The Numbers Game in Speculative Fiction Publishing

I’ve just come back from a mooch around the Harper Voyager blog… 4,563 submissions in two weeks. That means 4,563 books looking for a home!

But they are only going to publish 12 of them. So, if it was an even playing field a submission has a 1 in 380.25 chance of getting published, or putting it another way there’s only 0.263 percent chance of a submission be successful.

I feel sorry for anyone who gave it whirl, especially with these odds… and they’ll not be told they’re unsuccessful. The publishers don’t have time to send out the polite thank-you-but-no-thank-yous. It really is a pity that the software provider could not have added a subroutine into their tool to enable publishers to pull out their chosen ones, then throw a switch that would e-mail all the unfortunate masses in the rest to say they’re not being taken on. It would be so much more civilised!

This exercise in numbers does bring home a rather depressing point. Even if you take out half the number as not being suitable for publishing anywhere, that leaves a lot of prospective novels out there fighting for a place to be published. And believe me, I’ve seen a handful of draft novels from friends that really do deserve publishing. This makes me very sad for them, because I know some of that wonderful literature will never be shared.

Is there anything that can improve a writer’s odds in getting published (other than the usual making sure your manuscript is polished)?

Not that I can think of… that leaves only one option… change the publishing system? Admittedly e-publishing makes it easier to get your writing out there, but does it get to the readers? No unless you are well connected or famous. The answer has to be a massive marketing job…

I don’t know about you, but I’m not what you call a marketeer. Which leaves only one route, the slow by grindingly slow steps of getting one piece of fiction out after another so your name gets more and more noticed. This is a well trodden route by the many a great science fiction writer. But I’m sure that the numbers recently have got worse for the writer. And even if they haven’t, it’s depressing.

And does this depression pass (at least at the subconscious level) into the stories themselves? Could this be why we have so many dystopias?

But if we had an overabundance of dystopias, you would think the publishers would welcome a happier story, wouldn’t you? Unless, of course the depression is contagious?

In fact, I find it interesting that dystopias came to the fore in science fiction about the time there was a glut of stories wanting to be published.

But to end on a happier note, two of my short stories are being published this Autumn – A Fate of Dust and Ripple Effect. Hoorah!

2 thoughts on “The Numbers Game in Speculative Fiction Publishing

  1. Getting short stories published seems like a good way gaining credibility as a writer, so well done on that. I don’t think i have the motivation – or perhaps the ability – to write one; instead just the novel length.

    I’ve become obsessed trying to second-guess what a publisher/agent is looking for: their filter process. Now, if they are having to apply some quick criteria to deal the welter of submissions the whole process might as well be done by an AI. Let’s see … Previously successful idea+variation at least enough to give a new spin on the genre Zeitgeist, which can be described in a back-of-the-book length; opening chapter that does not contain lengthy description (especially world building) but either an immersion into an action scene or a character; plot driven by character rather than a concept; no switching POV without a clear break of paragraph; no red herrings or loose ends that are never tied up; no false cliff hangers; SF esp: no deus ex machina style contrivances; no unbelievable concepts which lack any basis in contemporary science, or characters with super human abilities – lack of jeopardy; no scenarios without any bearing on real life situations, or cannot be related by analogy, metaphor or allegory. And there’s probably much more needed to add to the programming. And you’ll notice the filtering would mostly be done through negative criteria.

    Anyway, it’s likely I would fail on that test, because writing is not about adhering to a strict set of rules, even if it is about having an awareness of them. I can think of some great/acclaimed writers who break the rules, except their talent lies in knowing how to break them.

    So, yes, something does need to change in the publishing industry to make it fairer, but i don’t have the solution. In the meantime, there’s only the frustrating waiting process and the uncertainty of never know where you went wrong (since as you mentioned, they often don’t bother replying). Sounds like a publishing dystopia!

  2. It is unfortunate for your friends that the publishing industry is more about what will sell than about what is high quality otherwise the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey would never have seen light of day.

    Tough times indeed.

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