Chip MacGregor

April 11, 2016

Ask the Agent: What are my odds of getting published?


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 What percentage of unpublished writers land publishing contracts?”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! 

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  • Rohi M Maszka says:

    Hi Chip,

    My agent sent my manuscript out to seven publishers, and we just received our first rejection from Transworld. The publishing director said the the book was “fascinating” and that my writing was “thoughtful and persuasive.” Still, she didn’t make an offer. I understand your point regarding the “odds” of publishing, but as in any sales profession, one needs to know their numbers. My agent has been in the game for 30 + years. She read my manuscript, had two junior agents read it and sent it out to a freelance editor twice before submitting it to publishers. Are there standard numbers for agents? In other words, do agents have to send a manuscript out to a certain number of publishers on average to make a sale?


  • David Michael McKinney says:

    Chip, I’m not seeing a response to my question. You said it was a good question, deserving of a well thought out answer. You asked for a few days to get back to me….but I’m not finding anything. Have you answered me, or am I not navigating this BLOG correctly?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Patience, David. I’m planning to get to your question, but I’ve had other questions to respond to also (and I’m on vacation for a few days, so getting to every question immediately isn’t going to happen). Promise to get to yours in the next few days.

    • David Michael McKinney says:

      That’s cool. I was just afraid I had fallen out of the conversational loop. Enjoy yourself! Have s good time—don’t worry about me☺️


  • David Michael McKinney says:

    The more I read your BLOG, Chip, the more I learn, and the more I appreciate you taking the time to developed this forum. It’s truly a gracious gesture on your part, especially when you consider most agents with whom I have attempted to make contact, seem barely able to make the effort to send a form letter with a pre-written apology for sending a form letter. You’re the best! Thanks

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Your comment is being read by Chip’s Comment-Auto-Answer program. It will send you a response soon that will appear to be personal. Chip thanks you for your comment, [insert author name here].

  • S. Kim Henson says:

    I appreciate this post. It confirms what I thought, to take my eyes off the odds and get to work on the work. Otherwise, I’ll be discouraged and never finish my manuscript. Thanks.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good advice, Kim. Thanks for coming on the blog and participating in the discussion, Kim.

  • Sharon Bollum says:

    My nonfiction book is also a documentary project. It’s an honest look inside the Christian Community with a goal of elevating the health and reputation of The Church in the U.S. I spent a year traveling across the states interviewing hundreds of church leaders and Christians about what’s going wrong and the very real reasons for our terrible reputation. I spent the next year mining all the interviews and writing the manuscript. I’ve read, several times, that the first thing agents and publishers look at when considering a new author is their following on social media. Mine is not much because, honestly, I don’t know how an unknown person gets 12K followers. Is that a deal breaker for publishers these days? Do I need to spend another year buying ads and pushing my online presence up before I can cross the threshold into publishing?

    Thank you for the opportunity to ask questions. I’m really grateful!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      First, thanks for coming on to participate in the discussion, Sharon. I’m always glad to see writers joining in. Second, I would disagree that the first thing publishes look at is social media. In my view, it’s much broader than that — publishers are looking at the overall platform a nonfiction writer has. So in other words, how many people do you speak to in a year? How many read your blog, or see your columns, or subscribe to your newsletter? How many listen to you on the radio or see you on TV? What organizations do you participate with, and how many people are exposed to your words through them? All of those avenues that help you get your message out is your platform, and that’s what publishers will ask about. I’m not at all sure most social media helps you sell books, but having people read and respond to your words does.

    • David Michael McKinney says:

      Sharon, you should read my book on the subject.

    • Tina says:

      In other words, you and other agents are looking for BRANDS.

      Authors or wannabe authors must brand themselves. In this day in age, social media is the #1 way to brand yourself. It’s very easy and dang there free.

    • Tina says:

      See my response to chip about Branding. What agents want to know is what your brand is.

      Remember publishers are not really looking for good stories, they are looking for $$$$$. You are how they make their money. So they want to know know that not only can your write and have good stories, but they can put you on a tour, book speaking engagements, and use you and your platform to market the book and ultimately sell more copies, make new books and make more $$$$. Social media is the #1 way to brand yourself. You can start by taking a class on how to brand yourself using social media or just read up on it online. With you being a Christian author, it shouldn’t be that hard.

  • Betts Baker says:

    Thanks for providing such solid information, Chip. I read and saved your marketing series last month, and am doing the same with this month’s series. Such clear explanations encourage me to work smarter, as well as harder.

  • David Michael McKinney says:

    Not all of us have devoted our lives to writing. Some, like myself, have been living their lives, learning their lessons, and after a lifetime of experience—have a story to tell. To me, my stories are touching and insightful, my technique—surprisingly keen, but when it comes to genre, my autobiography reads like an exposé on the lunacy of religious idolatry. My nonfiction tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism, having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay—is hard to pigeonhole. A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      This deserves it’s own day, David. Give me a few days and I’ll respond on the blog, okay? You’re asking good questions.

    • David Michael McKinney says:

      I’ll be watching. Thank you so much.

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