Requests for data on first novel sales frequently turn up in Writer Beware’s email. What’s the average advance for a first novel? How long does it take the typical first novel to sell? Do most first novelists sell their books on their own, or through an agent? Will publishers and agents consider first novelists who don’t have any short fiction publication credits?
The quick response to all these questions is that “average” and “typical” are hard to quantify. From advances to time spans, individual experiences are all over the map. But that’s not really a helpful answer to writers wondering about what they can expect from a first novel sale. Concrete information is much more useful.
Hard data on first novel sales is difficult to come by–but it does exist, if only in limited and fragmentary form. There’s SF author Tobias Buckell’s survey of first-novel advances in the speculative fiction field. Romance author Brenda Hiatt’s Show Me the Money lists advances paid by major US romance publishers for first novels and others. YA author Justine Larbalestier’s essay on first novel advances provides interesting information, as does this article from the Guardian on first novel advances in the UK (which also touches on how receiving a very large advance may harm a writer’s career if his or her book fails to perform). And another first novel survey, by YA author Megan Crewe, shows, among other things, that authors don’t need special contacts or connections to land a reputable agent or publisher.
The most recent addition to this slim store of data comes from fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who just posted the final results of his own first novel survey. Since Jim wanted data on breaking in with the larger publishers, he limited his survey to authors who had received advances of at least $2,000 for their first novels. He received 247 responses from writers in a variety of genres, most of whom had broken in within the past five years.
Jim acknowledges that the survey has some flaws (including sample bias–the majority of respondents are spec fic authors–and the survey’s small size). Even so, his information is fascinating, not least because it punctures several writing myths and goes against some conventional wisdom.
– “You can’t get published without an agent, but you can’t find an agent unless you’re published,” goes a common lament among new writers. And indeed, writing pundits and how-to-write books often advise writers to sell short stories before attempting to market a novel. Not only does this help writers hone their craft, the theory goes, but agents and editors will look on aspiring authors more favorably if they’re already published. But of the 247 respondents in Jim’s survey, 116 sold their first novels with zero short fiction publication credits. (I, too, had no short fiction credits when I sold my first novel. In fact, I had no publication credits at all.)
Can short fiction credits help? Jim believes they can, and I agree (as long as the credits are in reputable venues). But as this survey shows, they are by no means essential. So if you’re like me and just don’t find short fiction writing congenial, you don’t have to torture yourself.
– Just over half of the respondents sold their first novels through agents. (Me too.) That means just under 50% sold directly to their publishers. Does this contradict the idea that an agent is essential for a first novel sale to an advance-paying publisher?
Not really. The results look different if you consider the decade in which the books were sold. Author Steven Saus’s more detailed analysis of Jim’s data reveals that, while direct-to-publisher sales outnumbered agented sales 55% to 45% in the 1980’s, by the 2000’s direct-to-publisher sales had dropped to 27%, and agented sales had jumped to 67%. This reflects the one of the major shifts in publishing that has occurred over the past 30 years, with agents taking on the gatekeeping function that was formerly carried out by editors.
– All over the internet, self-publishing advocates are telling writers that self-publishing is the right way to start their careers. If you can drive your self-published novel to success, a bigger publisher may take notice and pick it up. And indeed this does happen, with Christopher Paolini being an oft-cited example. The truth, however, is that self-publishing success is rare. Jim’s survey confirms that–only one respondent self-published a book and later sold it to a larger publisher.
– What about small presses as a way to break in? The data here isn’t great either–approximately 10 respondents published first with a small press, and later sold the book to a larger house. However, Steven Saus’s breakdown of sales by genre reveals the growing market presence of small presses over the past ten years, and I wonder whether a survey of second novel sales might paint a more encouraging picture of small press publication as a stepping stone to bigger publishers.
– Writers dreaming of overnight success should get set for a long haul. The time it took respondents to sell their first novels ranged from 0 to 41 (!) years, but the average was just over 11 years. (It took me 8).
– “You’ve got to know someone.” The notion that you have to be connected to find a reputable agent or publisher is a particularly common writer’s myth. But, as in Megan Crewe’s survey, more than half of Jim’s respondents sold their first novels without having any connections to either their agents or their publishers. (Ditto for me.)
If you’re aware of any other surveys or data covering first novel sales, please post them here.
I really enjoyed the discussion on publishing. It covered almost everything. Traditional publishing, and publishing houses, are commonly now said to be dying, and will not exist too far into the future. Why does anyone need them? everyone asks.
The various comments made suggest we still do., at least for a while yet. I'm hoping my publisher will be around for a little la while longer since I have to give them right of first refusal with my novel (I have already published three books of non-fiction – which doesn't necessarily give me credit since what I'll be offering is a different genre.)
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Thanks for an excellent article – not very encouraging though for someone who has just completed his first novel though!
I was on some self-publishing lists with Christopher Paolini's father way back when. When his books were self-published, his parents were doing his marketing (very aggressively) and book production; I don't know if they were also doing his editorial work. The parents also brokered his sales to a mainstream publisher, as far as I know. In other words, the teenage Christopher was by no means going it alone.
The whole concept of "breaking into mainstream publishing" is not very solid. A fair number of writers write both fiction and nonfiction, self-publish and also publish with larger publishers, and generally go back and forth. It often depends on what they want to do at the time, rather than dutifully piling up credits of a certain kind, then moving permanently on to something "bigger."
Sure, publication credits help. Editorial contacts can help–at one publishing house where I was an editor, we had several writers who had been editors on staff, and that absolutely helped them sell their books to that publisher. But what you really need is a good book with a viable market.
In the survey, I was not clear on whether people who took ten years to sell their first book, spent part of that time writing the book. I also was not clear on whether they were constantly selling it for ten years, or whether they put it away for some years, then sold it later when the market for it was better. I wasn't clear on whether they were writing full time, or selling full time, or put a couple of hours a week into writing and/or selling for ten years.
I think the survey was a good idea, but to me the time spent learning how to write well is a distinctly different thing from marketing.
Anton Gully wrote: "The truth, however, is that self-publishing success is rare."
As is traditional publishing success
Anton, you're missing the point.
A) "Self-publishing success" a la E. Lynn Harris or James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) is defined as "parlaying one's self-published book into a contract with a major publisher."
B) 99%+ of the authors with contracts with major publishers got said contracts without previously self-publishing.
C) Therefore, logic would suggest that self-publishing is a much harder way to achieve mainstream publishing success than doing what J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Dan Brown, and other bazillion-sellers have done–querying agents, securing representation, and having one's agent sell one's book to a publisher.
I mean, yeah, you can get a contract with a major publisher by self-publishing and spending tens of thousands of dollars and months or years of your life promoting your work. But the vast majority of people with contracts with major publishers didn't do that, and didn't have to do that.
I think self-publishing is awesome and the best choice for many situations–people publishing books of local interest (history or natural features of an area, for instance); people publishing books that target a small, dedicated audience (books about hobbies, for example); people publishing books that accompany their presentations or workshops on a topic; people publishing books for their friends and family.
As a way of achieving mainstream publishing success, self-publishing is much less likely to get you there than the tried-and-true methods, and it's much harder work.
People who try self-publishing as a way to break into the mainstream should know they're bucking the odds; people who choose self-publishing because it makes the best sense given the size of their market, or because it gives them a degree of control for which they're willing to give up access to a mass market–those people are wise self-publishers!
You put everything in a clear and concise manner. Some of my family and friends do not understand the time involved nor do they grasp that not everyone will be a Nora Roberts or John Grisham.
This is a job I am passionate about and I don't need a paycheck to know that and prove it, though it will be nice when it does happen.
As someone who is in the middle of their second novel and has received a few rejections for my short stories and my first novel, this post is more than encouraging. Thank you so much.
Great post. I specifically liked the addressing of the common complaints and advice that all writers are given. I checked out the stats on Tobias Buckell's site, and found them encouraging.
The Writer Beware blog is one of my favorites, mainly because of the 'watchdog activities', but also because you have a distinct voice. Your work is appreciated.
The link to the Guardian article just takes you to the Megan Crewe survey, I'm afraid.
@Tony – being self-pubbed did not hurt my chances with a traditional press. Of course, I brought new material to the table and didn't use my self-pub work as the only thing I'd consider selling. I think that's the primary mistake of some of the DIY folks — they get stuck on that one self-pub book without realizing it's just another brick in the long publishing path.
I have been told to my face that no editor or agent would ever sign with me since I'd self-pubbed. I've been told that it is rare few folks who make the move from small to big press. I've broken both those boundaries. It's my habit to ignore people who tell you what I can't do. Until I give something a try I won't know if it's doable or not.
Christopher Paolini's parents owned their own small press, so they had some experience with publishing.
Plus, he was homeschooled, so he was able to spend a year or so going to schools and wearing a medieval-ish costume to promote his book. And there was the big draw of him being 15.
None of those will apply to most authors of self-published novels.
It's always good to see common wisdom evaluated in the light of actual data. Still, as valuable as this info is, I think it, like any historical data set, will not be able to give much guidance for the traditional vs. self-publishing argument.
One thing I've heard a lot is that a self-published title will taint you for subsequent work you try to get published with traditional houses. I wonder how true that is anymore, or how true it will be in the future.
11 years! oh my.
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Thanks for the linkage! I've got two more posts with Jim's data, actually – one breaking down the number of short stories published before the first novel by genre to see if that changes anything, and a second examining the relationship (if any) between knowing agents and other "networking" stuff and getting published.
I saw the same survey about short stories and novels and was glad to see that some of my suspicions were true. I was told very early on by everyone, including all the how-to articles and books that I needed short stories to build writing credits. Now, as I've noticed that the majority of fiction writing articles are written by non-fiction writers, I wonder if the freelancers are just applying the "build clips" rule to fiction. A lot of the articles seem to assume all writing is the same, just in a different form.
I had also heard the theory that you can't get published without … While that may be true in general, I was able to get my novel published without an agent and with no fiction creds behind me. I think if the book is a good fit for the right publisher, then the work will stand on its own – agent or not.
"The truth, however, is that self-publishing success is rare."
As is traditional publishing success. You could say that traditionally published authors are generally more successful than self-published, and that would be true. Cut-offs. Publishers act as a cut-off for what will make them money. Self-publishing has a cut-off but it involves hitting a few buttons in the right order.
Scary that the result could be the same.
Traditional publishing will become redundant publishing soon. We're all published by any measure from the last squillion years, we just need a way to determine HOW published we are.
Thank you for this post! I 'recently' decided to write, finishing the first draft of my novel in a little over 7 months, and I'm already fielding a lot of the "but it's been almost a year–when will you be published? How much will you sell it for? Don't you need to have more stories in magazines first?"
This is a nice way to reiterate what I've already said a hundred times — I don't have a concrete answer! lol