Stephen Leigh & S.L. Farrell

Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality

The Odds Of Getting Published

When I’m teaching creative writing, I always spend at least one class session talking about the nuts-and-bolts of submitting a manuscript. I show the students proper manuscript form, talk about how important it is that mistakes are kept to a minimum, and so on -- all the technical things that can get a manuscript bounced regardless of the quality of the writing. I also talk about the fact that a given market might receive 100 - 1,000+ unsolicited manuscripts a month, and that your manuscript is sitting there somewhere in that big pile.

When I say that, there's always an inevitable question, which goes something like this: "So if they get 500 manuscripts a month, the odds are 1 in 500 I'll get accepted?” [Student punches buttons on a handy calculator and looks dismayed.] "Wow. That's only a .2% chance. No wonder new writers can't get published."

My reply is always, always, the same: "There are no odds. It's not a lottery."

But the misconception persists. You hear it all the time: the publishing industry is a closed shop, a private club. The publishers and the magazines aren’t open to new writers. It’s all a Catch-22 situation: your odds of getting published are miniscule because the only way to get published is to have been published..

And the people who say this know it, of course, because their manuscripts are getting rejected right and left.

There’s a tendency in all of us to blame an outside force when we fail. We failed because it was too hot, or that person got in our way, or the computer fouled things up, or... well, the excuses are endless. We all know them because we’ve all used them. We're not at fault; something else is the problem.

I hate to tell you this, but there are no outside forces at work in the publishing business other than the simple economics of the business. The publishers want to sell books. If they think your story can do that, they won't care whether you've sold twenty books or none. Remember: every established writer out there, all of those multi-published authors, once had to sell their first novel or their first story. They managed it. You can too. If your manuscript can’t find a home, then I am suggesting that the best place to look for the problem is in a mirror.

Let me repeat: the publishing business is not a lottery and there are no odds. If it were a lottery, the editors would dump all the slush manuscripts into a big bin, give it a good spin, and reach inside to pluck out a single manuscript, proclaiming "Here's the one we're going to publish this month!" That's not how they do it. They actually read the slush, at least until they know they don't need to read any more...

Nor is it a closed club for the glorious Previously Published: if it were, the markets wouldn’t even bother to allow unsolicited manuscripts or even agented ones -- why bother to go to all that trouble, time, and expense if the only people you’re going to publish are the ones you’ve already published?

Here’s the truth: If your manuscript is poorly presented—if you didn't follow the submission guidelines, if your manuscript isn't in proper manuscript form, if it has five mistakes in the first paragraph, if the prose is riddled with cliches, if the characters are wooden and the dialogue forced and the plot obvious, if you can't write a complete sentence or you switch tense and point-of-view at will—then you have 0% chance of being published. Let me repeat: 0%. None. Zilch (unless, of course, you self-publish. But we're talking about traditional publishing here.)

It won't matter how many times you send out that manuscript to the professional markets. Your story will never sell... because it isn't good enough. Period. Note that many of the qualities I've just cited are simple technical aspects that anyone can learn, like 'proper manuscript form.' I've heard from editors that a surprisingly high percentage of the manuscripts that come in over the transom ignore that one little rule, and as a result get bounced. In fact, I tell my students this: want to learn how to substantially increase these mythical odds'? Then learn how to do proper manuscript form. It's easy. Honest, it is.

On the other hand, if your story is well written and compelling and you've done all the technical stuff right, I'm fairly confident that it will sell. Maybe not to the first place you send it, or the second or third or fifteenth (because literary tastes differ from person to person, and despite the rumors, editors are people too, with the requisite 'different tastes and judgments'), but it will get placed somewhere. At worst, I would say that your 'odds' of selling are in the 90% range.

If your story is "pretty good but not perfect" and you've managed to follow proper manuscript form and can write grammatically and correctly, it might sell—if you hit the right editor at the right time. Or it might not. And by the time it comes back to you after twenty rejections, maybe you'll have figured out why it's only "pretty good" and not "really good-to-excellent." When a manuscript I send out comes back rejected (and some of mine still do, believe me) I'm far better off believing that the reason for my rejection doesn't lie with the editor, but with my manuscript and my writing. I can fix my writing (and I have).

On the other hand, I could believe that my writing is perfect and that the stupid editor just can't see the genius in the pages I sent, but the odds are high that I'm being delusional and I simply don't have a good grasp of my actual level of ability.

There's one simple reason the vast majority of manuscripts don't sell: they suck. Sorry if that offends you. I'll guarantee you that's why none of my early stories ever sold. I can see it now, even if I couldn't see it then: they sucked. They really sucked. If writing fiction were easy, everyone would do it. The proper response to rejection isn't to rail about how the publishing industry is unfair and the editor's an idiot; the proper response is to look at your own work and figure out what you're doing wrong—because, frankly, you are doing something wrong.

So fix it. You can fix it. In fact, you’re the only one who can.

Become a better writer. Study. Explore. Read other published work and figure out why it was published. Write. Write some more. Write even more. Get good. Then you won't have to worry so much about those terrible, awful odds.