In Erika's Dreams, For Writers, Publishing

For us writers, getting published can be one of life’s biggest mysteries. At times it feels like there’s some magic formula we must discover in order to get our work represented by an agent, sold to a publisher and placed on Barnes & Noble’s shelves. Most of the time, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, rejection feels personal, as if the literary world at large is out to stand between us and our dreams. But it’s not personal at all. At the end of the day, publishing, like most other businesses, is a numbers game.

To illustrate just how much of a numbers game it is, I want to share some astonishing figures I learned from a recent episode of The Writing Show featuring Paula B.’s interview with J.B. Howick, founder of WindRiver Publishing and author of Blow Us Away! Publishers’ Secrets for Successful Manuscripts. Paula and J.B.’s conversation revealed some pretty eye-opening fact & figures that all writers should be aware of as they seek publication.

The numbers:

20,000,000: The number of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. (I guess it’s true what they say: everyone really does want to be a writer!)

8-9: The number of full-time employees that one big trade publisher (e.g. Random House) has on staff for the sole purpose of reviewing manuscript submissions from agents. (For a smaller publisher, this number may be 1-2 full-time people).

3-6: The number of minutes a reviewer will spend on a submission.

200,000: The number of new titles that trade publishers publish every year. (An additional 200,000 titles are self-published).

20,000: The number of trade published titles that may reach Barnes & Noble’s shelves in a year. (At any given time there are about 12,000 titles on B&N’s shelves).

This means that only about .1% of all the manuscripts in circulation will ever make it to B&N’s shelves!


Ok, don’t despair. I was as astonished as you when I first heard these numbers. But rather than letting them discourage you, let them motivate you to make your manuscript the ABSOLUTE BEST it can possibly be. This may mean editing your WIP one more time than you want to, rewriting your query letter with a hook that jumps off the page and grabs attention, doing research to understand who would buy your book and why, identifying where your book would sit in the bookstore and figuring out who your competition is. Let these numbers remind you that not only is publishing a business, but so is the writing we love so much.

And if you’re still feeling sick with negativity, look on the bright side: you have a better chance of getting published and landing your book on B&N’s shelves than getting struck by lightning (.00035%), getting eaten by a shark (.0001%), or dying in a plane crash (.0015%)!!

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Showing 6 comments
  • Suzanne

    Sigh, at least it’s less PHYSICALLY painful than getting struck by lightning!

  • Paula B.

    Hi, Erika,

    You are so right that the way to beat the odds is to make that manuscript sparkle! I see a lot of writers who cut corners because they get impatient. I wish they’d understand that excellence and success require a lot of grunt work.

    Each time a writer does a less-than-perfect job, she reduces the competition for those who struggle until their writing is sensational. Imagine that! By giving up or doing sloppy work, a writer helps her competition!

    For writers who slog away at their craft and do their homework, the odds of being published are way, way better than 1 in 20 million.

    Off my soapbox now.


    Paula B.

    • Erika Liodice

      Thanks for the advice, Paula! (I love your podcast by the way!)

      – Erika

  • Paula B.

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying The Writing Show, Erika!

  • Cathryn

    I agree that the numbers are scary but I do wonder about the quality of those 20,000,000 manuscripts. The short pieces that I’ve had published were the result of painstaking rewriting and editing so that everything I sent out was (as you said) the absolute best I could make it.
    Recently I started interviewing other writers on my blog about how they first got published. Interestingly, it was often through networking or having a prior relationship with the publisher.
    Publishers and editors are only human. At times it must seem overwhelming with all those manuscripts they receive. Already having a relationship with a writer and knowing that this writer can ‘deliver the goods’ on time would probably be a relief.
    Happy writing!

    • Erika Liodice

      You make a great point, Cathryn. While the numbers are daunting, not all manuscripts are created equal and we aspiring novelists need to use that inequity to our advantage.

      Congrats on having some of your pieces published and thanks for joining in the conversation!


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