lacks an original twist, and so on. At best, these few hundred will get a scribbled note that they "just aren't quite right for our list," or that "I didn't fall in love with it" from the editor.

That leaves perhaps 200 manuscripts that are sufficiently well targeted and written that the editor has to consider them seriously. These are the manuscripts that linger on desks the longest, by the way, for that very reason. The editor still has a lot of manuscripts to choose from, but reaching that inner circle of 200 gets a writer much better odds of ending up as one of the chosen ones. One or more of these are the ones with which she will fall in love--love in this case having the practical consequence that she will take it through the acquisition process.

Why the Odds Don't Matter

With hard work on writing, market research, creativity, and perhaps some luck (though luck can be made. . .), a writer eventually can hope to reach that "winner's circle" of publishable manuscripts. If done over and over again, which experienced writers can do, there will come a time when a writer's manuscript is the one that's selected. But is getting to 200-1 the best a writer can hope for?

No, and this is why the odds truly don't matter. Any editor can tell stories about times when they opened a submission and read a manuscript that they just couldn't put down and knew right away that they had to acquire. This may have been a manuscript that had been seen by dozens of editors, or they may have been the first one. That didn't matter.

For that writer, at that moment, the odds of getting published became 100%.

Sorry, but I don't have the magic formula needed to make that moment happen. But if a writer does the work that will get her manuscript into the winner's circle, she creates the circumstances in which that moment can happen, so that the odds become meaningless and the writer connects to an editor. Many manuscripts do get acquired in other ways, of course--because they fit a very particular need, or because they are good work from someone an editor wants to keep publishing, but for first-time writers or writers struggling to get published, I just want to make the point that the odds don't have to matter. And, frankly, people who focus on the odds just get depressed. Successful writers focus instead on making that connection.

OK, But How Can I Get Better Odds?

That sounds wonderful and inspirational but I know that some people, of a more practical bent, are still wondering if there aren't areas in which the raw odds are somewhat better, or are hoping that the odds get better as the economy improves or demographics change. There may be, but with two possible exceptions, that doesn't change how a writer should approach what he is doing. Why not? Because even if the odds of getting published are better when writing for a particular age group or genre or when the economy is better, a writer still has to aim to connect to an editor, and that won't happen if the writer is doing their second-best writing.

A picture book author, for example, may who see opportunities in YA writing, and be tempted to try her hand at a novel. But unless that writer has a gift for writing for teens that she hadn't discovered earlier, this will require her to learn a whole new area, and perhaps spend years before her work is "winner's circle" quality. By that time, the field may have moved on.

Waiting for the economy to improve also isn't worth it. It won't improve the odds that much, and once it does improve the writer will still have to make the connection to an editor. I really don't see an alternative to working hard on the writing, making a manuscript the best it can be, and getting it out into the world.

The Exceptions : When the Odds DO Matter

There are circumstances in which a writer may need to pay attention to the odds of getting published. I can think of at least two. A writer who needs to earn a living from their writing, and needs to earn it as soon as possible, will want to look into work-for-hire, working for packagers, nonfiction, and other areas where the field is both less crowded and governed more by procedures and guidelines than by flashes of inspiration.

Or for a writer who wants to publish a particular manuscript, perhaps a family history, a memoir, or the only novel she wants to write, then building a career as a writer doesn't matter. In that case, a writer shouldn't waste her time or energy on getting published the traditional way. Writers with that focus should instead get their manuscript out into the world themselves: by self-publishing, in other words. By working with the right companies,  one can produce an attractive book at a reasonable cost, in quantities from 10 to 10,000.

Related Article

There's Always a Market for Awesome: An agent makes the same point in a different way.

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