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...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.
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.
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.