Tuesday, 26 February 2008

One in every three novels is published

Here are two statements about writing novels that we will put to the test:

They are published
You get paid for them

Now I know it’s not that easy to get published. I have done a bit of slush reading in my time, and for a very short while for a mainstream fiction publisher. It’s true, there are lots of books that are great, and should be published. The thing is, and the thing most people don’t tell you, hoping to persuade you to keep going and not deflate your dreams, is that most of these are published. It’s the dross that—for the main part—isn’t.

Out of say twenty manuscripts I read in a fortnight from the ‘slush pile’ for this mainstream F&SF imprint (which included those submitted by agents), there was one I loved. Okay, enjoyed, relatively. One if I had my own publishing house I would have been happy to see the light of day. One. Out of twenty manuscripts. Vetted by agents. The rest were poor, mediocre, middling or okay. So I was doing this for a couple of weeks. Twenty manuscripts a fortnight. Say the editor, publisher and editorial assistant between them got through the same amount in the same time.

That’s eighty manuscripts a fortnight. 160 a month. 1,920 completed novels a year. Sounds a lot. And it is. But if there’re only two books a week that are great, that someone would be happy to publish, that’s not so many. Especially when you need consensus from, say, three of the four editorial staff reading them; a hit rate, even with like-minded readers, of maybe seventy five per cent. Six books a month. Seventy two books a year.

That’s still quite a few books from submissions if you consider existing authors with series to manage and contracts to honour. Then you have to convince the marketers that this can work. The book I read, that was great, in comparison to the others, was maybe not entirely appropriate for a mainstream F&SF audience. Not safe enough for the already high-risk business of fiction publishing. But it did get published; had already been published in the US and possibly other places too. It was this book by Cory Doctorow. A really fabulous book. But I can see why it was passed on. Even had the editorial staff liked it, it would be a tough sell to a marketing department.

Marketing Manager: What’s it about?

Editor: Well the main character is called Alan, although sometimes his name changes, but it always starts with an A. He’s got quite a few brothers. All initialled alphabetically: Brian, Colin, Edmund, Freddie. Their names change too.

Marketing Manager: Right.

Editor: I’m not explaining it too well. Listen, the Dad is a mountain and the mother a washing machine. And there’s this sub-plot about everyone getting free wireless Internet and then there’s this girl with wings that get cut off…

Marketing Manager: [Walks away shaking head]

Editor: That’s a no then is it?

So from seventy two great books that will probably get published (and probably see numerous publishers throughout the pitching process), not all, for whatever reason, will be appropriate for mainstream publishers. With even those that are, it might be the wrong financial quarter when a manuscript with a fifty-fifty chance comes in. Or five brilliant books come in at once and there’s only room on the list for three at a push. Let’s take a quarter of that estimate of great books. That leaves just under nineteen titles suitable for mainstream publication. Now if you had eighteen and a bit books to read, I’m sure you’d have your favourites? If you only had six slots to fill for new authors for the year, and you got the best of those eighteen and a bit books in there, job done, right?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you have a truly great book, a proper book, you have a one in three chance of getting it published. So write three great books; get the first one published, and then when the creative well runs dry, you’re still sitting on two great books.

Just once that happens, don’t expect the money to start rolling on in. I’ll leave Aliya to fill you in on that bit.

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

Nice post, and writing three good novels and getting one published is in fact a very good strategy. I would add one further piece of advice: it would be even better to write all three in a single genre.

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