Tuesday, September 06, 2022

What are the odds?

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?

You can't.
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.”

Any questions?


  1. "There's no crying in baseball."

    However, in publishing...

  2. Just keep writing. It's the only thing we can control as writers. I am getting ready to go into the query trenches again. Can't even remember how many books/tries this is anymore. Something will stick. Just have to find the right agent at the right time and then hope the agent finds the right publisher at the right time. It's not easy. But I can't stop myself trying.

  3. The cool thing is the more we write and study and practice our craft the better we get.

    I recently started an experiment following Robert Heinlein's 5 Business Rules. So far it's working.


  4. Love the question(s). Love the answers.


  5. "It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great"_ Love this quote. It's a good reminder for all of us.

  6. In some corners of the short story world we call this rejectomancy, and we crave numbers. XD

    So we pore over each market's submission history and conclude, "they received ~1000 submissions in this open call, held ~100, and bought ~10, that's a 10% hold rate and a 1% purchase rate!" Which I assume varies as wildly by novel editor as it does by short story market.

    I had to explain to my mom on the phone a few weeks ago, who was wondering what was taking so long-- I finished the book, I have an agent submitting it, so when does it come out? And she was very surprised that all competent books aren't just picked up, and publishers do indeed get more submissions than they have publication slots. (Slots?? They put a limit?? Yes ma, they put a limit.)

  7. "You only need one yes."

    I like to be unique. I'm starting to think I'm gonna need two.

  8. But, if you don't bet, you can't play.

    Who better to bet on than yourself.

  9. With regards to querying... it isn't that far off from writing applications for a job, is it? The motivation letter, I mean.

    I'd like to blame my current success with my job application process on learning how to write a query letter. I recently wrote my motivation letter in a slightly new way - right in the 'story', with a killer opening line.

    I now get almost a complete turn around. I was told by one person in Switzerland that it wasn't my CV that made them curious but my motivation letter.
    I have soooo many job interviews these days.

    Thanks, Janet. 😃


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