Hard Truths About Publishing

Once upon a time, when reading and evaluation fees were the commonest form of upfront fee, the amateur and disreputable agents who charged them justified them by claiming that it takes time to read a manuscript, and an agent shouldn’t be expected to do that for free.

Where this argument falls apart: if a manuscript isn’t publishable (and most aren’t), you don’t necessarily have to read it all the way through to know. Much of the time, you don’t have to read beyond the first fifty pages. Sometimes, you don’t even need to read beyond the first paragraph.

Don’t believe it? You’re not alone. Plenty of writers refuse to accept that it’s possible to evaluate, let alone reject, an entire book-length manuscript (i.e., their manuscript) on the basis of just a few pages (somehow you never hear that argument if the same few pages result in a request to submit, but never mind). It’s not that most manuscripts are so bad, they think, it’s that agents are lazy. Or prejudiced against new writers. Or cantankerous curmudgeons just looking for excuses to reject, cackling with glee every time they send out a form rejection letter (while hoarding your paper clips and steaming the stamps off your SASEs). This is a common subject of discussion in writers’ forums, and the cause of a considerable amount of bitterness.

(There’s a similar level of denial about query letters, which many writers resent because they feel that a one-page business letter can’t tell an agent or editor anything about the quality of their writing. Not so. I get up to 100 emails a week from writers asking questions or making complaints, and it’s often clear to me from reading these letters–ungrammatical, mis-spelled, poorly punctuated, sometimes with malapropisms and homophone errors–that the writer isn’t ready to be submitting. Do I mention this? No. That’s not my job. But it gives me a lot of insight into the quality of the slush pile.)

If you want to see just how easy it really is to reject some manuscripts, pay a visit to POD-dy Mouth, whose most recent post addresses the issue of how bad a (POD-pubbed) book must be to only read one sentence or paragraph before tossing it aside. There are examples (don’t be drinking anything while you’re reading them). My favorite one-sentence toss-out: “They called her Labia.”

Obviously, not everything that’s out there is this bad. Still, the hard truth is that most manuscripts aren’t publishable. Should you be depressed? Look at it this way. If your work is publishable, you aren’t competing with every other hungry writer with a manuscript to sell–just with the five percent or so (the estimate varies depending on who you ask) who’ve also written publishable books.

Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure that you’re publishable is actually to be published (by a legitimate publisher). And the only way to discover that is to submit. On that basis, we’re all in the same boat.


  1. Once I read a submission to a literary agencty from a woman who I had talked to a couple of times on the phone about the idea for the book – which was good.

    It came. I read the first 40 pages and gave up. It might have been a good idea, but it was self-indulgent mess.

    She called me on the phone a few days later and I told her we wouldn’t represent it.

    “Why?” she asks.

    “Because it needs too much work before it could be submitted to publishers”, I say.

    “Did you read the whole manuscript?”

    “No,” I admit.

    “Well, you go ahead and read the whole manuscript and call me back,” she says.

    I managed not to laugh out loud. Instead I informed her politely that my decision was final and wished her good luck.

  2. Actually Victoria, you hit my point right on the head. I wasn’t stating that too _few_ books are being published (and written), but too many, making the competition level for what editors will acquire more and more intense. I agree it varies by genre. I also happen to write in a genre that is quite difficult at the moment (contemporary, non-paranormal women’s fiction). It is very, very hard for a first-time novelist (and this is despite the fact I am well-published in other areas, e.g., journalism and stage drama) to break into this right now if you aren’t writing some kind of vampire-were-wolf-paranormal-erotica kind of thing, because that’s the only thing the editors seem to want right now.

  3. Jill, I think the odds are better than you’ve said (both for publication of manuscripts and agents’ sales). In fact, I think the problem isn’t that too few books are being published, but too many, causing editors to dig into the 5% beyond the 5%.

    Plus, it goes genre by genre. For instance, if you’ve written a paranormal mystery with reasonably original concept and a feisty female protagonist, you can probably sell it these days, even if it’s only halfway literate.

    No denying it’s a tough market, though.

    – Victoria

  4. There’s also the fact that in today’s very tough publishing market, even agented manuscripts represented by good, legit agents often don’t sell. Many agents only sell about half the manuscripts they take on these days, if that much. It’s brutal. Which goes to show just how much of this biz is just plain luck—on top of being a skilled craftsman who writes something theoretically publishable.

  5. What can I say? There’s a lot of truth to that. But head acquisition editors (aka “Senior Editors”) do still wield considerable clout.

    -Ann C. Crispin

  6. Of course, of the five percent of writers that write publishable books, only 0.5-1% of those actually get published, since many acquisitions editors (even executive editors) will lobby their publishing houses to publish books they like a lot, only to be overruled by the marketing department because the writer doesn’t have a big enough “platform”. (It’s happened to me before).

    Editors used to have final say on what books their imprint acquires, but now most of that decision rests with the sales and marketing departments. Craft alone isn’t good enough anymore, sadly.

    Ann, wanna comment on this?

  7. I especially like the one about the Hierhoffs. Might be fun to read the entire thing and try to sort out one from another. There have to be a lot of them buried in what is probably a 1000-page book. Imagine how fast you’d fall asleep every night reading about the mighty Hierhoffs in bed every night for the next year or so.

  8. Reading slush is an education in writing in itself. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about what does and what doesn’t work. And the pain goes away a couple of years after you stop.

  9. Nice comment on our true chances of getting published. We certainly are better than those so-called writers who penned those awful POD openers.


  10. Having published a paying ezine over a decade ago, I can attest that it was difficult to just find four decent stories for that one issue of Spacers Digest that was published before it folded. Of course, it was even better to actually have one story from that issue go on to actually earn some awards from other sources. But the point is that we had to read almost a hundred submissions in order to find just four manuscripts that were truly publishable. Many of the rest were so poorly written that it was easy to reject them, usually within the first paragraph.

  11. I would have read a little further on some of those books, but only out of morbid curiousity to see if I’d found the next Eye of Argon.

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