Is Getting Traditionally Published Just a Crapshoot?

Lately I’ve heard comments about how much tougher it’s becoming to get in with a traditional publisher. Here are just a few of the kinds of things I’ve heard in various places:

“Landing a book contract is harder to do these days. Publishers are more selective than ever and a lot of good talent gets passed over.”

“Trying to be published by a traditional publisher is very much a crapshoot. It all depends on your query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day, and the agent hitting the perfect editor on the perfect day.”

“When I read where others are in the process, part of me thinks there won't be room left for me when I'm finished.”

“Sometimes I feel that I'm being left behind. But not because of others succeeding, but by the fact that publishers aren't publishing as many books as they use to, so it feels like I have to come in at the right moment.”

These are all very valid and real concerns. Are publishers more selective than ever? Is landing an agent and book contract a matter of luck? Will there be room for all of the talented writers? If we don’t act now, will we lose out on our chance at getting in?

Yes, these are the kinds of worries many writers have. I remember having many of the same concerns fifteen years ago when I started my very first round of querying. And when I started querying my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, in 2008 (almost four years ago) I was still worried. With so many talented writers, would there ever be room for me?

Our worries transcend time. Fifteen years ago, four years ago, today. Most writers experience the nagging anxiety about whether the doors of traditional publication will ever open for them.

The worry is normal. It’s part of the process.

But in an effort to alleviate some of the stress, let me take a shot at addressing a few of the concerns:

Are publishers are more selective than ever? Does a lot of good talent get passed over?

Publishers have to be selective. But they always have been. They’ve always had to carefully examine each manuscript they come across to decide if it will work for their house, if it will appeal to their target readers, if it’s commercially viable, and how the story and author voice fit with the others they already have in the line-up.

Maybe the slush piles have gotten bigger, which has made more work for agents and editors. However, industry professionals are still looking. And if they pass over talent, it’s probably because it wasn’t coupled with a saleable story. Story trumps all. And that hasn’t changed.

Does it all really depend on a query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day?

My query wasn’t perfect. Sure, I read agent guidelines, formatted my manuscript correctly, and did the very best I could to be professional. But my letter wouldn’t win the Pulitzer Prize of Query Letters. And I apparently didn’t hit my agent on the perfect day either. My manuscript sat in her slush pile for nine months before she finally got to it.

The road to publication doesn’t depend on lucky perfection. It depends on learning patience.

Will traditional publishers run out of room for debut authors? What if there’s not enough room for all the talented writers seeking publication?

With the growth of e-publication, e-readers and the decline of brick and mortar stores, it’s clear things are rapidly changing in the publishing industry. Obviously, we can’t predict the future to know how all of this will affect the choices publishers will need to make.

However, I agree with others who’ve said, “This is a great time in history to be a writer.” The social media revolution is giving writers more opportunities and possibilities than ever before.

While I’m no expert, I still hold out faith that those who are seeking traditional publication can eventually reach it. The reading public is always looking for gripping and well-told stories. And as long as readers keep buying, publishers will keep looking for writers, including fresh, new voices and talent.

I don’t consider myself to be a writing genius. I’m pretty much an ordinary person who worked really hard, learned a lot, and persevered over the years. I figure if I can do it, so can you.

Your turn! Have you ever felt any of these concerns about getting into traditional publication? What is (or was) your biggest worry?


  1. Yes! I've felt those same concerns! I feel a lot like you Jody. I don't think I'm exceptionally talented at writing. I've just put in the time. I have the passion. I'm constantly trying to learn and grow and take risks with my stories. And I persevered. Now I have a book contract with a great publisher. It's definitely about patience!

  2. I think it's wonderful, and I said so on Tana's blog too, that skilled writers have the option of self publishing without spending thousands on a vanity press. Because yes, there are many skilled writers out there.

  3. I've been there too. I think when we're unpublished it seems like everyone else is getting published, and we don't always realize most of them took the same long and slow road to get there. Perseverance is the key!

  4. I just pray my hard work pays off.

    Until then, I do what I'm madly in love with--I write.

    ~ Wendy

  5. I think it's always been hard to get published for most people. If you look back - some of the most successful books were rejected, and this happened up to fifty years ago.

    Like acting, singing, and anything creative, it's persistence that winds. It works every time. I think if something is destined to be published, then it will.

  6. It's hard not to have these worries. We are in a period of great upheaval in publishing.

    But I have been comforted by this one truth. When God designed us, he wrote within us a need for words and stories. We are made for the written word and it is made for us. We are called to give testimony because there will always hearers who need it. This is blended irrevocably into our design, woven into us with bone and marrow and muscle.

    It is an honor to work with words.

  7. To be honest, my biggest concern is that I'm writing for a niche market (lesbian fiction) and, despite research, my options for where to submit to seem to be limited. It's putting me off quite a bit.

  8. I feel exactly the same. It's tuff and you start to feel like you need a bevy of miracles to pave the way. Seeing friends like you succeed from blogger to author motivates me to keep on keeping on. =)

  9. Hi Jody! Great post! I agree that getting traditionally published is HARD and takes a lot of work and patience and perseverance but I do not believe it's a crapshoot. All of the writers I know who landed traditional book deals did so because they worked hard, they honed their craft and they were patient.

  10. Yes, I've had most of those worries. Fifteen years ago, seven years ago, last week. If they stumble me, there's only so far I can fall before I hit this bedrock truth: if being traditionally published will be a good thing for me, then God will open those doors in His time. As long as I don't quit, and do my best, then I can leave whether or not being published is the best path for me to follow in life up to Him. He sees what's on the other side of that door. I don't. I trust His vision. This is a prayer I pray most mornings: "Lord, you see my heart and my desire, but you also see if being published will not be good for me and my family. I believe you've put this desire in my heart, but if I'm wrong, then Your will be done."

  11. Wow, I have all of these worries right now. I'm getting closer to querying, and starting to get discouraged with the thought that I have to "compete" with all of the other fantastic books out there. What if mine isn't special enough? How can I expect to succeed when there are already do many books being published and not enough marketing people to go around.

    But then I remember, it's not a competition and there is room for us all. You just need to reach the readers who will love your books.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jody!

  12. Jody, I've had every one of those concerns, and some of them still awaken me at 4 AM, despite now being multi-published. I don't think the fears ever go away.
    My worst thought? I have to hurry and get this finished so I can submit it before all the slots are gone.

  13. I check "yes" to all the concerns above. It gets scary sometimes, but I think the networking keeps me motivated. I'm finding that there's a lot of great writing tips, inspiration, and support out there.

  14. I ran into a high school classmate over the weekend (a fun perk when you return to your hometown). She told me she had been following my blog and always knew I'd "do something brilliant." While the comment was very flattering, it's not really accurate.

    What I've done is persevere through years and years and years of rejection, often blissfully ignorant of the work my writing needed but always trusting that it would improve if I continued to try. There's been no glamour or brilliance in this journey so far, just a lot of passion and hard work.

    I've got to believe talent will rise to the top -- talent that is often refined through years of labor and dosed with a ton of dedication to sticking it out.

  15. Hi Jody! Excellent post, as usual. Since I am not yet published I cannot say whether it is more difficult these days or not, but I do know that I have similar concerns from time to time. But I also agree with you that with enough patience and hard work (and talent), those who desire traditional publishing will get there.

    Like you did, I am trying to learn a lot as I go along and I'm praying for my own path to publication to be forged. Thanks for your blog, it's one of my favorites. Wish me luck! ;)

  16. I've experienced the concerns. I think most writers have. The important thing is not to let them discourage us or to use them as an excuse to throw up our hands and throw out our manuscripts. The only ones who will get published are the ones who keep on trying.

    I had a strange thought. Since an increasing number of "seasoned" authors are opting to self-publish these days, won't that make more spots in traditional houses available for the rest of us--not less?

  17. oh, yeah. I feel these worries every day, and when I voice them, my sweet, encouraging husband says all the things you just wrote. It's nice to hear it from someone who's recently been through the process, though! Thanks, Jodi~ :o) <3

  18. Hi Everyone!! It's great to hear from you all today! I think the majority consensus is that we've all had these concerns at one time or another. (Even those who've gone on to get book contracts.) I hope that reassures newer writers and gives you hope that, yes, traditional publication is still possible!

  19. It's a writer's lot to worry ;) If it were easy everyone would be doing it (like they are with self-pubbed ebooks). It teaches us patience, forces us to do our best, encourages us to improve.

  20. Great post. I agree with you. It's hard, yes, but not impossible. My agent sold 4 debut authors in the last six or so months, including me. So new authors are still getting through.

    And as for the query letter, I went to a conference weekend before last and they did live query reading with a panel of agents. Even with the really rough queries, the vast majority of the agents said they would still jump down to the pages to see the actual writing. Your query letter is important but it's not necessarily going the be all end all.

  21. The changes aren't so much a death rattle for good writers as they are added opportunities. I laud Jim Bell for self-publishing an e-book with a novella and short stories that didn't have a place in the traditional market. Granted, he was a well established author first. Self-publishing debut authors aren't likely to see that kind of success. But he demonstrates there are expanding career possibilities for those who don't sit back and worry and instead take advantage of opportunities.

    I've felt the concern about there not being a place for my work out there, but it isn't a real worry. I'm convinced that God is in control of my life so if he intends publication to be a part of it, he'll help facilitate as long as I continue to do my share of the work.

  22. so here in Aus ... we are advised to get professionally edited and many publishers still accept ms direct from authors.
    my problem is finding the right editor - and know / no knowing when my ms is ready

  23. I agree. While no expert on the topic, I believe that there is always room for a good story, somewhere, somehow. And with the Lord guiding our steps, it'll all get placed just as He would have it.

  24. I think the changing industry is intimidating and confusing to a lot of people, but you're right, there's always room for a well-written, well-told story. Change can be a good thing, we should embrace all the new opportunities.

  25. I think the changing industry is intimidating and confusing to a lot of people, but you're right, there's always room for a well-written, well-told story. Change can be a good thing, we should embrace all the new opportunities.

  26. yeah, I can feel it's a crap shoot. I've picked up plenty of traditionally published books and I think their physical quality is great but the content, for the most part, isn't always superior than to what isn't trad. published. Most of those books I don't finish because, well, they're not that good. Their ideas are bottlenecked, so it seems. And I think society, on some levels has outgrown the business model, so, it's not so much harder to get published, but, it's harder to get published on that antique. That's one thought.

  27. I think it's part of the human condition to look back at "glory days" with a feeling that times gone by were better than they are now, regardless of circumstance. As you said, Jody, these are universal concerns, not bound by time or place. The one major thing which has changed, I feel, is the ease with which we can communicate our fears, so it's definitely easier today to feel that it's getting harder and harder to be successful.

  28. I don't think it's a crapshoot, because that implies that luck is involved. Maybe it's true that it seems like some people are in the right place at the right time (see Kiersten White's blog today about "the line"), but really your journey is your journey. Write a great book, and stay confident. It's like saying a singer is an overnight sensation--when they've been practicing and singing in dives for 15 years to make it.

    Great post, Jody!

  29. Hi Jody, This morning your blog post is sending me back to the basic question: Why do I write? We all know if we write just to get published, we should probably trade in the words for a few dozen skeins of yarn, or some new cookbooks. That would be so much easier. (Well, not always, not the way I knit.) I must ALWAYS keep going back to Caleb and Joshua, every time I get discouraged by the "facts" of publishing today. Trying to write so someone will like my work ties me in knots. I just realized I'd begun to change my story so it would be more sale-able, and in doing so, lost much of what made it sing in my own head. As Christians, we already have a foot up, our great God who has the last word. If we trust that He is guiding us and do our very best work, we'll have the peace it takes to both please Him and write the story He wants us to write. (Okay, you've shared in my "Sermon to Myself" this morning.) Thanks for stirring the waters, Jody, as you always do!

  30. Love the additional thoughts! Thank you, everyone, for your input!

    Paul, I agree that with everyone talking online about how hard traditional publication is, it might feel like it's gotten harder, when in reality we're giving voice to the fears that have likely always existed.

  31. Not a writing genius?? I disagree! You're extremely talented--but I get what you're saying. In the end, we have to keep writing, keep trying, and keep learning. Hopefully, perseverance pays off!


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