Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot

Many of the writers who contact me with Writer Beware-type questions seem to be convinced that the process of getting published is equivalent to a crap shoot. There are enormous numbers of people trying to sell a book, and very few publishing slots to go around. What slots there are go mostly to insiders and celebrities, rather than new writers. Agents and editors are so [pick one] busy/arrogant/sadistic that they’re as likely to toss your query as to read it. All in all, you’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting published.

This kind of thinking makes me crazy. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in it–there are thousands of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. The number that find publication is very small. Agents and editors are overworked. But the assumptions that accompany these nuggets of truth are incorrect–and so are the conclusions drawn from them.

The first assumption (unless you subscribe to the “you have to know someone” myth, which we’ve debunked several times on this blog) is that all those thousands of manuscripts are on an equal footing in the marketplace–that they all have basically the same chance. This isn’t so, as anyone who has ever looked at a publisher’s slush pile, or judged a writing contest, knows. Most manuscripts are terrible. Maybe 10% (some people would say less) of what’s out there even approaches publishability–and of that small number, even fewer are polished, original, or interesting enough to be attractive to an agent or publisher. Granted, agents’ and editors’ decisions are at least partly subjective. But if you’ve written a marketable book, you’re not in competition with every other writer scrambling to get published–just with the publishable less-than-10%. In other words, the odds are better than you think.

The second assumption is that the publishing industry doesn’t want new writers. New writers, this assumption holds, are lonely outsiders banging on the doors of an elitist club hell-bent on excluding them. Risk-averse agents and publishers are only interested in reality-show stars or the latest Stephenie Meyer clone. And if you haven’t already established an audience, forget it–no one wants a writer who doesn’t have a platform.

The importance of platform, unfortunately, isn’t a myth. But it’s much less of an issue for fiction than for nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring fiction author, a marketable manuscript is still a lot more important than how many followers you have on Twitter. Over the past few years, most of the fiction writers I’m acquainted with who’ve found first publication have had little or nothing in the way of platform (or previous publishing credits). As for agents and editors being unreceptive to first-timers, that’s a notion that’s not only easily disprovable (by reading the reviews section of Publishers Weekly, for instance), but defies logic. Every published writer was once unpublished. If the industry shuns newbies, how could they ever have sold their first novels?

In fact, all other things being equal, A. Newbie can be a lot more attractive to a publisher than Joan Midlister. True, A. Newbie is an unknown quantity, which means his book may tank–but also means it might succeed (J.K. Rowling was once A. Newbie, and every publisher is looking for one of those). Whereas Joan Midlister, who’s got several books under her belt but has never quite crossed the line into wide popularity, is a completely known quantity–and not in a good way. Perhaps her books sell steadily but not in spectacular numbers. Perhaps her readership is dwindling. Either way, A. Newbie may seem like a better bet–which means Joan is out, and the newbie is in.

I do understand, if you’re constantly receiving rejections, how tempting it is to believe that there’s something at work other than the quality of your work. In fact, this may be so. There’s no question that good books fail to find publication–for a whole range of reasons, including what a publisher is already publishing, sales or marketing concerns, poor publisher/agent targeting on the writer’s part, or sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But far more often, rejection is based on quality and marketability, or the lack thereof. No writer wants to believe this, of course–which is one of the things that keep scam agents, dishonest publishers, and incompetents of every stripe in business.

If you’ve written a marketable book, if you done your research, if you’re smart and persistent, you have a very reasonable chance of finding publication. If you haven’t…you don’t. Either way, though, it’s not a crap shoot.


  1. I curious if most new writers are terrible why do publishers take two years to reject something. If an editor can seperate the good from the bad just by reading the first page it should not take more then a few months to get through a huge amount of garbage. Thanks

  2. Re: Jon Guenther:

    Just because evaluating a manuscript (or any piece of writing) is subjective doesn't mean that the evaluation doesn't take skill and/or doesn't have merit.

    Essentially, there are qualities inherent in good writing. At the most basic level, writing is a craft. To make a perhaps non-useful analogy, let's say you get several people to make chairs. Some will be more decorative, some will be more comfortable, and some will fall apart when you try to sit on them. Books can be looked at in the same way.

  3. It frustrates me that this is being posed as a binary: either it's all luck or it's all skill.

    There's an excluded middle, which is that both come into play. Let us assume a well-written competent manuscript, which already puts you at the real table, the one where the actual game is played. At that point, working from within that pool of competent, well-written manuscripts, it is still a crapshoot.

    It is still possible to have written a book that is unsaleable because it's at the end of a dying fad (you wrote a Gothic because you wanted to, but Gothics are known to sell like rotten dogs), because your particular prose style doesn't jibe with anybody (I know it's overcited, but A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES), because Bestselling Author N put out a novel on your subject last year and it crashed and burned, poisoning the market for everybody else. It is equally possible to have written that competent novel, and, entirely without your knowing or planning it, to have hit the market at a time where everybody is desperate for flying wuxia dog warriors or neoGeorgian prose.

    The Horatio Alger myth of "Work hard enough and you *will* succeed*doesn't do anybody a service, any more than "It's a crapshoot, there's nothing you can do to influence your success." The first is a peculiarly American attitude — see this excellent essay by economist Maxine Udall.

  4. I am a professional science fiction and dark fantasy writer. I am a member of SFWA and HWA.

    It's not a crap shoot. But luck does play a pretty big part at times in this profession. That's a reality.

    That's just the nature of the beast, though, and writers need to know that going in. Not a crap shoot, but luck is pretty handy when it comes down on your side. 🙂

  5. I found this article very interesting not as much because it presented a well-written comment on the reality of working toward publication (which it does) but because it made me realize how easy it is to blame someone else. And when you stop for 10 seconds and think about it, the blame almost always at the wrong place.

    For me, rejection isn't the fault of the other person; it's an occasion for me to challenge myself and to question if I approached the right person in the first place.

  6. I removed my comment because I posted a link to Jim Hines' study on first getting published- and then realized you did a whole post on it back when he published the study, and you already linked to your post- I just hadn't clicked that link yet 🙂

    But- I also wanted to tell you that I enjoy your blog and also find it useful.


  7. There's this great piece that's associated with Bill Gates about life though he did not write it. It's a list of 11 facts every kid graduating from college should know. One fact: life is not fair so get over believing that it is or should be!
    Seems appropriate here. I do not believe the publishing industry offers the same opportunity to all—the industry is 'thisbig'—they ALL know each other.
    When we shopped my book that Simon & Schuster bought, we'd given it to 1 other big publisher who examined the book proposal and took a pass.
    I had NO idea this editor had 2 other books about my subject, (a celebrity-level sports team bio) that his house published just weeks after S&S published mine.
    The point is: he got to see the competition, perhaps even have his author(s) tweak their material based on what he read in my book proposal. I have ALWAYS thought that I should have known that this (big) house had other books in their publishing pipeline similar to mine before I let them see mine. I have always thought there should have been SOME transparency here. Instead, by viewing my proposal, they got information about my project that I did not have about their 2 projects.
    I wish I could trust the industry more but I don't. Editors and agents have enjoyed a demi-god status-who's going to give that up willingly?
    Good discussion-thanks!
    Marla Miller

  8. If a writer truly stinks, will an agent come right out and tell them so? Or is a form rejection the polite way of saying, "You're no good."

    How does a writer know if it's their writing, their idea, or just bad timing?

  9. In reply to David – sure, being a celeb can get you one book deal. But how many celebs have more than one hit or a book with any staying power? While someone famous may be able to cash in on their fame, unless they have a message as well, I can't think of many celebrities that could stick around in the market.

    At most, some politicians or commentators can get several books of political ideas published, or a famous athlete may have a book on their sport that becomes "the" book to have on it. I can't think of many other celebrities that manage to stay in print.

  10. This is in direct conflict with what my own agent of several years (who has 20+ years experience in the biz, and she reps several NYT bestselling authors and celebrities) told me today on the phone. She put it very bluntly: "I used to sell 100 books a year. Now I sell 8. And all of those books are books written by celebs." This is an agent who once sold midlist authors in fiction by the truckload. The market has changed, and it is brutal.

    In other words, the fiction market changed and your agent was unable or unwilling to keep up with those changes.

    New novels are still selling every single day. Read Deal Lunch. EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    Just because your agent is no longer able to sell fiction doesn't mean no one is. Lots of them still are. Books are still being produced. Perhaps you should think about that instead of accepting everything you're told by someone who profits from keeping you in epublishing, when all evidence about publishing points to the contrary.

    Seriously. I don't think you're being done any favors. And I don't think you're being treated right. I know you're going to think I'm saying all of this just to be a jerk and attack you/your agent, but I'm not. Honest.

    Please just think about it. Really, honestly, objectively think about it. Other agents sell new fiction, and keep selling already-sold authors, every day, all the time, in all sorts of genres. If you agent can't, when all the others are, doesn't that suggest the problem is with her? Doesn't that suggest that to get the career you want, you should think about finding an agent who can sell fiction–now, today, not ten years ago?

    I know saying this is pointless but at least I said it.

    Also, I was extremely sorry to hear about your recent health troubles, and am very pleased you're on the mend. (I know you from elsewhere online, I'm not some kind of stalker.)

  11. Thanks so much for this fascinating perspective!

    I'll admit, I subscribe to the "crap shoot" theory a little more than you might simply by virtue of how I ended up where I am right now. I sold my first book to Harlequin/Silhouette several years ago, and then lost the book deal when the line was canceled one month before my scheduled debut. I had four agents offer to represent my next novel, but somehow that novel never sold (despite several editors' wild enthusiasm for it).

    After a couple years of hard work, my agent recently landed me a three-book deal for my romantic comedies. Along the way, we racked up a whole lot of rejections over things that had nothing to do with the writing — marketing hooks, for example, or a publisher that had recently acquired something similar.

    Anyway, I don't say this as a bitter writer looking to justify my own lack of success, as I'm quite happy with my book deal feeling good about my career right now. But I can say from experience that sometimes it IS a crap shoot. Sometimes good writing isn't enough. Sometimes the reasons for rejection have nothing to do with the quality of writing.

    I think it's useful for new writers to consider that IN ADDITION TO your very wise words about the likelihood of success when you hone your skills and do your research. Though it's certainly smart to do so, it makes me sad to think of writers assuming it's all their fault if the payoff doesn't come easily.

    Thanks for this terrific post!

  12. All the above said, Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter just received a massive book deal.
    The 20 year old will tell us of her epic journey overcoming body-image dilemma; which she has bravely endured since her late pre-teens!
    As long as seven years! Mandellian scars she bears from this syndrome, to be sure.
    I can only think of one other artist with a similarly scintillating tome: HLN's Robin Meade, who suffered anxiety disorder.
    Every morning I turn on television and I weep over her pain and suffering which was expertly ghost woven into her book.
    Being gorgeous and well connected never seemed so heart-wrenching before these massive works. Now we know.
    I know all those would-be's out there understand that while their works were passed over to make way for the monumental advances, these stories belong to the ages, and must be heard.
    Yes, these and the vampires: history must record this as a time of the celebrity cook books, suffering laments, and of course, the vampires. Can't forget those.

  13. I have to say that, if the deserving are always rewarded, and the undeserving are never rewarded:

    Then publishing works differently from every single other aspect of life.

    It's just, not always fair.

  14. Hi Victoria,

    Once again I must thank-you. As an aspirant myself who has been rejected often, it is so incredibly easy to make excuses and just give up on the publishing business. I have, on occasion, been driven to those thoughts (the publisher only wants pretty/established/insert other ridiculous idea here).

    Articles like this one help me keep perspective, and help me to keep on trying. Of course, my manuscript might be utter rubbish and I might never get published, and die old and alone on a bed made from the ashes of my hopes and dreams….

    Then again, I might not.

    Every aspirant should be reading your blog.

    Thanks again.

  15. Hi Victoria,
    Thanks for another very helpful post. I don't agree as someone said that there is a diminishing reader base. I think with the wide variety of books and e-readers out there people are reading more than ever and the publishing industry will continue to look for quality manuscripts. Therefore there is hope for unpublished writers, but the focus must be on quality.

  16. Here is my opinion, Kittybriton, you should have trunked that book for now and started with your next one.
    It can often take more than one manuscript before you get published.

  17. I would like to let aspiring writers know that editors keep files. I sent a proposal for my first book out several times, and it got rejected an equal number of times. Then, a year later, one of the publishers to whom I had originally sent the proposal asked to see the manuscript. They published the book in 1997, and it is still in print.

    I write non-fiction, and my publisher is not one of the large New York ones, but they are a legit publisher who pays me, and does the work of distribution and publicity. They have a catalog, they get their books reviewed in good sources aimed at the specific book's audience.

    So just remember that editors keep files, and they keep looking for something they think will work at a particular time.

    Another thing I would mention is that I paid strict attention to proper manuscript preparation, and the reward (in addition to publication) was that my editor thanked me for turning in such a "clean" manuscript.

  18. Great post. Very informative and does explode, or at least dampen down some myths which have obscured the reality of getting published. Thank you. Looking forward to more..:)

  19. Jane,

    Sounds like you were dealing with an author mill or similarly unsavory publisher. Don't let it get you down; they'd have made the same (absurd and nonstandard) request of Ken Follett if he'd sent his work there.

    Some nonfiction authors may opt to buy their book in bulk, but only if they have an established retail business and the book relates to it. For example, I bought a copy of Candymaking for Dummies at the candy store run by its authors. My co-author did this too; we wrote an automotive how-to guide and sell copies on our auto parts website. But this is nearly unheard-of, and makes no sense, if you're writing fiction.


    At that point, options beyond self-publishing the book would either be to look for more publishers (possibly small presses), or to conduct a brutally honest examination of whether anything's wrong with your book, and use that to write another, better book.

    There's one related myth about publishing – some people seem under the impression you need a big name publisher if you want to be a bestselling author. That's not always the case, either – some authors hit it big with a small commercial publisher. Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October was originally published by Naval Institute Press.

  20. Kittybriton said:
    "What do you do when you've trawled through the lists of publishers and agents, and mailed proposals and samples (according to taste) to every one that might be interested?

    What do you do when you've taken so many rejections that you just can't face another?"

    Kittybriton, there ARE alternatives for frustrated authors. Again, visit There are ways to publish your work at little to no cost, and we'll be giving away plenty of marketing ideas as well.

    It's my intent to do a new entry every day, Monday-Friday without fail.

  21. Jaycee Adams said,

    Not even Victoria Strauss has enough cult of personality to overcome the lack of common experience and hard data available to the public at large.

    I'm curious. What exactly does this mean?

  22. What do you do when you've trawled through the lists of publishers and agents, and mailed proposals and samples (according to taste) to every one that might be interested?

    What do you do when you've taken so many rejections that you just can't face another?

  23. First, a nod to John Leith for his very sensible comment. Second, I think we as writers, editors and agents all have to remember one thing: assessing a manuscript is a subjective exercise; that means it's entirely open to interpretation by the assessor. I can say 90% of everything is crap; that does not make it so. Finally, publishing is a volume business and the industry is interested in doing one thing: making money. And in today's world of the BIG 5 publishers–which if you consider is itself an elitist term–making money comes down to brand naming its powerhouse authors. Why else offer Mr. Patterson $120 million for others to write books with his name on them. The smaller presses and publishers, they still seem interested in publishing fresh voices in fiction. But on the large scale, let's face it: getting published IS a crap shoot. Whether you "win" or "lose" as a writer trying to get published depends entirely on what you merit your success. After writing more than 30 novels, all of them published, I consider myself a successful writer. I'm not on any bestseller lists and no publishers are offering me million dollar advances. So what? I have no illusions that "I'm all dat." Do your best and someone may discover your work and publish you or someone may not. Some may love your writing, some may pass. Don't overthink it.

    And for those who are interested in learning more about alternate ways to get published, feel free to go to my new blog dedicated to helping those interested in non-traditional publishing at I'm doing my best over there to get contributing authors to come aboard who can talk about all of their experiences and share one thing with the frustrated writer: HOPE!

  24. I totally agree with J. Nelson Leith's assessment of the situation. Not even Victoria Strauss has enough cult of personality to overcome the lack of common experience and hard data available to the public at large.

    Jane Awe Stunned, you DID do the right thing. You did not reach what most of us would term a "legitimate publisher".

  25. Thanks, your post felt very comforting. Especially since I've just said no to a publisher who had approved my book. And even though I know I did right, it feels bad. The reason I backed out from giving them my script was that they wanted to know if I would be interested in BULK PURCHASING MY OWN BOOK. Beside this, there were several other things too that were making me uncomfortable about them.
    I said no, but since then have been feeling a bit down. But your post cheered me up. So thank a lot.

  26. Sure, you bet that there is always an element of luck involved with many success stories–not just publishing success. It normally takes a messure of talent to get lucky, though.

  27. There probably is a small element of luck.

    However, new writers need to bear in mind a few things:

    1. Very few people get their first finished manuscript published. It usually takes a few attempts simply because writing, like everything else, takes practice.

    2. The marketplace is fickle. Yes, your book could well be good but not marketable…and if you really are convinced of that, then try the smaller niche presses. You won't get rich, but you might make a few good readers very happy indeed. However, you do need to KNOW you have something that deserves to be published…as opposed to something that is not READY to be published.

    3. Write what you want to write, not to the market. If YOU don't enjoy writing it…how the heck is anyone going to enjoy reading it?

  28. We say those things because they were said to us, and they were said to the ones before that . . . it's passed down, from writer to writer, like an heirloom. Because we do feel as if "luck" had a lot to do with it and forget all the slugging along we did, all the angst, time, energy, hard work, etc, that went into the entire process . . .

  29. I racked up several rejections for a manuscript before I realized that there was a plot problem evident in the first few pages. Corrected that, sent out more samples (repeatedly) and got a full request two weeks ago. So much for the crap shoot.

    If writers want quick, easy and frustration-free, they're in the wrong business.

  30. As a recently published first timer, I have to say that entering through the heavily guarded gates of Castle Literary is a tough and very long process. I finally made it after spending ten years trying every possible combination of approach, receiving endless numbers of rejection slips (enough to paper the walls of my home), before eventually finding an editor willing to take a chance with me. My science fiction space opera "Onet's Tale" received a very favourable review from Paul 'Goat" Allen, the B&N reviewer recently. As a newbie, I realise that now I have to start all over again and prove not only to myself but to my publisher that I am not just a one off. If you want to read Paul's review, here is the link:

  31. I've been an editor for midsize publishers, and . . . no, you don't have to have previously published a book with them, nor do you need to have personal friends at the publishing house.

    But one or both of those things does help a lot. Sure, if a publisher knows from experience that your books will sell, or the people there at least know you are easy to work with and likeable–AND you have a good project–well, your chances are better than if you just have the manuscript but no contacts.

    It's just like getting a job. It's usually easier if you already know someone at the company, even if you are no more or less qualified than the people sending resumes to HR. In any business, contacts do help.

  32. This is in direct conflict with what my own agent of several years (who has 20+ years experience in the biz, and she reps several NYT bestselling authors and celebrities) told me today on the phone. She put it very bluntly: "I used to sell 100 books a year. Now I sell 8. And all of those books are books written by celebs." This is an agent who once sold midlist authors in fiction by the truckload. The market has changed, and it is brutal.

  33. The myth that new writers have no hope of getting traditionally published is the single perpetrated myth about publishing that frustrates me most.

    But the reality is that I am still staggered by the amount of debut authors being published every week by large mainstream publishers from the tiny percentage of submitted manuscripts which see the light of day.

  34. While I agree with the assessment (particularly that most writing is unpublishable) I think the reason people continue to believe that the road to publication is paved with luck and favoritism — despite constant assertions to the contrary by publishers, agents, and published writers — is that assertions are all they get.

    To say "X is not the case because Y is the case" is just not convincing … except to the choir.

    One thing I find incredibly frustrating reading industry blogs is how few hard numbers are presented. For example, I would love to know the average number of times debut best-sellers were rejected by agents and publishers, compared to debuts that flop.

    We need more stats, more facts, more objective proof of the efficacy of standard processes, not only to convince disgruntled Writer Beware readers that they should regruntle themselves, but also to confirm that what are subjectively assumed to be best practices based on experience and professional culture really hold up to objective scrutiny.

  35. Re: "Unskilled and Unaware of It:" I had a boss who totally fit the bill. She was blissfully oblivious of her own incompetence, believing herself to be a strong, capable, and effective leader. She drove everyone in the office nuts because we had to do a lot of her job for her–something that, of course, she never acknowledged or even realized. On the other hand, she was way happier and more satisfied than us more self-aware, self-doubting folks.

  36. Bravo, Victoria for offering a clear analysis of the current situation. In my work with authors and agents, I think you are right on the mark.

  37. Well, the trick is that if you don't have the skills to make your novel good you don't have the skills to recognize that. (It's been reproduced in the lab: "Unskilled and Unaware of It".) If you don't know that it's your work stinks, you look for other reasons.

  38. Roland, I don't agree that the publishing industry is in a tailspin. It has suffered from the recession–as most businesses have–but the news is not all bad. For instance, four of the Big Five posted gains over 2009 in the first half of 2010. And tough market or not, new writers are finding reputable agents and getting published.

    It's true that enormous change is afoot in publishing, and every other discipline involving the written word. That's scary, for sure, but in many ways it's also exciting. The thing to remember is that no one–no one–can predict how it will all turn out. The doom and gloom and the dire prognostications need to be taken with a very large grain of salt. And I say this as someone whose first instinct, always, is to look on the down side.

    As to agents/editors reading with the "90% of everything is crap" mind-filter–I think in many ways it's just the opposite. Agents and editors are dying to find the gems in the slush. They may be aware that the odds are against the manuscript they're about to pick up being publishable, but they're still hoping that it will knock their socks off.

  39. Thanks, Victoria, your post helps.

    The publishing world is in a tail-spin, while evolving with e-books and a diminishing reader base.

    An agent has only her reputation to get her foot into the door. She runs the risk of tarnishing that reputation by bringing to the table an author the editor doesn't love — and literary reactions are subjective.

    The Pavlov effect kicks in — if 90% of the submissions from newbies are sub-standard, the agent and editor will begin reading through the mind-filter of that expectation.

    Thanks for giving us hope, Roland

  40. Victoria,

    You make a very telling comment about the quality of the manuscript being such a big factor. For the most part, if you can't grab a publishers attention with the first paragraph, you won't get anywhere.

    I think there are two issues that muddy the waters for most aspiring writers.

    First, a lot of writers see what's popular and write to that specification (i.e. – the Vampire craze), not taking into account that the market is saturated at this point and by the time their manuscript get to someone who may be interested in publishing it, the craze has passed.

    Second, the self-publishing industry is touting all about how unknown writers can hit it big by having their book published at their own expense. This leads people to believe that there is something insidious going on in the publishing industry.

    Writers need a reality check. I go back and look at some of my initial stories and cringe! Patience and improving your skills as a writer is the only sure way to get published. And get critiqued as often as you can!

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Red Rose Publishing: Alert

SEPTEMBER 14, 2010

Assertions and Statistics: Why It’s Not Easy to Find Hard Numbers About Publishing