Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: How Relying on Numbers Can Get You Into Trouble

Today I saw the following statement used as justification for choosing a fee-based publisher that charges its authors nearly $4,000, and actively presents itself as a real publisher, rather than a vanity publisher or a (very costly) self-publishing service:

A couple ratios I read a while back convinced me I did the right thing by publishing through [pay-to-play publisher’s name redacted]. One ratio involved an author finding an agent – 1-in-5000 – and the other involved an agent finding a publisher – 1-in-100.

I’ve seen these sorts of statistics (most of which appear to be plucked from thin air, and few of which are ever linked to actual sources of information) used again and again to justify bad decisions–from settling for fee-charging agents, to paying huge amounts of money to deceptive “publishers,” to defaulting directly to self-publishing (there are good reasons to self-publish, but believing that it’s impossible for a new writer to find an agent or a commercial publishing deal isn’t one of them). It’s unfortunately very easy for writers to buy into these faux numbers–whether out of fear, or inexperience, or simply because they vindicate writers’ own frustration with rejection. But if you look at the numbers closely, they don’t hold up.

The problem with the first statistic is that it assumes that all authors and all manuscripts are equal, and thus equally in competition with one another. But manuscripts fall into markets and genres, and the competition within each market or genre is different. Beyond that, the hard truth is that most of the manuscripts that are circulating at any given time are not commercially publishable (anyone who has ever looked at an agent’s or publisher’s slush pile will confirm this). Perhaps 10% even approach publishability; a much smaller percentage is actually marketable. If your manuscript is marketable–which really is the biggest “if” for writers whose goal is traditional publication–you aren’t competing with every writer out there, just with the very small number whose work is also marketable. Your odds, in other words, are better than you think.

The problem with the second statistic is that it is very clearly illogical. Agents earn their income from commissions on sales–i.e., they get paid only if they sell something. If agents sold only 1 in every 100 manuscripts they represented, they couldn’t make enough money to keep their doors open–except maybe the disreputable ones who charge fees. (Nor, with so few sales, is it likely that trade publishers would be able to churn out over 300,000 new titles a year in the USA alone.) And imagine the work load, if for every success you also had to market 99 duds! No agent will manage to sell every single manuscript–but no agent could possibly remain in business with such a high failure rate.

The fact that not every manuscript will sell punctures another common myth: that it’s harder to find an agent than it is to get a publishing deal. Publishers have a one-to-one relationship with the manuscripts they acquire: every single manuscript they take on gets published. Agents know that not every manuscript they represent will find a home–but they need enough sales to keep their businesses going. In other words, they need spares. So while a publisher will only take on manuscripts it will publish, an agent will take on any manuscript he or she thinks may sell–within the limits of his or her workload, of course.

It is certainly tough to find a reputable agent. But it is very far from impossible. And even if your agent search does strike out, there is a huge alternative market in the large number of small presses that don’t charge their authors a penny. Unless you want to self-publish (in which case you don’t have to shell out anything close to $4,000), there’s no reason ever to pay for publication.


  1. I never realized how competitive it is to get your literary work out there! No wonder self publishing is a quickly booming trend! Best of luck to future writers.

  2. If we combine their made up statistics (1 in 5000 books gets an agent, and the agent can sell 1 in 100) with real statistic of 300,000 books published per year, and assume half the books published were never sent to an agent… that would mean 75 billion manuscripts sent to agents, per year. The mind boggles…

  3. A relative who used to work for an agent tells me that at least 80% of the slush had (at least) one of the following problems evident in the cover-letter:
    * Cover letter was filled with grammatical errors
    * Cover letter sounded like it was written by someone of highly questionable mental health
    * Cover letter was talking about a book very different from what the agent specialized in

    And it's true, those cases were filtered with no one looking at the MS.

    @CMA said: "Most of the lower echelon are reluctant to put their stamp on a manuscript knowing that their superior may ask them what the hell they were thinking about,"

    On the contrary. Anything that there was ANY chance that the agent MIGHT want, she let through. But this was only a small percentage of what came in.

    Much of what she let through was still rejected. But if there was any question, she passed it on for the agent to make the call.

  4. It's true, most of the mss never get read. That's because you can often tell from the first paragraph that nobody would read on.

  5. That may sound true, but in actuality, most manuscripts don't even get read. It may get a glance by an intern,often unpaid. Most of the lower echelon are reluctant to put their stamp on a manuscript knowing that their superior may ask them what the hell they were thinking about, so it's better to play it safe and let someone else make those decision.

  6. "If your manuscript is marketable…you aren't competing with every writer out there, just with the very small number whose work is also marketable."

    This. This. A thousand times this.

  7. Statistics about how few manuscripts get published are useful for the writers who aren't in that well-written top 10%. The major problem with writing as a career is that (a) a lot of people enjoy it, and give it a shot, and (b) it's almost impossible to tell how awful you are, especially at the beginning.
    The discouraging statistics are important as an early-stage reality check. Self-publishing is fine if all you want is false validation for badly-written books.

    My source of rejection stats is speaking to the head of the children's department at one of Australia's top five publishers. She was so pleased that the slushpile at her company had produced 5 publishable manuscripts in two years – mainly because it had produced exactly zero for the previous three years.

    Louise Curtis

  8. If I had the chutzpah and brains to write a $38.50 self-help book such as:
    "How I Made a Million Dollars Selling My Books on the Internet in My Spare Time", and wasn't too lazy to get set up with bank cards and PayPal, etc. I'd go the self-publishing route. But for fiction (which is actually the life I lead), I prefer to have a publishing house present my work, even though the publishing house may be small and short on funds, just like most of us. Crime doesn't pay. I already knew that before I started writing mysteries. Can't blame anyone but myself.

  9. Even if we pretend that those statistics are valid, they still don't justify dropping $4K on a vanity press. Especially now, with all the other options available, including self-publishing. As Jennifer notes above, you can put together–YOURSELF–a decent ebook for half to a quarter of that amount. Less if you decide to skip on pesky details like editing or cover design. I'm been facetious, obviously, but most vanity publishers' definition of "editing" doesn't include much more than a quick copy edit, if that. You'd get more value from running your manuscript through a good critique group.

  10. I actually have calculated how much it costs to self-publish an ebook. This doesn't go into print runs, but I worked out that the initial production costs of doing an ebook properly, including good cover art and editing?


    Now, again, I haven't researched doing a print run. That figure also assumes you do your own ebook conversion (not hard and takes 1-2 hours).

    It's a lot of money by some measures and not much at all by others.

  11. Anonymous 4:00pm said: "agents only take on manuscripts for which they think 15% of the advance would be worth having."

    Agents–the good ones–don't know how much an advance will be offered on any given book. They may have a general idea, but they know better than to count those eggs while the chicken is still scratching in the yard.

    Most debut novels get a low four-figure advance, true, but agents take on new writers all the time and have others signed on and earning more with each new sale.

    YOU are focused on a one-time sale to a single publisher, probably in the US.

    An agent is also looking at overseas sales to several publishers, along with audio book rights, both of which are a lucrative market.

    So one debut novel to a US publisher, the agent's cut being $250.00, might earn the agent (and author) additional thousands as she resells it to French, German, Italian, & Spanish publishing houses.

    Audio book rights are often reserved by the agent to make a separate deal to a house specializing in them. I get a nice chunk of change several times a year from those and so does my agent.

    I'll let you know that when my agent resold one of my series to a German publisher that a French publisher noticed and offered a deal that got me the 20% down payment I needed for my first house. Other Euro publishers picked up on that. We got more money.

    The piddling $250.00 agent's commission that you claim is not worth the agent's time?

    That's just ONE book from ONE writer.

    A successful agent will have dozens of clients, all busy writing new books.

    If, under ideal conditions, an agent has 20 debut writers with three-book contracts that result in the agent getting $250.00 from each title, that's $15,000.00, hardly chicken feed.

    Since she's a smart agent, she will be selling those books to overseas markets.

    But I'm being conservative. Let's go with your next number, $1500.00.

    Multiply that by a mere 10 writers getting 3-book contracts at 10K a book. The agent's 15% cut of $1500.00 per book totals to $45,000.00.

    Successful agents will have a lot more than 10 writers.

    Just a reminder–you ain't the only chicken in the yard.

  12. Even if there is some truth to those statistics, they fail to mention that most of the rejects probably aren't good writing, which is why they aren't being published. So many people are submitting low quality ms to publishers and agents. The vanity publisher doesn't care about the quality of the ms or getting readers. All that they care about is making money when you send them the $4000.

  13. My feeling is that if a writer can produce a self-help book(let), cookbook, real estate investment, how to train a dog, etc., the writer may be well advised to self-publish and advertise the product wherever possible.
    On the other hand, I personally don't feel this is advisable for a fiction writer. I suppose it can be done, but Sam. Johnson had something to say about people who step outside the norm.

  14. Henry–I should have written "publishable by commercial publishing standards"–since only a writer who was trying for commercial publishing would be looking for an agent.

  15. I actually did find it harder to get an agent than a publishing deal. It wasn't till after my fifth book was sold that I was able to get an agent.

    The stickler is that agents only take on manuscripts for which they think 15% of the advance would be worth having. For my first five books, that would have been: $0, $250, $1500, $1500, $1500. Not worth any agent's time.

    As for the odds, though, yeah. That "odds" thing seems to be perpetuated entirely by vanity presses. They seem to have publishing confused with the state lottery.

  16. I thought you were supposed to report scams? So why the silence about Charles Petit's scamming of the John Steinbeck estate? Is it because he is your attorney and a moderator on Absolute Write? You are covering up a verifiable scam, not some hearsay BS that someone's Ph.D. is bogus, when it isn't. And where is Professor Jim Fisher the supposed scam buster? Why isn't he all over this story? I hear Petit even got suspended from practicing law in Illinois, yet not a word on this blockbuster scam from Writer Beware. Why the complete silence from Crispin, Strauss, Fisher, Glatzer, Jim McDonald and the Nielsen-Haydens????? I am very concerned about your credibility

  17. This seems to me sort of outdated. The definition of "publishable" is changing. I have no hard numbers for this, but there are very likely a lot of books that were once considered slush that are doing well on the Kindle. That tips the scales towards self-publishing a bit more – especially after a book has been rejected, but even before that.

  18. I hardly see how this comment could serve as an excuse for choosing a bad company to basically throw your money at. With statistics like these, the poster is actually quite discouraging!

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