May 29 2010

How Long Does it Take to Get a Novel Published?

Jim Hines did a survey on how novelists break into the industry.  His ~250 respondents are skewed towards fantasy, romance and sci-fi, but I suspect that it’s not wildly different if you’re writing superhero action or historical or historical zombie, etc. Here are several main points I took away from his survey.

1.  More so than in the past, novelists are breaking into the industry by landing a literary agent.

I suspect that this is because publishers have more submissions and tighter profit margins.  I love the Internet, but it has not been kind to print media.

2. The typical (median) novelist was first published at age 36.

Age # of Respondents % of Total
17-20 2 .8%
21-25 10 4.0%
26-30 50 20.2%
31-35 58 23.5%
36-40 55 22.3%
41-45 37 15.0%
46-50 20 8.1%
51+ 13 5.3%

I think that younger prospective authors (like, ahem, myself) typically fare worse in the submissions process because we generally haven’t had years of serious writing practice.  The typical respondent in this survey had been writing for ten years before getting a novel published.

3.  Respondents that studied English in college did not get published significantly faster than people that practiced in writing workshops. However, all of the methods of practice polled were faster than (presumably) not practicing.

  • Undergraduate degree in English or writing: typically 6.5 years to get published
  • Weekend workshop: 8.5 years
  • Week-long workshop: also 8.5 years
  • Writing groups: 9.5 years
  • Workshop longer than a week: 10 years
  • Graduate degree in English or writing: 10 years
  • Attended literary conventions: 10.5 years
  • None of the above: 15 years

On the whole, the typical (median) novelist took ten years to get published.  The main conclusion I would draw from this data is that the differences between the methods of practice are not as significant as the difference between doing anything and doing nothing. Practice any way you can and don’t worry if you don’t have an MFA or a month-long workshop under your belt.  (Also, if you go to a literary convention, please make it a form of practice by having literary agents and/or editors evaluate your query letter).

About 40% of these authors had an undergraduate degree in English or Writing and fewer than 10% had a graduate degree in English or Writing.

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15 responses so far

15 Responses to “How Long Does it Take to Get a Novel Published?”

  1. Steton 30 May 2010 at 4:52 am

    Age doesn’t matter as much as number of words written. Once you’ve passed the 500,000-word mark, you’re good to go!

  2. B. Macon 30 May 2010 at 8:28 am

    Yeah, I think that sheer practice hugely improves a writer’s skills.

    However, I would caution that I don’t think fan-fiction makes for good practice. I’d recommend practicing by creating a story from the ground up rather than taking somebody else’s characters and premise and setting, etc. In-depth reviewers help a lot, too. (In contrast, a fairly popular story on might have a hundred reviews but the longest one is 50 words and the average is 20). I find writing groups and websites with comments from professionals (QueryShark, Rejectionist, Evil Editor, etc) to be extremely helpful.

    (Also, I have written about a million words of nonfiction and have not yet gotten any fiction published–that said, I think my nonfiction has improved considerably over the past few years).

  3. the somewhat silent lurkeron 30 May 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I’unno about fanfiction. It’s definitely a great start, but you’re right in that it doesn’t substitute actual original-story experience, and neither does nonfiction (although it might be helpful in your research.)

    In the end, just write from your heart, enjoy your characters and your story, and publish when YOU think you’re ready. I’ve seen too many people who want to publish their FIRST novel, especially teenagers, way before they’ve even learned to write well. Atmos. I’m 15, I know I’m not ready to publish and I don’t WANT to publish, and almost every other teen writer I know is looking at agents before starting chapter 4. It’s good to be proactive, but seriously? Just wait. In two years, you’ll look back on your work and go ‘What IS that sh*t?’

  4. Steton 30 May 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Yeah, fiction and nonfiction are different animals. As are different types (though not necessarily genres) of fiction. A million words of fiction and I’ve sold three novels, but if I sat down to write a poem or a short story it’d be no better than a teenager’s.

    I don’t know anything about fanfiction, but I guess what I really meant by ‘good to go’ is, you’re probably in the ballpark of as good as you’re gonna get. So ‘go’, and you’ll probably still fail miserably … but it won’t be for lack of practice! You’ve probably gotta have read five million (or something) words in your genre, too–but most writers have already done that, I expect.

  5. Contra Gloveon 30 May 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I tried writing fanfiction in my youth, but I could never pour much effort into it, since I wouldn’t be able to do much with someone else’s characters anyway.

    You’re better off practicing with original fiction.

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 30 May 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Yikes. O.O

    Well, all the more reason to work hard and practice. I’ve written fanfiction before, it actually did me a lot of good. Before I started writing it, let’s just say my writing was horrendous. I had no sense of structure, barely any grasp on grammar, and the only decent thing was my spelling. TVTropes is filling some of the gaps in my knowledge, and has inspired a handful of ideas.

    Haha, I have a lot to learn, but that’s all part of the fun. My friend wants me to tutor her in writing, too, so I must be doing a few things right. Now if I can just stop being distracted by every little thing that comes alo- SQUIRREL!

  7. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 30 May 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Not really. Australia doesn’t have squirrels, unless you count squirrel gliders. Come to think of it, the word “squirrel” sound pretty funn- WOMBAT!!

  8. Ragged Boyon 01 Jun 2010 at 8:29 am

    Oh dear! I feel like I’ve been wasting so much valuable time. 500,000 words? My comic book script is roughly 6000 and most of that is just description of panels. That’s pathetic! And while I think my creativity is more suit to visual media I do want to write novels someday. Yo necessito practica!

    Anyone have any good recommendations for why to practice? Website? Exercises? Should I pick up my empty, yellow notebook and just start writing?

  9. B. Macon 01 Jun 2010 at 10:56 am

    Ehh… I think (hope) it might be fewer words for comic book writers than novelists. 500,000 words is about 6-7 novel manuscripts. If I am correct in guessing that the effect of practice is probably more closely connected to completed (manu)scripts than word count, then I think it’d probably be sufficient to finish something like 10 comic book issues, even though 320 comic book pages won’t come close to 500,000 words. (MAYBE 75,000, if you have long panel descriptions).

    Although each comic book might not be superior in every way to the one that came before it*, I’d expect that the tenth book will be so much better than the first and second that they will be scarcely recognizable as the work of the same author.

    *I mean, hopefully the author would experiment and take risks while practicing. Some things won’t work. So the fourth book might not work as well as the third book did, say. But the author’s development over greater periods of time will be marked. In particular, I think inexperienced writers are more vulnerable to trying to be clever to (ineptly) gin up suspense–i.e. dramatic reveals where the characters are all computers or squirrels or the protagonist was the killer all along or poorly-executed surprise endings that make no sense in light of how the characters had been depicted.

  10. Ragged Boyon 01 Jun 2010 at 11:03 am

    “Anyone have any good recommendations for why to practice?”

    – Did I seriously write this sentence? I meant how not why. There are tons of reason for practice. I’m so silly.

  11. B. Macon 01 Jun 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Well, as for how to practice, I would recommend just starting to write. I think it’d be best to involve reviewers only after you’ve finished a draft of the first issue– or maybe if you get TOTALLY stuck and don’t think you can free yourself without outside help.

  12. Steton 01 Jun 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I don’t think it’s practice so much as just writing. I mean, you write a book, and it sucks so badly that you just toss it in a drawer. Then you write another, and it sucks so badly that 52 agents reject you. Then you write another, and it sucks so badly that 38 completely different agents reject you, though two of them write personal letters telling you how much you suck, which for some reason people tell you is -happy- news. Then you write another, and it’s actually not too bad. 40 agents reject it, on the grounds that it’s actually not too good, either.

    Then you write another and exactly _one_ of the 32 agents you approach wants to rep you. Then he can’t sell it. So you write another, and he can’t sell that, either. Then you write another, and it sells. Then you write another, and it sells. Then you write another, and it doesn’t sell. Then you write another, and it sells.

    That’s my story so far.

    So while I think that writing groups and critiques and all of that are useful (though nothing is as useful as obsessive reading, which I’d be shocked to hear isn’t already the lifestyle of any wannabe writer!), I think the best practice is trying to write salable manuscripts.

    But I only know (a little) about novels. Comic books are a complete mystery to me.

    Also, the amount and quality of writing help for new novelists today completely eclipses what was available twenty, and even ten years ago. So maybe you meddlesome kids won’t take quite so long to learn your lessons. (Though I imagine you’ll be forced to learn brand new ones …)

  13. B. Macon 01 Jun 2010 at 10:52 pm

    “So maybe you meddlesome kids won’t take quite so long to learn your lessons. (Though I imagine you’ll be forced to learn brand new ones …)”

    Yes. Oh God, yes. For example, when an author angrily complains on Facebook or Twitter about some nasty review he got or how much the publishing industry is irking him at the moment, EVERYBODY CAN READ THAT. In contrast, when a writer 20 or 30 years ago complained about a review or his boss to a few close friends, it wouldn’t make him look petty and/or thin-skinned to the world. PS: It is pretty well-established that individual bad reviews, no matter how scathing, do not lose the author sales. Given that there’s a 99% chance each reader has never heard of you or the book, anything that exposes your work to them cannot reduce your odds of selling to them*. Besides, some people will buy it just to see if it’s really as bad as the reviewer alleges.

    *Just don’t go trolling for negative publicity. If you publically establish yourself as an ass, publishers will remember.

    More generally, I think publishers would like new authors to be internet-savvy. It’s not a strict requirement, but it makes marketing easier and reduces the chances of the author accidentally killing his career with the aforementioned death-by-Tweet. Marketing and sales skills in general. Shakespeare didn’t have to go out and promote his book at signing events. He didn’t hit San Diego with a street team** or rent a booth at a small literary convention. Every publisher is different and has different expectations for its authors, but generally I think that most publishers expect the author to do most of the work promoting the book. Until you hit the big time, or at least the medium-bordering-on-big time, I would expect that the publisher’s promotional assistance will be largely limited to helping you promote the book. Maybe they’ll set you up with signing events at B&N, but it’s up to you to actually pull it off.

    **Wow, it’s late. I’ve made this sound like dealing drugs. The English translation is “selling stuff at Comic Con on a really low budget.”

  14. Steton 02 Jun 2010 at 6:19 am

    Well, those are lessons that -we- need to learn. About not kvetching on Facebook and Twitter, I mean. Your generation already knows that. (And you’re also -on- Facebook and Twitter; I’m not.) But when you sell your first novel (and I don’t much doubt that you, or a few others here, will, if you’re driven enough), you’re gonna have to deal with electronic rights of types that I don’t even understand. And while you’re writing you’ll be also working on the iThing ap and the cellphone whoodingy and God know what else. Blog tours. Don’t get me started.

    Of -course- publishers want authors to shoulder as much of the promotion as possible, for the same reason that I would like you to send me money in the mail. Costs them nothing, and they might get a nice dividend. The question for the author is, ‘Am I better served investing X hours in promotion, or those same X hours in writing another book?’ The answer is almost always: writing another book. Though it’s hard to resist the pressure. You’ve gotta be a bit of an asshole or you drive yourself crazy.

  15. B. Macon 02 Jun 2010 at 7:18 am

    “…[The manuscript] sucks so badly that 38 completely different agents reject you, though two of them write personal letters telling you how much you suck, which for some reason people tell you is happy news.” It most assuredly is! The only* reason to send a personalized rejection is if the agent or editor sees some talent there and thinks you might make it some day. He probably silently executes hundreds of manuscripts each week. Making the cut for a personalized rejection letter is a vote of confidence that solidly puts you in the top 5% of submissions. It means you’re in the hunt.

    *Well, I’ve heard of an editor sending a personalized rejection letter to a plagiarist urging him not to strangle his career in the crib. It was basically phrased like “Hey, I liked this story, but I liked it better when my friend wrote it. Please stop sending it out or the only responses you will get will be from our legal department.” I can’t think of any other reason to send a personalized rejection letter that would reflect poorly on the author.

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