I was asked the one piece of advice that I would give new writers who want to publish, and I responded, “Never give up!”
As a nation, we've gotten to the point where we want it all, and we want it right now. This same attitude is a real problem in those who are trying to get their first work published. Getting published is like assembling a puzzle, all of the pieces have to be in place or the puzzle can’t be completed. As I said above, there are so many things that have to be there for a submission to be successful.
The hard news is that 85% of all manuscripts are rejected because all of the puzzle pieces are not there. It probably has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, though that is one of the puzzle pieces, and it surely isn’t a personal rejection because they don’t know us well enough for it to be personal. Yet too many do take it personally, get their feelings hurt, and quit trying.
If that 85% number is depressing, it’s because we’re looking at the wrong side of the equation. It also means that we are only up against 15% of the manuscripts being submitted if we are doing it right; formatting correctly, following the submission guidelines, and most importantly, doing the research necessary to insure that we are submitting to the right place, and are sure the house we have targeted really is in the market for work such as we are submitting.
Some will disagree with me, but for writers starting out I recommend querying both agents and editors. In a survey of more than 600 writers, 87% of them published before they were able to interest an agent. If possible, getting an agent first is highly preferable, but sitting around for years trying to get one without having the writing credentials to interest them has us putting all of our efforts into a 15% chance of success and increases the length of time before we can expect to publish.
How long is a reasonable amount of time? In the same survey, the average was six years to publish their first work. Some much earlier, some much longer, but that was the average. Part of this is because we tend to do the process very badly at first, and as we are perfecting our craft and writing better, we are also learning from our mistakes, targeting better, and writing better queries. I look at my old queries and proposals, and I’m embarrassed.
They deserved to be rejected and got what they deserved. The odds of finding the right fit where all the pieces are in place is hard enough when we do a good job of targeting and querying, they are impossible when we do it badly.
In a perfect world, we’d write a wonderful story and the world would beat a path to our door, pay us an obscene amount of money, and promote our work to the high heavens. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and although our chances of success are much better if we have a terrific product to offer, the actual key to first getting published may have more to do with patience and perseverance than it does with the quality of the writing. I mean, all of us know of some work in print that we wondered how it got there, right? It was the right subject at the right place in front of the right person at exactly the right time.
We’re adults; we know not to expect something for nothing, and we know there really isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The publishing industry rewards those who persevere, who learn from their mistakes, who work to improve their craft, and learn how to market their work. We don’t want to do it, we want to write our stories and have somebody else take care of the rest of it, but life doesn’t work that way even if we have a good agent.
We have to never give up.