23 June 2016

Data and dimensions: the anatomy of a novelist

MANUSCRIPT CURTIS BROWN CREATIVE
by Eli Keren Opinion, Writing Tips

Students on our creative writing courses in London and online vary hugely. We’ve had students of all ages, ranging from 19 years old up to their seventies, of a range of nationalities, some with huge amounts of writing under their belts, others with almost none and, since we started running online courses in 2013, they’ve been based all over the world. In my recent stumblings about the internet while researching for a blog post, I discovered a survey, carried out by Jim C. Hines, in which he interviewed 246 professional authors, which he defined as those who had earned an advance of at least $2,000. This got me thinking about what a debut novelist ‘looks like’, and by this I don’t mean skin tone and style of glasses but, rather, how long have they been writing? How old are they? Have they previously self-published? I’ve had a good old burrow around in Jim’s data (all of which is available to the public, if you’d like to do the same), and I’ve built up the Vitruvian Novelist, if you will. Here’s what they look like.

How old are they?
The average age of debut publication is about 36, but as this graph shows, there’s a lot of information that the average (mean) fails to convey. Most novelists fall into the 26+ category, and the data is significantly skewed to the right. That is to say, a randomly chosen debut novelist is more likely to be older than 36 than younger. Our Vitruvian novelist would most likely be aged 25–40, which I realise is a broad age range but, as the graph shows, there’s not much in it. If we’re being really specific, they’d be 36.37 years old, which means that, based on time of writing, they’d have been born on Feb 8th 1980. If that happens to be your birthday, congratulations! Please don’t take this as an assumption that your novel will be published.

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How did they sell their book?
So this one’s going to disappoint some people, but I’m afraid, according to this study at least, the myth of self-publishing your breakout novel is just that: a myth. Though there are always going to be some exceptions, of the 246 authors surveyed, only one self-published their novel before going on to sell it to a major publisher. Our Vitruvian novelist most likely submitted their novel to an agent, who offered them representation and then went on to sell their novel to a publisher. This is the most traditional form of publishing and accounts for 55% of respondents. Though many (29%) did submit their novels directly to publishers, it’s clear that the bulk of publications were agented. Incidentally, this is the route that most students on our creative-writing courses take, as our courses incorporate direct, personal feedback from the agents of Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh, and offer students a chance to ask the agents anything they like about how the industry works.

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How much writing experience did they have?
So this one starts to show the limitations of the survey method, which I’ll talk about in greater detail at the end of this post, but when trying to work out how many years our Vitruvian novelist had been writing for, we fall victim to ‘about ten’ syndrome. What you can see is that the 7, 8 and 9 columns look a little stunted, while the 10 column is anomalously huge. What’s going on here, I believe, is that many participants who’d been writing for 7–13 years prior to their first publication answered ‘about ten’, giving this unexpected spike. The addition of a certain kind of trendline (fourth order polynomial, for my fellow nerds) goes some way to correcting for this error.
What is indisputably clear, however, is that most writers do an awful lot of writing before they see any success. Only one author reported zero years of writing prior to publication, with the average time spent being approximately 11.5 years. If this seems like a daunting number, don’t despair. Though our Vitruvian novelist may have been waiting for ‘about ten’ years before their work hit the shelves, that doesn’t mean you will.

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What other useful experiences helped them get published?
There are a lot of things that writers can do to boost their chances of getting published – and by ‘chances of getting published’, I actually mean boost their writing skills, because when all else is said and done, that’s what it’s going to come down to. So, what experiences has our Vitruvian novelist got under their belt? Well I’ll start with what they don’t have. They probably don’t have an undergraduate degree in English or in Creative Writing, and they almost certainly don’t have a graduate degree in either discipline. I’m not arguing that having a degree in a relevant field won’t help your witting, but it’s demonstrably not a prerequisite to publication.

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So what has the Vitruvian novelist done? Well, there’s a good chance they’ve attended a convention or been part of a writing group. Both of these are useful ways for an aspiring author to increase the reach of their network, which will in turn help them to grow and develop as a writer and author. Conventions might offer workshops on how to style and structure that deceptively important query letter or elevator pitch, while some offer speaker sessions in which authors will explain how they got to where they are and what boosted them along the path to publication. Writers’ groups are a fantastic way to ensure that your work is read and critiqued by a pair of fresh eyes. Sometimes, as writers, we stare at our work until we can no longer see either its merits or its faults, and the last thing we need at that point is a non-writer, say a trusted family member, telling us it’s ‘great’ when what we want is constructive feedback. A writers’ group can help you to identify the issues in your writing, and what’s more, sometimes critiquing other people’s work is just as useful to developing your own style as having your own work critiqued. As you can see from these pies, neither conventions nor writing groups are essential to publication, but it does seem like both help.

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What helped them to get an agent?
Let’s take unagented submissions out of the picture for a minute and look only at the data from novelists who did have agent representation. What’s their trick? Must our Vitruvian novelist have known their agent beforehand, or achieved their representation though some underhand means? Bribery at a convention, perhaps? Unsurprisingly, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Less than a quarter of agented authors had been referred to their agents by a friend, 13% had met them in person at a convention or other industry event, and just 5% knew their agent in a non-business related, personal way (basically, they were mates) before securing publication. It looks like our Vitruvian author caught their agent the same way everyone else does: cold query.

 

Conclusion: The Vitruvian Novelist

  • Date of birth: Feb 8th 1980
  • Age at first publication: 36 years
  • Years of writing experience prior to debut novel publication: about ten
  • Relevant university degree: none
  • Had attended conventions: probably
  • Had been a part of a writing group: probably
  • Method of sale: sold to a publisher by their agent
  • Contact with agent prior to query: none

 

The limitations

This data carries with it some methodological flaws, as all data does, and in the name of honesty and scientific integrity, I’d like to flag a few here, just so that you understand exactly what this data does, and does not, represent. For a start there’s the sample. In general, the greater the size of a sample, the more accurate the data is. 246 is a really decent sample size for this kind of survey, and while bigger would be better, it’s certainly enough to give us a good idea of the facts of the matter. However, the sample is also skewed. Hines himself is a fantasy author, and his writing community reflects that. This study was skewed towards writers of fantasy and science-fiction.

There’s also an inherent difficulty to self-reporting. These people were asked questions and they gave their own answers, which gives rise to the ‘about ten’ issue I covered earlier. There’s also the big black spot of ‘other’ under the question of ‘method of sale’. As much as I’d like to know how these authors sold their books, there’s no further data on the matter. Self-reporting also gives rise to some red-flag values, such as the author who reported their age at debut publication as ‘0’ years old, or another, who claimed that their novel was rejected ‘999’ times before it was accepted by a publisher (in the case of this latter category, the data was too sporadic to find a pattern worth writing about). Finally, there were some minor discrepancies in the data concerning agent representation. Several participants reported that they did not secure agent representation, and also reported whether or not they’d met their agent at a convention prior to representation.

Despite these limitations, this is a fantastic study, and I am very grateful to Jim C. Hines for having conducted it. Studying this data has been fascinating, and I am confident that my Vitruvian novelist is a decent representation of the ‘average’ novelist. To see Jim’s own study and analysis, click here, or to download the raw data as an excel spreadsheet, click here.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

 

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