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Novel Survey Results, Part III

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

Last month I collected information from 246 professionally published novelists on how they made their first pro novel sale.  This was rough, Mythbusters-style science.  It’s not a perfectly controlled study, but it provided much more data than I usually see when we talk about these things.

I’m wrapping up my results, and will be working on compiling everything into a single essay, to be posted on my web site along with the raw (anonymized) data.  Today I’ll also be examining the weaknesses of my survey, as well as other data sources for those looking to learn more.

Can You Boost Your Odds?
Survey Flaws
Other Resources
Final Thoughts

 Can You Boost Your Odds?

We looked at networking and the myth that you have to know somebody in Part II.  The idea that you must have connections to break in?  Busted.  But as some people (including my agent) have pointed out, connections can still be helpful. I wanted to know what other steps authors took to try to improve their chances, and asked whether participants had done any of the following:

  • Attended conventions
  • Attended one or more writers groups
  • Earned an undergrad degree in English/Writing
  • Earned a graduate degree in English/Writing
  • Attended a weekend writing workshop
  • Attended a week-long writing workshop
  • Attended a longer writing workshop
  • None of the above 

By far, the two most popular choices were conventions and writers groups, both of which were reported by more than half of our novelists.  The least popular choice?  The graduate degree in English/Writing.  (As someone who holds an MA in English, I’m trying not to be depressed about that one.)

The full breakdown looks like so: 

Remember, this is correlative data, not causative.  However, I decided to take a look at a few more correlations, taking the writers from each of these categories and examining how many years it took to make that first pro novel sale.  I bolded the highs and lows.

Full Group: Average 11.6 years, median 10, mode 10
Conventions: Average 10.5 years, median and mode unchanged
Writers Groups: Average 10.5 years, and median drops to 9.5
Undergrad Degree: Average 9.8 years, median 6.5, mode 3.5
Graduate Degree: Average 11.8 years, median 10, mode 6
Weekend Workshop: Average 10.7, median 8.5, mode 3
Week-long Workshop: Average 10.7, median 8.5, mode 6
Longer Workshop: Average 11.6, median 10, mode 6
None: Average 15.7 years, median 15, mode 9

I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions from this, or to say that any one category will definitely help you break in.  But looking at the “None” category, I think it’s safe to say that writers who are more actively trying to get out and build their careers — in any one of a number of ways — tend to break in faster than those who aren’t.

Survey Flaws:

This was not a perfect study.  It wasn’t meant to be.  I wanted a large enough sample to start to see some trends, but I’m not qualified to run a full-scale, controlled study.  Nor do I have the time.  In the interest of full disclosure, here are the flaws I’m aware of.

1. Sample bias.  I’m a fantasy author.  When I announced the survey and asked for authors to participate, I knew the results would be heavily skewed toward SF/F writers in my network.  I did some outreach to spread the word to other writing groups and blogs, which helped, but the results are still weighted toward SF/F and may not apply as strongly to other genres.

2. Question imprecision. Several questions were imprecisely worded.  For example, one question asked “How many times, if any, was your novel rejected before it sold to a professional publisher?”  I received enough comments and questions about this, asking whether I meant publisher rejections, agent rejections, or both, that I did not include the final data in my write-up.  I’m also unhappy with one of the networking questions which asked if you were introduced/referred to your agent or editor.  “Referral” is fairly broad, and could mean everything from a personal letter of recommendation to an author saying “Oh yes, Bob’s my agent and I think he’s open to queries right now.”

3. Can’t prove cause/effect. This is a weakness of correlative data.  I think the data worked well for busting certain myths, but if I catch anyone saying things like “Jim Hines proved that if you get a degree in English, you’ll sell a novel faster,” then I will personally boot you in the head.  See here for a good example of correlation =/= causation re: pirates and global warming.

4. Limited scope. I restricted this survey to authors who had published at least one novel with a professional ($2000 or higher advance) publisher. Not everyone shares the goal of publishing professionally.  For those who prefer the small press, non-fiction, script writing, short fiction, or other forms of writing, the path to breaking in might be very different.

I’m sure there are other flaws.  However, it was my goal and my hope that even with these problems, the data I gathered would be useful in talking about how writers break in, and would be much better than the anecdotal “evidence” usually cited in such conversations.

Other Resources:

Tobias Buckell’s Author Advance Survey: Data from 108 authors about novel advances, showing trends over time and over the course of authors’ careers.

Megan Crewe’s Publishing Connections Survey: Data from 270 authors on whether you need connections to break in.  Her results tend to match my own on this one.

SFWA’s Online Information Center: Includes essays, resources, and advice for new writers from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  (Thanks to Charlie Stross for the link.)

If you have other examples of studies/resources like this, please let me know.  I’d love to have more to share for the final write-up.

Final Thoughts:

My thanks once again to everyone who participated in the study, who spread the links to other writers, and for all of the support and encouragement.  I’m quite pleased with the way this turned out, and I hope it’s helpful to others.

In conclusion (and in true Mythbusters style) I present you with this artistic rendering of my editor when she learns how much time I’ve spent on this survey instead of working on my next book:

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 52 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 24th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
The nerd in my loves the stats, and the commentary on how the survey results may be skewed. Makes me miss my poli-sci public opinion classes.
Mar. 24th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
The stats and graphs make me happy :-) Though I also had way too much fun Photoshopping together some of those blue title graphics...

I think my geekiness is showing.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
Point your grandfather to this post. My income from that year wasn't typical for me (yet), but the example might be enough to give him pause :-)
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
Great survey Jim. Thanks for doing this.
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
Jim, did you specifically mention in:

I wanted to know what other steps authors took to try to improve their chances, and asked whether participants had done any of the following:

* Attended conventions
* Attended one or more writers groups
* Earned an undergrad degree in English/Writing
* Earned a graduate degree in English/Writing
* Attended a weekend writing workshop
* Attended a week-long writing workshop
* Attended a longer writing workshop
* None of the above

When you mentioned cons, was it within the context of meeting contacts for your writing? I know that SF/F cons tend to bring out the fans as well as the professionals, so I was wondering about whether the con attending had "meeting writing contacts" as the highest priority.
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
The exact question was:

"Which of the following had you done before making your first novel sale?"

So technically, if someone had attended cons as a fan but without doing anything business-related, that would still count as a yes.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 25th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised by how good a showing "degree in writing" made.

My only college-level creative writing teacher specifically recommended against getting a degree in writing as a path to being a writer ... his belief was that you should have a more well-rounded education in order to write well.

I love these "writing life" posts, BTW. :)

-The Gneech
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
That one confuses me a little. I'd stress the correlation =/= causation rule again. It might be that the English degree is more helpful than I thought. On the other hand, it might be that the writers who are determined enough to set out and earn a degree are also more determined when it comes to submission and improving their craft. I honestly don't know.

My undergrad degree was in psych, so I can't really speak to that, but I know my MA didn't do that much to help me as a novelist, even with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
(no subject) - the_gneech - Mar. 24th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nightwolfwriter - Mar. 24th, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - the_gneech - Mar. 24th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 24th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nightwolfwriter - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Writing as a trade - eeknight - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
Now that I'm actually trying to write and worldbuild, I think I wish I'd gotten a history or anthropology degree instead of Comp Lit...
Mar. 24th, 2010 02:57 pm (UTC)
I think getting an anthropology degree was a huge help for my worldbuilding. And I think all the various literature classes I took helped me more than the writing classes.
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marthawells - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
Jim, I wanted to make sure that I mention that I really appreciate your work on this. I've been really impressed by your attempt to be as thorough as possible given what you were trying to research.

Have you thought about revisiting this survey next year so that you can obtain a broader set of data?
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm not planning to come back to redo the research any time soon, but you never know.
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
Facts. Numbers. Statistics. Correlations.

We love all this. My only complaint? I still have to sell my novel. So you'll HAVE to revisit this in the future so I can play, too! (evil grin)

Dr. Phil
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, great. Now in my mind I'm hearing Yoda's voice saying, "Facts. Statistics. A politician craves not these things."
(no subject) - georgmi - Mar. 24th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 24th, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - georgmi - Mar. 24th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - georgmi - Mar. 24th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 25th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Mar. 25th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 26th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Mar. 26th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for all the good info and fun graphics. It was interesting to see how the numbers you did get came out. But I also have to complement you on your Mythbuster style "good reason" for an explosion at the end :)
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
OK, it's early here. I need to compliment you on how your explosion complements the style of the survey.
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 24th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
Networking and conventions are indispensible. I got infinitely more real attention, feedback and sales just by setting up at a convention and making myself physically visible there than I did by using on-line promotional techniques.

The big thing about cons is that people go there, in part, to be told about stuff like this. They are in essence consenting to be advertised to about subjects relevant to their interest. This is not something we've found an elegant way to duplicate online without being intrusive and spammy.

That and being in the same room with two thousand other people at once is a high all its own.
Mar. 24th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for doing this. It gave me good feelings that what I'm already doing will work, even if it isn't what (insert published author name) did. :) The point that the only thing that will hurt progress is doing nothing is the best part. :)
Mar. 24th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome! I know it was helpful to me to realize there was no Single Right Way to break in, and that anyone who insisted I follow the One True Path to writing success was probably someone I didn't need to pay much attention to :-)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 24th, 2010 05:42 pm (UTC)
I still learn a lot from conventions. Heck, the one I went to last weekend had several tidbits of info from other writers that I'm hoping will be very useful when it comes time to pitch my next series... There's just so much to learn about this business, and the more chances I get to pick people's brains, the happier I am.
Mar. 24th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, Jim.

I should add that I have done a couple of the "odds boosting" activities, but in my opinion, none of them had a beneficial effect on my writing. The weekend workshop was pretty much a waste of time, and the BA in English was a joke. The crit group I belonged to early on was useful for breaking some bad habits, but I quit the group years before I sold anything.

The only true odds-boosting activities were writing with a critical eye and being engaged online with writers and other publishing professionals.

Mar. 24th, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)
But even if none of those activities had an impact on your career, I wonder if the fact that you were doing them connects or suggests that you were more serious about improving your craft. I.e., those activities may not directly help, but they might be signs of how determined the author is.

I've got no basis to support any of this, mind you -- just theorizing out loud.
(no subject) - burger_eater - Mar. 24th, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC)
Jim, thanks again
Jim, thanks again for all the heavy lifting on this. I think it's always good -- as word of mouth is ever-active in this business -- to have somebody stop and collect real numbers. Much obliged!
Mar. 25th, 2010 12:10 am (UTC)
Re: Jim, thanks again
I love your Milo Bloom icon.
Re: Jim, thanks again - bradrtorgersen - Mar. 25th, 2010 12:44 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 24th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
there are also really, really big differences between different mfa programs... so talking about them as a group is a little misleading, because i think there are a few that are really helpful, and a lot that kind of aren't at all.
Mar. 24th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
Definitely. A Masters from Iowa is going to be a very different experience from my MA at Eastern Michigan. But there was only so much I could do in the survey. With most of those categories, I don't know that the data I collected is really enough to say much of anything about any individual factor. Aside from the "None of the Above" option.
(no subject) - rachel_swirsky - Mar. 25th, 2010 12:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 25th, 2010 01:05 am (UTC) - Expand
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