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Novel Survey Results, Part II

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

For those of you just tuning in, last month I collected information from 246 professionally published novelists on how they made that first pro novel sale.  This is rough, Mythbusters-style science.  It’s not a perfectly controlled study, but it provides a lot more data than I usually see when we talk about these things.

Today I’m looking at two more myths about the writing process:

The Overnight Success
You Have to Know Somebody

The Overnight Success Story:

When I started writing, I figured it was easy.  I thought anyone could do it, and having zipped off my first story, I assumed that fame and fortune would soon be mine.  And why not?  How often do we see the movies where someone sits down at the computer, and after a quick writing montage, they’re winning awards, hanging with Oprah, and living the good life?

So how long does it take to break in?  Well, of our 246 authors, the average age at the time they sold their first professional novel was 36.2 years old.  The median was also 36, and the mode was 37.  Basically, the mid-to-late 30’s is a good age to sell a book.

But that doesn’t tell us how long these authors were working at their craft.  So the very next question in the survey asked, “How many years had you been writing before you made your first professional novel sale?”

The responses ranged from a single respondent who said 0 years, all the way to 41 years, with an average of 11.6 years.  Both the median and the mode came in at an even ten years.

You could argue that the single response from someone who had been writing for 0 years proves that overnight success can happen, and you’re right.  It can happen.  So can getting struck by lightning.

Here’s the breakdown in nice, graphical form:

I also asked how many books people had written before they sold one to a major publisher.  The average was between three and four.  Median was two.  I was surprised, however, to see that the mode was zero.  58 authors sold the first novel they wrote.  Still a minority, but a much larger minority than I expected.

I’m still going to call this one busted.  Not as thoroughly busted as I would have guessed, but the bottom line is that it takes time and practice to master any skill, including writing.

You Have to Know Somebody:

This one goes back to the idea that it’s nigh impossible to break in as an unknown writer.  You have to have an in.  Without those connections, editors and agents will never pay you the slightest bit of attention.

This was a little trickier to test.  I asked two questions:

1. What connections did you have, if any, that helped you find your publisher?

  • Met editor in person at a convention or other business-related event
  • Knew them personally (not business-related)
  • Introduced/referred by a mutual friend
  • Other

2. What connections did you have, if any, that helped you find your agent?

  • Met editor in person at a convention or other business-related event
  • Knew them personally (not business-related)
  • Introduced/referred by a mutual friend
  • I sold my book without an agent
  • Other

The most popular response in the “Other” category was “None” or “No connection at all.”  Ignoring the “Other” category for the moment, all other responses were selected a grand total of 162 times.  More importantly…

185 authors listed no connections whatsoever to their publisher before selling their books.  115 listed no connections at all to any agents, either.  (62 others added that they did not use an agent to sell their first book.)

Combining the agent and publisher questions, a total of 140 — more than half — made that first professional novel sale with no connections to either the publisher or the agent.

Here’s the percentage breakdown:

Met editor at a convention: 17%
Knew editor personally: 3%
Referred to editor: 11%
Met agent at a convention: 11%
Knew agent personally: 4%
Referred to agent: 21%
Did not use an agent: 25%

The “Other” categories also included a small number of authors who reported winning contests, short story sales that attracted interest, industry connections, and in one case, SFWA membership.

I couldn’t figure out how to make a nice pretty graph for this one.  My conclusion is that connections can certainly help.  Agent referrals in particular — it’s always nice to check with other authors to see who represents them, and if you can get a referral, so much the better.  But the idea that you have to have a connection?  Or even that most authors knew someone before they broke in?  That’s totally…

I’m not going to be able to get part three written up and posted before Millennicon, so look for the rest of the survey results some time next week.  And thanks to everyone for the kind comments and e-mails!

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 65 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 18th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
Jim, this is an interesting read, and I'm filing it away as reference material for any such future discussions. It's nice to have some numbers to point at, even if they are derived from Mythbusters-style science. :-)
Mar. 18th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
Next up, I build a robot to test slush-reading speed, and blow up an author to duplicate the results of ... something. I dunno. Do we really need an excuse to blow stuff up?
(no subject) - jtglover - Mar. 18th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apricot_tree - Mar. 18th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Mar. 19th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. Very interesting!
Mar. 18th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
Then, how many novels did you write first -- was that complete, ready to go novels (in the writer's opinion), or how many novels did you try to write?
Mar. 18th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
The precise phrasing was:

"How many books had you written (finished) prior to this one?"
(no subject) - marycatelli - Mar. 18th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Mar. 18th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
The myth of the young hotshot is another one that seems tangentially related to the first myth listed here. Most of the really good writers I can think of were people whose best work came only after some experience (most of Phil Dick's early novels are of strictly academic interest, IMO) or they produced said best work in their middle to later years. The problem with the "amazing young hotshot writer coming outta nowhere" scenario is that the few times it happens, the publishers jump on it and milk it for all it's worth, and soon you have way too many people who expect that -- writers included -- as a matter of course.
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
Yep. Pat Rothfuss is one who hit it out of the park with his very first novel, but he's the exception, not the rule. Only the brain is wired to remember exceptions, especially the big flashy ones, so we end up giving more weight to those rare instances.
(no subject) - kellymccullough - Mar. 18th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC)
You ought to have a Paypal tip jar so people can actually pay you for this kind of work! Thanks for your efforts on these issues.
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
Nah. I'm getting some nice and much-appreciated online buzz, which wasn't the primary goal, but I'll take it.

If you *really* want to do more, pick up one of my books and give it to someone you think will enjoy it :-)
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Mar. 19th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
Great information! I was particularly surprised--and, believe it or not, heartened--to hear that the average length of time spent writing before making a professional sale was 11 years. That suggests perseverance is key. I've been writing for 4 years and haven't sold yet, but at only 4 years I really shouldn't expect a sale.

One thing I couldn't make sense of, though, was that the average number of books written was between 3 and 4. It takes me 18 months to write and polish a novel. So after 11 years of writing, I should have 7 novels completed, not 3 or 4. (I'm currently writing my third.) Why so few novels, on average, for 11 years of writing? Perhaps it's because many of these authors focused on short fiction, or other types of writing.
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
I think it also depends on how much time they're spending on the writing, or whether they take a break and walk away for a while.

I wrote Goblin Quest in six weeks, but I had absolutely nothing else going on in my life at that time. These days it takes a year.

And like you said, a lot of people spend time on short fiction and other writing as well.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Mar. 18th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - otterdance - Mar. 18th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellymccullough - Mar. 18th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - amy34 - Mar. 18th, 2010 08:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Mar. 18th, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - amy34 - Mar. 18th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 10:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 09:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Mar. 18th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC)
The responses ranged from a single respondent who said 0 years, all the way to 41 years, with an average of 11.6 years. Both the median and the mode came in at an even ten years.

Wow, I don't feel like so much of a failure now. :D Thanks for that.
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
I normally try not to tell people how to feel, but stop that -- you're not a failure. This stuff is hard, and we all struggle. I spent yesterday showing a class of 5th graders my stack of 500+ rejection letters :-)

I was surprised at how well this result matched my own experience. Ten years almost on the dot.
(no subject) - celestineangel - Mar. 19th, 2010 12:32 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
Jim, is there a corollary between a first sale without an agent and the year when the first sale occured?
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
I would have checked, but I was too busy Photoshopping Oprah onto my blue title graphics.

(There's a lot more I'd love to check in terms of correlations and such, but I'm not sure how much I'll get to. Worst case, I'll be posting the data file at the end of this, so people will be welcome to run with it and analyze things I might have missed!)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 18th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
I think you forgot to finish your answer to the first part of this post. The one with Oprah? Are you a failure if your first book isn't an instant bestseller? Isn't that what's supposed to happen?

No. Instant bestseller/riches beyond the dreams of avarice is rare, an outlier on the graph. Most writers keep their day jobs. Some of us manage to make a modest living by working damn hard. Does that make us not 'real' writers? No, it does not.

You have to be realistic. Anyone who goes into writing for the instant money and the fame is 98% destined for disappointment (a number I pulled out of a hat, but probably not far off the mark. Jim?).

When people ask me what it's like, being published, how my life changed, I borrow from an old Buddhist saying. "Before publishing: chop wood, carry water. After publishing, chop wood, carry water." I don't mean to downplay it too much. I love what I do. I feel fortunate every day, no matter how much I might bitch and whine at times (another perk of being a writer; we get to whine). It's a wonderful, challenging, sometimes frustrating pursuit and I'm not going to lie to you about the kick it gives me when someone asks me to sign a dog earred, well-loved copy of my books. But it's work, and it's not the glamorous montage you see in most movies for most of us. My two favorite movie depictions are the opening of "Adaptation" and "Shakespeare in Love."

(Sorry, didn't mean to go on so. I just got tired of my family wondering if something was wrong whenI wasn't instantly as rich and famous as Stephen King.)

Edited at 2010-03-18 04:45 pm (UTC)
Mar. 18th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
D'oh! You're right. I didn't actually include any questions in the survey about what happens *after* you sell the first book, and how long it takes to become Oprah-famous. I was amusing myself by putting Oprah into the blue graphic, but it does suggest I'm going to talk about that part of the overnight success story too.

Bad Jim.

Tobias Buckell's first advance survey might be a good one for me to reference when I do the final, big write-up. That shows how much money you actually make on the first novel sale, and he's got some data on subsequent sales in there too I believe.

My coworkers still expect me to quit my day job every time a book comes out. I think I've got *some* of them trained so they'll stop asking me about movie deals, at least...
Mar. 18th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
Did you notice that your 'years before publication' result neatly mirrors the Gladwell Outliers "ten years to mastery" figure? Pretty cool.

I would be curious, referencing your previous poll results, how many of those 58 authors who sold their first novel had previously published short fiction at a pro or semi-pro level. I don't think that there are necessarily any hard and fast rules for these kinds of statistics, but I remain a big proponent of short story writing as part of the most-expedient-learning process.
Mar. 18th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
I think this is going to vary by genre and subgenre, though. There are very, very few markets for short stories in romance or in historical fiction, for instance, and I'm not sure if there are any markets for short stories in Westerns anymore.
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 18th, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jessaslade - Mar. 19th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for another great post. I love seeing the myths busted :)
Mar. 18th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
This is pretty similar to the results of Megan Crewe's publishing survey, where the majority of sales also didn't result from any connection.
Mar. 18th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC)
Yep! Megan's is one I plan to link to when I finish the write-up. I want to be able to direct people to other sources of data, and her survey is a great one to include.
Mar. 18th, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC)
I was one of the people who had a little trouble answering questions, esp the "How many books..."

I wrote scripts for years, optioned one or two of them and semi-finalled in the Nichols (not easy to do). I even made a little (unreleased, undistributed) movie. But should I have counted those? It's not prose fiction, but it is story telling.

I suspect my answer (2 books) was a little misleading.
Mar. 18th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
SFWA is having similar issues as we talk about game publishers/writers, trying to decide what counts as a book. One of the nice things about getting so many responses is that no single outlier is going to have much of an impact. (If I phrase a question badly and skew the results, that's another matter ... and that's one of the reasons I didn't yet report anything about the number of rejections people got, even though I had a question about it.)
(no subject) - burger_eater - Mar. 18th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - longstrider - Mar. 19th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
Hi Jim! I'm one of the authors who answered your survey, and I love seeing the results. Yes, although I sold the first novel I wrote, I was also published and prize-winning in poetry, and had the advantage of working with a co-author (who had also previously sold articles to well-known trade magazines). So, good points about prior writing/publishing experience being contributory factors.

Ultimately, writing toward publication is hard work - which this survey pretty much bears out. Thanks for putting together the info. :)

-Anthea Lawson
Mar. 18th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
Hi Anthea, and thanks! I really appreciate everyone who took the time to do the survey. It makes the results a lot stronger.

It definitely makes sense that prior experience could help with the learning curve. The frustrating thing about all of this is now that I'm playing with the data, I've got about a hundred other questions I want to go back and ask the authors so I can get even more!
Mar. 18th, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
I came across this in the introduction to Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:

"In a complex world where people can be atypical in an infinite number of ways, there is great value in discovering the baseline. And knowing what happens on average is a good place to start. By so doing, we insulate ourselves from the tendency to build our thinking...on exceptions and anomalies rather than on reality."

Too many people remember the "get rich quick" stories or the "knew a guy who knew a guy" stories and don't think about the average or the baseline. Thanks for doing this survey.
Mar. 18th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
I like that. Yeah, psych classes were a long time ago, but I remember reading about how we tend to place more emphasis on the unusual, so those rare events actually get more weight in our minds, which leads to all sorts of mental distortions. It's helpful to remember that those are the exceptions.

I still fall in to that trap sometimes though, like when one of my friends shows up with an exceptionally good novel deal :-)
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