Self-Publishing, Part Whatever

While I was at the Durand Fantasy Expo on Saturday, I ended up talking to several other authors and publishing folks about self-publishing and print-on-demand.  Here are a few of my thoughts from the drive home.

1. Dear self-published authors: As a writer, I am not your target audience.  I can’t count the number of times authors, mostly (but not always) self-published or PoD, have tried to hard-sell their books to me.  Just don’t.

2. Self-publishing seems to work pretty well for comics and graphic novels.  This is something I’ve noticed over the past year or two.  Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the self-pubbed/PoD comics I’ve seen are just plain good.  A while back, Jane Irwin gave me copies of Vogelein: Clockwork Faerie and Vogelein: Old Ghosts.  They were well-done, and I enjoyed the stories.

A lot of web comics seem to go the same route, using small PoD printers or self-publishing, and producing very nice products.  It makes me wonder what we on the prose side of things could learn from the comics folks.

3. Self-publishing takes a lot of time and work.  My very first book, a mainstream novel called Goldfish Dreams, recently reached the end of its contract with Fictionwise.  I’d really like to put the book out there on Kindle and maybe in a few other places.  Thus far, I’ve done absolutely nothing on this project.  I only have so many hours, and I also have to write my next book.  It makes me wonder — if I was fully responsible for the entire publication process, how much longer would it take to release each new book?

4. People will believe anything that protects their egos.  “New York editors don’t want good stories, and won’t take new authors.  You’re better off without an editor, because they’ll destroy your unique vision.  Self-publishing is better, because publishers only pay 6-12% royalties.”

There are times when self-publishing can work.  However, many of these claims are total crap … but they’re crap that protect the ego, and thus people choose to believe and defend ’em.

5. I’m outnumbered.  There were a handful of other authors there on Saturday.  As far as I know, I was the only “traditionally” published one there.  A lot of people kept checking out my books and saying things like, “So I have to go to your web site to get these, right?”  Um … sure, you can go through my web site.  Or you can walk into most any bookstore in the country and pluck one of my books off the shelves.

I don’t know what to think about this.  I know the technology has gotten better and more available, and this is going to mean a lot more authors taking advantage of that technology.  But it was an odd feeling.


Please note that I’m not bashing self-publishing.  As I said in #3, I’m planning to use it myself.

Anyway, questions and comments and discussion are welcome, as always.

The Death of Print/Publishing, Part MCCLWTFXVIII

Dorchester Publishing recently announced they were dropping their mass market line and moving to an e-book/print-on-demand model.  Dorchester’s president John Prebich describes his company as pioneers, boldly leading us into the electronic frontier.  This has led to a new round of “print is dying,” and e-books are the way of the future.  There’s an almost religious fervor to it.

J. A. Konrath suggests the end is nigh for commercial publishers, and self-publishing is the way to go.  His anonymous sources claim sell-through on printed books is as bad as 20%.  He describes a (hypothetical) commercially published author who gets a $50K advance and 30% sell-through, selling a mere 9000 print copies in the first year–

But wait, let’s back up and take another look at Dorchester, who’s been in trouble for a while.  “Dorchester had serious cash-flow problems throughout 2009.”  (Thanks to Nick Mamatas for that link.)  The move to e-books/PoD isn’t as much a dramatic step into the future as it is a desperate attempt by one publisher to stay in business.

As for Konrath, he’s done an excellent job positioning himself as a champion of self-publishing.  I have no doubt he talked to somebody, somewhere, who reported sell-through could be as bad as 20%.  But “as bad as” generally means the low edge of the bell curve.  Not the normal or the average, but the worst-case scenario.

To offer an alternate data point, my books have a sell-through around 80%.  I’m not aware of anyone whose sell-through is down at 20-30%.  I’m sure it happens, but to base an argument on those numbers is, in a word, silly.  As for the rest of the example, well, I sell more than 9000 print copies in a year, and my advances are far lower than $50K.

I’m not saying Konrath’s example couldn’t happen.  It’s possible.  It’s possible to be struck by lightning seven times, too.  But it ain’t the norm.

Wait, you say.  80% sell-through still means 20% returns, right?  Doesn’t it make more sense to go electronic/PoD, where there are no returns and you can get 100% sell-through?

That depends.  80% of what?  100% of what?  Konrath proposes that his hypothetical author will sell 5000 e-books in that first year.  I’m curious where that number comes from, particularly given a New York Times report in which “publishers point out that e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent.”  If I had to choose, I’d take 80% of a 20K print run over 100% of the <1000 copies my books have sold electronically.

Konrath also argues that:

“The main reason we need publishers is for distribution. We can’t get into Wal-Mart or Borders on own own. They can. So we accept 8% royalties in order to sell a lot of books. But if publishers are no longer printing books, there is ZERO reason to sign with them, because they no longer have that advantage.”

Distribution is part of what my publisher does for me … but it’s not the only thing.  They pay professionals to create my cover art, and to edit, typeset, and proofread my book.  They do the work of converting my books into electronic formats.  They pay for advertising and promotion.  Basically, they do a ton of work to sell my books, which allows me to worry about writing them.

Publishing is changing.  My guess is that we’ll eventually hit a new equilibrium point between print and e-books, and I do think e-books will be a larger percentage of book sales than they are today.

I’m not bashing self-publishing, either.  For some people, it’s the right choice.  Konrath certainly makes it work.  My friend John Fitch V sold more than 100 books last month, which is damn good for the self-published route.

Both e-books and self-publishing have their strengths and advantages.  And I could be wrong — it’s possible print and/or commercial publishing are on the way out.  But I’ve been hearing about the imminent death of print and commercial publishing for more than a decade, and it’s getting a little old.

PublishAmerica: Now With 67% More Poodoo!

Fun fact: did you know that back in 1997, Miranda Prather (Executive Director of PublishAmerica) was arrested for faking a hate crime?

This doesn’t really surprise me. After all, this is a company widely reviled by anyone with the slightest clue about publishing.  It’s the company that accepted the deliberately and brilliantly awful book Atlanta Nights, the same company that published Night Travels of the Elven Vampire with a horribly Photoshopped (and illegal) cover of Orlando Bloom. The Absolute Write boards have a great deal of info on PA, everything from their $1 advance (so they can claim to be an advance-paying publisher) to advice on how to get out of a PA contract. Here’s a summary at AW about why they don’t recommend PA.

Apparently it’s now reached the point where even PublishAmerica wants nothing to do with PublishAmerica. From Writer Beware comes PA’s latest “offer” — PA authors can get their books relisted with a new imprint called Independence Books with the following benefits:

  • Not registered as POD in vendor databases.
  • Not registered as PublishAmerica.

That’s directly out of PA’s letter to their authors. I’m suspicious of the PoD designation thing, but it’s the second part that gets me.  I wish I could have been there for the meeting where they decided the best thing they could do to sell books was to try to disguise them as non-PA titles.  Just for fun, I’m imagining the conversation with various Star Wars characters doing the voices.

Emperor: “It appears that we’ve so thoroughly destroyed our reputation that bookstore staff spontaneously burst into sickly green flames at the mere mention of our name. Something must be done!”

Rookie Stormtrooper: “Hey, what if we tried producing better-quality books, and maybe started trying to sell those books to readers?”

::Flushing sound as the new guy is dropped into the rancor pit::

George Lucas: “We should hire that Brittany Spears guy to produce a video where he cries and says ‘Leave PublishAmerica alone!’  Better yet, I’ll create a CGI alien to do it in a really bad accent.”

Emperor: “Implement this plan immediately.”

Vader: “Perhaps it’s time to offer another ‘deal’ to our authors. Our prices are 50-75% higher than other publishers’ titles, so we can let our authors buy books at 40% off and still the Empire shall profit.”

Emperor: “Inform our authors that we are displeased with their lack of progress.  That should frighten them into buying more copies. But it still doesn’t fix our reputation.”

Jabba the Hutt [Translated (badly) from Huttese]: “Dude!  You should, like, totally change your name.  Like when you were sayin’ ‘I’m Senator Palpatine,’ but then you went all ‘I’m Darth Sidious, fool!’  Because nobody saw through that one!”

Emperor: “Excellent. Be sure to make them pay for the privilege…”

Jabba the Hutt: “And you should totally call it ‘Imperial Poodoo!'”


Seriously, when things are so bad that you’re offering your own authors the opportunity to hide their association with you, maybe that should be a clue that it’s time to give up and go home.

Book Sales Info (and Guppy TV)

One question I get asked a lot is how the release of a new book affects sales of my backlist.  I’ve said before that the only factor I’ve seen consistently and clearly improve sales of a book is the release of the next book in that series.  I figured with Red Hood coming out, I could indulge my inner graph-geek and share a little data to back that up.  (For legal/contractual reasons, I can’t share the actual numbers.)

Let’s start with the princes series.  The green line represents sales of Red Hood’s Revenge.  You can see the first two books in the series were selling fairly steadily.  Column 4 marks when copies of Red Hood started showing up in stores.  Column 6 is the official release week.

Sales of the older books are nowhere near as good as the new one, but those sales do increase significantly when the new book comes out.  In this case, the sales in column 6 for Stepsister and Mermaid are about triple what they had been before.

But what about the goblin series?  Sadly, a new princess book doesn’t do much to bump goblin sales.  Because the goblin books are older and thus not selling as many copies these days, I stretched the graph a little so you could see them there at the bottom.

Looking at the raw numbers, I do see a slight increase in goblin sales in column six.  Maybe five percent?  It’s small enough I’d have to do a lot more work to determine whether there’s any statistical significance, and it’s been way too long since stats class.

So at least in my case, a new book in a new series only moves an extra handful of copies of the old series.

I do think new books help keep bookstores and readers aware of an author, and that readers who enjoy the books are more likely to eventually go back and buy the author’s backlist.  But it’s not an immediate boost like I see for books in the same series.

This has been Jim Geeks Out With Graphs.  Tune in next week when Jim charts hair loss against number of books written, proving once and for all that publishing will make you go bald!


Totally unrelated, a few of you asked for pictures of Jig the runt guppy.  I still couldn’t get the camera to focus, but for some reason it would focus in video mode.  I like this, as the video is actually cuter.  There’s only a brief glimpse of his kinked back about halfway through, and then at the end one of the other guppies comes along to give you a sense of scale.


Ethics of Review Copies

I mentioned on Monday that I had received my author copies of Red Hood’s Revenge, which means review copies should also be available.  If you’re a reviewer and would like DAW to send you a copy of Red Hood (or any of my DAW titles), please let me know and I’ll see what we can do.


Earlier this week I stumbled into a conversation about the practice of reviewers turning around and selling review copies on eBay.  This includes both advanced review copies (ARCs) and copies of the finished books.

I admit I get a little annoyed when I see one of my ARCs up for sale before the book comes out.  Come on, people.  The ARC says “Not for resale” for a reason.  It just feels rude.

It’s also not something I’m going to waste a lot of time worrying about.  For something like Harry Potter, I understand why it’s important to keep spoilers locked down until the release date.  For the rest of us — for me — why is this a big deal?  Why should I care if a handful of review copies leak out ahead of time?  Uncool, yes.  But on the list of things worth my time and stress, this isn’t even a footnote.

It turns out some people are quite passionate about reviewers selling their books.  In one comment, I learned that not worrying about ARCs on eBay meant I was supporting all of The Evil Book Pirates.  I was also told I should get a job at BP telling people their oil spill “isn’t worth stressing about” either.  (The BP bit did include the rhetorical “Ha ha, I’m just kidding” trick at the end.  As it turns out, adding “Just kidding” does not alter the fact that you’re saying something asinine.)

So I’m curious what other people think.  Should reviewers be prohibited from selling review copies?  Does it make a difference if it’s an ARC or a finished book?  What about solicited vs. unsolicited books?  I.e., if I beg Tor for a review copy of Tobias Buckell‘s latest, are my reselling obligations different than if a a publicist sends me a book I didn’t ask for?

Discussion and disagreement are welcome, as always.  However, if you try to equate the Review Copy Gray Market with BP spilling millions of barrels of oil into our oceans, please understand that you will be mocked and sporkstabbed.

Even if you’re “just kidding.”

Saying No to a Publisher

At the start of the month, I posted about a possible secret writing project.  Wizards of the Coast asked me and a few other authors to write sample pages for a book they’re planning.  I was excited about the idea, and as a long-time gaming geek, I thought it would be a lot of fun to be a WotC author.

On May 11, I got an e-mail from the editor at Wizards.  She loved the sample and invited me to write the book.  On May 18, my agent received the official offer.

Yesterday, I turned them down.

Back in 2002, I sent sample pages to Wizards, hoping to write for them.  I’ve been playing D&D for most of my life (one of the reasons I said I’d be perfect for this project).  I have a number of friends who write for WotC and seem happy.  I was excited about being able to join them.

So why did I say no?  Ultimately, it’s because we couldn’t agree on what my time, energy, and writing were worth.  I was hoping to be able to negotiate a deal that would work for both sides.  Without going into detail, this didn’t happen.

It’s a strange feeling, saying no to a major publisher.  A strange feeling, and a scary one.  Did I make a mistake?  Have I burned a bridge?  Oh-God-what-the-hell-did-I-just-do???

At the same time, it’s empowering.  I don’t believe my ego has gotten out of control (yet), but I have developed more confidence in both my writing and my worth.  I don’t have to say yes to a deal I’m not comfortable with.

It’s important to be able to say no.  If you can’t, people can and will take advantage.  Sometimes your willingness to say no can result in a better deal.  Sometimes it helps you avoid a bad one.  Sometimes it helps you prioritize, because time is finite and there’s a limit to the number of stories anyone can write in their lifetime.  (With the possible exception of Jay Lake.)

A tie-in for Wizards would have been a lot of fun, and would have added something new to my body of work.  (Not to mention that I would have written one seriously Kick Ass book!)  On the other hand, this lessens my stress for the next few months, and frees up time to finish putting together the pitch for my next series.

I have no hard feelings or ill will toward Wizards.  I’m disappointed things didn’t work out, but it’s not the end of the world, or even the end of my career.

Questions and comments are welcome, as always, but be aware that I signed a nondisclosure agreement about the project, so I can’t get any more specific about the actual book.

Pseudonyms: A Chat with “Benjamin Tate”

Each year, Brenda Novak runs an auction to raise money for diabetes research.  Last year, she raised more than a quarter of a million dollars.  Among the items and services up for bid are a short story/chapter critique by yours truly, as well as an autographed copy of The Stepsister Scheme.


Jon Gibbs recently interviewed Jig the goblin for the Find a Writing Group blog.  The interview is posted here.  I enjoy this sort of thing, and it was fun to get into Jig’s voice again.


Benjamin Tate‘s new book Well of Sorrows [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] is out this week from DAW.  My investigative goblins have discovered that Mr. Tate is in fact a pseudonym for another fantasy author.

Pseudonyms are common practice.  Sometimes an author will use them to write in different genres — someone who wants to write YA and erotica both, for example.  Other times it’s a way to reboot a career.  I shot Mr. Tate a few questions about his choice to adopt a new identity.


Negative Reviews = Great News!

The fundraiser for rape crisis centers has raised more than $1000 as of 9:30 this morning.  Y’all are wonderful!!!  To celebrate, I’m adding an autographed copy of Heroes in Training [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon] to the prize giveaway.  Thank you all!


Over the past few weeks, Google Alerts brought word of a number of new reviews of my books.  At least half were wonderfully positive (thank you!), but some of them were … less flattering.

This is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d much rather see more reviews describing the books as the best books ever.  I’d be lying if I said the negative reviews didn’t sting.  However, there’s no such thing as a book that appeals to everyone.  If you expect absolutely everyone to love your writing, you’re gonna be mighty disappointed.

“Wait a minute,” you protest.  “That’s probably true, but just because you know it’s pretty much inevitable that someone’s going to trash your book doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Excellent point, imaginary reader.  Let me explain where I’m coming from by describing a random author who recently spammed a discussion group I was reading.  He was advertising his book, and included the line “Only 5-star reviews on Amazon!” as a selling point.

I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I clicked over to the book’s listing anyway.  Call it morbid curiosity.  His claim was absolutely correct.  He had a handful of 5-star reviews, all praising this book to the Heavens.

The thing is, almost any book is going to get a few good reviews.  At the very first signing for my very first book, my friends and family were there to support me.  They bought copies, and some of them (not all, sadly) even read the book.  Those that hated it, well, I’m someone they know — they’re unlikely to trash me online.  Meaning the only reviews from that group are probably going to be positive.

Call them first circle readers.  It’s great to get those positive reviews, but I don’t give them much weight.

These days, I also have what I’ll call second circle readers — people who’ve read my stuff and are loyal to me as an author.  They already know they like my style, and are therefore fairly likely to enjoy my new books and post positive reviews.

Then there’s the outer circle.  Readers who don’t know my fiction.  Sadly, this is the biggest circle for most of us.  Here’s where things get risky.  Some of them will love it, and some won’t.  Statistically speaking, this is where most of the negative reviews are usually going to come from.

The fact that more reviews are cropping up for my books, and that these reviews are a mix of both positive and negative, suggests to me that I’m reaching that outer circle.  New readers are picking up my stuff and giving it a try, and that is a very good thing.

(That said, if those of you who like my books want to run out and post 5-star reviews all over the web, I certainly won’t object!)

First Novel Survey Results

In February of 2010, I began collecting information from professionally published novelists.  My goal was to learn how writers broke in and made that first big novel deal, 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. For those interested in the raw info, I’ve posted an Excel spreadsheet of the data with all identifying information removed.  You can download that spreadsheet here.

I’ve broken my write-up into nine parts:

  1. The Data
  2. Short Story Path to Publication
  3. Self-Publishing Your Breakout Novel
  4. The Overnight Success
  5. You Have to Know Somebody
  6. Can You Boost Your Odds?
  7. Survey Flaws
  8. Other Resources
  9. Final Thoughts

The 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 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 this is a respectable range:

The year in which authors made their first sale covered more than 30 years, from 1974 to 2010.  The data is heavily weighted toward the past decade.

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

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

So do you really 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 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 the 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 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 appears 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 believe 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.  But it’s not a requirement to selling a novel.

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 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.

Also, please see below for Steven Saus’ graph showing the trend away from submitting directly to the publisher and more toward querying agents in recent years.

The Overnight Success Story

When I started writing, I figured it was easy.  I thought anyone could do it.  Having zipped off my first story, I assumed 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, voila! They’re a published author.  (Generally this seems to mean big book tours, winning awards, hanging with Oprah, and living the good life.)

So how long does it take to sell that book?  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 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.

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?  Busted.

Can You Boost Your Odds?

As has been pointed out (by my own agent, among others), while connections aren’t required, they can 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, 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 an undergrad 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

Steven Saus’ Analysis of my Survey Data: Steven ran my numbers through some heavy-duty statistical software and came up with all sorts of info, including this graph showing the apparent trend in how submissions have moved from direct-to-publisher more toward querying agents over the past few decades.  For those who like to geek out on numbers and statistics, I recommend checking it out.

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.)

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:

Why Advances Matter

With 11 days to go, the First (Pro) Novel Survey is up to more than 200 responses, which is wonderful!  But it’s also generated some interesting feedback in comments and e-mails.  Some people are upset that small press, self-published, and e-book authors can’t participate.  Others say advances are part of a dying publishing model.  There’s been worry that advances can actually harm an author who doesn’t earn out.  To top things off, I’m told I’m completely out of touch with the current state of publishing.

Let’s start with the basics.  An advance is an advance against your royalties.  When I sold Goblin Quest to DAW, they paid me $4000, half on signing and half on publication.  (Slightly lower than the average, because Goblin Quest was a reprint of a small press title.)  For the sake of easy math, let’s say I got 50 cents in royalties for every copy that sold.  So for the first 8000 books, I got nothing — I had already received that money up front.  But once we sold book 8001, I officially earned out the advance and began receiving royalties.

Even if I never sold those 8000 copies, I keep the advance. Nor would I be blacklisted for failing to earn out.  A lot of books never earn out their advance.  Understand that the publisher doesn’t necessarily lose money on those books.  The math is a little messy, but publishers can and do still make a profit on books that don’t earn out.

Will publishers get a little cranky if they pay you a six-figure advance and you only sell 10,000 books?  Well, sure.  It might mean smaller advances in the future.  You might need to adopt a pseudonym (as many others have done), or change to a different publisher.  But it doesn’t mean the end of your career.

Remember the advance represents an investment on the part of the publisher, and I want my publisher as invested as possible in my book. There are never any guarantees, but which do you think will get more of a sales push, the book where they paid the author $5000 up front, or the one where they paid $50,000?

Finally, there’s the fact that royalties take a long time to show up.  Let’s assume your book is going to earn out, which means you’re eventually going to get the same amount of money either way.  Would you rather get that money today, or wait and get it in a year or two or more?

Writing is not a hobby to me.  It’s a career, one that helps me pay the mortgage and feed my family.  My advances mean I know I’m going to receive a certain minimum amount on each book.  I can start to plan and budget, meaning I’m better able to make a living with this.  (Now if only my publisher would offer a health plan for its authors…)

As for the frustration and anger that I’m shutting out small-press and self-published authors with this survey?  Yes.  Yes I am.  I’ve got nothing against small press and self publishing.  (Please see above, where I first sold Goblin Quest to a small press.)  But that’s not what I was interested in for this survey.  I wanted to learn more about how authors break in with bigger, advance-paying publishers.  If you have a problem with that … well, it’s your problem.  Deal with it.

Jim C. Hines