Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest Post: Rotten Rejections

I stumbled upon the following gems while attempting to gather statistics (via the Internet) on what percentage of books get picked up by agents, but are never sold to publishers. I have a novel currently on submission (via my agent Weronika Janczuk), and I was (somewhat morbidly) curious about just how bad my odds of finding a publisher might be. (The only source I could find mentioned that good agents typically sell three out of five projects: 60%. Ouch.)

Unfortunately, the publishing world is notoriously tight with their figures, and I don't mean dress size. Most published authors can't get actual numbers on how many books they've sold. (The publishers only share estimates, and even that data is not public.) The New York Times doesn't say exactly how they determine the books on their best seller lists, but they will tell you that they don't collect data on internet sales (no Amazon! Which explains why Amanda Hocking isn't on it.)

Getting information on the reservoir-side of the dam is a bit easier. Most agents will tell you how many queries they get a week, and you can check out author sites such as QueryTracker to get statistics on how many manuscripts agents select to read out of the hundreds of queries they receive each week. My agent was kind enough to share some of her numbers (and give me permission to tell you about them):

Ms. Janczuk's queries per day: ~25 or nearly 200 a week.

Of these queries, she requests, on average, two partials (8%).

She typically requests one full for every ten partials (0.8 %), and considers offering representation on one out of 15 full manuscripts (.053 %). I have to add that she is a voracious reader, and passes that benefit along to the authors that query her: her request rate is higher than average, and her response time is lower!

If you query Ms. Janczuk, your chances of getting an offer are about 1 in 2000 (all things being equal, which of course, they are not.)

If your chances of finding a publisher (once you have an agent) are 60%, then a finished manuscript has a 1 in 3200 chance of being published (and, although I'm already better than one in two thousand, my chances of finding a publisher are still only so-so—probably worse than so-so because my book is cross-genre).

If you take into account that there are only around 10,000 new novels published each year (and better than 80% of those are by known authors) the chances for a debut novel to see the light in any given year are: 1 in 15,625. Given that number, it should come as no surprise that gems fall through the cracks (and explain why people are going over in droves to e-publishing).

In any case, as every author who wishes to get published knows (or will very soon learn), rejections go with the territory. But, it might be nice to learn that you're in good company:

Stephen King received 30 rejections for his novel Carrie before throwing it in the trash. His wife retrieved it, and convinced him to keep trying. The editor from Doubleday who finally bought the book had to send King a telegram because his phone had been disconnected.

George Orwell was told that "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA" when he submitted Animal Farm.

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers. (I love that book.)

Audrey Niffenegger couldn't find an agent for her cross-genre book The Time Traveler's Wife. She gave up on finding an agent and began submitting the manuscript to small publishers. The book has sold more than 2.5 million copies and was made into a movie.

Rudyard Kipling was given this helpful feedback: "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."

Margaret Mitchell had Gone with the Wind returned to her 38 times. Now that's perseverance.

J.K Rowling, who may have single-handedly inspired a whole generation of kids to love books, had her first Harry Potter book rejected by a dozen publishers (including Penguin and HarperCollins). It was finally picked up by a small London publisher whose 8-year-old daughter begged him to print it. (Our debt to that little girl is great.)

Here's to Rotten Rejections!

(Check out the book Rotten Rejections for an extended list, e.g. On Sylvia Plath: "There certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice.")

D.L. Orton writes mainstream fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional off-color limerick.

Please visit the writer's blog on getting published, Query Shark Bait , or her blog on love and relationships: Between Two Evils .

The author has a novel on submission and can be contacted via her website: Just Write.

50 comments:

  1. Very interesting, thanks to you and Weronkia for sharing these stats.

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  2. Wow...the figures ain't encouraging are they?

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  3. Probably pedantic, but a huge correction to your list: Gone With the Wind was never even submitted to publishers or rejected once. It was scouted by a literary agent who heard about the unfinished book's existence on a trip to Georgia. Eleanor Firsching Brown has a new book out about GWTW's publication process that tells all about it: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey.

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  4. This is a great post (I love the numbers breakdown).

    But those are the same rejection examples I've seen all over the blogosphere, so many times that they don't really feel encouraging anymore. And they are all PRE-DIGITAL AGE PUBLISHING.

    Does anyone have more recent examples? Like, within the past year or two? Those would be much more relevant to people who are trying to break-in NOW.

    Thanks. :)

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  5. Lydia-
    Thanks for your kind words.

    In writing a novel, the journey may not be the reward, but one should certainly try to enjoy it. By lucky coincidence, today I accepted an offer to have my novel e-published. My agent was unable to place the manuscript with a traditional publisher (as I mention, it's cross-genre and that's a show-stopper for the NYC guys), and we have since parted ways.

    To answer your question regarding recent examples: I can't find any hard data, but my experience (and logical reasoning) tells me that your chances of getting traditionally published (i.e. long waits and low royalties) are dropping faster than most anyone (except Joe Konrath) might have anticipated. The good news is that e-publishing is expanding to fill the void. All I can say is: Power to the People.

    My best advice to new authors: Write the best book you can, and then tenaciously work to get it published. As Joe K. loves to say: There's a word for a writer who never gives up...published.

    Erin- Thanks for the correction. :-)

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  6. Two small points: Authors can get sales numbers by through their Author Central accounts at Amazon. Amazon provides authors with some free Bookscan data, which is what publishers use to gauge sales.

    Also, the NY Times does track and include "internet" sales in its bestseller lists (and there is now an ebook bestseller list). However, I understand the lists don't track ebook-only sales; the ebook book must have a published paper counterpart.

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  7. I stand corrected: the NY Times has apparently changed its policy regarding ebooks and does NOT require that they be published in two formats: "Titles are included regardless of whether they are published in both print and electronic formats or just one format. E-books available exclusively from a single vendor will be tracked at a future date."

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  8. Good numbers, but, let's put these in perspective. 1 in 15,000 means your odds are three times as good that the earth will suffer a catastrophic collision with a meteor in the next 100 years (currently odds are 1 in 5000). I don't know about you guys, but I feel better.

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  9. The reason Amanda Hocking isn't on the list is because the NYT Best Seller List actively excludes self-published titles.

    At the bottom of the NYT Best Selling List, you'll find this disclaimer:

    ..."Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, comics, crossword puzzles and self-published books."

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  10. Very interesting! As a non-fiction writer, I'd be curious to see how those numbers pan out. Back in 1996, I actually had an agent come to me pitching an idea for a book! (The publisher had come to her first.) So my first book was an easy sell. It's been downhill from there with every book harder and harder to get published. And every advance getting smaller and smaller and smaller...

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  11. Very interesting to see an actual agent's statistics, and get a little more insight into how the publishing world works. It's also inspiring in a weird way to see what these famous authors had to go through to get their iconic works published. Thank you for a great post!

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  12. Just guessing that this number might vary widely from agent to agent.

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  13. Moral of the story: Write a great book and query LOTS of agents!

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  14. Lydia Sharp, Evil Editor recently commented that of the first 100 queries he'd critiqued, 20 of the books had since found paying publishers. So that's some more recent info, of a sort.

    D.L. Orton, I'm not sure where you're getting this from? Most published authors can't get actual numbers on how many books they've sold.

    We get statements from our publishers every six months with this info in them. And if we want to know sooner, we can just email our editors.

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  15. We really do have to have thick skin and believe in ourselves! Congrats on being agented. Good luck on the next hurdle. I may be starting the query process soon myself. I have to keep telling myself "Rejection is the norm. Just keep going."

    Thank you for sharing the numbers!

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  17. I wonder how the non-fiction numbers compare with these for fiction.

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