The University

Uncertainties among writers aiming to publish

2017-06-05

One in five people dreams of publishing a novel. At the same time, there are no hard and fast criteria for determining whether a manuscript has the proper traits for publication by an established publisher. This creates a fundamental insecurity among both aspiring writers and publishers alike, according to a new dissertation from Uppsala University.

“For unsolicited manuscripts, it’s entirely about intuition among the people who make selections at the publishing company. In my study, both writers and publishers alike occasionally wished for some kind of preconceived standard or template for a good manuscript. But no one has been able to answer which criteria apply, and they acknowledge their ignorance,” says Henrik Fürst, who defended a dissertation on the mechanisms behind opportunities for being published. 

In his dissertation, he conducted 80 interviews and used a database of over 800 writers and 150 publishing companies. The aim was to investigate how publishers and aspiring writers manage this fundamental insecurity. 

For publishers, the lack of criteria is initially problematic. In the study, they describe adopting a professional attitude in which they learn to discover unsolicited manuscripts through particular reading experiences. When asked by aspiring writers what is required, they are unable to answer. 

“It’s a little abstract. They talk about a ‘gut feeling’ and how it ‘feels right’. They describe focusing on the ‘reading experience’. Because they are unable to say directly whether or not the manuscript is good enough, the manuscript must generate certain reading experiences that ‘emerge spontaneously’. Only when they have that experience can they conclude that a manuscript is good enough to be published. Then they must find reasons to justify the publication. Those reasons will be different for a small collection of poetry and a mystery, which has completely different economic preconditions.” 


Because the publishers cannot provide any general responses to what is required, the writers must find other ways to obtain help assessing their material. They need other, reliable sources who can assess the manuscript as if it were being judged by a publishing company in order to know whether the manuscript is good enough to be published. They can find this help in two ways, according to Henrik Fürst. 

1. Individual people: this may be seeking advice from specific people with expertise in the assessment process of a publishing company, such as literary mentors, who read and discuss the manuscript in advance and offer feedback.

2. Through various competitive situations corresponding with a publishing company’s assessment: this may involve having a short piece published in a magazine, which can be used as an indication of one’s chances of having a longer manuscript accepted. Even different forms of rejections from publishing companies can be used to assess the future chances of having a manuscript accepted. 

Most people who submit manuscripts to publishing companies are refused and thus fail in their efforts to be published. Part of the dissertation is about the consequences of being judged and how people handle rejection. 

Henrik Fürst has found four different strategies, which are briefly explained here.

• Excuses: acknowledging the failure, but denying any personal responsibility; for example, blaming the fact that publishers have different criteria and simply do not know what they are doing. Or asserting that the criteria are erroneous, and that the publishers only publish celebrity authors.

• Justification: not seeing the rejection as a failure, but taking personal responsibility for its occurrence. The attempt to be published is viewed as careless, and there is now an opportunity to improve the manuscript. Or realizing subsequently that one did not want to be published. Perhaps being rejected was not such a bad thing.

• Conceding means both realizing one has failed and taking responsibility for it. This is often about getting back on one’s feet and trying to move beyond the failure. It may involve various rituals, such as burning the rejection letter or using alcohol. For others, it can be less dramatic.

• Denial involves not fully realizing or being able to take responsibility for the rejection as a failure. Writers may have been so set on being published that they simply are not prepared for rejection, which can throw them out of balance.

“There are different types of rejections and rejection letters. Being rejected and still managing to continue is a prerequisite for being able to be published. This requires a special attitude: bouncing back after failure and gathering the energy to try again. Having faith or hope in the fact that you might be published. It all depends on how you interpret the judgments,” says Henrik Fürst. 

Henrik Fürst draws two conclusions from his research.
“You might speculate about whether it’s safer for writers to self-publish in order to avoid all of the factors of insecurity. But this only transfers the fundamental problem of insecurity. Writers still need some kind of indication that a manuscript is publishable, even if they publish it themselves.” 

“I believe this pattern also exists in other contexts, for example music and sports. Think about talent shows on TV, where participants might want indications about whether or not they have what it takes to be successful, or when people want to advance in sports and ultimately play on major league teams. These criteria must also be hard to manage. For example, as a hockey scout, how do you judge whether a teenager might be a shining star someday down the road?” 


Fürst H, (2017) Selected or Rejected? Assessing Aspiring Writers’ Attempts to Achieve Publication, https://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1063342/FULLTEXT01.pdf