The Irony of Impossible

One of the most daunting things about trying to get published has got to be reading all those odds that say it’s impossible to get published. My emotional self remembers hearing some of these numbers, and they feel like doomsday statistics:

  • Agents reject 99% of everything they read.
  • Editors pass on a large majority of what agents send them.
  • Fiction, especially debut fiction, almost never gets picked up, unless your platform is already incredibly strong. Things that help your chances include: a fan base of 25,000 daily blog readers; a syndicated TV show; your own theme song in the Billboard Top 100; a flag representing your brand in the League of Nations.

Guest column by Kirk Farber, author of
Postcards from a Dead Girl (Harper
Perennial, Feb. 2010) which was an
“Indie Next” selection for March 2010,
and also a Denver local bestseller. He
lives and writes in Colorado, and can
be found online at


But how is an unknown author supposed to achieve this kind of popularity? It’s a Catch-22: you can’t get published unless you’ve already been published. This leads many to believe that the world of publishing is hyper-exclusive—a sort of gated community with a limited number of keys. Or that the industry is actually populated by aliens who can smell your human scent through paper and email and will therefore know to shred or delete your manuscript immediately upon arrival.

All kidding aside, these numbers can be a formidable mental and emotional wall to climb.


I received the best advice about this particular struggle by listening to a newly published author speak at a book signing. His tactic, and one I also find particularly successful, is to ignore the statistics. Treat writing like any other job, and improve your odds by getting better at your craft. Build your résumé by starting with smaller publications, and consider entering contests while working on your longer work. If you need to focus on a number, make it the number one—it takes one person of influence to see promise in your work. The rest is noise.

The irony I’ve learned about all those “it’s-impossible-to-get-published” numbers out there is that as soon as you do get a manuscript published, a whole new set of numbers defies everything you’ve come to believe. Suddenly you learn that not only do writers get published regularly, but upwards of 500 books get published every day. In fact, there are so many books getting published so often, that chances are your book will be ignored amidst the cacophony of printing machines, shipping trucks, and cash registers.

The new stats present themselves:

  • Only 10% of first-time authors actually sell through their advance.
  • Only 8% of published writers make a living through writing alone.
  • Knock that down to 1% for a comfortable living.

Whew, that’s a lot of math.

The good news is that for many writer types, numbers have always been a lot of noise anyway. Most of us fiction writers love using language and characters to try to make sense of the world through stories. And we nonfiction writers are often driven to share information, increase awareness, or otherwise educate readers.

So whether it’s the wise move of career-minded authors or just plain naiveté, I hope we can all ignore the numbers and continue to work on the words. Ultimately we need to decide what to focus on: fear-inducing statistics, or love of writing?

Need to sharpen the beginning of your novel?
Check out the great resource Hooked, which is
all about writing an excellent Chapter 1.


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4 thoughts on “The Irony of Impossible

  1. Lisa Lane

    I love your spirit and your attitude. Truly, it is a passion for writing–that deep and undying love of the written word–that keeps us all going. Forget the statistics and do what you love to do. Love it. Bravo.

  2. Kristan

    Oy, haha, probably didn’t need to see all those numbers… but you’re right, that was always a bunch of noise. The key is to keep your eye on the prize. (And a low-key, flexible day job doesn’t hurt either…)


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