Yesterday, I read that publishers are accepting 1-2% of the books submitted to them, including those submitted by agents. The same blog post stated that 1-5% of self-published books are being picked up by traditional publishers. On the surface, this makes it appear that a self-published book is twice as likely to be selected by a traditional publisher as a book that has an agent. I want to take a closer look at this, but before we go too far, I want to point out that these numbers may not be completely accurate and it isn’t always easy to compare the self-published path to the traditionally published path. Still, if were willing to accept some uncertainty, this “fact” is interesting.
Considering that publishers don’t like accepting unsolicited manuscripts without an agent, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that publishers are accepting 2% of the agented books submitted to them. But what is that in terms of the likelihood that one particular book—your book—will be picked up by a publisher? It’s hard to say, but let’s suppose that one out of ten manuscripts are agented. That puts the odds of a book being published at 1 in 500. If only 5% are accepted by agents, then the odds of your book being published are 1 in 1000 when you go the traditional route.
Now consider the self-published route. Anyone can publish a book, so the odd of reaching traditional publication by first going the self-published route could be as high as 1 in 20. Even if agents accepted 100% of the books sent to them, you wouldn’t be able to achieve that great of odds.
So it seems that your best bet for reaching traditional publication is to self-publish first. But before everyone rushes out to self-publish their books, let’s look at why this might be true. Up until now, agents have argued that they serve as gatekeepers, preventing all the junk from reaching the publishers. So, if Rachelle Gardner’s numbers are anywhere close to right, it could be that capitalism serves as a better filter than agents do. Unlike when an agent pitches a book to an editor, the successful self-publisher is able to present actual sales data. The agent makes a decision based on what he thinks will sell, but the self-publisher can present verifiable data showing that he has sold some number of books. How many books? Oh, about 5,000 to 10,000. That isn’t easy to accomplish, but what publisher wouldn’t be interested in a book that has sold that many copies?