It occurred to me recently, while refereeing a manuscript, that publication in research is a lot more forgiving than publication in fiction. I’d just read a rather long-winded introduction section and noted several grammatical errors. This is not uncommon during peer review, but it continues to surprise me. Granted, some authors may not be writing in their native language, in which case small mistakes are bound to happen (and perhaps slightly more forgivable). But often it’s just a lack of proofreading.
Competition in Science and Fiction Writing
You might be surprised to learn that the world of fiction writing is substantially more competitive than scientific publication. If this had been a short story or novel (and I an editor or first reader), that manuscript would be in the trash after the third mistake. Top scientific journals receive hundreds of submissions per month, and perhaps 10% of those will be accepted for publication. Magazines that publish fiction receive thousands of submissions per month, and less than 1% will be accepted.
One reason for this difference is the barrier to entry. Research requires equipment, funding, and expertise. The people who conduct it have generally spent two decades or more in school. And in most cases, it takes a team of such individuals to put a publication together.
Fiction writing, in contrast, has no barrier to entry. Anyone can do it, though not everyone should. High school dropouts number among the industry’s greatest successes.
Literary and Peer Review
Another important difference lies in the process of review. In science, though editors are certainly involved, your manuscript is essentially reviewed by other scientists in your field. They likely have similar qualifications as yours; they might have published similar studies in the same journal. They may very well be competing for the same research funding. But peer reviewers will make an effort to be fair, and if they don’t like your manuscript, they will tell you why. For the most part, they will be polite about it.
Publishers of fiction don’t have peer review. The first person to read your manuscript is usually someone called a “slush reader.” This is often a poorly-paid recent college graduate (and aspiring editor or publisher) whose job is simple: read everything that comes in, and reject most of it. Unless you’re a bestselling author of some renown, there are no free passes. If there are typos or grammar mistakes, or your story just doesn’t interest them, it will be turned down. Often via the dreaded “form rejection” (a generic letter along the lines of “Dear Author, thanks but no thanks”. Critique and suggestions for improvement are rare. Slush readers and editors just don’t have the time.
If you’re looking to publish a novel, you can’t even approach major publishing houses directly. First you need a literary agent. This is someone who will help you revise your manuscript and then try to find a publisher for it. Legitimate agents don’t charge anything up front; they’ll collect a 15% commission upon making the sale. But most have full client lists, and might take on one or two new authors per year.
Credibility and Track Record
Research and fiction publishing do have something in common: track records matter. Publications are everything, and the more high profile, the better. Biomedical research is a highly competitive field. We are all competing for a limited amount of research funding, and success rates for grant applications are reaching record lows. Publication and recognition directly impact our ability to obtain funding to continue research. Just as important discoveries and landmark publications bring funding opportunities and career success, a lack of thereof will have dire consequences for an investigator’s future.
In fiction writing, publication credits are equally (if not more) important. To be published indicates that you are capable of writing something that others are willing to read, and that alone is the basic qualification required for professional writers. But the odds of success are daunting. Your chances of having a short story or novel published are perhaps 1%. Your chances of being able to write for a living are much lower than that.
When all else fails, there’s something else that both researchers and authors can do. They can turn to blogging.