Never Tell Me the Odds

I often talk with authors who want to pursue publication but worry about the sometimes-overwhelming odds involved in finding an agent and a traditional publishing house. Some turn to self-publishing not because they want to self-publish, but because they’re overwhelmed by the odds.

In the immortal words of Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.”

…and don’t let them be the reason you decide on a publishing path.

Self-publishing is a fantastic option for people who want to self-publish, whose talents are a match for the process, and who want to become an author-publisher. Self-publishing isn’t a good decision for people who simply feel overwhelmed or “tired of waiting.”

As for those “overwhelming” odds…the only statistic that matters to you is binary.

Let me explain.

Either you have an agent right now, or you don’t.  Six months from now, or a year, or ten, the same will be true. Either you’ll have an agent, a publishing deal, a published book (or six, or ten) … or you won’t.

Your work in progress will be under contract, or you’ll still be waiting.

You’ll win awards, or not.

In every case, the answer is always either “Yes” or “No.”

And from today’s vantage point, it’s Shrödinger’s Odds. You absolutely, positively, cannot tell which way it’s going to fall.


The real question, then, is what are you doing now to help improve your chances of the answer coming up “Yes” instead of “No.”

Are you continuing to work, and improve your craft, with every story, manuscript, book, and blog you write?

Will you let yourself stagnate, rewriting (or worse, just querying without rewriting) the same old tired manuscript you’ve been flogging since 2005, or will you finish that project and start the next…and the next…and the next, as many times as it takes to reach your goals?

Statistics about the percentage of queries or authors that obtain representation (or publishing deals), sales figures, and all the other piles of data boil down to a binary too. What holds at the industry level breaks down entirely when you focus on one individual author, one manuscript, or one career.

Either an agent is drawn to a given manuscript and offers a contract (“yes”) or the author and/or work wasn’t right for that agent (“no”).  The same goes for every publishing house, every bookstore, and every reader.

The overall numbers are helpful, because they can help authors evaluate larger questions, like the average quality of writing offered to agents (often low) or whether an author should send out a query or manuscript that’s anything less than the absolute best, most polished work the author can produce (the answer is DON’T YOU DARE).

The problem with other people’s numbers and averages is that they tell you nothing about the status of your manuscript, whether query reads like a siren’s song, or if your agent-selection process has honed your choices to agents who might truly relate to your work. 

For that, statistics can’t help you. Other people’s success cannot act as an accurate predictor of your own.

Critique groups, conferences, and learning to make an objective analysis of not only your writing but the responses you receive from the people who read it (including agents) offer an author important signposts on the difficult road to success.

At the end of the day, it comes to this: writing is difficult.

It’s difficult before you find an agent, difficult after you’re published, and difficult forever and ever. If you want easy, do something else.

However, if writing is your path, you can’t let other people’s statistics get you down. At the end of the day, the only statistic that matters to you is binary – you succeed or fail by your own efforts–or lack thereof.

That doesn’t mean “ignore the industry standards” or “ignore the facts.”  Information helps you learn and improves your chances of success, provided you use it properly.

However, don’t let the numbers cause despair. Remember that the only statistics that matter to you are binary, and work on shifting them from the lonely 0 to the celebrated 1. 

2 thoughts on “Never Tell Me the Odds

  • May 5, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Hi, I’m currently looking for writers and publishers classes. I came upon your website and wanted to know if you still hold classes at the library on I street? Thanks for your time.

    • June 4, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Hi Kimberley – I have done some in the past, and I’ve been meaning to contact them about doing more in the future – thank you for the reminder!

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