Friday, March 26, 2010

Actual Data on SF and Fantasy Publishing

By way of Charles Stross's recent run of articles on the publishing business, here is an assemblage of data on author's experiences based on surveys taken by two well-known authors, Jim Hines and Tobias Buckell.

Jim Hines's focus is on how authors went about breaking into the business. According to the results Hines has amassed on his web site, self-publishing is not the route it has often been made to seem by the hype surrounding a handful of exceptional success stories (Vince Flynn and Matthew Reilly come to mind), while success publishing short fiction seems to make little difference to the sale of a first novel. (It certainly didn't help Dominic Green, the Hugo-nominated short story writer-to whom Interzone devoted a special issue last year-who has thus far been unable to get a publisher to take on his novel-length efforts.) Furthermore, over half of those surveyed made their first professional sale without knowing either the publisher or the agent-which Hines presents as another myth busted. (I think he's a bit hasty there-that same figure also means nearly half of those who made sales did know them, suggesting a significant advantage for the small minority of aspiring authors who have such contacts-though Hines does not deny that connections help.)

Tobias Buckell (working separately) adds to the picture with a discussion of median advances for first novels. Five thousand dollars seems to be the median for those, with that figure rising up to $12,500 (typically after five to seven books in as many years), with agented books getting more than unagented ones, hardbacks getting more than paperbacks, and fantasy getting more than science fiction.

Of course, a significant question is how long it takes an author to get to this point. Hines notes in his own assessment that writers are commonly in their mid-thirties when they sell a first novel (which is a long way from hitting on the idea that this is what you want to do with your life when you're twelve, and puts the hype so often surrounding younger authors in perspective), generally don't sell that book to a major publisher (three or four sales seem the average before they get to that point), and have typically been working at their craft for a decade (and often more). (That first sale is also unlikely to be their first attempt as Buckell found. Fewer than a third of those surveyed-32 percent-sold the first novel they wrote, and more than half wrote three or more books. Thirteen percent wrote more than seven books.)

I must admit I found myself wondering about an issue that was not discussed in much of this analysis, which is when these differing authors broke in, and accordingly, how the experience has differed from one decade to another-a point I've long suspected makes a difference. (My guess is that in recent years writers have tended to break in later, and after longer effort.) I also wonder about the possible cross-comparisons between these differing data sets. (For instance, I suspect that those writers who started earlier in life-at sixteen, for instance, rather than twenty-five-took more years and more novels to arrive at that first sale, even if they also managed to do so at an earlier age.) On the whole, though, there are few surprises here, the data generally tracking well with my own casual observations, and the scarcity of comprehensive study of these issues makes these examinations well worth a look from anyone interested in the issue.

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