19 Dec

Survey results: how many novels did you write before selling one?

The results of my survey concerning how many books a published writer wrote before they sold their first are in.

This survey came about because not too long ago I overhead a newer writer talking about the fact that he had been submitting his first novel to publishers and was growing quite discouraged by the sheer number of rejections he’d received. The writer he was talking to asked him what he was doing while waiting for the first one to make the rounds.

“Trying to write a better query letter,” was the response.

“So you’re not working on another novel?” the other writer asked. “Because you realize you’re probably not going to sell your first.”

On the surface that sounds like a pretty harsh response, but talking to any given novelist and you’ll probably find that for a great number of them they did not break into the field with their first novel. In conversation with other novelists I found all sorts of experiences and paths to publishing, with first book written being first book sold more the exception than the rule.

However I was recently challenged when I stated that, so I decided that there was one way to get some raw data (and also reminded again by John Brown in an online discussion when he asked if anyone had ever done a survey of this): a quick and dirty survey. It’s not a perfect survey. There was slightly confusing language, a repeated question, and I’m aware of all the reasons a survey can go wrong, but I still found it interesting, nonetheless.

I received 150 responses from a variety of authors, most of them SF/F, but thanks to Diana Peterfreund and others, a large number of Romance writers.

Of these published novelists, 65% did not break in with their first novel. 35% did.

I asked, in the first question, how many novels a writer wrote before selling their first. Here is the breakdown of that with percentages rounded.

32% wrote one novel
13% wrote two
11% wrote 3
8% wrote 4
9% wrote 5
3% wrote 6
13% wrote 7 or more novels
6% wrote some short fiction first
5% wrote a ton of short fiction first

What does that tell us? Out of a group of 10 writers who will go on to be published (we can’t guess at how many are turned away unpublished, right, this is a self selecting group), 3 will sell the first novel they write. 1 will write some, or a lot, of short fiction before selling their first novel. 1-2 will sell their second. The other half will write 3 or more novels before breaking in.

This is not intended to discourage. It is intended to encourage writers to keep busy after the first one is done. Also, many of those writers who wrote multiple books were able to sell their later books. They’d grown and gotten better, and could rewrite them.

With this in mind, having heard some novelists who noted that selling a first novel could be a bit stressful, I also asked the following question. Would you recommend starting your career off by selling your first novel?

5% picked ‘hell yes!’
15% picked ‘yes’
9% picked ‘no’
9% picked ‘hell no’

62% picked ‘don’t know’ or ‘sold a later novel.’ Presumably the ‘I don’t know’ selections were later novel sellers.

So those who sold their first seemed almost evenly divided between the experience. There were a lot of comments, so I’m going to provide sample of many of them here after the jump.

Here they are, a handful of randomly selected comments:

I do know a few authors who wrote one novel and sold it. But it’s rare. And I actually suspect that unless you’ve been writing a lot of things–short stories, screenplays, nonfiction–that these unpublished and probably unpublishable novels are merely the “school” we attended on our way to publication.

If your first novel will sell, why on earth not? I recently sold my first novel and got a four-book deal from it. Definitely at times I wish I’d known more than I did — in some ways I felt “not ready” to handle the professional side of it — but if you feel your first novel is good enough to shop AND the agent and publisher agree with you, you’d be a fool not to take the experience and learn from it.

I would advise against “work for hire” unless that is a writer’s specific career aim.

After experience writing six subsequent novels, went back and totally rewrote and expanded first novel (using only about one sentence from the original) into the first three novels of a YA series.

I am not sure how to answer this. The first novel I sold was the sixth one I had written, but then soon after that I sold the third one I had written.

I answered “yes” to question #4 but in fact had sold half a dozen short stories, +/-, before I sent out my first novel.

It depends on the writer. It took me 15 years to write that first novel, so a lot of time and effort went into it. The fact that it sold was hugely gratifying. The second novel took a year, and it sold, too. Since then, five have not and three have. So selling the first is no guarantee of an ongoing career! 0.99%
If at first you don’t succeed, give the fuck up. The world doesn’t need that many new writers. Consider doing macrame.

I don’t know if it’s so important to have written more than one *novel* before selling one… but I definitely *definitely* think new writers should have experience with short stories first.
Yes, conditionally. I probably would have been better off had my second novel been my first, but it was a ~sequel~ to the first, so it’s sort of hard to imagine that way.

I had written a bunch of short stories, but the novel was the first time I tried that length

The second one sold first, but the first sold second.

The novel I sold was the third written to send out–I was writing other novels at the time.

You need to learn the craft first, whether by writing novels or by writing lots and lots of short stories…

Keep writing

Write. And then write more. And then keep on writing. *g*

It was my first novel and my only novel. It took four years to write and twelve years to sell.

I am a unique and delicate flower.

I’m glad I got the practice novels out of the way without anyone seeing them. I look back on them now with a sense of dread, or possibly, woe.

I can definitely say that my first novel was NSFP (Not Suitable For Publication) but it did help me work out how to plot, which came in handy for the second novel.

My first book was the second book I wrote, and my second published book will be the fifth book I wrote. My third published book would have been my third written novel, but the publisher went out of business, which I guess proves that God did not intend for novels to be published chronologically.

The rule of thumb is you have 500,000 to 1,000,000 bad words in you before you start writing good ones. That’s five to ten bad novels.

I may have sold the first novel I ever wrote, but I probably also undersold it.

Most of us are probably grateful we sold ANY of our books, whatever the order!

My first novel was terrible. My second novel was slightly less terrible. My third novel was probably saleable. The first draft of my fourth novel was burned, and the whole thing rewritten from scratch.

If you missed your chance to add your data, go ahead and do so here at the survey and I’ll continue to collect data and maybe even publish a follow up.

Also, thanks to the kind folks at SurveyGizmo who have put together a nifty web service that’s easy to use.