A typical agent receives 2000 manuscripts in a year and will take on 2 authors from that total. Those odds are fairly well known and are somewhat scary.
What’s less well known is what your chances are of getting a publishing deal if you succeed in getting an agent. It’s less easy for me to give a precise answer to this – because publishers will be more variable than agents in terms of submissions/acceptances – but at the very top end of the industry, the odds are still much less than wonderful.
I spoke recently with one editor, who has a key job at one of London’s best publishers. In effect, he’s as selective as it gets. And these days, he takes on 3-4 new writers a year and receives (via literary agents) about 12 submissions a week. Those 12 submissions equate to about 600 manuscripts crossing his desk each year and he therefore takes slightly less than 1% of all manuscripts that come his way. In his view (and mine), too many agents are sending out work a good while before it’s ready.
These stats are frankly terrifying, but they need to be taken in context. In particular:
- A smaller / less prestigious publisher will be less selective. Robert Hale (for example) or Choc Lit are decent publishers, but are smaller and less selective than the big guys. They’ll offer much smaller advances to authors and they won’t have the marketing heft of their larger rivals – but if you get an offer from them, it’s still a massive compliment to your work. It’s a real publishing deal and you should be elated.
- It’s also wrong to conclude that if you have an agent, you have only a 1% chance of getting a top-ranked publisher. It ain’t so. If agents are looking to auction a manuscript, they’ll typically send it out to 8-12 publishers. (That is, to all the bigger publishers in town.) So while an individual publisher might take just 1% of work submitted, that means an overall success rate (from the author’s perspective) of more like 10%. (Something similar, of course, applies with submissions to agents.)
- The better the agent, the higher that success rate will be. A top quality agent will reject any work that doesn’t come up to the right standard; will seize hold of any work that does come to the right standard, and will do so with a strong expectation of selling it. Even then, no agent I know as a 100% record, but the best agents will have a strike rate of well over 10%.
In the end, though, the ultimate conclusion has little to do with odds or stats. The 2012 British Olympic team contained 541 athletes. That’s way more than the number of debut novels being lished by elite UK publishers in 2012. So you need to be (at least!) an Olympian-of-writing to make the grade – but if you do, you will get published. Bradley Wiggins’ chance of getting selected for the British Olympic team was (injury risk aside) 100%. Same thing for Jessica Ennis, and Mo Farah, and Queen Vic & the rest of that extraordinary group.
The same logic applies to you. In brutal market conditions, the standard required by top publishers is rising all the time, but the best work still gets selected, still attracts advances and investment, still gets published. What you need to worry about more than anything else is the quality of your work. “Promising” will not do; “dazzling” is essential.
One further conclusion. We’ve always been against writers sending their work to dozens & dozens of agents. Our own rule of thumb is that if you can’t attract a Yes from an agent in 8-12 (intelligently chosen and properly presented) submissions, then your manuscript is not yet good enough. There will always be exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the rule is a very good one. If you find send submissions to 200 agents, your chances of hooking an agent improve, but I’d say that your chance of getting a publisher remains the same as before: about 0%, if the first 8-12 agents turned you down.
What’s more, Writers’ Workshop clients can ditch all these stats anyway. Our own success rate is at least 10 times better than the above numbers would suggest, and probably more. That’s not because we’re miracle workers, but because we focus relentlessly on the quality of your work. Which is what you need to do. Do that, add talent and a good idea, and you’ll make the grade. Just keep at it.