Thursday, July 1, 2010

Death by Ham: Playing the Odds of Getting Published

I thought I'd blog today about getting published. Well, not the nuts and bolts of it. But the odds of it. I get a lot of despondent e-mails from teens who say that they want to be an author when they grow up, but they realize the odds are stacked against them, so they know it probably won't happen. So I went searching for odds, online. I found a bunch of unscientifically gathered ones that said that 5% of all books written were published, and then I found some statistics about how many books people had to write before they got published, and then I found Kristin Nelson's blog about literary agency statistics, which is the most scientifically accurate one, though not quite perfect.

Kristin Nelson is a literary agent and at the end of each year, she compiles statistics of queries read, etc. And she said that in 2009, her agency read 38,000 queries. Requested 55 manuscripts to read from those queries. And sold 15 books to publishers.

Basically, you stand a better chance of being killed by a blow from a ham sandwich than getting a book sold, is what that looks like.

And I think this is probably true. When you look at the numbers, I think it's probably true that the vast majority of people who put pen to paper never sell a book.

However.

I never said that what they were writing was good.

I also never said that these people researched the market, read Writer's Digest, and figured out how to write query letters and where to send them to. I never said these people were voracious and critical readers and worked constantly on honing their writing craft. I never said that these people sat down and wrote four books and then wrote a fifth book and said this is the one, this is finally getting good.

Because I would venture to say that if we were talking about the publishing odds of that population, those people who live in that paragraph right above this one, we'd be having a different conversation entirely.

And that conversation would go like this: if you write a good book and follow the rules of submitting manuscripts and stick to it, you will eventually find someone who loves that book and will put it between real covers. The statistics might not be 100%, but I'm going to go with at least over 90%. Good books get found. Good books don't languish in agent slush piles.

I didn't get published before I wrote LAMENT, though I wrote 30 other novels from the time I was in my teens (why no, I had no social life apart from bagpiping, why do you ask?) And this is why: those novels weren't ready. It wasn't a flaw in the publishing system. It wasn't people failing to recognize my genius. It wasn't that I would never be ready. It's that I wasn't ready right then. There is no "no" in publishing. There is "not yet." There is "revise that manuscript." There is "write the next one."

There do exist rare manuscripts that don't find a home because they're highly unusual, not quite commercial, too genre bending.

But guess what, your unpublished manuscript is not one of them.

I mean, it might be. But I think the odds are better of you being killed by a blow from a ham sandwich. Most of us don't have the genius book that defies marketing in us. Most of the time, we don't get published just because the book isn't good enough yet. And the sooner unpublished authors realize that they have the control, that they can make a difference to when they get published, that it's about making your novel irresistible instead of finding the secret code word that will get you a personal audience with an agent, the better off they'll be. Don't lament the terrible statistics. Don't look for magic formulas to getting published. Just write better. Learn everything you can. Write the next book. Get published. The odds are with you, Jedi, if you do.

Still, watch out for those flying ham sandwiches.

23 comments:

Crystal Cook said...

I so love this, thanks Maggie. You're awesome :)

I have to admit when I read the first statistics, I was feeling pretty depressed. But the next part, well that made me feel a whole lot better :)

I want to be a published writer more than just about anything, just like pretty much all writers I think. And I try, and I work, and I study and I keep believing that one day if I just don't give up, I'll get there.

Thanks in large part to your fabulous blog posts about this very thing. So, thanks :) You have no idea how much this helps me.

Crystal Cook said...

And I am counting down the days left until Linger. But it is coming so slowly!! :)

Larissa said...

It's a good thing I'm more of a turkey or beef girl, huh? LOL. Great post, Maggie.

salarsenッ said...

Thank you for this post, Maggie. I am tweeting it...and probably printing it out for encouragement. I've only been writing for two years, but your description of the 90% is me. I can see that, now, but only because you worded it just right. (LOL. Lack of confidence is my biggest nemesis.) I know there are plenty of writers I blog with who fit this bill as well. It would benefit them to read this.

Elana Johnson said...

I couldn't agree more. Great post!

JSavant said...

I just want to let you know that this post really encouraged me. This week for me has been a really up and down time where I've been doubting my writing and everything I'm striving for -- but your words made me think there are still glimmers of hope out there. Thank you.

Mikayla said...

That was great!

Adrianna said...

This is very comforting and encourages me to strive for the best in me. I'll continue to improve in my writing :) Thank you for this uplifting blog.

Aianarie said...

That's excellent advice, I love this blog. XD
I'm gonna keep writing. ^^

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I am really, REALLY glad that it encourages you, guys. Pretty much everything is possible if you work and get good.

Jonathon Arntson said...

You're cool, you know that? This is definitely a post all unpub'd writers should read.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thank you, Maggie. This is so encouraging. I get frustrated by the statistics, especially when I read about someone who decided to write a book because he/she was bored or something, slapped a query letter together, and sent it off on a whim, landing a killer publishing contract--while I'm writing and writing, and polishing, and doing everything I can to learn and hone my craft. But those are the stories that make the news.

They are, however, NOT the stories I want to hear. I do want to hear about how the authors I respect made it...and to have you say you wrote so many novels before Lament...well, it makes me respect you even more because it shows you worked to be where you are. Thank you for being honest and sharing your experience. I really needed to read this today!

I hope life can only get better said...

I have been writting continualy since high school and have had one short story published in a local papper years ago. I write, I blog, and I read and write some more. I write because I love to write, I always have the hope of some day being published, but have not written what Iam one hundred percent in love with. So your post gave me such encouragement. Put validity to what I already knew, thank you so much. When you have that one peice of work that you know is it, that is when you are ready. You are awesome Maggie, so glad you write these posts!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Kat, those stories of instant writing success make me kind of furious, but for a different reason -- because normally they aren't true. One of the most famous ones is the story of Twilight. The story was that Stephenie Meyer had never written before and then wrote this amazing book and got a giant contract for it and it was perfect! Whooo! Well, turns out that the first manuscript was massive and ended with Bella and Edward getting married -- it was hugely edited.

I don't know why authors feel like downplaying how much work it took to get them to the finish line. It doesn't do anybody any favors and it just makes unpublished writer disillusioned.

beth said...

Oh wow! I'm so glad you said that. I felt two things about that story 1) proof and point life isn't fair or 2) it's not true. I feel so much better knowing it's the second!

tammara said...

I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post, but I'm gonna try. THANK YOU SO MUCH, MAGGIE! I agree with everyone above, we all needed these encouraging words. When I'm published, I may not show anyone all the early crap I wrote (I didn't keep most of it, thank you God for shredders and delete commands), but I promise I WILL tell them about the early crap. Writing is a craft, and crafts must be worked at, frequently and diligently... because(hopefully) practice makes published. :)

Lisa Asanuma said...

This is a very nice bit of encouragement, since it's always been my philosophy. I've been writing since I was twelve, but obviously wasn't any good for a majority of that time. This has always been my philosophy, though, just keep writing, learn as much about the craft and publishing world as I can, and be sure something is ready before I try and market it. Oh, and supplement practice with reading enriching authors like yourself. ;)

Ann Elise said...

This is what I needed. I've been feeling a bit down since I realized some of my work reads like 'Twilight', and I don't have the strong romance and hot vampire to justify it.

Thanks, Maggie. I feel happy now :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Ann, that may be a good thing. ;p

Ann Elise said...

The style doesn't really suit my dystopian fantasy work at this point in time :)

Thank you for the encouragement :D

maine character said...

You wrote how many novels? Yesterday I read an interview with Sue Grafton, who said she started writing when she was eleven, but I don’t think I’ve read of anyone writing that many books during their apprenticeship. No wonder Shiver reads so well.

Thanks for giving us the sobering with the encouraging, and here’s a few quotes I thought you'd appreciate.

If people knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.
- Michelangelo

One is always seeking the touchstone that will dissolve one’s deficiencies as a person and a craftsman. And one is always bumping up against the fact that there is none except hard work, concentration, and continued application.
- Paul Gallico

Steph said...

An excellent post! As a freelance copyeditor, I've striven to encourage writers in the same way. Don't give up on a dream. So long as it's possible, it's possible for you.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Great quotes, @maine. I totally agree. And I . . . just really loved to write, growing up, so where some people journaled . . . I novelled.

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