Statistics, Writing, and Improbability

And now it’s time for an episode of fun with statistics.

The other day Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine released their publication stats for 2015.

They saw 10,700 submissions come in the door. They published 65 of those submissions.  This amounts to an acceptance rate of 0.61%. Long odds, indeed.

Sometimes I like to bring a little bit of my day job into the writing world. In this case, I thought about the submissions to F&SF as if they were a normally distributed data set along the lines of quality of submissions.

Some Saturday night Excel later, and I produced this:

Click to enlarge


Years of reading slush tells me that the quality of fiction submissions probably isn’t normally distributed. If I had to guess, it would look like this:

slush pile

Yeah yeah, the first chart looks better. It’s late and I’ve been drinking.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, the quality of submissions are normally distributed, or at least something close to it. Does such an assumption invite us to reconsider the notion of meritocracy in publishing? How does a slush reader or editor tell the difference between a story in the 98th and 99th percentile? Hell, I don’t know if I could tell the difference between a story in the 92nd percentile and the 99th percentile. Given the realities and timelines of the business, I don’t think anybody is sitting down to cook up a rubric for parsing the quality of the top-10 percent of submissions.

The point of all this is to conjecture that getting published – because nobody thinks more about getting published than a neophyte such as yours truly – probably isn’t about being good. Good doesn’t make the cut. Great probably doesn’t make the cut. The formula likely comes down to being excellent and making a slush readers and editor say, “I like this.”

Since I suspect the relationship between writers and publishers/markets buying fiction looks like this…

writers publishers

…it’s really depressing to think about the amount of rejection even great writers will face in their career if they want to see their name in print.

You may also like

The Hope that is Dilithium
Painting and such

Leave a Reply