87. How to succeed as a novelist – the facts

At last, there’s some real data, which busts a lot of myths. Jim Hines, a fantasy writer, published a survey of 246 novelists and now we know what the elements of success look like. The sample is probably not representative, being made of people who chose to respond to Jim, and it seems to be biased towards writers of YA, fantasy, sci-fi and romance. It also defines a successful author as one who earned an advance of at least US$2,000. Though the data is far from clean, it’s a great deal better than the hunches, prejudices, and sheer opinions that I’ve had up till now.

People tell you all kinds of things about how to succeed. Get an agent. Self-publishing is the way to go and you’ll net an offer from a traditional publisher. Others folks say, put in your time publishing short stories to earn your spurs. Do an MFA. It’s all in who you know. There’s no shortage of contradictory opinions. But which, if any, are true?

What the data says is:

  • You do need to put in the time learning your craft. The average time writing before first getting a novel published was 11.5 years.
  • The average age of debut novel publishing was 36.
  • A track record in publishing short stories is not necessary. The average number of stories sold before their novel was accepted was 7.7, but fully 116 of the 246 authors had zero prior sales of short stories. It looks like a portfolio of short story publication hasn’t been necessary since the 1980s. This was a revelation to me, since I decided last year on the basis of good advice to stop writing novels and concentrate on building up a track-record in short stories first.
  • Getting an agent helps a lot. Most of the sample (55%) achieved publication through an agent. Selling the first novel without an agent increased the time spent writing before breakthrough by 3.3 years
Hiines publication survey
Steve Saus
  • Having an agent is not completely necessary. 29% of the sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher. Direct submission to publishers was more common in the past. 100% of those who first published in the 1970s went this route. This dropped in each decade, particularly for YA and fantasy novels, while romance novels showed a small increase in direct sales to publishers. By the 2000’s only 27.7% of the whole sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher, while 67.3% went through an agent.
  • Self-publishing is not a good route to getting an offer from a mainstream publisher. Only 1 of the 246 authors self-published their novel and went on to sell it to a publisher. This is not to say it isn’t a valid route to making sales
  • You don’t need a degree in English or Creative Writing to get published. Only 38% of the sample had such an undergraduate degree and only 10% had a Masters.
  • Networking may help, though the effect isn’t clear. 61% had attended a writer’s convention and 59% were members of a writing group. Having attended conventions reduced the number of years spent writing before publication of the first novel by 2.5.
  • You don’t need to know an agent or publisher beforehand. Less than a quarter of agented authors had been recommended by a friend, and only 5% knew the agent beforehand in a personal capacity. 


    For those of you who’re interested, there’s a detailed statistical analysis of his data by Steve Saus

10 thoughts on “87. How to succeed as a novelist – the facts

  1. Thanks for posting this info. I have been struggling with what to do with the novel I am writing and have been deluged with conflicting info. This helps clarify things a little.

    Liked by 1 person

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