Great info. It really added some depth to some research that I had started, but hadn't gotten nearly the amount of numbers yet. You saved me a month of futility.
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However the statistical training in me brought up the thought "If you search for fruit under an apple tree, you will most likely find more apples than any other fruit." By going to professional writers associations, you run into two compounding issues. The first is membership requirements - for SFWA, you need one professionally published novel or three professionally published short stories. The difference in the bar here would naturally bias the sample towards novel writers, particularly as the question also cut out short story specialists, who had never written a novel.
The second source of bias is that, by going to professional writer associations, you cut out most people that use, even successfully, the self publication approach. It's a bit like surveying lawyers about their road to partnership by just going to big lawfirms. The result will be correct in context but not if the survey is used to imply that partnership in a large law firm is the only measure of success for a law career.
Personally, I've always thought that doing short works first was something that just happens...it's easier for a novice to turn out something shorter. (I'm stuck in the twenty-thousand word range right now...I'm trying to get back to five thousand or under...)
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Where did the idea that you had to do short fiction first come from? It's all very well for it to be "totally busted" but I've never been under the impression that writing short fiction was "necessary" to break in (did Naomi Novik do it? Did Scott Lynch? Did J K Rowling?), merely that it was a tool which could help some people to hone their writing skills. Yes, it's been a path to professionalism for some (Jay Lake, a certain Mary Robinette Kowal, a certain Aliette de Bodard spring to mind), but if anyone's ever pretended it was the only path, I must have missed that memo.
As for Brendan's points - I don't agree that SFWA membership skews the trend in favour of novelists over short story writer (though Mary Robinette Kowal has revealed some stats that do show more SFWA membership applications are currently coming through novels than short stories). Most of the people I know who've joined SFWA joined through short story qualifications, but that may be because short story writers hang out in the same places, and novelists are arguably working more "solo". And I thought the whole point of the survey was about "being professionally published" (through the traditional mechanism, though including both large and small presses) so to berate it for not including the self-publishing route seems... odd. Kind of like complaining that you didn't include coffee as an option when asking about everyone's favourite type of tea.
[This message has been edited by tchernabyelo (edited March 17, 2010).]
I've often wondered what Rowling did before hitting it big...there's been hints she was a struggling (and broke) writer before she thought up Harry Potter, but no evidence. Anybody remember her stuff showing up in the slush piles? A short story passed around for criticism in a writing group? Correspondence? Any prior publication?
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Of course it was skewed towards novel writers, it was a survey about how writers got their first - wait for it, wait for it -
published. Not how they broke into the short story markets.
Brendan's point about going to professional associations will tend to leave out self published authors is a valid one, but I still haven't seen much in the way of self published novels selling very well. If anyone has examples of self published novels selling well, they should post it, because I, for one, am interested in seeing self published success stories.
The people I know who are successful (and by successful I mean "make money from their books" - not necessarily enough to live on, but some kind of cash green money) with self-publishing are almost all publishing non-fiction, or are in niche categories like Christian Mystery and bust their behinds to get themselves marketed.
The non-fiction success stories virtually all have a "platform" of some sort that gives them credentials and credibility for speaking engagements, where they can collect fees and/or sell their books. A successful writer who is on the speaker circuit for say a certain business technique that's popular can make more money speaking than selling books, but often the speaking is what sells the books so they're tied together.
One author I know wrote a book set in a small town in Michigan, then drove up there one summer weekend and set up a table outside the local supermarket (with their permission) and sold out 500 copies of his book in a couple days. Local details, local interest, there's an automatic hook for that little resort town.
So, most self-published successes I've heard of are leveraging something - be it a business expertise, a speaking career, a specific following in a niche market, etc.
Another thing I've seen with the self-published folks I know, they're all MUCH more extroverted than I. They are happy standing on a street corner talking to any 'ol stranger about their book with a big smile on their face.
That's one of many reasons I don't have any desire to go the self-publishing route at this time. I think the backing of a publisher (even as we hear that publishers are expecting authors to do more and more marketing) would be of great help to someone just starting out. <shrug>
Anyway - I found the posts fascinating, John, thanks for sharing them!
I personally know only one realio-trulio self-publishing success and that's Larry Correia with MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL which Baen bought because an independent bookseller called up Toni at Baen (who had already rejected the book) and told her she was an idiot for not buying it because he could sell the heck out of it.
I remember an agent panel being asked about this (self publishing: is it worth it?) at the first writing conference I went to. The answer was enlightening. First off, they all said that IF you self publish, AND make lots of sales, THEN that means your book has marketability and they would acquire it to go nationwide. Makes sense, of course. Success breeds success.
However, they also said most self published works are not good at all. It truly is a vanity publishing, where the author thinks their work is better than it really is. Compared to a professionally published book, which has shown itself to be of a quality sufficient to rise out of the slush pile (either an agent's or an editors) then sent through the gauntlet of revisions and line edits - essentially multiple people looking for ways to improve it and finding problems.
Furthermore, it is truly hard to market your own book nationwide. A self published author is more likely to try selling their work to acquaintances or out of a box from their trunk at the local bookstore. They may rely on a website (where does the traffic come from?) or Amazon sales (again, where do people find it in the first place to get to the Amazon page in the first place?)
A traditionally-published author, in the meantime, has a professional marketing department and nationwide distribution help the exposure. They get the book to official reviewers for blurbs and book review journals (like New York Times review of books, or whatnot.) They can organize author book tours. They distribute to libraries... in short, they have a much wider net.
So the moral of the story, of course it is possible to self publish and be recognized by the traditional market and end up successful. But the odds are stacked against you.
Personally, I feel that self publishing is a cop-out. Of course, if I simply wanted to tell a story and have it between two covers so I can stick on my shelf, there is nothing wrong with it. But I truly believe I can write something worthy of an editor's attention. If I can't get it professionally published, I use that as a motive to improve my own writing until it does. I think of it as a kind of validation.
And besides, I am more likely to make money that way
[This message has been edited by Teraen (edited March 17, 2010).]
Okay, how many of you wanting to do this have actually finished your novel? If you haven't even finished your novel, then the point is moot. Back to work (grin).
The rest of you. How many of you have time to actually finish a novel each year AND run a new start-up business? It IS a business and it's going to suck massive amounts of time. And you need to try to hit a novel a year.
But that's really the easy part. The hard part is sales. How many of you have the marketing platform to actually sell more than 150 copies to friends and family?
Any Joe can go print a book or stick it on a website. That does nothing for you. Sure, you can sell fifty copies to friends and aquaintances you've strong-armed. That means nothing. NOTHING.
You think you're just going to go into a bookstore and sell it? Wrong. The chains filter you out. Oh, you might get a couple of stores (not the whole chain), but they'll carry like three of your books. Wow, you get placement of 12 books total!! So it's the independents, you'll go to them, right? Wrong. You should have seen how the independents Larry and I visited treated us until they learned we were from legit houses. Filter two. So you'll sell to libraries. Um, wrong again. Please go read the post on my facts and figures page where I talk about how libraries select books and how they look on self-published books. Okay, so you'll get them reviewed!! Um, wrong again. Same article. Grocery stores? Nope. Where are you going to sell your book? What's your distribution channel?
Amazon? Puh-lease. That's like growing a tree in the middle of a forest and expecting someone to find it. There are millions of titles out there. Again, posting a book to the internet means squat.
Do you see what's going on? Almost all the doors to distribution and getting notice are closed to self-publishers. You have to make some kind of end run. You can do it, IF you get some platform.
People have overcome these limitations. But I don't know one that didn't have some sort of platform already in place or get one. Or was in on some early fad wave. And so few do. Does it not say something that 240+ authors were just intereviewed and a self-published novelist wasn't among the bunch? Okay, 1, if you count Correia. Why was he successful? He had a LARGE platform, folks.
The fact is that I would rather spend my time writing books, telling stories. NOT running around trying to run every aspect of this business and peddle my wares. The publiser does a huge amount of work. HUGE!! Has connections, distribution, etc.
Howard Tayler gets something like 40,000+ visitors a day on his site. He's able to make it. Do you have 40,000+ visitors a day? Do you have that platform on the web? Can you get something like that?
You've got to get notice somehow. Is spending all your time trying to hawk your books on a street corner what you want to do? Or do you want to write? What would you rather do? Finish 6 novels in 4 years like Brandon Sanderson, getting better with each, or run around peddling the same old book?
Larry openly disuades people from trying to follow in his footsteps. Like John Scalzi, Larry self-published. And eventually attracted a major book house as a result. But the chances that anyone could replicate either Larry's or Scalzi's path to success are so minute!
Part of the reason self-publishing so rarely leads to major deals with bigger houses, is that unless you -- as the writer -- already have a built-in audience that can move merchandise for you, you've got almost no market traction. In larry's case he had some traction via his connections in the firearms community, and in Scalzi's case he had traction due to his already-well-traveled blog.
Unless you already have a big audience because of something you're already doing -- some kind of "thing" you're involved in that is causing lots and LOTS of people to pay attention to you -- it's going to be wickedly hard getting a self-published fiction book to sell enough that it will ever show up on a major publisher's radar. Harder than just sending the book in through the slush or trying to push it through with an agent.
Notice, on Hines' graphs, the #1 and #2 paths to first novel publication are agents, and the slush pile. Those are your most-proven paths of least resistence. One works for many, the other works for a lot too. But self-publishing? Even Larry admits he did it out of desperation when both of these avenues -- agenting and slush -- had failed him.
So it's probably a good idea to pick Path 1 or Path 2.
And yes, even those markets which claim they won't taken unagented or unsolicited manuscripts have slush piles, they just don't advertise them. If you can get the name of an editor and an address -- publisher's marketplace dot com, ding, ding -- you can send to the house slush. Or, try your luck with agents' slush, though this adds an additional layer to your penetration process.
Self-publishing has always been a very appealing avenue for lots of different reasons. It's a straight-to-consumer business, potentially earns the author the largest percentage of return, and eliminates the trouble and waiting games posed by the traditional slush and agent modes.
These days, lots of authors like J.A. Konrath are pushing for e-publishing, thereby doing a self-publish end-run around traditional paper. But even Joe had to dig down and grind out a lot of books and earn some traditional book deals -- and pick up a market along the way, via both books and his blog -- so that when he did e-publish, he had TRACTION.
Virtually everybody who is e-publishing right now and getting real money for it is a previously-published author who went the traditional paper route first. There are rare exceptions, yes, but unless you enjoy the "game" of trying to hype a self-published product, across the internet and otherwise, you're liable to wind up exhausted and frustrated. Because without that "platform" that John already mentioned, how are you going to stand out in a crowd?
Especially when even the traditional print houses are being pressed to keep reader attention in the wild and woolly 21st century, when people have 1,000 satellite TV channels to pick from, and thousands of PS3 and XBOX and PC computer games, and Facebook and MySpace, and blogs and YouTube and Netflix?
Self-publishing without a platform is like taking a tiny pebble and throwing it into Lake Michigan. You will see a tiny splash, and little ripples, but without a platform at your disposal, the stone will vanish beneath the water and the ripples will vanish, and nobody will ever notice.
Okay, still one more thought about self-publishing.
I can't stress enough that even in the e-book age, the world of self-publishing is poisoned -- poisoned! -- by vanity books. Someone up-thread said it: most vanity is poor quality stuff. At least with a book from a traditiona house, or even coming from an already-published author, you have some kind of hope of a baseline level of quality.
A great amount of vanity (aka: self-published) work, is just bad. Like, really, really bad. People who haven't taken the time or don't want to take the time to do their "homework." And by homework I mean that 250,000 words or 500,000 words or 750,000 words or 1,000,000 words of UNSELLABLE FICTION you have to write before you're practiced enough to begin selling.
It took me about 850,000 words over many years to get to a point where I could just BEGIN to sell short fiction. No idea yet how long it will take me to sell a novel. Might be another quarter to half million words? Brandon Sanderson took like 12 books to get there, and he writes HUGE books! I have to wonder if he wrote a couple million or better, before he sold? Who knows.
The point is, as frustrating as traditional publishing is, the one thing it has going for it -- even in the e-book era -- is that it's an established filter. Yes, a pain-in-the-neck filter, and no I don't like it any more than anyone else. But it's a filter just the same, and it more or less works for people, and until something BETTER comes along -- I see nothing, yet, and no, not Amazon even -- we're stuck with it.
And, I hate to admit it, I think that's a good thing. Because I think filter is necessary. Otherwise we'd all be plowing through millions of titles of crap just to try and find stuff that was quality, and how do you do that without some kind of filter mechanism? How does an experienced author who can perform up to par stand out among a hundred thousands authors who decided on the fly to sit down and punch up a "book" and slap it up on a web site or at an e-market?
The current filter sucks. I know that. But once you get a pro sale or two, of any sort, you will start to be glad it's there. Trust me.
quote:It took me about 850,000 words over many years to get to a point where I could just BEGIN to sell short fiction. No idea yet how long it will take me to sell a novel. Might be another quarter to half million words? Brandon Sanderson took like 12 books to get there, and he writes HUGE books! I have to wonder if he wrote a couple million or better, before he sold? Who knows.
Brad - I have to say I agree with everything you've said...except this little bit.
Just in the interests of making sure this doesn't cause hundreds of new writers to stare at their screens gape-mouthed thinking they're doomed to fail because they only write 1000 words a month and at this rate they've got to write for 250 months before they are even possibly in the "selling" category. While I think that's true with some writers (there's a lot of crap they have to write first before they can really come into their own) - it may even be true of most writers, it's not true of all writers.
I think it may depend on where/when people enter the game, some innate talent, and perhaps other writing experience outside the world of fiction (for example, I've easily written 500,000 words of crappy emails over my life online...) - how much they study, how much what they study makes sense to them and what they're trying to accomplish with fiction, their own maturity, ability to see flaws in their own work (and presumably fix them.)
I've been watching American Idol this season for the first time, and I'm struck by how some of the contestants have been plugging away singing and trying to break into the business for years (and they're the ones I'm really pulling for, to be honest. They seem the most "real" out of everyone) - others are just kids, still in school, with unbelievably good voices and some innate sense of what works on stage.
I think there's an analogy there, how some people plug away for years and years, others might not have the years of butt-in-chair work, but might be working really hard, honing their skills, and perhaps blessed with some natural talent. Or hitting a market sweet-spot that nobody else is hitting (e.g., Stephenie Meyers)
Anyway, hope you understand I agree with EVERYTHING else you've said about self-publishing as being a really hard road, I just wanted to pull out this bit for another perspective. Could be I'm the only one who thinks this. Could even be that I just can't stomach the idea that I have a minimum of another 60-80k before I've written my first 250k, and I believe in a solid 150k of the 175ishk words I have in the bank... Could be. LOL But hey - the first story I ever wrote (which I only started writing 3 years ago) sold. That remains my only credit, but I'll hang onto that baby for as long as I can.
As a reader, I am so thankful for the filter system of the publishing world.
Every time someone starts ranting on the internet about how the publishing world is doomed and soon self-publishing will be the norm, I cringe. If there are no gate keepers, the world will be flooded with drivel. I love to read, and I don't want to wade through a giant slush pile to find decent books.
If the publishing world never wants to publish anything I write, then maybe I don't deserve to be published. I can live with that.
MAP, that's the thing, isn't it? On the one hand, I think all of us who toil at fiction have this feeling in our hearts that we DESERVE to be published. Especially after you've been doing it for a few years and have invested a lot of time and effort. We look at the gatekeeping system -- flawed as it is -- and the siren call of self-publishing beckons.
But I think you are correct, without the filter, the world is deluged by crap, and how do you possibly sort through it all? Especially in the e-pub era when ANYONE can put their manuscript into any number of formats, upload, and then how do you pick and choose? Suddenly EVERYONE is reading like an editor -- did the first page hook me, did it grab me, is the language florid, etc. -- and I think that would be absolute DEATH on fiction reading as an enjoyable, money-making passtime.
I know three people that have self published a fictional book. The first has sold perhaps 30 copies. The second has broken even - how? By selling to libraries, primarily. Different parts of the world have different methods of library management, and he found a loophole about buying local authors and used it for all it was worth.
The third? Well, she sold multiple tens of thousands of copies, which is more than any other book in the genre in the country that year. I don't think that it made the best seller lists, because it was self published, but it sold more than any on the list. How did she do it? Very smart marketing, knowing her niche - not her genre, her niche. She and her husband were involved with World Expo 88, in Brisbane. She noticed that there was little in the way of tourist gifts specifically for children, apart from cuddly toys. So she wrote a story about some Australian animals touring around the local sites (and maybe, my memory fades here, through the stalls at the expo). She then got the tourist stores at the expo to sell it. With 18 million visitors for the six months of the expo (nearly the entire population of Australia), there were a lot of opportunities to sell the book.
So John is right. Self-publishing is a business. At this point, not a business that I would want to be in. But as with any business, the key is to know how to access your potential buyers. And the best use "Blue Ocean Strategies" (for any that have read that particular book), and bypass the traditional methods of spruiking their book.
Self-publishing is looking more and more appealing these days...it defies my model for writerly success, but I've already gone beyond that with fanfic and with a website that has some of my stories on it. I'd be a lousy self-marketer, though.
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quote:While I think that's true with some writers (there's a lot of crap they have to write first before they can really come into their own) - it may even be true of most writers, it's not true of all writers.
This is true. Stephenie Meyer didn't have to write very much to get published. Neither did Rowling. I'll be interested to see the rest of Hines' stuff, because if I recall, he asked about this specifically--how many books did you have to write. But whether it requires a lot or a little, the fact is as a writer, I want to be pumping the books out left and right. The more product, the more chances I have of something taking off.
One of my concerns about using short stories to break in is that my shorts have a very different feel than my novels. I like writing standard fantasy for novels, but for shorts I am more willing to try different things, have less likable characters and generally and edgier feel. My one reader who has read everything I have written loves my short stories, hates my novels (though he says it isn't that novels are badly written or anything, he just hates those type of novels- also hates all novels that I have considered listing on the "I appeal to fans of these writer's" list).
I also am not convinced that writing shorts helps me refine skills for novels. I do have a few weaknesses that I am aware of that overlap, but some of my strengths in shorts don't show up in novels and vice versa. I might just be a more schizophrenic writer than others though.