First Novel Sales: The Data from Writer Beware

Writer Beware is a publishing industry watchdog group sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America. They’ve recently posted some data on their blog about the advances recieved for first novel sales and many other related facts and figures.

In the piece they ask some very pertinent questions:

What’s the average advance for a first novel? How long does it take the typical first novel to sell? Do most first novelists sell their books on their own, or through an agent? Will publishers and agents consider first novelists who don’t have any short fiction publication credits?

Naturally, the answers to questions like these are legion. No two publishers, editors or novels are alike. For example, according to Tobias Buckell, linked in the Writer Beware article, the variations on all aspects are massive. Look at these figures (though bear in mind that they are over a long period of time and the publishing world is constantly in flux):

58% of our first time novelists had an agent, the other 42% sold the book without an agent, and a high number indicate they got agents right after or during the sale of the book.

The range in agented advances is from $1500 to $40,000

The median agented advance is $6000 (the average is $7500)

The range in unagented advances is from $0 to $15000

The median unagented advance is $3500 (the average is $4051)

Of course, there’s mitigating circumstances, such as the idea that agents won’t take on a book that’s been offered a small advance. Then there’s this snippet of information:

89 authors in this survey have sold more than one book. 47% answered the survey saying they were ‘full time writers’. Here is how that data breaks down:

The range was from $0-$600,000 for an advance on their latest novel.

The median advance for the multiply[sic] published is $12,500.

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy really surprised me. However, this could well be due to fantasy writers selling huge trilogies, resulting in bigger advances.

The range in last Fantasy novel advances is from $1000 to $600,000.

The median novel advance is $15,000 for Fantasy

The range in Science Fiction novel advances is from $0 to $45,000.

The median novel advance is $12,500 for SF.

Averages are similar, but potentials are massively different. There’s loads more data in Buckell’s survey and in makes very interesting reading.

The Writer Beware survey also quotes a kind of straw poll done by Jim C Hines. He admits his data is flawed, as he asked only about authors who had received advances of at least $2,000 for their first novels and had a fairly small group. However, out of 247 responses he got some interesting facts.

Out of the 247 respondents, 116 sold their first novels with zero short fiction publication credits. The general consensus is that short fiction publications can help (assuming they’re published in reputable venues), but they’re far from essential.

Just over half of the respondents sold their first novels through agents. That means that around half didn’t. But that covers things back into the 80s. By recent years, the number of unagented sales had fallen to just over a quarter (around 27%). Still interesting in a world that constantly tells authors it’s impossible to sell without an agent.

Only one respondent self-published a book and later sold it to a larger publisher.

“approximately 10 respondents published first with a small press, and later sold the book to a larger house.”

Approximately 10? With figures this low you’d think they could be exact. Anyway, it doesn’t bode that well for using small press to break into the big publishing world. However:

Steven Saus’s breakdown of sales by genre reveals the growing market presence of small presses over the past ten years, and I wonder whether a survey of second novel sales might paint a more encouraging picture of small press publication as a stepping stone to bigger publishers.

I agree with this. Selling the same book to a small press and then selling it again to a larger publisher may well be fairly uncommon. But selling to a small press and then selling your next book to a bigger publisher may well be a lot more common. I guess we’d need the data to know for sure.

And here’s the one that really made me smile. Everyone knows that behind every overnight success there are years and years of hard work. Real overnight successes are very rare. According to the Writer Beware survey:

The time it took respondents to sell their first novels ranged from 0 to 41 (!) years, but the average was just over 11 years.

Shit, eh? So, keep writing and keep submitting. Giving up after a year or two is showing a distinct lack of staying power.

It’s all very interesting stuff and all the articles I’ve linked have loads of additional info. It’s worth having a read of all of them. Some of the comments are enlightening too.


“Battlefield Earth” officially the suckiest movie ever

This month, Battlefield Earth, an absolute bomb of a movie based on the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, won the Golden Raspberry Award, or Razzie, for “Worst Movie of the Decade.” J.D. Shapiro, the film’s (first) screenwriter, who also wrote the screenplay for Robin Hood: Men in Tights, has subsequently written an open letter via The New York Post to apologise. His article opens:

Let me start by apologizing to anyone who went to see “Battlefield Earth.”

Clearly anything as heavily reliant on Scientology mythos and involvement is bound to start stinking up the place pretty quickly, but Shapiro is quick to point out that his original screenplay was very different to the movie that eventually got made.

It wasn’t as I intended — promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn’t really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those.

However, I have the utmost respect for the guy’s reasoning:

It started, as so many of my choices do, with my Willy Wonker.

It was 1994, and I had read an article in Premiere magazine saying that the Celebrity Center, the Scientology epicenter in Los Angeles, was a great place to meet women.

Trying to get laid eventually led Shapiro to an offer to write a movie and lunch with John Travolta. Anything that starts with you trying to get laid and leads to John Travolta should automatically set off every warning bell you’ve ever had, but there you go.

It’s a long and very amusing story – follow the link above to read the whole thing, it’s well worth it – but a few key lines really stand out for me. There’s this:

A few days after I finished the script, a very excited Travolta called, told me he “loved it,” and wanted to have dinner. At dinner, John said again how much he loved the script and called it “The ‘Schindler’s List’ of sci-fi.”

After a couple of rounds of changes to Shapiro’s original screenplay he was expecting everything to be wrapped up when:

I got another batch of notes. I thought it was a joke. They changed the entire tone. I knew these notes would kill the movie. The notes wanted me to lose key scenes, add ridiculous scenes, take out some of the key characters. I asked Mike where they came from. He said, “From us.” But when I pressed him, he said, “From John’s camp, but we agree with them.”

I refused to incorporate the notes into the script and was fired.

Shapiro kept his name on the movie to get paid, and no one can blame him for that. And he is also pretty philosophical about it:

Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes, I can’t help but be strangely proud of it. Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.

I like this Shapiro guy.

(Thanks to Chris for putting me onto this story!)


Ah, the juvenile fun of it all

My mate James pointed this out to me and I did laugh. There’s been some news lately about the Vienna Boys’ Choir. To quote the Times Online:

The most famous choir in the world has been caught up in the wave of paedophile scandals sweeping Germany and Austria, with eight former choristers denouncing their teachers in the past few days.

This stuff is just hideous and not at all funny. But this particular article is hilarious when you read the byline.

Vienna Boys’ Choir caught up in sex abuse scandals
Roger Boyes, Berlin Correspondent of The Times

I know it’s juvenile, but you can’t write comedy like that.


District 9 – review

Humans OnlyI’m behind the times on this one, but I missed District 9 when it went round the cinema circuit. However, having picked up the DVD recently, I finally got to see it and find out what all the prawn fuss was over. There’ll be spoilers later, but I’ll give you fair warning.

District 9 is a very imaginative and original sci-fi movie. A massive spaceship breaks down over Johannesburg in 1985 and nothing happens. After three months of wondering, the humans finally fly up there in choppers and cut their way in to see what’s going on. They find a million very sick, malnourished aliens on board. A “humanitarian” effort is mounted. (Interestingly, what are we going to do about that term when aliens and humans do mix freely, as will obviously happen eventually. Lifetarian effort? Suggestions in the comments please).

These aliens, derogatarily referred to as prawns due to their distinct prawn-like appearance, end up in a refugee camp in Johannesburg that quickly becomes a slum. Crime and violence are rampant and people have serious issues with the whole situation. After 20 years of this an effort is finally mounted to evict the aliens and move them 200km outside town to a new refugee camp, where it will be easier to forget about them.

Wickus Van Der Merwe (seriously, one of the best protagonist names in ages) is tasked with the legal and logistic job of getting this eviction happening. Naturally, things go awry and all kinds of mayhem ensue. During one of many skirmishes that occur during the eviction, Wickus gets a spray of juice from some alien tech in the face and it alters his DNA. This alteration causes him to become slowly more prawn than human and he finds himself trapped between the human world and the prawn world and the only place to hide is District 9.

The film is shot in a very original way. It’s primarily (at the start) a documentary being made with new interviews and old stock footage of Wickus and news footage of events surrounding the start of the eviction. Security camera and CCTV footage is spliced into it and the gaps are filled with regular film-making. In literature this kind of “head-hopping” can be very poorly done and rarely comes over well, but with this film they’ve pulled it off. The prawns are excellent creatures, brilliantly realised with an array of top notch special effects, and District 9 itself is flawlessly believable.

The story doesn’t pull any punches and is as gritty and gruesome as such a situation would really be. It was all too much for my wife and she went off to do something else. We follow Wickus as he goes on the run from the company he works for. There’s more going on than anyone realises and Wickus slowly discovers secrets and gets inextricably tied up in them.

And here’s where the film falls down for me. It raises a lot of questions and answers virtually none of them. After the next picture I’ll discuss in more details those issues, but if you want to avoid spoilers don’t read on after the pic until you’ve seen the film.

District 9 is an excellent achievement in film-making. It’s different, raw and clever and it keeps a relentless pace. It has a commentary on racism, coroporate greed and the nature of “humanity” that is explored really well. It’s definitely worth seeing, if you can handle it. But be prepared to be frustrated by a lot of unanswered questions.

Read on after the pic for more, though beware lurking spoilers.

So, the unanswered questions. Let me highlight my many issues by listing all the questions I need answers to:

– Why did the alien space craft break down and grind to a halt over Johannesburg?

– Why did the alien commanders, or the smart ones, disappear?

– Why did the little craft that was hidden under Christopher’s shack drop from the mothership in the first place?

– Why was Christopher so much smarter than the others?

– Why was he desperately searching among wreckage for alien tech with this mysterious liquid in it? Where did that wreckage and rubbish come from?

– Why was there so much alien weaponry in District 9? Who brought it down from the mothership?

– Why did the liquid turn Wickus into a prawn?

– Why did the liquid aboard the little ship suddenly make the mothership capable of flying back to the prawn homeworld?

– Why couldn’t Christopher have done whatever he did (on the ground) on the mothership in the first place?

– Why didn’t they stay in space while he did that, rather than coming to hover over an Earth city?

It seems that the key point of this film is that Christopher spent 20 years in District 9 gathering this alien fluid to effect the escape by powering up the mothership. That makes no sense to me. If that’s what it took to get the ship going, surely they would have gathered all that liquid from various techs on board before they even became stranded. And Christopher is always talking about “his people” – is he the prawn leader? There’s no exploration or explanation of the hierarchy and what really happened before the events of the film. Obviously, there’s only so much that can be explored, but a few clues dropped here and there would have fleshed out the whole premise really well.

We can have a guess at the answers to several of the questions above, but none of my guesses really satisfy my curiousity. It’s unfortunate that an otherwise excellent film has all these holes in the plot and premise that take away from the overall enjoyment of the experience. Leave me some comments with your views – have you seen District 9? Am I being really dense and missing something obvious with all these questions?