Why publishing isn’t a numbers game

I hear this over and over among people who should know better: “It’s just a numbers game.”  The idea is that success in freelancing (whether that’s writing for magazines, doing corporate writing or publishing books) is basically the result of knocking on a lot of doors.  If you send out enough pitch letters or LOIs (letters of introduction), this thinking goes, you’ll get an article assignment/a new client/a publisher for your book.


And that’s true, as far as it goes.  We’ve all heard the stories of writers who sent their book to seventy publishers before finding a taker.  You’re unlikely to find your match (agent, editor, publisher) on your first time out.  Persistence matters in this business, more than most beginners understand (which is why they get discouraged too soon).  And there are many fine writers who are practicing law instead of following their passion because they gave up before they should have.


But the thing we never talk about (or hardly ever) is that if your work sucks, it doesn’t matter how many agents you pitch, you won’t get one.  When people ask an agent or editor, “What percent of manuscripts submitted do you actually end up representing/publishing?” and they hear, “One percent,” they think that they have a one-in-one-hundred shot at being represented by that agent or having their book acquired by that editor.  That sounds like a numbers game: submit to one hundred agents who have those same odds, and you’ll get an agent, right?  But it’s not true.  A stellar book by the right author has way more than a one-in-one-hundred chance of being represented or published.  A book that sucks has way less than a one-in-one-hundred chance of being represented or published.  In other words, this is not a lottery, where every entrant has an equal chance at winning. 


The trick to being persistent in this business is learning the difference between “this manuscript (or book proposal or article query) sucks” and “this is not the right editor, the right publisher, the right slant, the right time” for this work.  Since most writers are teeming masses of insecurity, and I include myself in that description, it’s hard to know which situation you have.  On the same day, I can think my current WIP is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever written and also the most useless dreck I’ve ever penned.


Often this insecurity leads us to look for feedback from others.  We join critique groups, we ask writer friends to look over our work, we enter contests.  There’s nothing wrong in principle with any of these things – I’ve certainly done all of them and undoubtedly will again – but you can get a lot of conflicting information from these sources.  Writers tend to evaluate other people’s work according to “The Rules” instead of “Does this work for this particularly manuscript?”  So if you use the first person and the rule de jour says first person is out of fashion, you’ll get a lot of people telling you to switch to the third person even if it’s the absolutely wrong thing for you to do.


Another common trap people fall into is to lavish all their time and attention on the same book month after month, year after year.  There comes a time when you’re not going to learn anything more about writing by rewriting the same book over and over.  You have to move on to the next one.  But again, how do you distinguish between necessary perseverance, perseverance that isn’t getting you anywhere and giving up too soon?  (I once drove an agent mad by sending her a new manuscript every time she was about ready to send the previous one out.  “But wait!  Let’s try this one instead!”  Sort of the opposite of spending ten years of your life on a book that needs to be shut away in a dark closet.)


Stay tuned . . . five rules of thumb coming soon! (I love cliffhangers, don’t you?)