Publishers receive a lot of unsolicited pitches to read. Authors, for their part, want to know what magical incantations it takes to pierce the veil so as to transform a manuscript into a published book.
In preparation for our annual board-of-directors strategic planning retreat, we assembled some basic editorial statistics about inbound queries for our long-form works (novels, textbooks).
For the sake of transparency and to help you better understand how you can hone your
incantation query package, we’re offering a peek behind the curtain so you can see what happens on our end of the submission form.
Caveat: The numbers you see below do not reflect submissions to our Brewed Awakenings anthology or The 3288 Review literary journal. The journal alone sees between 200 and 300 submissions per issue; I’ll leave it to my esteemed colleague John to publish journal stats at 3288review.com if he’s so inclined.
For the 50 long-form queries we received between 1/1 and 12/4:
- 14 percent of queries were accepted for a full manuscript read. Not all of those actually received a contract offer — only 10.9 percent of currently adjudicated queries have resulted in an invitation to submit the full manuscript followed by an invitation to contract. This rate is actually very high, but it’s also a function of our relative newness in the literary marketplace, insofar as we haven’t experienced the deluge of wildly incompetent work that other publishers have complained about. I suspect that a mix of our size, age and lengthy editorial guidelines have opened us mostly to authors of a bit more serious bent.
- On average, we took 22.6 days to respond. The median response was 17.5 days. The longest response took 106 days. Two thirds of all queries received a response between 1 and 44 days.
- For rejections, the rates break down as follows:
- 38.4 percent — guidelines violation (no substantive review) — author didn’t meet minimum requirements for us to give the manuscript a fair review, usually because the required documents weren’t sent or weren’t de-identified
- 36.4 percent — “weak concept/execution” — our editors identified substantive problems with the plot, conflict, narrative arc or writing style that would prove too laborious for us to help the author to correct
- 19.6 percent — “poor fit” — material would prove too challenging for a press of our size to market effectively (e.g., novellas by out-of-state authors, fusion fiction, private story collections, chapbooks by non-local poets)
- 4.8 percent — “weak grammar/punctuation” — pervasive, basic errors in English syntax or spelling
- 0.8 percent — “withdrawn before review” — one submitter pulled the query before we had a chance to respond
- To put the above point into a different perspective: If you ignore the guidelines violations and look at only rejected works that had been fully vetted, 68 percent were rejected because of language or structure problems with the story.
- A full 40 percent of submissions reflect literary fiction. An additional 18 percent were poetry, 8 percent private anthologies and 7 percent non-fiction, leaving 27 percent for genre fiction.
- Lengths fell across the board — 52.3 percent as standard novels (50k-90k words) and 7.7 percent as long novels (90k+). Despite that our editorial guidelines are clear that long-form works of less than 50k words are a challenge, 31 percent of submissions were for short novels, novellas, novelettes or individual short stories. The remaining 9 percent? Poetry.
- Caffeinated Press emphasizes authors with a connection to West Michigan. A full 39 percent of submitters were local and an additional 17 percent professed connection through studying here or frequently visiting the area. Nearly 44 percent of submitting authors expressed no connection to the region whatsoever.
- Later in the year, we started a qualitative assessment (excellent-good-fair-poor) of the full query package, including the parts that our editorial team doesn’t see. Of the 28 packages received after this assessment started, only one rated as “excellent” for both the cover letter and the synopsis; seven were “poor” for both.
The Moral of the Story
There’s no special trick authors must play to get a fair assessment of their material. The old ground rules are still the same: Write a good cover letter. Read the editorial guidelines for every market you pitch and conform to the recipients’ standards. Have a well-prepared synopsis on hand in case you need it. Don’t pitch your stuff to a publisher or agent unless you’re sure it’s a good fit — checking catalogs helps.
Significantly, we kick out a lot of material that doesn’t even minimally conform to our technical requirements for review. Of the stuff that does get before our editors, most (a whopping 68 percent!) were rejected because of problems with the story — plot, characterization, conflict, genre conformance or other structural challenges — or because of spelling and grammar errors in the text.
A good group of seasoned beta readers will contribute significantly to your queries not landing in that unfortunate 68-percent pile.
Do these statistics seem daunting to you? I suspect you’ll find that being good at the basics of querying will help get your work reviewed, and using beta readers will see your work float closer to the top of the acceptance pile. There’s no magical incantation, just hard work.