Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Assertions and Statistics

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

My last post, Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot, provoked a number of interesting comments, including this one:
I think the reason people continue to believe that the road to publication is paved with luck and favoritism -- despite constant assertions to the contrary by publishers, agents, and published writers -- is that assertions are all they get...

One thing I find incredibly frustrating reading industry blogs is how few hard numbers are presented. For example, I would love to know the average number of times debut best-sellers were rejected by agents and publishers, compared to debuts that flop.

We need more stats, more facts, more objective proof of the efficacy of standard processes, not only to convince disgruntled Writer Beware readers that they should regruntle themselves, but also to confirm that what are subjectively assumed to be best practices based on experience and professional culture really hold up to objective scrutiny.
It is, I think, entirely reasonable to wish for objective information. But this comment sets up a bit of a straw man. Making an assertion without offering accompanying numbers does not mean the assertion isn't supported by objective facts. It may just be that the facts involve personal experience, or have been gleaned from reading or study or conversation with others--things, in other words, that can't always be linked into a blog post.

Speaking just for myself, when I say that most of what turns up the slush pile is unpublishable, it's because I've actually seen a publisher's slush pile; I've also judged a number of writing contests, which are slush piles writ small. (Nor is my opinion isolated. For instance, this, from a pseudonymous literary agent; or this, from a slush pile reader for a UK publisher; or this somewhat kinder assessment from agent Nathan Bransford, who still cannot help but admit that "the world is divided between those who have read slush and those who haven't.") Or when I say that I'm aware of many writers who've found first-time publication over the past few years without connections, platforms, or even previous publishing credits, it's because I actually know or am acquainted with these folks--sometimes from Writer Beware contacts, sometimes from writers' forums that I frequent, sometimes from SFWA or another writers' association. (I also keep my eye on PW and other industry resources that report on book deals.)

So I do have experience to call on. Agents and editors, of course, have far more. However,  I acknowledge that even the most solidly-founded assertions present a difficulty. If you don't know the source, or don't trust them, or doubt their expertise, there's no reason why you should accept what they say, just because they say it.

(I totally support this kind of skepticism, by the way. "Experts" are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and plenty of them haven't a clue what they're talking about. It's always a good idea to investigate whether someone who is offering advice or commentary is qualified to provide it.)

Believe me, I would love to provide hard data every time I discuss what my commenter calls "the efficacy of standard processes." Where I can, I do--see, for instance, my post about the limited data available on first novel sales, or my post about the level of income the average book writer can expect. But though the book industry is swimming in statistics, these tend to cover the business of book production and selling, rather than the business of manuscript submission and acquisition. Despite isolated attempts at compilation, and piecemeal reporting by industry journals, blogs, etc., hard data on the latter is very hard to come by.

Why should that be? Why is there so little non-anecdotal data on things like first novel sales, average advances, rejection percentages, and so on?

One reason, I think, is that so much of this information is highly personal, and writers may or may not be willing to reveal it. As eager as one writer may be to tell war stories of the 75 rejections she received before she finally sold her novel, another may find this too humiliating to mention. One writer may proudly blog about how her novel sold at auction within two weeks of her first submission; another may fear being perceived as bragging. One writer may have no problem discussing her advance or sales numbers; for another, divulging such info may seem equivalent to revealing family secrets (especially if the numbers are disappointing).

Another reason: publishers tend to be secretive too. This is why, for instance, it's so difficult for people outside the industry to dig up precise data on book sales numbers, advance amounts, sell-throughs, and the like. Alternatively, the data you do find may not be reliable--publishers routinely puff up announced print runs, for example. Diligently reading industry publications and blogs can yield nuggets of information--but nothing like the crisp statistical roundup my commenter longs for.

Yet another reason: the publishing industry's interest in a manuscript begins at the point of acquisition. What happens before that--submission, rejection, etc.--is of interest mainly to aspiring writers, and they are not a constituency to which the groups that compile statistics about the publishing industry cater. In other words, you can't find the data because no one sees the need to gather it on an ongoing basis.

It would be great if someone did see the need. (Though who? Professional writers' groups, perhaps?) But while such data would certainly be fascinating, would it really be useful? How helpful, for instance, would it be to have the statistics my commenter uses as an example--the average number of rejections received by debut best-sellers, as compared to debuts that flopped? Or even just the average number of rejections received before finding a reputable agent or signing with a trade publisher?

The problem is, there aren't many "averages" in publishing. Every writer's experience is different, and the range of experience is almost infinite, with any number of unpredictable variables influencing outcome, including chance, timing, your research skills, even the genre you're writing in (writers in smaller genres may experience fewer rejections simply because there are fewer agents and publishers to query). As interesting or inspiring or depressing as it may be to know that Famous Writer A toiled in obscurity for five years before finally selling a book that no one targeted for success but became a word-of-mouth sensation, or that Hyped-Up Writer B's manuscript was sold within weeks in a frenzied auction but tanked at the bookstores, or that Breakout Writer C was taken on by the twenty-second agent she queried, who on the tenth try found her a publisher that was willing to invest in a major publicity campaign that catapulted her to best sellerdom, these individual experiences can't predict any other writer's path to success or failure. Even if the statistics existed, they would not necessarily tell you anything useful about what to expect on your own publication journey.

Aspiring writers are understandably hungry to know what they can expect. I receive any number of questions about average agent or publisher response time, average rejection rates, average advance amounts, average debut novel sales, average annual writing income. In most cases I have to say that I can't answer--not just because the data isn't out there, but because no two writers experience the process the same way. For now, I'm afraid, we are mostly stuck with assertions.

15 comments:

C.E. Petit said...

I'd like to point out two other problems with the kind of statistics sought here...

(1) The kinds of statistics sought assume simultaneously that (a) there is a broad-enough "publishing industry" population to support statistical analysis, and (b) that statistics drawn from such a population would apply to each subset. Consider, for example, the desire for an "average" (mean or median?) number of rejections of bestsellers. Leaving aside for the moment that a substantial number of bestsellers are not the work of first-time authors submitted over the transom, but are instead commissioned before they are even written — meaning that there wasn't ever any real opportunity for a "rejection" in the first place, or at least not a comparable one — one must recognize that there's more than one kind of "bestseller" out there. I seriously doubt (based on my own experience on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk) that any statistical conclusions that could be drawn from the industry as a whole would mean anything in evaluating distinct subsets like, say, Christian-oriented fiction.

(2) These statistics are inherently backward-looking, but with a distinct twist to the hindsight. An acquisition decision made today on a book coming over the transom will not be reflected in "bestseller status" for at least eighteen months, and more likely twenty-four to thirty months... by which time the industry as a whole and the industry segment for that book will have changed in many ways that make any statistical analysis highly suspect.

In short, even if there existed verifiable data from which to do some kind of statistical analysis of "rejection rates," one could not draw any sound conclusions from that analysis that would be meaningful going forward.

M. C. Evers said...

I think that if anyone were ever going to have any luck in getting such a study done, it would have to come from the English or business department of a university (preferably both working together) rather than from authors or publishing houses.

As to me, any assertion that isn't backed up with statistics must be taken by a grain of salt. I do think that a reliable study can be designed and carried out but it should be done independently.

In fact--now that I think about it, I actually would not want the English department involved in running such a study...too many vested interests both on the part of those seeking publication and those in the industry. Better to have a reputable business college do it.

Marina J. Lostetter said...

Well really, the only reason to gather such info would be to make authors feel like they're on the right track. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it has nothing to do with the real business.

And I found the example given interesting (a stat I’d never thought about before): " For example, I would love to know the average number of times debut best-sellers were rejected by agents and publishers, compared to debuts that flop."

Again, this is a business. I’m interpreting the comment to mean that these authors have already debuted and are selling their second book (though the commenter most likely meant they’d like to see stats on their initial sales). Supposing that the merits of each manuscript were completely comparable, who could fault a publisher for picking the best-selling author over the flop (supposing he/she had both works in hand)? It’s just like a university who takes a student with a slightly better recommendation letter over another student whose resume is essentially identical.

Same with established pros vs. newbies.

In the end, established writers may get published more often than newbies, but guess what? They’ve earned their stripes. They’re published because they know what they’re doing.

And in order to make money, publishers have to provide the best books/stories available. So there is absolutely no business sense in taking a poor story by an established pro (which means customers will be less likely to buy that “name-brand” in the future) over a fantastic story by a no-name (who, with this great tale, is likely to become a “name-brand”).

The myth that novices are somehow shut out isn’t based in any reality that makes rational sense in a capitalistic system. People who want to make money don’t pass up good product for bad.

But this is just the opinion of one unpublished aspirant.

Kaz Augustin said...

Only slightly off tangent I hope. :)

Ref: "publishers routinely puff up announced print runs, for example." And if publishers, as commercial entities, do that, you can imagine what goes through the minds of individual authors stuck behind their monitors trying to claw their way up the publishing ladder.

Writers and paranoia should never be underestimated. As an example, Writer A (as a general rule) will NOT discuss a publisher's contract with Writer B with a view to some kind of mutually beneficial note-swapping. This is regardless of the fact both writers may be equal/near-equal in terms of experience and publication history. When one deigns to disclose valuable intel, it's usually delivered in a way that will make them look good.

"Oh, I was never rejected from [whatever] because I never submitted to them in the first place."

"I didn't really notice the royalty percentage on the contract because I don't need that money to live."

"They accepted the first novel I ever wrote."

"Yes, I negotiated some clauses but I can't remember all the details and my hard disk fried on the weekend. Sorry."

True? False? Take your pick.

Forget agents. As long as WRITERS can't be honest with each other, much less to themselves, agents and anyone else along the way hold absolutely no hope of gathering accurate stats.

Frances Grimble said...

My problem is with the attitude that publishing through a traditional publisher (the larger the better) is ALWAYS better. A few years ago, I would have agreed with you for most fiction, but not for many kinds of popular nonfiction. But with so many traditional publishers now wanting e-rights and POD rights in perpetuity for hardly any royalties (even for older books where e-rights were never mentioned in the contract because they didn't exist), I don't agree even for fiction any more.

I also don't agree with the slogan that "with traditional publishing the money flows to the writer; with self-publishing the money flows from the writer."

Considerable time the writer could have spent earning a salary or hourly wage elsewhere, flows from the writer the entire time the book is being written. Additionally, the writer may well incur significant expenses for travel, research, computer equipment, etc., quite possibly well before finding a publisher and getting an advance.

When the book is published traditionally, money then flows to the writer--but not necessarily enough to fairly compensate for the time spent writing the book.

When the book is self-published, money continues to flow from the writer until the book is released. Depending on what the book needs and what the writer can handle himself/herself, the writer may pay for an editor, graphic artist, illustrator, and other vendors, including a printer.

But then, money starts flowing back to the writer as the books sell. It may, or may not, be enough to pay for the writer's investment of time and money. But given everything (including the abysmal offer I got from a traditional, midsize publisher for my first book), I think I've made more money self-publishing than I would have with a traditional publisher.

So it's not a question of where the money flows. It's a question of how much money and when it flows.

Also, self-publishing is not the same thing as vanity press publishing. The problem with vanity press publishers is low quality, deceptive practices, and bad reputations. There is nothing inherently wrong with a writer paying a printer, graphic artist, etc., but the writer should certainly be getting what he/she pays for.

Whatever publication route you take, if you intend the book to sell commercially you have to work your tail off. Some writers are willing and able to handle tasks in addition to writing, some not. Personally, I love book production. Marketing I can handle Even traditional publishers are now making authors do a lot of the marketing.

Even though self-publishing is right for me, I'm not claiming it's inherently always better. By the same token, I question a stance that traditional publishing is always better.

Especially in a market where self-publishing is more affordable and easier than ever. I'm not saying it's easy. But the self-publishers I knew 28 years ago were doing things like buying used imagesetters, putting them in the garage, typing the entire manuscript into them (including arcane codes), cutting up the film with X-Acto knives, and pasting it onto boards with rubber cement. Because, Microsoft Word, InDesign, and Photoshop hadn't been invented yet. And their only printing options were offset or (yuk) photocopying. There was no Internet, no Amazon . . . you get the idea.

Technology really is changing this industry. And sometimes, though not always, very much for the better.

I also question the stance that a writer needs to be accepted by a traditional publisher just to prove he/she is a good writer. Yes, writing is a difficult craft. There are a lot of lousy manuscripts out there. I used to read slush and 99% of it was either crap, or just wrong for that publisher. Yes, there are a lot of lousy self-published books.

BUT, I don't think that traditional publishers are the only arbiters of what is good (and/or marketable), and what is not.

Frances Grimble said...

My problem is with the attitude that publishing through a traditional publisher is ALWAYS better. A few years ago, I would have agreed with you for most fiction, but not for many kinds of nonfiction. But with so many traditional publishers now wanting e-rights and POD rights in perpetuity for hardly any royalties (even for older books where e-rights were never mentioned in the contract), I don't agree even for fiction any more.

I also don't agree with the slogan that "with traditional publishing money flows to the writer; with self-publishing money flows from the writer."

Considerable time the writer could have spent earning a salary or hourly wage elsewhere, flows from the writer the entire time the book is being written. Additionally, the writer may well incur significant expenses, quite possibly well before finding a publisher and getting an advance.

When the book is published traditionally, money then flows to the writer--but not necessarily enough to fairly compensate for the time spent writing the book.

When the book is self-published, money continues to flow from the writer until the book is released. Depending on what tasks the book requires and which the writer can handle himself/herself, the writer may pay for an editor, graphic artist, illustrator, and other vendors, including a printer.

But then, money flows back to the writer as the books sell. It may, or may not, be enough to pay for the writer's time and money. But given everything (including the abysmal offer I got from a traditional, midsize publisher for my first book), I think I've made more money self-publishing than I would have with a traditional publisher.

So it's not a question of where the money flows. It's a question of how much money and when it flows.

I also question the stance that a writer needs to be accepted by a traditional publisher just to prove he/she is a good writer. Yes, writing is difficult. There are a lot of lousy manuscripts out there. I used to read slush and 99% of it was either crap, or just wrong for that publisher. Yes, there are a lot of lousy self-published books.

BUT, I don't think that traditional publishers are the only arbiters of what is good (and/or marketable), and what is not.

Anonymous said...

There is a such a thing as being in the right place at the right time, and the wrong place at the wrong time when you should have been in the right place. Editors and agents are human and first readers are human and often very inexperienced. Many of them drink and have lives like the Springer show, and if you catch them on the wrong day, you're screwed. I've been making money writing for years. CE Petit even got money for me from another writer for one of my stories that was stolen and sold word for word. I've made every mistake you can make and have been close to the big time several times...but no one here will probably read anything I've written. I'm one of those people who learned everything the hard way and now does everything right and pretty much slipped through the cracks. Yet, I've seen people hire an agency to write their work and then get a contract for work that wasn't theirs. I've read a book and a few years later seen entire sections of that book in another book. I've seen horrible books from major publishers and big name writers. My real comment is that there is luck involved, real luck, and because you make it with a major doesn't mean you deserve to make it. There is luck and timing with everything, especially publishing.

Hope Clark said...

In the arts you cannot tie success to numbers, because artists write/paint/perform for an assortment of reasons, and success has so many definitions. The writers hungry for numbers, and angry that industry professionals won't give odds, ratings, ranks or success rates, are usually trying to determine if their struggle is worth the effort. I can tell you this from studying and listening to my readers at FundsforWriters - you do not get paid well enough for the investment. Either you write commercially, or you write books. In other words, you write to earn a living or you write from the heart. The magical stories about authors penning their passionate stories AND finding success publishing are not common . . . like the lottery. However, we can still hope, can't we? When we try to make it a logical sequence of events, it makes no sense to pursue a living at the craft - the odds are just that great.

The arts are subjective. Rejection, acceptance, success are all words with a spectrum of interpretation. Just as soon as someone comes up with stats, someone else will challenge the nature, origin, compilation methods of providing those numbers.

So why should editors, publishers, and agents come up with stats? What is the benefit from their end? They are running wide out trying to keep up now. I can't see such stats ever coming to pass. Writing, as in many creative career paths, is an investment of heart and passion as much or more so than head and logic. One has to choose to do it or not, and not wait for others to give stats to help us make up our minds whether we should take the chance.

Frankly, I don't see the point of having such stats except to make people rationalize why they shouldn't be writing in the first place. Who knows? Such stats might be enough to keep a great writer from bothering to try.

Frances Grimble said...

Making money from your writing does not at all diminish the joy of creation, the benefits of information or entertainment that are conferred on readers, the quality of the work, or the praise you get from critics and readers.

Do you think Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or any other blockbuster writer, writes any less "from the heart" than you do? Their work sure doesn't imply it. Do you think the Romantics, the ultimate "ah-tists," didn't care about money? Dickens and a lot of other classic writers were churning the stuff out at a penny a word in weekly or monthly magazine installments, just to keep the pot boiling. But they were also artists, and their works have stood the test of time.

Getting paid and writing from "the heart" are not mutually exclusive. Writers and other artists have been sold a cultural bill of goods. Others who don't want to pay for books (or music, paintings, dance performances, or whatever), have set up a system where they expect to be paid well for their own work, but expect us to labor just for joy. Bull. Creators of works deserve to be paid, and it's time we stood up for ourselves.

And, writing is real WORK. Sometimes really grinding work. As someone recently pointed out on this blog. your book is also a PRODUCT. It costs money to produce, it sells in stores, and readers pay for it.

I'm sorry if I don't sound like enough of an "ah-tist." But I'm really tired of the "information should be free" types repeatedly telling me I should slave unpaid for their benefit while they earn comfortable incomes. My reaction to feeling exploited is to take a second look at all those corporations who might hire me to write technical manuals or PR and, you know, actually pay me. Even give me health benefits.

JS said...

Frances, I've never heard anyone say that about self-publishing; I've only heard people say that about vanity publishing.

Self-publishing makes sense in many situations: for instance, when the author has identified a market that isn't currently served by trade publishers, and has a plan to reach that market; when the author is publishing a book to accompany some other form of presentation or workshop; and when the author is willing to sacrifice the advantages of trade publication in order to enjoy more autonomy over the process.

With self-publishing the money flows from the writer and then all the profits flow back to the writer; with vanity publishing the money flows from the writer and the "royalties" are generally no higher than in trade publication, if even that high.

Self-publishing is hard work. You have to create a team to do all the work of the folks that would be assigned to help you at a trade publisher, from editor to copyeditor to book designer/typesetter to cover artist to liaison with distributor to marketing and promotion department to public relations department. But for the people who understand the scope of all those tasks, it can be immensely rewarding.

However, one often sees the "I just put my book up on Lulu.com and now I just WAIT FOR THE MONEY TO ROLL IN" attitude, and that person isn't going to be well-served by self-publishing.

Anonymous said...

Butt kissers advance, females more so than males, and getting published has more to do with luck than with skill. I've been out and about for fifteen years, have great credits, and yet not one agent I sub to knows my name. Fifteen freaking years, and I'm nowhere. There are many authors in my boat. However, I'm self-publishing because I can, and will gain recognition, an audience, make money without cost to me, building my platform reguardless. I'm good. Better than most. I may never get published the old way, but I can sure make my bones with readers the new way. It is Reader's Choice, with the world at our feet. Published authors know this and are indeed joining our ranks. Say what you will, but nothing I said is false. You cannot prove me wrong. Standard publishing is a joke. A bad joke.

Frances Grimble said...

JS,

Many people still equate vanity publishing and self-publishing.

Personally, I think vanity presses are only useful for books that were never intended to be commercial. And there are plenty of people who publish such. For example, people putting together little anthologies of stories and photos from their family history; someone I know who used Lulu to publish a few copies of a novelette his teenaged niece wrote as a birthday present for her; geneaologies; things like that.

As long as they are clear on their goals and can afford publication, fine. I just wish vanity press books were not confused with self-published books that have commercial intent.

The Daring Novelist said...

What the disgruntled writers tend to miss, unfortunately, is that THEY are the ones with something to prove.

The people who have experience, credentials, "street cred" took a very long time to acquire a heck of a lot of knowledge. It's not a matter of simple stats that can be regurgitated at once.

I suppose it all goes back to the old adage:

Those who don't realize how much they don't know are doomed to fail. (And it's nobody else's job to save them.)

Those who know how much they don't know will succeed - because they will put their nose to the grindstone and start acquiring the knowledge themselves.

Matt Bille said...

You can't say there is NO luck factor: luck, good and bad, can crop up in anything you do. Having an agent read your query just after taking on a writer doing a similar work is the kind of thing you can't entirely eliminate even with thorough research. It comes back to working on what you can control. You can control how hard you work to improve your skill, polish your ms, and research your markets. You can control how persistent you are.
I'm in the same position as many others who read this blog. I've gotten a lot of encouragement and good advice, had several near misses, but haven't sold that first novel yet, so I might not be the most authoritative source of wisdom. Still, the best advice I can think of is Bruce Springsteen's: "No retreat, baby, no surrender." (Or, "Damn the luck, full speed ahead!")

E. Martin said...

Wow.

"And I found the example given interesting (a stat I’d never thought about before): 'For example, I would love to know the average number of times debut best-sellers were rejected by agents and publishers, compared to debuts that flop.'

Again, this is a business. I’m interpreting the comment to mean that these authors have already debuted and are selling their second book (though the commenter most likely meant they’d like to see stats on their initial sales)."

Why on earth would anyone interpret a statistic about debuts as meaning second books? Except, of course, to divert from the issue: whether publishing pros really know what they're doing as much as they think they do. Any moron off the street could tell you that a best-selling author's second book is a decent bet. If that's where we want to set the bar for measuring business insight, that really doesn't say much for the pros.

With agents fighting with publishers fighting with authors over diminishing returns, the idea that the pros can smugly assume efficacy of their decision-making processes because they have been making decisions is ridiculously naive.

When I hear "those outside simply don't know how well those of us inside know the biz" while the biz in question is veering all over the place trying to stay on track, what I hear is the rationalization of a seasoned alcoholic insisting that non-drinkers have no idea how well he can drive.

The insistence that taking the statistical equivalent of a breathalyzer or a driving test would be impractical or wouldn't prove anything only makes the analogy all the more convincing.

The first step to recovery...