We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April — you can ask the question you’ve always wanted to explore with an experienced literary agent, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. Last week somebody asked this: “What are the odds of getting published as a first-time author? What percentage of unpublished writers land publishing contracts?”
All good questions, but what I say may surprise you: I don’t think anyone knows what the odds are. I mean, I suppose you could argue that there were about 65,000 new books traditionally published last year, and that there were, I don’t know, maybe ten million proposals sent to agents and editors, and do that math… Or figure there are a couple thousand literary agents in this country, and if they all get 10,000 queries per year on average — well, as you can see, the odds are awful.
But that’s a dumb game. The fact is, publishing isn’t a game of chance. (Or, as Stephen Leigh said so well in this piece, “It’s not a lottery.” Or, as Mark O’Bannon says in this wonderful article, “90% of your success is dependent upon your skill as an author.”) There aren’t a certain number of slots to be filled, with publishers working to figure out who to stick into those slots. Nearly every publisher I know is simply looking for good books that fit their lines, and that they can sell and make money. I realize reading that sentence may drive you insane, and I’m sorry… but it’s true. Focusing on the odds in publishing is a losing proposition.
So my advice would be to stop thinking about the overall odds of getting published. Instead, think about how to improve YOUR odds of getting published. I can tell you that the majority of proposals sent to MacGregor Literary are almost immediately rejected. Why? Because the writing isn’t that great, or the story premise is bad, or the genre is one we don’t represent. So, for example, an author would greatly improve the odds of landing with me if they have a great story, it’s in a genre I represent, it’s a type of book that is currently selling, they’ve completed the manuscript, and they’ve spent time learning the craft of writing and really polishing the work. You see, most writers won’t do that. They’ll have a weak story or weak craft, they’ll be about halfway there, and they’ll send it out. (And I’m not being negative — I’ve been agenting since 1998, so I’ve seen this same story play out time after time.)
All right, so back to your question, which I’ll rephrase a bit, if you don’t mind: “What can a writer do to improve the odds of getting a publishing deal?” That one is much easier to clear up: If you have a great story, expressed through great writing, you’ve spent time learning the craft and polishing the manuscript, you’ve done some research to make sure the project is a fit for this agent or this editor, then your odds increase significantly because most of the other writers sending in a proposal have not done that.
The other thing to note is that art (any kind of art) is a tough business. Talk to a dancer or a painter or a guitar player, and they’ll all tell you they struggle to make a living with their art. There are a million singers, but you have to be great (and a bit lucky) to really make it singing songs for a living — even a part-time living. It’s hard work, a grind, and some very talented people will never hit it big. But that’s just reality in the world of art. I know some fabulous writers who have never really had a hit. That said, I look for fabulous writers all the time, and I try to help them get started, because that’s my job — to discover and develop talent. So you do the best you can, and try to move as many things into your favor as possible.
Of course, I expect someone will go to the comments section and say, “If you decide to self-publish your novel, you have MUCH better odds of getting your book out there!” Which is undoubtedly true, but misses the question you’re trying to get to, I think. The fact is, anyone can self-publish, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. (The good? Your novel is finally for sale! The bad? It’s all on you to sell, and you may not know how to move any copies.) Anyway, getting published with a legitimate publishing house requires hard work and some luck. The best thing you can do to move the odds into your favor is to become a great writer, have a fabulous story, polish your manuscript, do your research, pick the right agent and editor, be willing to go through the grind, and stick with it.
My two cents on a Monday morning. Hey, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent, drop it in the comments section. I’m trying to get to everyone’s questions this month!