Once, in the distant days of my youth, I was at a ChiZine reading series talking to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet. She was very kind to me (she ended up being the final, encouraging push to send Hapax into the world), and I’ll never forget the advice she gave me:
“Don’t worry about getting published too early.”
She went on to explain that publishing too early sets up expectations: both for you and by you. It can mess with your head. It tends to leave you perpetually insecure that you’re not living up to the promise and potential of your youth.
Naturally, I sold Hapax less than a year later. Go figure.
Anyway, she was right on some counts. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing insecurities, but there is sometimes a certain worry that things are taking “too long,” that I’m not living up to the expectation set. While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, I’m nowhere near where I want to be.
So I did a little research.
I pulled up some stats on twenty-four modern science fiction and fantasy authors. Some have been at this for a few decades. Some are new to the scene. Some are American; some Canadian; some British. Some are friends. (Hi, Mur! Hi, Pip! Hi, Jim!) Some, I’ve never met. All are still writing; all are authors I admire.
Specifically, what I wanted to find out what this: how much time passed between an author’s First Sale, and their Big Sale?
By Big Sale, I mean the sale that you look at, and say, “Yes, they’ve arrived.” The sale that made them as authors. It was less black-and-white than you’d think. Some authors took the fairly traditional route of starting with a short story in a small magazine and then eventually landing a novel deal with one of the Big Five.
For those who are primarily short-story writers, I looked for the first big award: the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, etc.
For one mostly-independent author, I went with the year they left their dayjob.
So a mixture of strict criteria, and saying, “Eh, I guess this makes sense?” Here’s what I found:
The average gap between an author’s First Sale and their Big Sale was 5.75 years.
Of course, looking at the data, there are some outliers. For some authors, their First Sale was their Big Sale, and they’ve been churning out fiction ever since. Conversely, three authors had more than ten years pass between the two.
Generally speaking, though, the bulk of my sample fell within 4-6 years.
There are some theories I can put forth for this Five-Year Gap. First of all, in the case of novels, you’re looking at an 18-month lag time…at least…between acceptance and publication. Add to that the agent hunt, which can take a year, and that goes part-way to explaining it.
Otherwise…dude, after your first sale, you’re still growing. I return once again to my “boy soprano’s breaking voice” analogy. When the first cracks in your voice appear, you don’t go straight to singing bass. You might wander around the different parts for a while until you settle. Even if you can hit the notes, the full richness and technical mastery of an adult voice won’t come until later.
Similarly, there’s still a period of growth that happens with new authors. And sometimes, I suspect, the gap between sales may be sheer dumb luck, or lack thereof, or other priorities.
Because Caitlin Sweet was right and I retain some neuroticism over my relative youth, I also examined biographical information, where available. If a birth date wasn’t on an author’s Wikipedia page, I didn’t hunt too hard for it.
Looking purely at biography, most authors seem to make their First Sale in their late twenties to early thirties, and their Big Sale in their mid-thirties to early forties. Again, there are outliers (looking at you, Rachel Swirsky). The age range, I suspect, probably has to do with the emotional maturity that develops through the twenties. Lots of university kids write well; there’s not always the same depth, which is to be expected.
One interesting thing I noted: the younger an author was when making their First Sale, the longer the gap tended to be until their Big Sale (Swirsky aside). This lends credence to my “emotional maturing = better writing” theory, and seems to jive with Kelly Robson’s thoughts on being a “late bloomer.”
Of course, comparing your career to others’ is rarely touted as a good idea. That way, madness lies. I mean: look at all my outliers! Everyone follows their own path!
…but sometimes, it is comforting to look at trends. We all follow our own paths, but it’s nice to see if you’re going in the same general direction. Looking at my own data, my First Sale was Hapax in 2012.
I haven’t made my Big Sale, yet. But looking at the charts, I seem to be right on track. 🙂
What I’m Listening to this Week
Regular readers know of my love for Ola Gjeilo’s music. Guess what??? I got to see him this weekend at a choral concert! (I also saw my lovely former collaborator, composer Norbert Palej.)
I hadn’t heard the “Credo” portion of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass before, and it totally captivated me. Listen to the frantic, pulsing strings: totally captures the rush of urban life. The “crucifixus” motif around 4:24 is a jagged little heartbreak, and of course, I’m a sucker for the last driving, thundering two minutes.
I need to eat my words, I’m afraid. Last week, I said:
I want [SFWA membership]. I want this so badly. It’s a long game: I doubt very much I’ll be strolling into the Nebulas next year. But you keep going.
You should still keep going. Always. But the same day I posted the above, I checked the rules for membership to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America more carefully. Authors are eligible for Active Membership with, among other things…
One Paid Sale of a work of fiction (such as a novel) of a minimum of 40,000 words to a qualifying professional market, for which the candidate has been paid at least $3,000 as a non-returnable advance before or at the time of publication ($2000.00 if sale made on or before 12/31/2014).
“Wait,” quoth I. “When did I sign the contract for Yeti’s Parole Officer?”
Turns out I made the sale on 08/20/2014. Which means that I’ve actually been SFWA-eligible for over two years.
So after a little head-shaking, I sent in my paperwork, and received my approval a few days ago. I’m in! Huzzah! And…it looks like I will be strolling into the Nebulas next year, at least to take in the atmosphere and meet people.
A lot can happen in a week.
When I was a wee sprogget, I wanted to be published by the time I was 25. I have vivid memories of my first year of university. February in Toronto is an interminable stretch of grey, cold, and slush. It’s when you fear that spring will never come. So I plodded along, miserable, these newfangled “podcast novels” trickling through my headphones.
I wanted to be in that world so badly. So very badly. I ached for it, slogging to class. I wanted to go to conventions, and I wanted to collaborate with other writers, and I wanted to be part of it all. Ideally by 25, though I knew that was a long shot.
I’m 25 now. When I look at how much things changed in seven years—well, first of all, seven years? What??? But also—holy frak, nothing is the same.
We can’t always see those changes, is the thing. Sure, sometimes, there’s a big milestone. Selling a novel. First time on a convention panel. Landing the agent. But more often, there’s all these tiny little steps that accrete, almost without your realizing. Those little steps provide the foundation for those big milestones. So, I suppose, while it seems like things can move very quickly, there’s a much longer process happening under the surface. Yeti’s Parole Officer came about, indirectly, through Hapax and my scriptwriting.
So maybe a lot can happen in a week. But none of it happens without the seven (or five, or ten, or fifty) years preceding.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Ola Gjeilo once again, returning to an old favourite: his “Northern Lights” piece, which uses an absolutely gorgeous text. I mean, listen to this:
Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.
Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thy eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.
How wonderful is that? A great and terrible beauty, much like the aurorae themselves. *swoon*