1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.
Since earning an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest, I have begun sending out my stories to various fiction markets. Like most aspiring science fiction authors, I am also beginning to accumulate my fair share of rejections.
In a vacuum, these rejections can be extremely discouraging. Fortunately, a rudimentary knowledge of statistics and a slavish dedication to Heinlein’s business habits can make the sting of these rejections much easier to put into perspective.
As in any profession, editors can sometimes exhibit herd-like behavior. In other words, they are more likely to back authors whom other editors have published. This behavior is one of the reasons it is so hard for aspiring writers to break into the business (in addition to inexperience). After all, why should editors risk their careers on some unknown, when they can back a different author whose subjective writing style another editor has validated, especially if that author has an established fan base?
Christie Yant at Inkhaven provides an interesting perspective on the sheer volume of submissions that science fiction and fantasy markets like Lightspeed see in any given month vs. the number of stories these magazines are able to purchase. She argues that the only way an editor will choose to purchase a story is only if it is “one of the editor’s two to five absolute favorite stories.” The problem here is that aspiring authors will never know the quality of the competition at the time they submit their own stories.
Given the unknowable factors of a particular editor’s tastes and the quality of competing stories, there are only two things an aspiring author can really do to improve his or her chance of success: 1) write well and 2) be persistent. While statistics cannot tell us very much about writing well, it can tell us a great deal about the power of persistence.
At first glance, the probability of getting a short story published is intimidating. For instance, Christie Yant suggested that Lightspeed purchases between two and five stories out of a field of 400 each month. In other words, the probability that magazine rejects any given story is between 98.8% and 99.5%. Most top-selling science fiction and fantasy magazines presumably have similar odds. The chart below shows some recent Duotrope statistics for twenty-six science fiction and fantasy markets sorted by fastest to slowest response time:
It is important to note that Duotrope tends to underestimate the probability of acceptance for many of these markets because the data is self-reported. For example, the probability of rejection for the Writers of the Future Contest is far too low on Duotrope because many contestants erroneously record Honorable Mention, Semifinalist, and unpublished Finalist awards as an acceptance when their work for that quarter will never be published in the contest’s annual anthology.
Regardless, one can use these numbers as a basic proxy for how long it might take for a new author to get published. The probability that at least one of these twenty-six editors will want to purchase it (provided it is a good story, of course) is equal to:
1 – [(Probability of Rejection in Market 1) x (Probability of Rejection in Market 2) x … x (Probability of Rejection in Market 26)]26.
So, if one were to send this story to all of these markets, one’s probability of acceptance would rise from just 0.9% in one market (take Analog for instance) to 78.0% in at least one of the twenty-six. Unfortunately, an author can only submit this one story to only one market at any given time since most markets prohibit simultaneous submissions. Using the average reported response times in Duotrope shows that it could take as long as almost four years for at least one editor to accept one’s submission.
To reduce the number of days to getting an acceptance, it helps to have more stories in circulation. Again, the math is compelling. The probability that at least one of these twenty-six editors will want to purchase one or more of an author’s n stories is equal to:
1 – [(Probability of Rejection in Market 1) x (Probability of Rejection in Market 2) x … x (Probability of Rejection in Market 26)](26 x n).
The following graph shows the power of persistence in practice. To wit, an author has a 99.9% chance of publishing at least one short story in slightly less than a year if he or she has 20 stories in circulation vs. almost three years with five stories in circulation.
In essence, the age-old adage applies: you can’t win if you don’t play. The more you play, the greater the likelihood you will eventually win.