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.

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