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% at best, then a finished manuscript has a 1 in 3200 chance (or worse) 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 and my agent is new to the industry.)
If you take into account that there are only around 10,ooo new novels published (by the Big Four) 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 good books fall through the cracks (and explains why people are going over to e-publishing in droves).
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 know that you’re in very 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.
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. Image the cost in postage alone. 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, author of the classic The Bell Jar: ‘There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”)