Overnight Success

Most writers recognize that overnight success usually isn’t.  I did a survey earlier this year, talking about how many years it takes writers to sell their first professional novel.  In that respect, “overnight” success took an average of more than ten years.

But what happens after you’ve sold that first book?  How long does it take to go from newbie author to hot shot bestseller?  Much as I really, really wanted the answer to be “Exactly zero days,” in most cases it’s another long climb.

Case in point: I sold my first book to DAW back in 2005, for a very modest advance.  Earlier this month, I sold numbers eight and nine to DAW.  But here’s the fascinating part (for values of “fascinating” that equal “you’re a stats and graphs geek like Jim) — check out the advances I’ve earned over nine books.

You can see a slow but steady growth over the first seven books, and then … well, let’s just say when I got the offer on numbers eight and nine, I jumped around and shouted a lot.

Bigger advances don’t necessarily mean bigger sales, of course.  And I still know a whole bunch of people making more per book than I do.  But I’m fascinated by this jump, and I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.  In part, I know the editor was really excited about this new series.  But it’s also the result of the slow growth of my readership over the past five years, and also … okay, I don’t know what else was going on.

But I know it’s not just me.  I’ve spoken with many bigger name authors who published eight, ten, or even more books, often under multiple pseudonyms, before things started to take off.

Where am I going with this?  Aside from wanting an excuse to post a graph, and to squee about the novel deal, you mean?  I’ve got a few things to touch on:

  1. Very few overnight successes happen overnight, in any way, shape, or form.  Writing is very much about the long game.
  2. For the other authors reading this, I would love to know if you’ve seen similar jumps in your career, and where you think they came from.  Did you switch publishers or agents?  Start a new series?  Hold your editor’s cat for ransom?
  3. If you want a predictable career, take a good look at fiction writing … then turn exactly 180 degrees and apply for whatever job you see there.

That’s what I’ve got.  Discussion welcome, as always.

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  1. 1. Deborah Blake

    Congrats on your success, overnight and otherwise. And I love #3 :-)

  2. 2. Jim C. Hines

    Thanks, Deborah.

    #3 is … not always good for my mental or emotional health,. I’m a control freak, and I want predictability. Instead, I’m in a career that can soar and/or crash without warning.

    But hey, it keeps things from getting boring!

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    A note/question on advances. I attended a workshop with a writer Ms. R, who landed a 3 book deal with a low six figure advance. Janet Evanovich’s book (semilar premise) landed first and Ms. R’s books didnt’ do the business. Now she’s ghosting for others.

    My question is do you see a corolary between advance and promotion? Does one deminish/negate the other? Does a BA advance increase a publisher’s commitment to promote?

    I realize this may seem obvious but I’m new to the game. Oh, congrats on your increasing success. Sharing your experience is highly encouraging to the rest of us still typing away and dreaming.

  4. 4. Michael Z. Williamson

    And even after becoming an overnight success in 40 years, you’ll probably still have broke spells between checks.

    Your graph looks somewhat similar to mine, though my advances probably started a little higher and didn’t climb as much–a flatter curve–but made up for with a large royalty check every time PB and HC releases coincide.

    I just keep doing more marketing and promotions. Once you have a critical mass out there that you’re a known name, peripheral readers are more willing to pick one up.

  5. 5. Rachel Aaron

    Back before I was published, I LOVED articles like these. Everytime I read one, I promised myself that if I ever made it I would share what it was like, money-wise. I did, so now I will. Here goes.

    Because Orbit launched my books 1,2,3 in 3 months, I actually had advances for all three before the books hit the shelves. Orbit is international, so I got what I considered a very nice advance on the books, advances that allowed me to quit my job and live as a housewife/writer. Now, we live in a very cheap town, so don’t go thinking I’m Scrooge McDuck with my money bin, but still, WAY better than anything I expected.

    Orbit has also bought my next 2 books for a full 5 in the Eli Monpress series at the same rate they paid for books 1-3. It should be said, though, that they got world rights and audio rights and everything else agents usually sell for supplemental income, but considering I can do writing full time as my job, I am not complaining at all. This ended up being a perfect deal for me, and I could not be happier.

    However, it would make a weird graph, since all 5 bars would be exactly the same height. :D Hope this information helps someone!

  6. 6. Jim C. Hines

    @Elias – I tried to respond earlier, but the Internets ate my comment.

    I don’t have enough data to give you a fully reliable answer. It does make sense that a book with a six-figure advance is going to get a lot more publicity than one which got four-figures. On the other hand, DAW gave me some pretty good publicity even with four-digit advances — advertisement, special displays at B&N, etc.

    There’s also a potential downside to big advances/print runs/promotion. Say my publisher prints 20,000 copies of my book, and we sell 15,000. That’s 75% sellthrough — not too bad. Compare that to a 200,000 copy print run, and say we sell 50,000. Even though we sold more books, the sellthrough was only 25%, and that’s going to hurt…

  7. 7. Jim C. Hines

    @Mike – I’m starting to see more significant royalty checks from the backlist, which is very, very nice. And yes, I get the sense a lot of it just comes down to that critical mass of work and readers. (Well, that and writing books that don’t suck ;-) )

  8. 8. Jim C. Hines

    @Rachel – That’s interesting. My former agent talked to me about some of the gambles with publishing. If you wait to see how the first books do, and they do well, you can sometimes get a better advance. But then, if the books do poorly, you might end up with a lower offer. Whereas doing all of the deals together, you’re likely to get that same advance, like you did. (Which, from the sound of things, wasn’t a bad deal at all! ;-) )

    The rights issue is a very good point, too. Money is nice, but it’s not the only thing to worry about, and sometimes not even the most important. We haggled a bit over certain subrights this last round — didn’t get everything we wanted, but we did end up with a more favorable royalties structure.

  9. 9. Rachel Aaron

    @Jim Looking over the comments, I think we should add a “this is why you should have an agent and why you will never begrudge them their 15%” clause. I certainly never would have hammered any of my deals out on my own.

  10. 10. Jim C. Hines

    @Rachel – Oh FSM, yes. Assuming you’ve got a good agent, they’ll make much more than you lose through that 15% cut. With foreign deals alone, my agent has pretty much doubled my writing income, and that’s before you get into all of the little clauses and details in the contracts.

  11. 11. Doug Hulick

    My numbers are mostly potential at this point, but here’s what I can offer up as a brand new author for comparison purposes:

    I sold three books for a pretty standard (per Jim’s averages, IIRC) new author advance. My agent got me a bit more up-front and a little less on the back end, and it was nice to have the extra cash at the outset. Nothing even close enough to let me live on, but seeing as I’m a stay-at-home dad, the extra income is bonus at this point.

    The first book isn’t out yet, but my publisher (Roc/Penguin) has sold rights to all three books in the UK/Australia and Germany. The foreign offers per book, once you figure in exchange rates, Roc’s share for foreign sales, etc., are still more, per book, from each publisher than I got initially from my U.S. publisher (in one case, almost as much for one book as I was initially advanced for all three, assuming exchange rates stay about the same). Since Roc’s share of the foreign sales also count against initial U.S. advance, I should* start getting royalties much earlier, since the books have, technically, already earned out their U.S. advance.

    The reason I say these are “potential numbers” is that, while everything is signed and inked, I have no idea when I will see any of the foreign money, or how much it will ultimately work out to in U.S. dollars. All I can predict are the rough dates at which I will get each portion of my U.S. advance, which was broken out into three payments per book.

    Since I’m just beginning my career, I don’t think any of this counts as a “jump”, unless you want to see the foreign sales in that light (which I do, in a way, if for no other reason than the exposure to more potential readers); but I’m also told it’s non-standard enough for new writers that I figured I’d offer it up as another data point.

    * “should” being understood as be an assumption in an ideal world, which may have no correlation with what actually happens in the publishing world.

  12. 12. Maria Schneider

    Thanks Jim, as always for an informative post! Cold hard details are always useful.

    Maria

  13. 13. Brad Beaulieu

    Thanks for the post, Jim. Very interesting stuff!

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Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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