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Old 08-03-2010, 08:44 PM   #1
Steven Lake
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Question The True Number of Viable Manuscripts?

Someone brought up an interesting point in another thread that, at least according to them, about 98% of all manuscripts submitted to publishers are complete crap and have no right being there. Having done tech editing for 5+ years I can completely relate. I've definitely seen my fair share of "OMGWTF!?" type submissions that are so bad it's a felony to burn them because you'd be releasing toxic pollution on an epic scale. :P (lol, just kidding guys, don't everyone suddenly grab pitch forks and start attacking the castle. hehe)

But seriously, in all abject honesty, of all the manuscripts submitted to most publishing houses, how many do you truly believe are viable manuscripts? IE, manuscripts that are of sufficient quality to be worthy of publishing. And I'm not saying that anyone should run around saying "all manuscripts, except mine" or anything like that. I'm simply looking for an objective, realistic estimate. Would the 98% figure be accurate (ie, 98% of manuscripts are either insufficient or complete junk vs 2% that are quality, or at least good enough to publish), or is that too high, too low, or just right?

I'm interested in hearing your opinions. And please, keep it civil, as I'm more than certain that some comments in a thread like this could easily step on some toes, so play nice.
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Old 08-03-2010, 11:08 PM   #2
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Well, I remember reviewing resumes for corporate jobs back in my corporate days and you would be surprised at how many brownie points one can accrue just by following instructions and spelling all the words correctly I know Neil Marr has said he has very clear author guidelines and those who don't follow them get deleted sight unseen.

But he has also said he will work with an author whose manuscript may not be 100% but who has potential...

It would not surprise me if the 98% figure was true. I hate to admit it, but much as I love sites like Smashwords as a concept, I have yet to truly love any of the 'random guy on Smashwords' books I have read. The ones I have found worthy of recommending to others all come from either established writers like Doctorow who self-publish e-versions for whatever reasons, or from indie authors who have gone through a publisher, however small or unknown. Going through some kind of editorial process, however minimal, is more of an essential than I had realized.

I no longer read the 'random guy' books unless I get a personal recommendation, but I have recently been stockpiling some of the 'established author self-publishing backlist' stuff for my end of summer holiday.
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Old 08-04-2010, 12:22 AM   #3
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I can see how 98% of manuscripts submitted are not right for the publisher, but they might be perfect for another house or a different market. There are different standards for different publishers. One person's gem is another person's lump of coal.
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Old 08-04-2010, 12:54 AM   #4
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But I don't think that was the question. Marketability is a whole different ball game than readability. I think what he was asking was: what percent are just unreadable garbage? I, too, have sampled dozens of books at Smashwords, and I find myself getting frustrated, because so many of them are so-o-o bad, even within the first few pages, or first few paragraphs! Long before you get into the story, the writing is childishly poor--grammar, POV, style--some are just incomprehensible.

It's Coker's mission to allow anyone to publish anything, and I don't disagree with his idea--free country and all. I just wish there was a better way to sort out the good, the mediocre, and the flat-out awful.

--Maria
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Old 08-04-2010, 01:11 AM   #5
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Hi Steven, et al,

When I did my course (diploma in media studies) we had several classes where publisher's representatives visited to talk. Many manuscripts submitted in Australia they said, don't get read, unless an agent is pushing the author's barrow for them. Even then, it is hard. The reps used the term "hundreds", and seemed to be referring to at least one per day. The occasional one gets noticed.

However, I have had the misfortune to start many books - some by very popular authors and from well-known publishing houses - that are barely at the first draft stage. Some I force my way through, others I give up in disgust and return them to the library.

The wordprocessor is a great tool and a curse - it gives ready access to the means to "complete" a manuscript, and I tend to feel that self-publishing and the proliferation of sites where a book can be put out to the public are in the same boat.

I think the comment about market suitability is quite relevant - if I published non-genre ("mainstream" in Oz, or literary) novels and received a manuscript for a genre novel, I would not view it favorably, if at all.

MSs that can essentially go straight to print? I think very few, unless the author has been previously published. Too many writers - amateurs and professional alike - are insufficiently critical of their work, and in many cases lack the skills to present a polished piece.

It used to cost a lot to publish a piece - editors, cover artwork, printing, and so forth - and this encouraged conservatism.

We had a writer in Oz a few years back, who was seen as being very marketable, and her work received some critical support. Her book hit the shelves and she was hailed until a very well-known writer pointed out the strong similarity between passages in her book and something he had written years earlier. The term "plagiarism" came up before the books were pulled from the shelves.

The publisher lost a packet on that one. They thought they did everything right, but still got stung. Conservatism is not a uniformly bad policy.

Cheers,
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Old 08-04-2010, 09:41 AM   #6
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I can see how 98% of manuscripts submitted are not right for the publisher, but they might be perfect for another house or a different market. There are different standards for different publishers. One person's gem is another person's lump of coal.
Read some random stuff at Smashwords. You'll question whether 98% of that was even written by a human being. At least, one with his brain on straight.
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Old 08-04-2010, 09:48 AM   #7
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I think the problem is that writers are told they need to be persistent. The old canard about JK Rowling being rejected many times (actually only twelve, and things were different then - no PCs) encourages them to keep right on submitting, however many form rejections they get. Holly Lisle recently suggested 1,000 queries as a reasonable objective.

So the same old sludge, which has zero chance of publication, endlessly circulates, blocking up the system, making it hard for the odd gem to be noticed.

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Old 08-04-2010, 10:25 AM   #8
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It's like job applications. If you're trying to get a job in a tough economy, you'll need to apply for a lot of jobs before you get one, unless you're lucky or really, really good (and also hit the right place on your first try). J.K. Rowling is like the person with the specialized skillset who has to apply to a dozen places before they find one that needs what they can do. Joe Schmoe shopping around his multi-hundred-thousand-word collection of conspiracy theories and strange injections of fantasy is like the guy with no marketable skills at all and questionable personal hygiene who keeps applying for executive-level jobs, and is never going to get one if he applies for a hundred years.

Vanity presses talk about how few books are ever published by the mainstream publishers, conveniently leaving out one thing: those books are not selected at random. The most important part is entirely under the author's control: writing a book that doesn't suck. Unfortunately, few people (and not even all of the pros all of the time) are capable of doing that.
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Old 08-04-2010, 10:42 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Worldwalker View Post
It's like job applications.
Vanity presses talk about how few books are ever published by the mainstream publishers, conveniently leaving out one thing: those books are not selected at random. The most important part is entirely under the author's control: writing a book that doesn't suck. Unfortunately, few people (and not even all of the pros all of the time) are capable of doing that.
You make an excellent comparison between submitting manuscripts and submitting resumes, and I would like to add to it.

In my last position, my manager made me the resume slush-pile reader in her search for a new analyst (position similar to mine). Yes, we got a ton of resumes that were completely unsuitable for our stated requirements, but every now and then, I would find a great candidate--someone who had all the skills and experience we needed, had great references, and interviewed well--and yet, she would still reject them without explanation.

I imagine a similar thing happens in publishing houses: some high quality writing goes unnoticed, even it's a perfect match for the house's needs, just because the pile was too deep that day, or the manager's coffee got cold.

--Maria
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Old 08-04-2010, 11:07 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Steven Lake View Post
But seriously, in all abject honesty, of all the manuscripts submitted to most publishing houses, how many do you truly believe are viable manuscripts? IE, manuscripts that are of sufficient quality to be worthy of publishing.... Would the 98% figure be accurate (ie, 98% of manuscripts are either insufficient or complete junk vs 2% that are quality, or at least good enough to publish), or is that too high, too low, or just right?
More factors go into determining the viability of a manuscript than simple mechanical proficiency, although that alone is a biggie, and the most likely to sink an aspiring writer. Does the overall story make sense? Is it internally consistent? Is it really interesting, or just flash-in-the-pan imitation? Is it too predictable, or too derivative, or too "I've seen this same story so many times that every editor I know wants to puke when I begin to describe the setup"?

If you are talking in terms of overall submissions, through all channels, my honest guess is that about ten percent fit into the interesting, original, "I'd like to hear more" category... and that of those, about ten percent (meaning 1% of the original slushpile) exhibit enough linguistic merit for an editor to want to read, all the way through to the end.

Assuming a helpful slush reader doesn't periodically clear out the pile by using a large metal receptacle and a match or two, the same old universal law of milking still applies: cream rises to the top. You want to float in the cream? Come up with original, interesting ideas, master your language, and learn to hook your readers. Editors like cream, because cream is easy money.

Unfortunately for editors, the milk-to-cream ratio is not very good, because when more people are able to write, more people wind up thinking they have something worth writing. Examine the canon of classic English literature, and you will notice that many such authors came out of periods of widespread illiteracy. Does that make their work any less valid? No, but it certainly made it easier for their editors to recognize quality.

To continue with the milking analogy then, the next stage is butter. Depending on who you are, and what you write, a little extra churning might help your submissions to solidify enough to attract attention. Editors like butter, too, because even though it requires a little more work on their part to whip it into shape, it is highly marketable.

Now, when you separate the cream, and churn out the butter, you are left with something editors strongly dislike: skimmed milk. Do people still buy and drink skimmed milk? Sure, but those people probably aren't licking their lips as it goes down.

Aim for cream. If you wind up in butter, you are doing well.

Try not to drown in a vat of skimmed milk.

- M.
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Old 08-04-2010, 12:20 PM   #11
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This is a fascinating thread with great responses. Thanks Steve and everyone.

All figures, of course are anecotal and nobody really knows how many completed novels (especially if you include those millions which must have been written and completed but never submitted) ever see the light of day.

That 98% failure figure is about accurate for my own wee house ... but do remember that we're pretty unspecific when it comes to genre and about 75% of submissions are from first-timers who don't quite know what they're doing yet but who we're willing to work hard with if their stuff shows sparkling promise. I suspect that rejection rates at bigger and more genre-specific houses and agencies who also expect perfection at first pass must be even higher than ours.

I've never worked this out formally, but I reckon we ask to see a full manuscript on about five in every hundred submissions. When we decline on the basis of synopsis and the first two chapters, the author is told within a couple of weeks and can move on.

Of those full ms requests, we might pick up on one, maybe two, to work on over a period of months or, in some cases, a year or two. (I am, of course, not including here authors we've previously published. Their success rate is well over fifty percent because they know their jobs, know our needs and know our style.)

Maybe another one-in-five of these full manuscript submissions also show enough promise to send back with a full editorial report, a provisional (if sometimes partial) pro line-edit and an invitation to the author to re-submit after revision at his/her end. When this happens, I think we go maybe for more than half of the resulting material re-worked as per our suggestions and advice.

So I think a 2% hit rate overall is pretty close to the mark.

BUT ... rejection rates at specific, individual houses -- large or small -- can be misleading. And this is vitally important to the author and well worth considering, folks.

Let's say, for instance, that Harry Potter was part of the 98% rejection statistics with the first seventeen houses Rowling subbed to. When she (and an acquisitions editor) got it right, she became one of the two percent rather than the ninety-eight. In other words, her personal rejection rate within the industry as a whole was actually a hundred percent.

Each time you submit, you increase your chances.

What I'd really like to know is the percentage of author successes when they have faith in their work and sticking power and have subbed to twenty, thirty, fifty publishers and agents. I suspect that -- overall -- nowhere near 98% of books ultimately go unpublished as they're passed along.

Nobody yet has done the math, so who knows; (self publishing apart) perhaps as many as ten, fifteen or even twenty percent of manusripts see full release, peraps 100% of good ones from determined authors who believe in their work.

Let's hope.

Cheers. Neil
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Old 08-04-2010, 12:42 PM   #12
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Neil, my feeling is that over the past two years it's got noticeably tougher to get an agent and a publisher.

I submitted Remix to over thirty agents. Two of them requested the full typescript, liked my writing, but were not convinced they could sell it to a publisher. I was approached by two more agents, one through Authonomy, one because she liked a short story I'd entered for a competition. Both these agents passed, too.

I could just peg away, hoping to get lucky. But my book's set in 2008; like any contemporary fiction, it will date. So I'm self-publishing with Smashwords and Kindle, and will be producing a paperback with Lightning Source, hoping to take advantage of the current turmoil of the publishing industry.

I think these are exciting times for authors.
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Old 08-04-2010, 12:58 PM   #13
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But I don't think that was the question. Marketability is a whole different ball game than readability.
Correct. I was after readability, as in generally accepted quality, rather than taste or preference based.
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I just wish there was a better way to sort out the good, the mediocre, and the flat-out awful.
Believe it or not, sites like Amazon, NewEgg and others have a user rating system that, in my humble opinion, goes a long ways towards influencing my buying habits. Another thing that does as well is the inclusion (user included that is, to make it fair and not appear biased toward the company in an effort to boost sales) of links to external reviews of a book if it works. This Coker you speak of would be well advised to implement such a system.
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So the same old sludge, which has zero chance of publication, endlessly circulates, blocking up the system, making it hard for the odd gem to be noticed.
Yes! Thank you! That was my thoughts as well. If it fails the first time, find out why. If it was flat out rejected with no reason, pull back, get several outside opinions on the work, fix what needs fixing and try again. Don't repeatedly beat on the door it it ain't gonna open. Just find a new key and try again.
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The most important part is entirely under the author's control: writing a book that doesn't suck. Unfortunately, few people (and not even all of the pros all of the time) are capable of doing that.
Hear! Hear! Well said! And I don't count myself among the greats, but even I realize that to be great you need to have a realistic view of your writing, and a good book to go with it.
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This is a fascinating thread with great responses. Thanks Steve and everyone.
Thanks Neilmarr! Your response is excellent as well and nicely presented.
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Old 08-04-2010, 01:19 PM   #14
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Neil, I think the size of your publishing house may somewhat color your optimistic view of the overall quality of manuscripts in circulation. If someone submits to you they first have to know you exist, which shows a somewhat greater cluefulness than the world at large. Joe Schmoe pulls his favorite book off the shelf, checks the publisher, and sends his magnum opus there. I suspect the percentage of utter crap arriving over the transom at big-name publishers surpasses your own by at least one order of magnitude.
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Old 08-05-2010, 02:45 AM   #15
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Your point is well made and well taken, Worldwalker. As at most legit houses, though -- large or small -- one way to control submissions is to avoid making it too easy for any but determined writers with faith in their words to find out how to sub. A tiny house like mine might be able to open the door a crack ... but not to fling wide the floodgates.

And Lexi: as I mentioned earlier, a publisher cannot say with certainty that his slushpile is full of junk as long as a single submission remains unread. Similarly, an author shouldn't think him/herself a failure until not a single doorbell remains unrung.

Best wishes. Neil

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