The Hermit Empire of the Publishing Industry

Andrew Johnston
8 min readDec 1, 2022
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Today, I’d like to talk about rejection.

And I don’t mean in that ridiculous “failure is the best thing that ever happened to me” nonsense you get from the success blogger set, either. I’m talking numbers here — the nuts and bolts.

I believe that the publishing industry in general is sealing itself off, and it is those raw numbers that tell the tale.

I began seriously seeking publication in 2014, and the first manuscript I sent out had a request rate of exactly 2.5%. That would be the proportion of agents I queried who subsequently asked to see it.

For those of you who aren’t keyed in to the business: 2.5% sucks. You’ll often hear the number 10% thrown around — this is the request rate for a manuscript that is likely to see publication. The assumption is that a lower number means that’s there no market for what you’re trying to sell, so even if you get representation you’ll probably never find a publisher.

Now, I could dispute this number from either direction. The people I know who get published are getting numbers much higher than this — 25% to 35%, in my experience. On the other hand, most people seem to get numbers far less than this (under 1%), to the point where 2.5% seems to be above average.

The direct relevance of the number isn’t important. What matters is that I started off shopping around a manuscript that — for reasons I won’t get into here — was never going to see the light of day and it still got 2.5%. This figure would remain very consistent for a large part of my desperate struggle. For years, every project and every submission cycle was getting about 3%. It was comfortable. It was reliable.

The gates fall shut

I’d like to tell you what the request rate is for the last thing I queried, but I really can’t because it’s been rejected almost 200 times without a single request. That makes things a bit tricky.

Being a math guy, I have ways to estimate this. There’s a little trick that we’ll call mean submissions to accept. Without boring you too much, I work backwards with a presumed acceptance rate, then determine how many submissions I’d have to send off to have a 50% cumulative chance of getting at least one request. It…

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Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at www.findthefabulist.com.