Fantasy novelist Jim C. Hines was thinking about how writers break into the business, and in February of 2010, he decided to go out and create a survey of how authors made their first novel sale. After about a month of data collecting, Hines had almost 250 responses and decided to draw some charts and generate some generalities from them.
The basics of the survey are authors who published at least one novel that sold for at least $2,000 to a publisher. Hines admits that this excludes people who started with smaller publishers or self-published their own work (Hines is himself someone who self-published his first novel and then re-sold it to a New York publisher). The results are skewed towards genre (and specifically fantasy) authors, but as Hines says, those are the people he knows, as he’s part of that group, too.
Part of why he was thinking about these things was that when he was trying to break into the field in the 1990s he got a lot of different advice, often advice that was in contention. I found Hines’ survey completely fascinating. I liked how it picked apart some of the commonly held mindsets about how to break into the business. Like what? Like:
Of 246 authors, 116 sold their first novel with zero short fiction sales
[O]nly 1 author out of 246 self-published their book and went on to sell that book to a professional publisher
58 authors sold the first novel they wrote
And of course, there’s a lot more at the link above. I point out the three examples above because the first one refutes the advice I always give (i.e., write short fiction first), the second refutes the idea that you can self-publish yourself and then resell to a publisher for wild success, and the third, well the third is really interesting. Many authors write several novels before they have one that’s of saleable quality. However, almost a quarter of the authors in the survey sold the first book they wrote. Whether they wrote several more novels and came back and cleaned up their first novel or if they only wrote one novel and that was what they sold was not compiled in Hines survey.
This survey also made me think of Tobias Buckell’s survey of advances for first-time novelists. Buckell’s survey wasn’t created with the mindset of proving or disproving myths about selling your first novel, but was rather a gathering of data points. Again, geared towards genre writers, aspiring novelists could use Buckell’s survey results to help decide whether an offer they’ve received is fair. And since agented authors earned more than un-agented, it proves that getting an agent is worth your time. Buckell also includes some data on what happened to authors’ advances for subsequent books.
In both cases, I found the results fascinating. Much of it I knew from my time inside the business, but all the same, getting hard data to back things up is never bad.
John Klima is the editor of Electric Velocipede, winner of the 2009 Hugo for Best Fanzine.