Traditional Publishing. And The Odds Are . . .

Assouline at the Plaza

For most writers, traditional publishing remains the gold standard for literary success. With it comes recognition and rewards, and the bonus of many unexpected opportunities. But the publishing industry has been in the throes of chaotic change in the past few years. Writers are no longer tethered to the agent-publisher maze done New York style. Many publishers have closed their doors, a few have been absorbed. Cutbacks are the order of the day. Reaching the gold standard has always been tough but, these days, it’s a monumental task.

When it comes to traditional publishing, the universal question that writers ask is, “What are my odds of getting published?” It’s an understandable question, and one that goes to the heart of why many writers write. The confusion is not in the question, it’s in the answer.

There really is no precise answer to the question, nothing a writer can rely upon. There are only opinions and the experiences of writers, agents and publishers. However, it’s obvious that agents and publishers are not running a lottery. It’s not a random process. Talent and marketability matter. Publishers are trying their darnedest to make money and stay relevant in a marketplace that they can no longer dominate. From a broader point of view, everyone involved in the writing business understands that the odds of being published in the traditional way are long. In fact, they are very long.

Here are a few opinions to consider. They reflect a consensus view of agents and publishers in today’s marketplace:

The odds of getting your book published by a legit New York house, the kind of contract that gets your work on the shelf at Borders, are about the same as someone setting out to play on the PGA or LPGA tour. In a word, miniscule. More realistically, in 2.5 words, almost non-existent. (Larry Brooks, StoryFix.com)

Here is a quick summary of what Rita Emmett wrote on RitaEmmett.com:

  • Agencies like mine typically reject 99.5 of everything they see.
  • Editors take projects (only) from agents.
  • An average, overworked editor publishes a maximum of 24 books in a year.
  • According to reliable sources, we publish only about 65,000 books a year. 2/3 of that group are text books, professional books and fiction. That leaves approximately 12,000 books available for you to become one of.

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 Odds of Getting Published Stink – and Why You Shouldn’t Care. The Purple Canyon Blog.)

Editors and publishers agree that the odds of being published are only 1-2%. That is, they only accept, and publish, one or two out of every hundred manuscripts they receive. (The Odds of Being Published. Fiction Writers’ Mentor.)

About 95% are rejected right off the bat (most get form letters, a few promising authors get personalized notes stating why the manuscript was rejected). Of the 5% left, some are queries for which the editors request entire manuscripts. Others are manuscripts submitted in their entirety, and these go on to the next stage of the acquisitions process (get passed around the editorial department, presented at editorial meetings, perhaps looked at by sales staff to get a sense of the market for the book). The end result is that 1-2% of unsolicited submissions are actually purchased for publication. (What Are Your Chances of Getting Your Book Published? FictionAddiction.net)

The market is glutted with manuscripts, and only a limited number of books and stories are being published each year. The struggling economy has generated hordes of first-time authors adding their pet projects to the slush piles. At the same time, in order to save costs and streamline their businesses, many publishers are lowering the number and variety of books they publish each year (or even closing their doors for good). Hypothetically, an agent might receive 15,000 query letters in a year. Of the 15,000 novels in question, only a few dozen might be accepted and forwarded to a publisher, with only 15 or so to be accepted by a publisher for printing. Thus, in this example, an author has only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being published. (The Odds of Being Published. WritersType.com)

The bottom line is one of long odds, probably getting longer each day in terms of traditional publishing. No one can say what tomorrow will bring except that publishing houses are undergoing unprecedented changes. Traditional publishing is quickly becoming less powerful, less dominant. However, long odds are tolerable if you are truly committed to writing. It’s just another step along the path. And, today, there are many viable alternatives for the unwavering writer. The odds are not a good reason to give up.

It’s not always the most talented writer who succeeds. It’s often the most tenacious, the writer who is not afraid of long odds.

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8 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing. And The Odds Are . . .

  1. This development parallels the situation in academe, where only a tiny percentage of faculty are now full time, with full benefits. We’ve become a nation of Walmart greeters moonlighting as intellectuals.

  2. I think the big question isn’t: How to get a traditional publishing contract but, what to do after you get one? I was one of the lucky 1-2%. I am very, very grateful, especially since it came as a two-book deal. However, publishing has changed so, so much, and even after publication, it’s extremely difficult for a new author to compete with the glut of self-published books (and many of them quite engrossing and well-written, too), especially when eBooks are going for $1.99 and less. Traditionally published authors can’t set their own prices nor can they choose eBook sale dates to pump up sales. Try marketing an eBook for $8.99 when readers have hundreds and thousands of choices for $2.99-.99 cents. It’s brutal. I was totally unprepared.
    The days of publishers paying for multi-city book tours are gone (except perhaps for a few select biggie authors). Basically, it’s up to the author to promote his/her own work. It was a huge learning curve. It’s taken me a good six months to understand the ins and outs of marketing. As I mentioned before, it was a brutal yet necessary lesson. I’m now much better prepared for the launch of my second book. That is, um, if I ever finish writing my second book, lol. Cheers and have a great week.

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