How Many Novels Did You Write Before Selling One? 150 Writers Answer

The results of my survey concerning how many books a published writer wrote before they sold their first are in.

This survey came about because not too long ago I overhead a newer writer talking about the fact that he had been submitting his first novel to publishers and was growing quite discouraged by the sheer number of rejections he’d received. The writer he was talking to asked him what he was doing while waiting for the first one to make the rounds.

“Trying to write a better query letter,” was the response.

“So you’re not working on another novel?” the other writer asked. “Because you realize you’re probably not going to sell your first.”

On the surface that sounds like a pretty harsh response, but talking to any given novelist and you’ll probably find that for a great number of them they did not break into the field with their first novel. In conversation with other novelists I found all sorts of experiences and paths to publishing, with first book written being first book sold more the exception than the rule.
However I was recently challenged when I stated that, so I decided that there was one way to get some raw data (and also reminded again by John Brown in an online discussion when he asked if anyone had ever done a survey of this): a quick and dirty survey. It’s not a perfect survey. There was slightly confusing language, a repeated question, and I’m aware of all the reasons a survey can go wrong, but I still found it interesting, nonetheless.

I received 150 responses from a variety of authors, most of them SF/F, but thanks to Diana Peterfreund and others, a large number of Romance writers.

Of these published novelists, 65% did not break in with their first novel. 35% did.

I asked, in the first question, how many novels a writer wrote before selling their first. Here is the breakdown of that with percentages rounded.
32% wrote one novel
13% wrote two
11% wrote 3
8% wrote 4
9% wrote 5
3% wrote 6
13% wrote 7 or more novels
6% wrote some short fiction first
5% wrote a ton of short fiction first

What does that tell us? Out of a group of 10 writers who will go on to be published (we can’t guess at how many are turned away unpublished, right, this is a self selecting group), 3 will sell the first novel they write. 1 will write some, or a lot, of short fiction before selling their first novel. 1-2 will sell their second. The other half will write 3 or more novels before breaking in.
This is not intended to discourage. It is intended to encourage writers to keep busy after the first one is done. Also, many of those writers who wrote multiple books were able to sell their later books. They’d grown and gotten better, and could rewrite them.

With this in mind, having heard some novelists who noted that selling a first novel could be a bit stressful, I also asked the following question. Would you recommend starting your career off by selling your first novel?
5% picked ‘hell yes!’
15% picked ‘yes’
9% picked ‘no’
9% picked ‘hell no’
62% picked ‘don’t know’ or ‘sold a later novel.’ Presumably the ‘I don’t know’ selections were later novel sellers.

So those who sold their first seemed almost evenly divided between the experience. There were a lot of comments, so I’m going to provide sample of many of them here after the jump.

Here they are, a handful of randomly selected comments:

I do know a few authors who wrote one novel and sold it. But it’s rare. And I actually suspect that unless you’ve been writing a lot of things–short stories, screenplays, nonfiction–that these unpublished and probably unpublishable novels are merely the “school” we attended on our way to publication.

If your first novel will sell, why on earth not? I recently sold my first novel and got a four-book deal from it. Definitely at times I wish I’d known more than I did — in some ways I felt “not ready” to handle the professional side of it — but if you feel your first novel is good enough to shop AND the agent and publisher agree with you, you’d be a fool not to take the experience and learn from it.
I would advise against “work for hire” unless that is a writer’s specific career aim.

After experience writing six subsequent novels, went back and totally rewrote and expanded first novel (using only about one sentence from the original) into the first three novels of a YA series.
I am not sure how to answer this. The first novel I sold was the sixth one I had written, but then soon after that I sold the third one I had written.

I answered “yes” to question #4 but in fact had sold half a dozen short stories, +/-, before I sent out my first novel.

It depends on the writer. It took me 15 years to write that first novel, so a lot of time and effort went into it. The fact that it sold was hugely gratifying. The second novel took a year, and it sold, too. Since then, five have not and three have. So selling the first is no guarantee of an ongoing career! 0.99%

If at first you don’t succeed, give the fuck up. The world doesn’t need that many new writers. Consider doing macrame.

I don’t know if it’s so important to have written more than one *novel* before selling one… but I definitely *definitely* think new writers should have experience with short stories first.

Yes, conditionally. I probably would have been better off had my second novel been my first, but it was a ~sequel~ to the first, so it’s sort of hard to imagine that way.

I had written a bunch of short stories, but the novel was the first time I tried that length

The second one sold first, but the first sold second.
The novel I sold was the third written to send out–I was writing other novels at the time.

You need to learn the craft first, whether by writing novels or by writing lots and lots of short stories…

Keep writing

Write. And then write more. And then keep on writing. *g*
It was my first novel and my only novel. It took four years to write and twelve years to sell.

I am a unique and delicate flower.

I’m glad I got the practice novels out of the way without anyone seeing them. I look back on them now with a sense of dread, or possibly, woe.
I can definitely say that my first novel was NSFP (Not Suitable For Publication) but it did help me work out how to plot, which came in handy for the second novel.

My first book was the second book I wrote, and my second published book will be the fifth book I wrote. My third published book would have been my third written novel, but the publisher went out of business, which I guess proves that God did not intend for novels to be published chronologically.

The rule of thumb is you have 500,000 to 1,000,000 bad words in you before you start writing good ones. That’s five to ten bad novels.
I may have sold the first novel I ever wrote, but I probably also undersold it.

Most of us are probably grateful we sold ANY of our books, whatever the order!

My first novel was terrible. My second novel was slightly less terrible.

My third novel was probably saleable. The first draft of my fourth novel was burned, and the whole thing rewritten from scratch.

28 thoughts on “How Many Novels Did You Write Before Selling One? 150 Writers Answer”

  1. I was so glad to see the results. I didn’t think my answers were registered as it gave me an error several times. So sorry if you rec’d mine four times!
    The comments emphasize what we already knew – our experiences are as diverse as our stories. Great survey!

  2. Steve: np
    Paula, any duplicates were easy enough to weed out, the error was that when you finished the survey it was sending you to the wrong page on my website 🙂 So no biggie 🙂

  3. A great survey idea, but I can’t help but wonder if you’re plagued by confusion of what is meant by the phrase “sold your first novel.”
    I can parse this as either:
    a) sold the first novel you wrote (regardless of whether it was the first one of your novels to sell)
    b) your first novel to sell (regardless of how many novels you’d written prior to that point without selling any of them).
    Ambiguity is king, but we keep striving to overturn the monarchy all the same.

  4. “with first book written being first book sold”
    “I asked, in the first question, how many novels a writer wrote before selling their first”
    Title of the survey: “How many novels did you write before selling your first?”
    Another question: “Was the first novel you sold the first novel you ever wrote?”
    I can’t see where the confusion could arise.
    Lawrence, it seems to me that you’ve tried too hard to sound intelligent here and came off quite the opposite.

  5. Tobias,
    Confused on the summary numbers you stated. Did the break-in numbers come from a different question? Because, as stated, it looks like 43% broke in with the first novel they wrote.
    32% wrote one novel
    6% wrote some short fiction first
    5% wrote a ton of short fiction first
    The interesting thing is that the results, even at 35%, defy the conventional wisdom that first novels rarely sell.

  6. Smith (if that’s your real name),
    As I am in that boatload of authors who has not yet sold a novel (though having written a few), I did not partake of the survey directly.
    My source for ambiguity was thus limited to the survey’s summary above, and not the questionnaire itself. I’m happy to learn from your examples that the survey was more direct, even at the expense of making myself look foolish.

  7. There is hope. As we’ve discussed before, Tobias, facing the challenge of finishing a novel only to find out it was the model with training wheels, I zigged and started writing short stories to work on the toolbox. Or, to put it another way, it’s easier to learn how to handle snakes from working with small snakes first. From writing all the partials and the completed stories, I think I’ve got some moves down. Now comes the proof.
    Excuse me while I go wrangle that anaconda over there.

  8. I haven’t written short fiction since college. I don’t know if short fiction is a necessary prelude to writing a novel. The forms are so different. That’s like saying an epic poet should practice haikus first. i know great novelists who coudln’t write a story less than 100k if you chained them to a desk.
    What I did write, however, were quite a bit of newspaper columns, where I could establish a “voice.”
    I think the “writing short stories first” is a development common to only science fiction and literary fiction writers. There aren’t a lot of markets open to short fiction from romance writers (maybe the true confessions mags? but those are very particular stories, and don’t always have much in common with the novel romance form — definitely no historicals, paranormals, or third person!) or chick lit writers.
    The 35% includes people who wrote short fiction first, because they are still saying they sold the first novel they wrote. Some also sold short fiction as well.
    I’m surprised at the 35% though. I only know one or two people who sold the first novel they wrote, and one of those sold it only after a complete rewrite, a decade or so, and 25 other published novels under her belt.

  9. Lawrence, sorry you got slammed buddy, in general people are usually polite here *frowns*.
    Steve: there’s always hope, someone has to be that 35%, right?
    Diana, yeah, that advice about short fiction doesn’t necessarily work in SF either, some people don’t do short and that’s that! As for 35%, it struck me as higher than I expected, yeah, but not too surprising. I know a number of authors who sold their first novel on their first try. I would have guessed 20-25% myself.
    But that’s what is cool about at least having some figures 🙂

  10. Since I was only 11 years old when I wrote my first novel, I assumed there wasn’t a chance in heck of publishing it. So, I never bothered looking into it. I won’t tell you how many years it’s been since then and I’ve forgotten how many novels I’ve written since then. It was only last year that I wrote a novel I thought had a chance at publication and that’s when the learning process started for this business. And I’m still learning.

  11. This is interesting for me, because I’m contemplating writing my first novel (er, not counting 100 handwritten pages when I was in third grade and obsessed with ballerinas). I’ve written a handful of short stories, sold two to anthologies, not tried very hard to sell the others. I am, on the other hand, a journalist with going on five years of experience writing and being published on a variety of nonfiction topics. The journalism experience includes literary criticism and review, and I’ve also done a fair amount of copy editing and proofreading, leaving me vastly overequipped to analyze my fiction ideas rather than actually writing them down. I’m doing my best to get past that.
    One way that journalism has spoiled me, though, is that I’m really used to my first drafts being publication-quality; when you write on the kind of deadlines I usually have, you don’t have any other option. I’m also used to doing contracted or commissioned work. Any time I spend writing is near-guaranteed to get paid, and since I do a fair amount of medical journalism, it gets paid pretty well. I’m contemplating the idea of writing fifty thousand words or more on spec, with a roughly 65% chance (absent other relevant factors) that I will never sell them and a probably much greater chance that if I do, I will be paid on the order of pennies per hour of work. That’s… daunting, to say the least. I don’t have the world’s smallest ego and I’m all in favor of self-indulgence and doing fun things just because they’re fun, but it’s hard to pull out any of the usual reasons for writing a novel despite overwhelming odds–you know, “I write because I have to”, “I know no one else has ever had this idea before and it could make the world a better place”, etc.–and have them stack up against “If I’m going to spend all that time writing, I might as well spend it writing for decent pay”.
    A lot of people have said there’s value in using short stories to train up to novel-length work. I wonder whether those who have nonfiction writing careers find that experience similarly useful, or whether they’re a liability to a greater extent than non-writing day jobs, or salaried day jobs, would be. Since I’m freelancing, more time working is more money. I could write a novel, or I could write an article that would pay for this month’s health insurance. Hmmm. Let me think about that.
    Also, whenever someone says “First novels don’t sell” I find myself with a superstitious urge to write a quick and crappy first novel to dispell the bad mojo. It probably doesn’t work that way, but I don’t want to invest a ton of time–especially since I work in a profession where time is money–and emotional energy and effort into something that’s likely to tank. I guess one’s first novel should be for love of writing, and if I ever do get around to working on this one, that’s what it will be, as my short stories have been. It’s just very strange to be in a writing-for-money mindset and try to wrap my head around doing a huge attention-sucking timesink project just for love.
    Thanks for making me think about it, anyway! If I can settle this to my internal satisfaction, I do think writing that first novel will be a lot of fun. I just have to get past the weirdness inherent in taking my most marketable skill and deliberately applying it to likely-unmarketable work.

  12. That’s why I think a lot of writers who drift into freelance don’t come back out. I have a similar problem with motivation on writing short fiction for 5 cents/word now that I’ve made much more than that writing some nonfiction 🙂
    On the other hand, life is more than just putting food on the table…

  13. I think if most novelists tried to work out how much they were being paid per word — or per hour! — you would have to stock up on liquor and anti-depressants.
    I come from a newspaper background, so I’m not used to multiple drafts. Total rewriting is a skill I’m learning backwards. And, after a while, you can go to contract on proposal, which has its benefits and drawbacks.
    You’re right, Tobias, that a lot of people just aren’t short story writers and that’s that, but I think I hear the advice about writing short stories a lot more in the writing SF community than in other genres — probably because of the market opportunities, and also the history. In romance, I think a corollary might be the common advice to start writing category romances. Most of the biggies got their start in category (Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann, Jenny Crusie, etc.), so you have a history of it working, but at the same time, a lot of people can’t write them and shouldn’t try.

  14. As one of those “short first” writers, I agree that short and long fiction are coffee bean and coffee tables apart. I started writing a novel, found I had problems, rewrote (and rewrote, repeat) the first chapter until it sparkled. By that time I realized I needed to get my toolbox in order before I tackled the novel. The characters and I agreed to that, BTW. So I worked on short stories to get a “story telling voice” and to work on descriptions, pace, characterization by dialog, story arc, developing confidence that I could finish, along with the basics of spelling and grammer (which still trip me up).
    I’ve been published for non-fiction. I’ve written newsletters and funny pieces before. This first novel I’m going to attempt has a voice closer to my own real voice, my newsletter voice, so I think it’ll be easier. I’m still not ready to attempt that first novel idea, though. And I’m only attempting this one because it’s a good idea fit for a voice I’m comfortable wearing.
    Along the way I’m still working on the short stories to keep growing and learning.

  15. Got this link from Jay Lake’s LJ.
    THANK YOU! 🙂 I’m working on my third novel having buried the first two because they were so horrid. It’s reassuring to see this sort of data.
    As to the question of writing short, first, I think it’s a personal thing. For some folks, they can’t write short to save their lives. For me, writing short (and selling it) was a sort of validation that yes, I do have a shot at this. It was also a way of picking up some of the basic skills I needed without being lost in the novel-length woods for months on end (business skills, including rejection handling, as well as craft). Novels require some different tools in the box, but some of the tools work for both forms.

  16. Short fiction is not a necessary precursor to writing a salable novel: I never wrote salable short fiction until after writing the whole first monster (which came out as three fat mass-markets.) Thinking that it was a necessary precursor kept me from writing a novel years before–I couldn’t write short, and kept having stories grow and grow…so I’d drop that one, and start another, and it would grow and grow and grow, and I’d stop that one and start another, and….so forth. Writing a lot of unsalable words before the salable ones probably *is* a necessary precursor…very few of us are born geniuses, and writing is a craft that needs diverse skills in areas not obviously related to one another (at least, not obvious when you start.)
    Some are natural novelists, and naturally come up with the sort of story that will not fit in 5000 or even 12,000 words. Some are natural short-story writers, and struggle when faced with 500 blank pages to fill…they tend to write episodic “novels” at first (and sometimes always.) Just as some people are naturally songwriters and others naturally compose symphonies, writers vary in their innate talent for “big” plots over “short” plots.
    Nonfiction writing isn’t a necessary precursor, but it can be very useful. In my case, the first writing I sold (not the first I wrote) was nonfiction. I wrote for a newspaper and for magazines. Nonfiction is easier to sell (the market is bigger) and experience with newspaper and magazine editors, deadlines, and the business side of things is all gravy when you finally sell fiction.
    Also, on the craft side, the toolkit for writing nonfiction is part of the toolkit needed for fiction. The best nonfiction is written as well as the best fiction, with the same linguistic tools, from vocabulary to structure. Informing and persuading exist in fiction, too: we have information we need to convey to the reader, and we are persuading readers that our invented world is real.
    And the egoboo aspect counts…when the novel or short story is wending its way through a maze of rejections, a check from a magazine or newspaper keeps the writer from sinking into the worst depressive pit.
    For the born novelist, I think nonfiction is an excellent training ground if (and it’s a big if) you happen to like writing nonfiction. The only danger (seen in some fiction written by people who started out in science journals with technical articles) is that it can (doesn’t always) create a tendency to infodump…it’s important to write nonfiction that the nonspecialist can enjoy (not just understand.)
    But this is all purely personal opinion. Born of experience, but still just personal opinion.

  17. I’m writing my third novel. I cringe to think how many hours I’ve spent scribbling away! I’m going to submit this one. So it was interesting to hear of others experiences via this survey. I won’t be so downhearted now when the rejection letters come in. Last time I got a rejection letter I stopped writing for 6 years, but I won’t do that this time.

  18. Thanks for taking the time to compile this survey. I still hold out hope for my first novel, but I’m writing its sequel as a standalone because I’m a realist.
    Rose and Diana – I started writing nonfiction when I was halfway through the first rewrite of my first novel. Newspaper articles were an *incredible* relief for their speed and ease.

  19. There’s another pertinent question that was left off the survey, IMO: “How many novels did you start before finishing the first one?”
    Yes, I’m part of the 35% who sold their first novel, but I bet I’ve started at least twenty novels over the years, only to toss them out when they ran out of steam on page 10, 40, or 150.

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