Rejection over Acceptance:The Peter M. Ball Ratio

3 02 2013

So my last post was about my new favorite rejection from the kindly ones over at I can honestly say that the rejection they sent me did more to reboot my submission efforts than the last three sales I made put together. Partly it’s due to timing and partly to the fact that it’s, well, it’s Tor. So at the end of the post I mentioned that I wanted to get some input from writers I admire as to their submission/sale ratios and all the nuances that go along with the process of putting your work out there. My “please write my blog for me” requests went out to two people, Peter M. Ball (because I wish I was him) and Maggie F.N. Slater (because she’s my only friend).

I will start with Pete’s response. I think it highlights the type of submission habits that have made Pete one of the great rising stars in the genre, that and the fact that his writing is just fantastic (BASTARD!). So without further ado, here is how Mr. Ball shops his work. Read carefully and perhaps you too can become a household name (even if it’s just in my house).

Peter writes:

“…So the topic du-jour rejection ratios and how I get up in the morning? In answer to the first part: I have no idea. In answer to the second part: very slowly, and usually only when lured forth by coffee. My natural state is staying up until three in the mornings.

There are plenty of things I track quite scrupulously in relation to my writing career. Submissions, despite my answer above, are actually one of those things. The problem simply lies in what I’m tracking and how.

For example, I can give you more-or-less accurate stats for submissions to open call anthology markets and short-story magazines, ’cause up until December of last year I was tracking all of that via Duotrope. I just fired up the excel back-up I downloaded before the Duotrope pay wall came down and it looks like I’ve got a total of 27 stories recorded there, covering everything from flash pieces I wrote very early on to novelette length work I shopped around. I’ve made 142 submissions to magazines and open anthology calls, and racked up 23 acceptances.

So in terms of the ratio you’re tracking that’s, what, one acceptance for every six mail-outs? One for every seven? I could get out a calculator and get that exactly for you, but already I’m looking at that number and I know it’s wrong. In fact, it’s kinda bullshit.

Lets take a closer look at those stats: Of those acceptances, there are 12 that were accepted within the first 5 submissions; I’m pretty happy with that, although one was a story exactly twenty-five words long that I wrote and submitted to prove a point. Four of my acceptances took over 10 submissions before they were accepted, getting rejected again and again for a period of two years before someone finally said yes.

Worse, I’ve recorded fewer submissions as the years go on. Truth is, I’d be much happier if I was clocking up more rejections these days – it’d mean I was writing more, submitting more, and generally doing all the things I’m meant to be doing as a writer. To put things into perspective: 135 of my 142 submissions were made prior to 2010. I submitted exactly 2 stories to open markets in 2011, and all my 2012 submissions were made in the last four months of the year.

Not that I’ve been lazy for the last few years (well, not *entirely*). I’ve written and sold a handful of stories that didn’t make it into my Duotrope tracking ’cause they were to invitation-only anthologies. Or ’cause they were part of my story series for The Edge of Propinquity in 2011, which I sold on spec on the basis of a series pitch back in 2010.

Still, compared to the massive tear I went on between 2007 and 2010, I feel pretty damn slow and sluggish.

Here are some other things that don’t appear in my tracking document: years of submitting poetry and getting rejected; years of submitting scripts and getting rejected; years of submitting short stories to markets that aren’t SF markets and getting rejection. Three years where I didn’t submit anything, ’cause I was working on a thesis I didn’t end up finishing. Years when I disappeared into the d20 RPG boom and worked like a bastard, simply ’cause I loved gaming and suddenly you could make some cash writing gaming things and self-publishing it.

The excel file I used to gather my statistics covers about six years, from February of 2007 up until December of last year. Six years that are among my most successful, I’ll admit, but still just six years out of the eighteen I’ve devoted to writing.

I mean, one acceptance for every six rejections over those six years? I like those stats. They make me feel all warm and glowy and vaguely competent at this writing gig. Unfortunately, I’m acutely aware that whatever marginal level of success I’ve achieved – and believe me, there are days when it feels pretty damn marginal – it’s not a complete picture.

I’d love to give you overall career stats, but unfortunately I started this gig back when it was easier to track stuff on paper than a computer, so I’d have to spend about forty-eight hours trawling through the stuff I’ve got in storage to find the submission logs.

Instead, I’ll just ask you to take it on faith: I got rejected a whole damn lot. Most of the time people were pretty nice about it. Sometimes, they weren’t. There are two, in particular, that stick in my mind: a rejection that basically wrote off of my first SF short stories with the dismissal that there was nothing in my fiction they couldn’t get from listening to a Morrissey album; my first failed university assignment where a tutor rejected my script as callow slapstick with no real redeeming features.

That first rejection sent me away from writing SF for a few years. Not because it hurt, just because I only knew of two SF markets at the time, and I figured there was more productive methods of using my writing time.

The second one, well, I kept writing shitty scripts and eventually I wrote some less shitty scripts and at some point someone picked them up and made a couple of plays from them. And then I realised that I wasn’t a big fan of writing theatre scripts, ’cause I’m something of a control freak and I had no desire to direct. That said, the guy who told me I wrote callow slapstick became my thesis supervisor after I stuck around in writing classes, kept turning in work, and generally made it apparent to everyone that I wasn’t going away so they should probably just teach me how to write.

Which brings me to the getting up the morning part, I guess, and the other reason charting my acceptance ratio is probably a waste of time.

No two writers follow the same path. They don’t their craft in the same way.

This, I think, is the problem with submission stats: they don’t take into account the fact that every writing career is different and every writer develops in different ways. My one-in-six hit rate is the result of a lot of rejection in the twelve years prior, a lot of study, and a life where I more-or-less decided I had no interest in a job that wasn’t writing and therefore avoided full-time work until I was thirty-five or so.

Most of that time was spent doing sessional work for universities, which is basically twenty-six weeks a year where you work a single twelve-hour day every week and get paid really, really well. The other twenty-six weeks of the year are spent scrambling to pay rent. Even that was designed to advance my writing in some way: I’d routinely get given a pile of 100 short stories to mark and comment on. You read a lot of terrible stories doing that, and you have to figure out a way to tell every single student how to make their terrible story better.

That did a lot to improve my writing. Probably more than it did for the students, to be honest.

People never used to believe me when I told them I was a really slow writer. Largely this is ’cause I had a whole lot of time devoted to writing, and a stubborn refusal to give up on anything. If you changed the ratio we were measuring to writing-time-versus-acceptances, I’d be in all kinds of trouble. It’s also why, as I’ve slowly become more enthused by my day job over the last two years, my output has dropped dramatically.

Getting up in the morning is actually kind of easy: this is what I do. I don’t mean that in the cranky way writers usually do, where they sit there and say you have to love it and want to do it more than anything; if you can do anything else, you probably should.

That, I think, is bullshit. I like to own my decisions in this respect: I could have done plenty of other things with my life. There were a handful of times where I actually thought about it. Every time, I figured writing was worth it. It was an active choice to say this is what I’m doing with my life, no matter what.

I write for two reasons: to be read, and to be paid. Editors have to say yes for either of those things to happen, but I have no control over that. All I can do is put as much of my best work out there as I can so there’s plenty of opportunities for them to say yes, this one, we’ll take it and we’ll send you a cheque.

In that respect, rejection doesn’t bother me. It’s a sign that I’m doing my job.

And I really like my job, even if I’m not a morning person.”


And that my friends, is how he does it. I must admit that I picked up some real solid tips from this. So I want you all to thank Mr. Ball by visiting his site and telling him how great he is. Also I want to collectively mourn Duotrope and the economic reality of E-commerce. I used that site like a hypocrite uses the bible and now I have to pay for it. I haven’t yet, but I really should.

Next up: what Maggie has to say.

Keep submitting and never… submit????

Andrew C. Porter

The Science of Fiction

Enjoy the puppy bowl




One response

10 11 2015
KPIs and Writing Data | Man Versus Bear

[…] not alone in this. I spent much of the recent guest-post I wrote for the Science of Fiction about acceptance ratios trying to articulate why it was the wrong question to ask, and I’m […]

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