Novel Survey Results, Part I

Update: The full survey results and the raw data are now posted at

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  Others told me this was outdated, and these days you could skip short fiction if you wanted and just jump straight into novel writing.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.