We read a lot about how few manuscripts get picked up by agents, but what percentage of books submitted to publishers are then put under contract for publication? I.e. what is the rejection rate at that level? And then how many of those that are accepted by a publisher actually reach bookstore shelves?
This isn't Las Vegas.
You can't count cards to assess the odds.
Which is of course utterly maddening to people who like order, and some sense of control.
Let's break down your questions:
What percentage of books submitted to publishers are then put under contract for publication?
I think you mean sold here. How many submissions are actually sold.
What you've not mentioned is over what length of time.
I've sold books that have been on submission for more than 10 years.
I sold other books for that author, but the first book he queried me for took 10 years.
The late, deeply mourned Phillip Spitzer sold a novel for his client James Lee Burke after 17 years on submission. I'm still in awe. Of Phil and Jim. Both are masters.
What is the rejection rate at that level?
Every single novel I've sold, including those that won awards and hit best seller lists got rejected by somebody. You simply can't avoid rejections. Using that as any kind of measurement is not a good idea. Rejection is often not for anything the author can control.
BUT, you don't get one bite at the apple. If Buttonweezer Books says no, then Deep Pockets Books might say yes. You only need one yes.
And if the first manuscript doesn't sell, most agents will ask you to bring up one of your novels from the bench and see if that one gets a bite.
How many of those that are accepted by a publisher actually reach bookstore shelves?
When you say shelves, it implies actual physical shelves, but an awful lot of books are sold on the .com sites of bookstores. They don't have to keep inventory there, and they can "carry" a lot more books than they have room for in actual stores. And of course Amazon is almost 100% web based sales.
It would be rare for a book to be bought by a publisher then not be made available for sale either in stores or online.
It does happen, but usually if the author hasn't provided a publishable book on a multi-book contact, or doesn't finish the book (particularly in non-fiction.)
There are clauses in publishing contracts that require a publisher to make a book available for sale within a certain time period, or rights revert.
But the question you're really asking is how can I assess my chances of success in a crowded field?
I can't either.
But that doesn't mean you should retire from the field.
To quote the great baseball coach Jimmy Dugan: "“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”