Why it’s hard to get published

There’s an excellent article here by Francesca Main, a very good & nice editor, who also just happens to be one of the lovely people coming to our Festival of Writing. The article is worth reading in full – it tackles the question of why editors can be slow in responding to agents/writers – but here are some crucial snippets:

We have broader roles because we are working in an ever-changing and ever-challenging world – we have to stay on our toes, diversify, and adapt to new media and developments, whilst staying true to the core principles of our industry and doing the work that editors have always done. … The range of activities we are involved in behind the scenes is vast, and it often keeps us away from our desks. Yet we still need to edit (and we do – don’t get me started on all those ‘death of the editor’ articles. . . ), and brief jackets, and write copy, and meet production deadlines, and tirelessly champion our books both in-house and out. And read submissions.  And respond to them.

With so much energy focused upon the books and authors that we do publish, perhaps responses to those we don’t are lacking. But it’s undeniably hard to keep up when we are receiving more submissions than ever … [and] the number of incoming submissions doesn’t reflect the fact that we are publishing more selectively. So far this year, from the beginning of January to the end of May, I have received 156 novels on submission from agents. Of those, I have acquired three. That’s a lot of rejection correspondence.

In many ways, it has never been easier for editors to make a decision on a manuscript – we have more people in-house to convince, we work more collaboratively (and therefore less subjectively), and we publish fewer books more wholeheartedly. This certainly concentrates the mind when it comes to saying yes or no.  Perhaps it is true that the market is provoking such caution in some editors that they wait to see whether others bid before responding themselves – and if no-one is prepared to make the first move, small wonder the result is silence.

Those stats add to the pile of grim numbers facing would-be writers. Very roughly,1 in 1000 manuscripts submitted to agents is taken on. (No one has an exact stat and it varies from agent to agent in any case.) And if Francesca takes one book in 50, it can seem outrageously hard to get taken on. But authors DO get taken on. In 2010, the Festival of Writing saw unknown wannabe Shelley Harris read her work out loud on Friday night … and her book, Jubilee, is now a Richard & Judy Summer Read. Dreams do come true.

And also, if you need cheering up:

  1. Most of the books that are rejected by agents are badly written. Yours doesn’t have to be.
  2. Most of the books that are rejected by agents are misconceived from the first. Yours doesn’t have to be.
  3. If you need help on your work, you can get it. If you want courses to improve your skill base and understanding, they exist. If you want to mingle with the industry to understand things from their perspective, that’s easily arranged. Yet most writers don’t bother with any of these things – they’re like wannabe doctors who never bother to open a textbook. And you don’t want to put those guys in charge of a scalpel.
  4. Francesca takes one book in 50, but agents typically send a book to around a dozen publishers. Each of those dozen will take one book in 30 or 40 or 50. That still means that getting an agent doesn’t equate to getting a publisher, but the odds by that stage are decent, not outrageous.

And also, though I’ve been known to question some aspects of how publishers publish, I have never, ever had any but the utmost respect for how hard publishers work and how genuinely passionate they are about books. (And this, btw, is an industry which is not spectacularly lucrative.) Francesca’s whole article is imbued with that work ethic and that love of the excellent. We writers are lucky to have people like her as our ultimate advocates. Readers are lucky to have her.

If you want to meet Francesca Main at the Festival of Writing, then do.

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  • For another view, read this from Passive Guy’s blog: http://bit.ly/Klqsid – especially one long comment from an editor.

    I would add that yes, some authors do get lucky (that is not to imply their books are not excellent). But whenever I read dismal statistics like the ones in this post, I don’t understand why any writer who has produced a quality book should put herself through the slow torture of the submissions system. Not now there is the viable alternative of self-publishing with Amazon and gaining immediate sales and readers.

    Going indie is often a quicker way to acquire an agent/publisher than submitting. And the beauty of it is, they will approach you.

  • It’s good to be able to put yourself in the editor’s shoes through reading articles like this one, but when Francesca says that there are only so many hours in the day, she is speaking for 99% of the western world who are all trying to keep up with the huge changes that digitalisation has brought to work, home and life. This is why I take issue with your phrase: “Yet most writers don’t bother with any of these things – they’re like wannabe doctors who never bother to open a textbook.”

    While there are doubtless some wannabe writers who “don’t bother”, please remember all those who are desperately trying to earn a living, run a home and have responsibilities that eat up most of their time. There are plenty of writers who simply cannot afford – in terms of money or time outlay – the courses, the festivals, the professional critiques. Having said that, it’s a great help to have writers’ communities and forums such as The Word Cloud where mutual help, advice and critique is given for free.

  • Harry

    Well I know what you mean, not-very-Secret. But you don’t see the slushpile the way that we (or agents) do. There truly are writers who put so little care into their work, they don’t deserve to be given the scalpel. But for sure, it’s not about how much money you spend. It’s about getting the damn manuscript right – and there’s many a way to do that. But they do all involve some graft.

  • zaid sethi

    There is a lot I agree with and have sympathy for, particularly as an unpublished writer. I suppose while I slaved over my novel or stories and feel I really did put in the effort, and the disappointment is hard to bear, I accept with humility enough not to disparage those poor souls who don’t do it for love but to feed families.

  • Tony Jones

    Writers’ current and potential should persevere always.