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Novel Survey Results, Part I

Update: The full survey results and the raw data are now posted at http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results/

Last month, I began collecting information from professionally published novelists.  The goal of the survey was to learn how writers broke in, and to use actual data to confirm or bust some of the myths about making it as a novelist.

My thanks to everyone who participated, as well as the folks at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Book View Cafe, SFWA, SF Novelists, Absolute Write, and everyone else who helped to spread the word.

The survey closed on March 15, 2010 with 247 responses.  There’s a great deal of information here, so I’ll be breaking the results into several blog posts.  At the end, I’ll combine everything into one big write-up and post it on the web site for future reference.

So let’s bust some writing myths.  Today I’ll be looking at:

The Raw Data
Short Story Path to Publication
Self-Publishing Your Breakout Novel

The Raw Data:

For this study, I was looking for authors who had published at least one professional novel, where “professional” was defined as earning an advance of $2000 or more.  This is an arbitrary amount based on SFWA’s criteria for professional publishers.  No judgment is implied toward authors who self-publish or work with smaller presses, but for this study, I wanted data on breaking in with the larger publishers.

247 authors from a range of genres responded.  One was eliminated because the book didn’t fit the criteria (it was for a nonfiction title).  A random audit found no other problems.  The results were heavily weighted toward SF/F, which is no surprise, given that it was a fantasy author doing the study.  But I think we’ve got a respectable range here:

The year in which authors made their first sale covered a range of more than 30 years, with the earliest being 1974.  The data is heavily weighted toward the past decade.

When I do the final write-up, I’ll also include a spreadsheet of the raw data (with all identifying information stripped out).

So there’s the background information in a nutshell.  With that out of the way, let’s get to the first myth…

The Short Story Path to Publication:

I received a great deal of contradictory advice about how to break in, back in the late 90s.  Many writers told me you had to sell short stories first to hone your craft and build a reputation so agents and editors would pay attention to you.  Others told me this was outdated, and these days you could skip short fiction if you wanted and just jump straight into novel writing.

So do you have to sell short fiction first?  I asked how many short stories people sold, if any, before making that first professional novel sale.  Answers ranged from 0 all the way to 400 short fiction sales.  On average, authors sold 7.7 short stories before selling the novel.

Next I looked at the median, the midway point in our sample.  The median number of short fiction sales was 1, meaning half of the authors sold more than this many, and half sold fewer.

But let’s make this even simpler.  Of our 246 authors, 116 sold their first novel with zero short fiction sales.

Possible Data Quality Issue: The question was “How many short fiction sales, if any, did you have before making your first professional novel sale?”  Several authors noted that they only included “professional” short fiction sales, which might reduce the numbers.  But even so, the idea that you must do short fiction first?  Totally busted.  Not only that, but looking at a scatterplot of the number of short fiction sales and the year of the first novel sale, this appears to be busted going back at least 30 years.

I do believe that short fiction sales can help an author.  One author noted that they were contacted directly by an editor who had read the author’s short fiction and wanted to know if the author had a novel.  Personally, I found that short fiction helped me a lot with certain aspects of the craft.  And of course, a lot of us just enjoy writing short stories.

Self-Publishing Your Breakout Novel:

For as long as I’ve been writing, some authors have been announcing the death of traditional publishing.  Especially with the growth of print-on-demand and electronic publishing, I hear that self-publishing is the way to go.  The idea is that if you self-publish successfully, you’ll attract the notice of the big publishers and end up with a major contract, like Christopher Paolini did with Eragon.

One of the survey questions asked how authors sold their first novel to a professional publisher.  The options were:

  • Self-published, then sold the book to a professional publisher
  • Published with a small press, then sold the book to a professional publisher
  • Submitted directly to a professional publisher, who bought it
  • Submitted to an agent, who sold the book to a professional publisher
  • Other

To those proclaiming queries and the slush pile are for suckers, and self-publishing is the way to land a major novel deal, I have bad news: only 1 author out of 246 self-published their book and went on to sell that book to a professional publisher.  There was also 1 “Other” response where the author published the book on his web site and received an offer from a professional publisher.  (It should be noted that this author already had a very popular web site, which contributed to the book being noticed and picked up.)

Just to be safe, I ran a second analysis, restricting the results to only those books that sold within the past five years.  PoD is a relatively new technology, so it’s possible the trends have changed.  But after looking at the data, the results are pretty much identical.

This does not mean self-publishing can never succeed, or is never a viable option.  (I.e., please don’t use this as an excuse for a “Jim hates self-publishing” rant.)  However, for those hoping to leverage self-published book sales into a commercially published breakout book (a la Eragon), the numbers just aren’t in your favor.  For the moment at least, the traditional pathways — submitting to an agent, submitting directly to the publisher — still appear to be the way to go.

Thus ends part 1 of our episode.  Tune in soon, when we take on the myth of overnight success, and the myth that you have to know somebody in order to break in.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


Mar. 16th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
I was told that the difference between writing a short story and a novel was so profound, the short story form is not a stepping stone to novels, that if you want to write novels, you simply do it.

I used to buy that. But for someone like me, who has a helluva time with plot, I needed to learn plotting in a microcosm before I could work with it on a novel scale. Just a datapoint...
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
I do think there's a lot you can learn from writing short fiction. But in the end, writing short fiction doesn't teach you how to write a novel. (Or the other way around, for that matter.)
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
True. It's just one of those, "This is not true for all writers," kinds of things.
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
I'm of the opinion that some people gravitate more readily to one or the other form. Over time their gravitation may change, of course.
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Over time their gravitation may change, of course.

(Looks sadly at waistline)

Yes, yes it may.
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
That's my feeling, as well. In my case, there was no real reason to learn short fiction since there was not a market for it and I didn't read it. Friends who published mysteries and short stories in mystery anthologies told me to advise my students that there is only one reason to write short stories, and that is because you love them. That the limited opportunities for publication limits your potential to sell them to such a degree, that your efforts are better spent learning and writing the novel form.

Unless you do love short stories, and then that is the only reason you need.

Would you agree with that advice? Is it different in sff?
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
It's not necessarily different...
I tried writing a novel write off the bat, and was literally on the couch moaning in despair and trying not to cry because I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do to make the novel work with my plot. So, I wrote short stories for a couple of years, because at least I could see my way through them from the front door. And, wrote lots of half novels that I abandoned--over and over and over.

I noticed that my wordcount increased as I went. I first wrote 2k-3k word stories. Then 4-5k. And so on, until I was into novella territory on a regular basis. After that, I went on to novels.

Sci-fi/fantasy has the benefit of all those thriving markets (in spite of the "death of short fiction"), so at least I sold as I wrote. But having written romance, too, I do know that there aren't many/any markets for it, and I probably would have revised my strategy if I'd had no sales outlets so readily available.

But, all that said, I do NOT love short stories. I really, really, really don't. And was very relieved to go on to novels, once I had learned what I needed to learn from them. That said, I've written some I'm quite proud of, and think that they were a valuable step in my learning process.
Mar. 16th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: It's not necessarily different...
If you ever figure out how to boil down the "and then novels happen" into something you can transmit to, say, me, I'd love to absorb it. (I figure this is osmotic knowledge, right? Sigh.)
Mar. 16th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC)
Re: It's not necessarily different...
A question: are your short stories getting longer or staying the same length?
Mar. 16th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
I tend to tell my fantasy writing students that if they can write short stories there's an enormous amount to be learned from doing do, but if they can't not to sweat it. That's based on my experience of writing 3 novels then 40-50 short before returning to novels. The skills weren't identical but I felt that what I learned from the shorts had a huge amount to do with my ability to write salable novels.
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
I have a hell of a time with plot, too. Always did. But I just struggled along with it and wrote novels, because that was my only interest. (In fact, I still have to work really hard at plotting, after publishing several and writing a number of screenplays with some small success.)

If I'd had an interest in short stories I might have tried some, but I didn't, so there ya go.
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
I have a tough time with plot as well. What I ended up doing was writing a novel with a complicated plot to force myself to tackle the demon. It sold, so I guess it helped (I won't say "worked" because plot is something I can stil stumble over if I am not careful).

I learned long ago I am not a short story writer. My only pro short story sale happened 10 years before I sold my novel. I had a couple other story sales in there to small markets, but they were commissioned, so I had to write them. For the most part I don't think economically enough in terms of story arc to pull off short stories. That said, I think they can be a wonderful training ground for people who have the facility, patience or love of the form to pull them off. That just ain't me. :)
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
The best books on plot I ever read were always screenwriting books. Even though I'd already published five novels before I ever read one, I still believe everything I know about plotting, I learned studying screenwriting. And now I'm pulling it into play for my novels. Funny how that works out.


Jim C. Hines


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