13 Dec

Survey: How many novels did you write before selling your first?

I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who have the expectation that they will sell the first novel they have written, or who think that most writers out there sold their first novel.

This isn’t true, but it does allow me to slap together a survey asking published writers to just drop in and say whether they sold their first novel ever or not.

I’ll post the results after a week or so. The link takes you to a survey maker on another site and will pop you back here when you’re done!


44 thoughts on “Survey: How many novels did you write before selling your first?

  1. I know you are asking how many novels we wrote before we sold a novel for the first time, but when I first read the headline it scanned like you were asking how many novels we wrote before we sold the *first* novel we wrote.

    Happily for me the answer is the same in both cases (two), but in this I’m willing to believe I’m a little weird.

  2. I wrote three complete novels and large chunks of about three more before I sold a single novel — and it was the fourth one I wrote in my life. Eventually, I was able to get the third one published also. The first two have (thankfully) vanished from human ken.

    (Gawd, I hope…)


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  4. Have you ever noticed that the sound of crushed dreams is exactly the same as crushed glass-ornaments?

    Okay, how about this as a corollary; which was the novel with the strongest idea/writing? The obvious answer is the one that sold, but I was wondering about the feeling as author is writing the book. Okay, maybe that’s weak, why would anybody write a novel they didn’t feel had a good chance of selling?

    With the short stories I’m writing now, there’s a different feel to how I approach them than when I first decided to do this. I’ve had three ideas for novels and I’ve started each. This last one, though, it’s more like having a fire in my head than the just the feeling that something could be a good story. I was wondering if that’s a common experience?

  5. Complete novels I wrote before selling one: One. It was not the one that eventually sold. Treatments w/ sample chapters I wrote before selling: Two, I think. They got re-written rather a lot.

  6. πŸ™‚ I’ll still add your data to the survey at the end though, it’s getting closer to 50/50 for who sold a first novel and who sold something after writing many novels.

  7. There’s hope, there’s hope. Oh, Lordy, there’s hope.

    Yeah, I know, “calm down Francis,” but I have to be nuerotic about something. I think we discussed that before. I choose to be nuerotic about the actual sale part, not the edit part.

  8. I’m going to predict that most first sales are also first written. Why? The first novel is one you work on for years. It’s born out an idea that was so great it made you want to be a writer. But you won’t ever sell it until you find a reader who’s willing to tell you it’s crap and needs to be completely re-worked.

  9. I sold my fourth written novel. By the time I sold it, I had finished nine novels.

    I have now sold all of the fifteen (soon to be sixteen–I’m maybe five thousand words from the end) books I have written, with the exception of two: number eight and number ten.

  10. Since I haven’t actually sold a novel yet, I won’t skew your metrics by filling out the form, but I thought I’d mention that the first novel I wrote got me my agent, and we’re going to try to sell it this winter.

    That insistant wood-knocking you hear? Oh, that’s just me. Sorry, I’ll tap quieter.

  11. The first novel published was the fourth novel I wrote. The first two novels I wrote are on the slate as the next project. The third novel I wrote is in a different genre and so is now being shopped around to see if it can find a home. I’ve written two novels since that fourth novel, both under contract, one out in the stores now and the other ready to be seen by the editor for slaying.

  12. Hi Toby –

    You do the most interesting surveys… in part because yours are actually USEFUL for new writers…

    The first novel I wrote led to the offer for my second, which was the first of several (in a series), which were only published in Germany, but which gave me the experience I needed to write (and sell) the latest (HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS), which is doing well enough that another division of my publisher is making an offer on the first book I actually wrote.

    Which is now 1) better because of all the experience I’ve gained in-between; and 2) going to have the benefit of the marketability carried over by DRAGONS.

    So, I’d say persistent effort plays a big part in selling your work, in whatever order it happens to come.


  13. I’m not sure if this will count or not, but the first novella I sold is very closely tied in to my first novel (which is now a trilogy).

    However, there have been nearly twenty years between the day I started the novella and the day I started my first novel.

    I’m hoping it will be my first (novel) sale – I’m still tweaking it. Haven’t shopped it yet.

  14. Then here’s a corrollary to your question: how many times was that first published novel *rewritten*? It’s one thing to say, “My first published book was also my first published novel,” but this is a little misleading if you rewrote that book eight times before you published it. Or rewrote it six times, or twice, or ninety times.

  15. (Err, that should be “my first published book was also the first I WROTE” … whoops, typing ahead of brain stem neurons again.)

  16. I’m in the situation that my first novel is sitting in an in-box somewhere and it has not been rejected by anyone yet. Some parts of the novel have been rewritten a number of times; other parts not much at all.

    I probably had about 10 short stories rejected before selling 2 of them (to small markets); I hope I have better luck with the novel.

  17. I wrote (by hand) a novel my freshman year in high school. After high school, I plowed into seriously trying to write The Great American SF Novel and, half-a-million words later, finished it. In quick succession I wrote five more.

    None of them have seen light of day since.

    So that’s seven. (I had a box once with all the false starts of novels, all 20 to 30 pgs long, and there were about fifty of them If I cobbled them all together…no)

    The first novel I wrote with intent to submit, I sold, but only after I started writing a franchise novel. Between the time I wrote said novel and selling it, eleven years passed, during which I wrote three more novels and rewrote that first one about eight times.

    Maybe I’m just a slow learner.

  18. Neat survey. So far, your responses support my newest hypothesis: that if you can’t sell the first thing you write fairly soon after you write it, your chances are pretty much nil. I’ve been at this for going on twenty years now, on and off, and although I got praise-filled rejections for the first fifteen years or so, I’m not getting them any more (although the work has steadily improved). I theorize that back when I started, the people who were judging the work (first readers and agents) were closer to my age and shared my worldview and paradigm. Now the people who judge the work are at least one generation away from me and just don’t like my style and/or approach. At the heart of my theory is the postulate that if you are a young writer and you write something now, your voice will be more like what the weeders-out are expecting and looking for, and it’ll “click.” Mine don’t click. And they probably never will, as I missed my window.

    I should’ve stuck with it more consistently (meaning mailing stuff out) back when I started seriously working, but I had a regular job, a family, and intervals of health problems to contend with, so I would go for a year or two at a time without doing any marketing and doing very little writing. I think my experiment this year (doing some aggressive marketing) has told me that I missed the window and/or never had what I thought I had in me to begin with.

    I came up with this hypothesis after seeing all the blog entries and mailing list announcements from people who said they’d just started writing the previous year and sold their first novels. These way outnumbered those who said they’d written one or two in the past. Almost no one is like me, having written several. I think there must be something to my idea, unfortunately for me. *wry grin*

    I’ll be interested to see the results of this survey when it’s finished.

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  20. I filled out the survey, but got an error form, so I’m not sure that it went through. Just in case, I sold my third novel. I never queried either of the first two, because I knew they weren’t good enough.

  21. I wrote a novel a year in high school (still have them–a haul them out to show to high school students when I do school readings so they know how big a geek I was/am). Then at least three, and I think four, before finally selling what was the fifth one I had written in total (I think–I’ve lost track). But that was to a lousy publisher. My DAW paperback released in October was my ninth or tenth, but in a way it feels like my first.

    My first published books were non-fiction–exciting things like “Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.”

    Interesting survey!

  22. My first novel I wrote to learn how to write a novel. It shows.

    My second novel I knew would be a tough sell, so I didn’t send it out (yes, I have my very own trunk novel now)

    My third novel I felt would sell and it did. UNSHAPELY THINGS will be out in Feb 2007.

    n.b.: I filled out your survey, Tobias, but it gave me a submit error. If you want don’t see my name in there, feel free to add my data from this comment!—Mark

  23. I submitted the survey, but got an error message.

    For the record, I sold the 4th novel I wrote, after writing 5. I wrote my first novel in 1997. My first published novel will be coming out in October 2007.

  24. i wrote one novel before i had my first published… but i honestly don’t think it counts, because i wrote it when i was thirteen and it is so very, very bad that it will remain under password protection until i die. and then some.

  25. Hey, I tried to fill out your survey but got a 404 error message. So here’s my response: The first novel I sold was the 5th one I wrote.

    Technically I also sold my 4th novel, but to a super small traditional press and I wound up having the contract cancelled because I felt the mss couldn’t be made strong enough.

  26. You might consider following this up with a survey on how many times a given novel was submitted before purchase.

    I haven’t written enough novels to show a trend, but I noted in short stories (when I was selling them) that it went from one sale per fifteen submissions to one sale per three at my peak.

  27. The error was just with the page it was getting returned to, but the survey has been catching the comments.

    Mark, that might be a good follow up survey, thanks, I”ll stick that in the queue! πŸ™‚

  28. I think I wrote four novels before the next one was accepted for publication. That one wasn’t sf, but it counts, no? πŸ™‚ Actually, I’m glad those first efforts never made it.


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  30. I tried posting a comment before, but I don’t know if it came across.

    My first book published was the fifth one I wrote. I sold it before it was written. The other four are in a different genre, and I probably won’t be selling them any time soon.

  31. Shalanna, I don’t think you have to sell your first book fast. I sold my fifth. I’d only been writing seriously for two years, but my first couple of books were garbage. Stephen King got years of rejections. So did many other successful authors. Nora Roberts never sold the first book she wrote.

    Interesting survey! I responded.

  32. Sold my first. But I did work as a structural editor for many years so I had a long apprenticeship in narrative structure. And you know. I KNEW all the right people ;P

  33. I wrote two novels in high school, neither of which sold, although one did get a nice rejection letter. I wrote at least ten more novels of various genres before I got my first offer for publication. I have forty novels written now (3 published), but I am the eternal optimist. Probably some of the novels are so bad that I will never figure out how to save them, but I still believe most of them will sell.

  34. I sold the first novel I wrote, IMAGO. It was an amazing process that began when Jim Blaylock suggested I could write a novel, which came out of some of the stories I had in F & SF. I really struggled, but with a lot of help, finished, and I think the story makes some sense. I’m by far from a natural novelist – I have so much respect for those who are (look at Elizabeth Bear! Wow!). Then I wrote two media novels. These really messed me up. I just started writing again at the beginning of 2006. I’m nearly finished with my current book. It’s a much different process, I have a great agent — it is just so different. I can sit around and feel sorry for myself very easily. I was able to work 3 days a week since last fall because everyone at my work is so supportive. So – I’m beyond lucky. However, this book is not sold; just completing it will mean a lot to me.

  35. I sold the third novel I wrote, Gabriel’s Story. It made for a great start, and I’m very glad my first two efforts never saw publication. They were apprentice novels. Very much worth the effort, but best left in a drawer.

  36. My first two novels were written in early high school. They were frankly embarrassing, and are better off languishing in drawers! I was sixteen when my third novel was accepted by a publisher, and eighteen when it was released. Now I am a little embarrassed by it, because (I hope) I have come a long way since then. Interesting survey!

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