The Odds of Getting Published [And Why Getting Published Isn’t Like Winning the Lottery]

Why Getting Published Isn't Like Winning the Lottery

The Odds of Getting Published [And Why Getting Published Isn’t Like Winning the Lottery]

A while back, I was talking to my favorite grocery clerk about my goal of being traditionally published. She said, hey, why not? Sure I could do it. After all, people win the lottery every day.

I smiled and laughed, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. The sentiment was fine and the comment well-meant, but the implication was wrong.

Getting published isn’t like winning the lottery, because the lottery is something you can’t control. It’s supposed to be random. Publishers don’t take all the finished manuscripts in the world, throw them all in some giant tumbler, and go with whichever one happens to pop out.

(Although I’m sure that would produce some, uh, interesting results…)

You can’t plan for random.

There’d be no more The Novel Plan, because you can’t plan for random.

What you can do is make your manuscript the best it will be. You can plot your story and polish that query.

Literary agent, Sara Megibow, recommends four steps to increase your odds of querying success.

Four Tips to get a Literary Agent: 1. Manuscript must be 100% complete. 2. Know your story's genre/bookshelf. 3. Only query agents who rep your genre. 4. Follow all submission guidelines.
Four Tips to Get a Literary Agent

Four Steps to Increase Your Odds of Successfully Querying:

  1. Your manuscript must be 100% complete.
  2. Know what genre your book is. The genre corresponds with the aisle of the bookstore where you imagine it would be shelved.
  3. Query only agents that represent your book’s genre.
  4. Before sending each query letter out, make sure to go to the agent’s website and read the submission guidelines. (And follow them!)

There’s always going to be an element of right-place-right-time to everything in life, but in most cases, the cream will eventually rise to the top. Following these steps will help ensure your query has the best chance it can get.

But what if publishing was random? What if we imagined for a moment that every manuscript and query letter carried the same chance of being published?

Let’s look at some stats shared by the awesome literary agent, Sara Megibow.

First, a wee bit of a disclaimer: Keep in mind these stats are from a very narrow slice of the market—i.e., from an agent’s perspective, and only one agent out of many. Different agents in different genres and with different styles will have vastly different numbers. These numbers are only meant for fun, illustrative purposes.

Cool? Cool. Let’s jump in.

Sara Megibow is an agent at KT Literary, where she represents New York Times bestsellers authors including Margaret Rogerson, Roni Loren, Jason M. Hough and Jaleigh Johnson.

She’s been in the publishing industry for nearly 15 years. During that time, Sara has agented over 300 book deals and read over 300,000 queries.

That’s one book deal to every 1,000 queries.

But hold those horses. Before you (or I) go jumping to the conclusion that this gives an aspiring author a one-in-a-thousand-shot at making it in this sample situation, consider that this number includes multiple deals from the same author.

Meaning, a querying writer’s odds of signing with Sara or another theoretical agent with the same stats would actually be lower.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Sara’s average client had three book deals (just making this up), that would put the odds of a successful query at 1 in 3,000.

This is why it’s common for writers to query dozens or hundreds of agents before getting that ever-so-coveted offer of representation.

Don’t lose hope. A friend and writing group partner queried hundreds of agents before getting an offer, but now their book is due out at a major publisher next year.

It’s also wise to consider what may not be working about your story or query if you’re getting continuous rejections, but that’s a topic for another day. The purpose of this post is to put the numbers in perspective, and really, just to have a little fun.

On that note, what are your odds of getting represented? Our example agent, Sara, reads around 25,000 queries per year, and out of those, signs roughly five.

5 out of 25,000 is 0.0002 or 0.02% yearly odds of a successful query—assuming you’re submitting to Sara or another theoretically similar agent.

Then if you’ve made that hurdle, Sara sells roughly 75% of the work she signs.

(I’ve got nothing to compare that to, but it sounds good. It would be great if more agents shared this data.)

That means your odds of being signed and sold to a publisher go down to 0.75 x 0.0002 = 0.00015 x 100 (for percent) = 0.015% yearly.

Hey, at least it looks a lot nicer when you put it into percent form. Because, let’s face it, those are some low odds.

When Sara was nice enough to explore this topic with me on Twitter, she also pointed out it’s important to keep in mind that she only represents middle grade, young adult, romance, and science fiction/fantasy. This number might be vastly different in other genres.

Another factor to keep in mind: Sara is currently listed on Query Tracker as the fourth most queried agent. The odds of successfully querying an agent who gets less submissions would presumably go way up.

Besides, it’s important to know what you’re up against. Not to call the odds your enemy, but—you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see.

It’s easier to win the game when you know the playing field.

Enough metaphors?

Write the book you want to read but can’t find on shelves. Chances are, someone else is looking for it, too, even if they don’t know it, yet.

At the end of the day, the important thing is to write a story that you want to read. Write the book you want to read but can’t find on shelves. Chances are, someone else is looking for it, too, even if they don’t know it, yet.

Selling your story isn’t like winning the lottery. Your story itself matters. The right words can beat any odds.

Write for yourself. Write well. Write on.

You got this.

Until next time,


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