How Hard is it to Get Published?
It’s hard. The end.
Oh. You wanted more? Okay, let’s get to it! This is a rehashing of an old favorite, so I had a starting point. The lack of comprehensive or authoritative sources for data on this topic was sort of surprising at first, but made more sense after a bit of thought. Publishers are numerous, byzantine, a bit incestuous, and have nothing to gain by tracking or reporting the number of rejected submissions they receive.
What Are Your Real Odds of Being Published?
This answer depends a lot on exactly which way you want to look at the question. We can approach it from a purely statistical and numbers-based direction which I consider to be imprecise, due the lack of solid numbers across the industry, or a process-centric approach, which I think will give you a better idea of the actual challenges involved.
I did manage to find a few numbers everyone seems to agree on.
The combined reprints, re-editions, and new book titles released each year in the United States total a bit over 330,000. Unfortunately, just new titles is a bit trickier to nail down. For our purposes I’ve excluded the self-publishing crowd. The other number that seems to be out there, but is hard to find an origin for, is that 3 in 10,000 submissions to publishers are actually published.
How Many Submissions Are There in a Year?
Now, the truth is, the math on this is pretty loose. I have a good way to calculate the upper bound, and absolutely nothing to calculate the lower bound with. So there probably aren’t one billion submissions annually, but I can’t really say how many fewer there are. Obviously, Americans don’t write one billion books a year.
I determined this number by multiplying 330,000 books published by the three-in-ten-thousand odds the industry seems to agree manuscripts have of being published. Like I said, this is a pretty free-wheeling guess. The problem is, it’s the only hard number I have. The lower bound is an amorphous blob. If I had to make a wild guess I’d say the actual number was about a third that many.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Many of those submissions might be simultaneous.
- Most of those submissions might be manuscripts passed by other publishers previously.
Moral: Whether you’re trying to stand out in a crowd of one billion, three hundred million, or one million, your odds round down to zero, and round up to “practically zero” so it doesn’t really matter. So, anyway, enjoy the infographic, and then, underneath that, we’ll explain why those incredibly depressing numbers don’t matter anyway.
Getting Published by the Numbers Version
That Was Disheartening!
It was, wasn’t it? How can you even hope to get published? Well, here’s the good news. You’re not really competing against all those other people. You’re either competing against a tiny fraction of them–or you’re not in the running at all. That’s because . . .
Publishing is Not a Lottery
Let’s be honest, here. Very few submissions are actually publishable. So let’s take those ten thousand submissions you’re trying to be one of the lucky three in.
Of them, I think it’s a fair bet that only 10% meet the minimum standards for grammar, punctuation, and story to even qualify as worth reading for the editors. If you meet those minimum standards, your odds are already more like 1/300. That’s not good, but it’s not too terrible.
Of those remaining thousand submissions, there are probably only 100 or so which are really great. They’ve got either amazing concepts, or writing, or fit perfectly into a booming market the publishers want to exploit. So now your odds are 1/30. Not bad.
Getting Published, the Process Version
Many, if not most, famous and prolific authors submitted dozens of times prior to being accepted for publishing. Once your odds are one in a few dozen, it’s more a matter of persistence than anything else.
Overall, the whole world of publishing is more like being drafted for a professional sports team. Sure, there are zounds of players out there, but only the top tier is in active competition for the open slots–and yes the competition is brutal, the work is endless, and the standards are unbelievable. There might be a lucky few who slip through the cracks, but the key words here are “lucky” and “few”.
The rest got there by being really good at their jobs, and crazy stubborn.
What You Can Do to Improve Your Odds.
Well, figure out what it is you want to do, exactly. That’s a good start for anyone. Everyone, even. The next thing you should do is consider which path you’d like to take to success.
You’re going to need editors, test readers, maybe an agent, and you’re going to need to hone your craft.
The simple (possibly painful) truth is that, unless you’re in the top 1%, minimum, your chances of ever getting published are impossible to quantify, because you don’t have any. If you have enough talent, and are willing to apply the ridiculous quantities of elbow grease required to turn that potential into skill, then your longterm chances are actually pretty decent.