Most of us know that J. K. Rowling and Kathryn Stockett’s now famous works were rejected scores of times before becoming bestsellers. What you may not know is that those rejections were the norm, rather than the exception. Moreover, the number of rejections they received may even have been below average. While all committed writers believe they will beat the odds and find their way to publication, even the staunchest believers have crises of faith, and it is incredibly hard not to take rejection personally. In those moments, it is helpful to understand just what a writer faces. Knowing the odds of rejection can be empowering.
Rejection is one of the hardest pills to swallow in becoming a writer. Every writer I know goes through the process of falling in love with their own prose, and this happy love affair would continue without drama were it not for the need to impress others—agents, publishers, readers. Unless you self-publish, the transition from writer to published author requires a crossing pass from the gatekeepers, whether publishers or agents. For many authors, crossing this boundary line provides an important psychological validation, proof that their work is good. However, as we’ll see, the odds in the market mean that even tremendously good work will be passed over more often than not.
There are a lot of writers and a lot of manuscripts seeking to make it to market, but there are a fixed number of slots on the production schedule of traditional publishers and only so many authors an agent can credibly represent. For a sense of the daunting odds, let’s look at the numbers of agents and agent-seeking authors on QueryTracker.net, a free service that provides a database of agents and publishers and tracks the timing and success of manuscript queries.
QueryTracker has over 73,000 author subscribers and lists close to 1300 agents. Even if all of these agents were looking to build their list of authors exclusively from the members of QueryTracker, the odds of winning an agent would be stacked against the average author.
The website boasts over 1200 “success stories.” Imagine a hat filled with the names of all of the authors signed up on the site, and 1200 are chosen by agents for acceptance while the rest are rejected. In this thought experiment, the flat odds of matching with an agent—never mind bestsellerdom—are less than 2%; the average author could expect, all things being equal (which of course they are not), to be rejected more than 98% of the time by agents. (In a future post, I’ll examine the number of slots for debut authors in traditional publishing.)
In real life, the odds are even worse, especially since not all agents are looking for authors at any given time and since authors submit multiple projects to multiple agents, thus increasing the pool of queries and projects to accept or reject among a fixed number of agents and publishers. Ouch!
Since writers pour our hearts into our work, it’s difficult not to take rejection personally, and we spend hours trying to decipher the typically brief and often cryptic reasons—e.g. “It just didn’t work for me.”—for rejection when we are lucky enough to receive them. We hope these missives from the experts might teach us what we need to get to the next step. In fact, I once spent a couple of days trying to understand how to improve my query letter based on an agent’s comment: “While I found your query intriguing I’m afraid I wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic to ask for more at this time.” Something intrigued her. That was good, but what could I do to make the next agent enthusiastic? Alas, I learned that this was the agent’s standard rejection line. So perhaps my query wasn’t even intriguing, but she wanted to sound nice. Or maybe my work was perfectly good. In a recent conversation, agent April Eberhardt told me that she has about twenty clients and receives more than six thousand queries a year. At most, she only has the capacity to take on a handful of additional authors for representation, making it necessary, she says, to reject perfectly good or even great queries and manuscripts.
Sadly, many agents don’t bother responding unless they are interested in a project due to the sheer volume of queries they receive. One agent told me her agency received over 40,000 queries in a year and only had 40 clients total. This volume is another byproduct of the digital age. It is easy to send batches of email queries. Authors were much more judicious about choosing agents to query when they had to pay for printing and postage. Now a query submission can be as simple and inexpensive as pressing send.
The good news is that probability favors persistence. Every new project and every query letter is another chance in the traditional publishing lotto. To all you aspiring authors out there looking to get traditionally published, my advice is to keep trying, and don’t take rejections personally. Easier said than done, I know.