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I can't find any authoritative citation for this. As an example, I know that the average entrepreneur has to be involved in 12 new businesses before he has a successful enterprise. That is the national average for new business owners. If anyone knows the average number of times that a new author submits a story before his first publication, either nationally in the US or regionally, I would be appreciative. Please provide where you learned this information too, if you can.

Edit: I am NOT asking how many it's likely I will have to submit, I am looking for an average for authors in general. I know that the government keeps statistics like this, that is where I got the citing above for my entrepreneur statistic, but I can't find this data.

Obviously I am asking so I have a target to hit in mind. I have always figured when looking at these statistics that this might be the one time in my life that I'm super unlucky and I may need to do 3x the average to succeed: As an entrepreneur I expect to have to start 36 businesses before any of them make me rich. I am in the teens. I would like a national average as I begin so I know what kind of expectation is reasonable for an average person. I can also look at that number and hope that this could be my Cinderella story, I used to for businesses, and hope to get lucky in about half that number (It obviously didn't happen). I always hope for the best and plan for the worst.

With that in mind, since people asked about my case specifically in the comments:

During the synopsis writing and initial few chapters, I will be submitting short stories to show prior publication. I will be submitting finished, edited manuscripts. I will be submitting them as incomplete, with as many chapers finished as I have finished at the time of submission. Eventually the submssions will be a complete first book with chapters from a second. I have the material and I hope the will for 6-9 books. I plan on releasing in triliogies, 2 or 3 total, depending on what the synopsis I am working on ultimately calls for.

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Nathan, this is a forum-style question polling the community. I'd be happy to brainstorm with you on a good way of asking this; see you in chat? –  Neil Fein May 4 '12 at 23:30
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Aw shucks. And I was going to say it's a Fibonacci number between "lots" and "lotsnlots," but nobody's been able to figure out which one. :) (jk) –  Alan Gilbertson May 5 '12 at 2:07
    
Nice edit; have reopened. –  Neil Fein May 5 '12 at 16:33
    
I tried opening it again, @NeilFein but no one understood that this is the edit –  Nathan C. Tresch May 5 '12 at 21:29
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I'm with Alan... I always thought the answer was somewhere between "as many as it takes" and "all of them." There are so many variables, and the industry is currently being upheaved by self-publishing -- I honestly don't think there is one authoritative answer, or even a reasonable average. If there were, there'd be a lot fewer real-estate novelists and many more published writers. If there is an actual citable answer, I'd be pleased to see it. –  Lauren Ipsum May 6 '12 at 0:55
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3 Answers

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I'm afraid I've never seen any statistics on this. As the comments have noted, this is a very difficult estimate to make - there are many different definitions of "getting published" (does self-publishing count? e-Publishing? Vanity? Short stories? Posthumously?), and it's practically impossible to track the many, many writers who never got past the rejection stage.

What is more readily available is finding individual accounts of specific writers' paths to publication. These are more anecdotal than statistical, and tend towards the extreme edges:

Though, again, these are mere anecdotes, they do imply (at the very least) an extremely wide variation in this particular datum.

Somewhat more available is the other direction: what percentage of incoming manuscripts does an agent or a publisher accept? You'll find varying accounts; two that I found most easily are:

  • An NYC literary agency winds up representing about 1 manuscript in 4000.
  • In 2006, literary agent Miss Snark would read one full for every 100 manuscripts; doing the math from her description, I think that comes out (by generous estimation) to representing approximately 1 author per 1200 queries.

Hypothetically, you might guesstimate how many venues there are for novels, say that each one accepts, say, 1 in 2000, and get some approximation.

But what you might really want to take to heart is the rest of Miss Snark's post:

There is no reliable way to measure the acceptance ratio at a publisher because there is no reliable measure of what's pitched. Do you count manuscripts received? Do you count each version? Do you count pitches that fell so flat the editor said "ix-nay on the rap-cay".

[...]

Sufficient unto the day is this: we ARE looking for good work. Write really really well and you won't need to worry about who else is there cause you'll rise to the top of the heap. The fact that there is a lot of other stuff out there is no indication of the quality of that work. Most of it is dreck.

Take from that what you will.

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It’s hard to give a useful answer to this question, because the vast majority of work submitted for publication is really, really awful. One editor has a “rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections” here (scroll down to the numbered list). If you can write a story that is engaging to any reader who is not a close relative or otherwise concerned about hurting your feelings, then you are not guaranteed a sale, but you are already ahead of the curve, so to speak.

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To expand somewhat on the great information that @Standback provided, you have to keep in mind that the numbers you found pertaining to business success is in itself an incomplete number. The government statistics are based on those businesses that are actually documented as a result of completing some type of government form, such as a business permit or tax ID number. There are no doubt countless businesses that are started without completing these forms that ultimately fail without anyone "officially" documenting that they existed in the first place.

In a similar vein, no publisher is going to keep a running total of the number of manuscripts they receive and ultimately reject. The main reason for this is because the number would be so daunting it would discourage most writers from ever making the attempt. Agents face similar problems, but at least some of them are more likely to share their acceptance numbers. According to the assumptions Standback made in his response, 1 in 2000 manuscripts is likely to be taken on by an agent. That number represents 2000 separate stories, and not authors. There may be five manuscripts from one author in that mix, but either way, the numbers are still pretty staggering.

I found a quote from a literary agent that I think helps to provide a little perspective:

The reality is that the market for new fiction is horrendous. Of course, editors are looking for new writers, but the hurdles editors have to leap to acquire unpublished authors are nearly impossible to scale -- editors need both a highly marketable as well as a brilliantly executed novel in order to acquire it. - Simon Lipskar

An interesting aside from this quote is that it is a quote from about ten years ago, and the odds of getting accepted have dropped even more since then.

While I think it is noble that you want to give yourself a specific goal, I don't think that there is any clear and simple way to find an average on which to base your goal. You would be better served just settling on a number that you believe is reasonable before deciding to move on. You also need to decide if your goal is based on submissions to agents or submissions that you make directly to the publishers. Going through an agent could possibly get you broader exposure to more publishers, which would mean starting with a smaller number for your goal.

Another thing that you need to take into consideration is how much time you want to devote to getting published. Are you willing to have a manuscript shopped around for a year, or two, or three? Will you stop writing if you don't get any bites on the first manuscript? These are additional factors that should equal or greater importance.

If ultimately your goal is to just write your stories and get them into the hands of the public, then you might find it more beneficial to pursue self-publishing as an e-book. That market is expanding enormously and the potential is far greater (in my opinion). You could continue to try selling your short stories or articles to help provide a foundation of experience, and then as you acquire those points of recognition, draw attention to them as part of the promotion for your e-books.

I read an article somewhere once where someone was asking for advice on how to pursue a career as a writer, and I'll try to present the same scenario that was suggested there. Let's say you have the idea/outline for six different books, all of which could become parts of a series. If you don't sell the first one, would you still plan/want to write the others? If the answer is yes, then you should concentrate on being a writer and spend less time worrying about selling the books before they are written. If the answer is no, then you are more interested in the business venture, and that would be more of your focus than the actual writing.

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