The results are in from my New Publishing Connections survey, and I’m excited to share them with you! To sum up quickly, this survey was intended to discover to what extent authors need connections within the publishing world to get a first (fiction) book published.
To begin with, I’d like to thank the 257 authors who contributed their answers! Unfortunately, that number wasn’t quite enough to allowed for some of the more detailed analyses across genres and other answers. So I’m going to keep the survey open, and if I get at least 100 more responses, I’ll go back and reanalyze the data to see whether the patterns stay consistent and whether I can identify any new ones.
If you’d like to contribute data on your first (fiction) book sale to a traditional publisher and haven’t already, you can find the survey here. Much appreciated!
Now, on to the current results…
Of the first (fiction) books reported on in the survey, 49.6% were young adult, 22.3% middle grade, 13.3% adult genre (romance, SFF, mystery, etc.), 11.3% picture books, and 3.1% adult literary or mainstream. (Weighting toward YA and MG would be because of my specific reach when promoting the survey, not anything about the industry.) These books were sold between 1979 and 2015, with most of them having sold in the last five years (60.6%). 22.6% had sold between 2006 and 2010, 11.8% had sold between 2001 and 2005, and only 5.2% were sales before 2000. (There were no sales reported actually in 2000.) Most — 50.4% — were sales to Big Five publishers, while 16% were to other large presses, 19.5% to mid-sized presses, and 14.1% to small presses.
The Connections (or lack thereof)
68% of the books reported on had sold with an agent’s representation; 32% had sold directly to the publisher.
67% of the agented authors had gotten their agent through cold querying — i.e., they’d had no prior contact with the agent and no one acted as a middleman bringing them together. 11.5% had gotten their agent via a referral, 6.9% had met the agent at a conference, 5.2% had gotten a request from the agent due to a contest submission, 4% had gotten to know the agent via social media, and 4.8% had some other connection (e.g., materials requested because seen online).
96% of agented authors had no prior contact whatsoever with the editor their first book sold to. 3.4% had met the editor at a conference or workshop, and 1 author had gotten a referral to the editor.
Therefore, 44.8% of the total respondents sold their first novel via an agent they had no prior contact with to an editor they had no prior contact with.
Looking at the unagented authors, 41.7% had sold their book via a cold query or submission (no prior contact with or connections to the editor). 17.9% had met the editor a conference, workshop, or similar event. 16.7% had gotten a referral. 7.2% had gotten noticed via a contest. 6% had gotten to know the editor via social media. 3 authors were approached by the editor based on self published books. And a handful of “Other” responses were mainly authors who had previous interactions with the editor around past books on submission that hadn’t sold.
Therefore, 13.3% of the total respondents sold the book without an agent, to an editor they had no prior contact with.
Which brings the total of authors who sold their first books without any connections to the people involved in that sale up to 58.1%.
Past Credits (or lack thereof)
One point raised when I conducted my previous survey on this topic was that some authors might have gotten their foot in the door not via direct connections but on the strength of prior publication credits and/or social media presence. So I asked about that too this time around. 53.5% of the authors who responded had no prior credits or platform whatsoever. 10.9% had sold short stories in the same genre as their first (fiction) book. 16.6% had sold short stories and/or articles but none in the same genre. 6.6% had traditionally published nonfiction books. 3.9% had self published stories or books selling fewer than 1000 each; 2.3% had self published stories or books with at least one title selling over 1000 copies. 2.3% were known for their social media presence. A number of others were journalists (freelance or on staff), had worked for hire under pen names, had published poetry, and/or wrote academic texts.
Cross-referencing the authors without connections with authors without past credits/platform, we end up with:
28.7% of the total respondents sold their first novel via an agent they had no prior contact with to an editor they had no prior contact with, without having any prior publication credits or social media platform.
6.5% of the total respondents sold the book without an agent, to an editor they had no prior contact with, without having any prior publication credits or social media platform.
So, overall, 35.2% sold their first books without connections to the people involved in that sale, prior publication credits, or a platform with which to gain notice.
Agented vs. Not
Being agented for the first book sale was most common with young adult (78.7& agented), followed by middle grade (68.4%), and adult genre (58.8%). PB writers least likely at 31%. There wasn’t enough data on adult literary/mainstream to reveal patterns. Across all genres, authors had generally found their agent through cold querying (65-69.2%). Adult genre writers were more likely than others to have gotten a referral (25%); YA and MG saw fairly similar percentages for contests (around 6.8%) referals (10.6%), meeting at conference etc. (7.3%), and getting to know online (3.3%). There wasn’t enough PB data to reveal patterns at that level of detail.
Being agented seems to have become more common for first book sales over the years, with only 23.1% of those who sold their books prior to 2000 having agents, vs. 56.7% of those between 2001 and 2005, 70.7% in 2006-2010, and 72.9% after 2011. No patterns in regards to cold querying emerged other than none of the 13 responses from pre-2000 had cold queried (they’d mostly gotten referrals). Otherwise cold querying has been by far the most common route to getting an agent over the last 15 years (around 70% of those agented). Referrals as a route to agent decreased over the time periods from 17.6% in 2001-2005 to 12.2% in 2006-2010 to 9.7% after 2011 (not enough data prior to 2000). Meeting agents in person became more common, with no one reporting this prior to 2006, 2.4% in 2006-2010, and 9.7% after 2011; contest submissions only became a thing after 2011.
First book sales to Big Five houses were almost always agented (86%), while mid-sized and other large presses showed similar numbers around the middle (56% and 58.5%), and with small press it was least common to have been agented (30.8%). Coming at it from the other direction, agented writers mostly sold to the Big Five (63.8%) and rarely to small presses (6.3%) whereas unagented writers were least likely to sell to Big Five (22%) and most likely to sell to small press (30.5%).
Prior publication credits or other platform was less common for agented writers (77.4% had none) than for non-agented (57.1%). It’s impossible to determine cause and effect, but I’d wonder if writers who have some experience with publishing are more likely to feel comfortable going directly to editors, or if it’s that it’s more difficult to sell a book without those prior credits if you don’t have an agent, or perhaps a bit of both. Having no prior credits didn’t seem to make a difference in how people got agents, with 67.9% of those with none successful via cold querying, similar to 66.2% of those with some.
Authors who cold queried agents and sold to editors they’d had no prior contact with also had no prior credits or platform in 64% of cases. Most common credits for those who had some: 11.7% had sold at least some short stories in the same genre as the book, 12.6% had sold short stories and/or articles in other genres.
Authors who sold directly to editors via cold query/submission had no prior credits/platform in 48.6% of cases. 14.3% had sold at least some short stories in the same genre as the book, and 25.7% had sold short stories and/or articles in other genres.
There were not enough authors with prior credits to break down the data by type of credit or in comparison to genre etc. in any meaningful way at this time.
For anyone who feared that it’s impossible to sell a book without some sort of connection or publication history, I think these numbers should provide reassurance. More than a third of the responding authors published their first (fiction) book without any of that!
To anyone who would take this data as reason for doubt — “But the majority of the authors did have something helping them!” — I’d like to point out that just because an author had a connection or prior credits, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have sold the book without that. We’re not looking at causal relationships here, only criteria that both happened to be present and may have had no impact on each other. This seems especially likely to be the case given that the most common “something” was having previously published short stories or articles that weren’t even in the same genre as the book sold, which seems unlikely to have mattered enough to any agent or editor to make the difference between wanting to represent or buy the book vs. not.
Speaking from my own experience: I queried agents with two earlier books before querying with the one that got me representation (and later sold as my debut). I had the exact same prior publishing credits in all of those cases (a handful of adult spec fic short stories). What made the difference was the book. The agent who did take my debut on didn’t care at all about those short stories, because they weren’t for the same audience as the book and they weren’t especially prominent. She didn’t even mention them to the editors she submitted the book to. So, I had “something,” but there’s no reason to believe my publishing journey with that book would have been any different if I hadn’t.
I’ve also gotten referrals to agents who decided not to represent me because my book wasn’t quite the right fit (and said book later sold via a different agent), and given referrals to authors who my agent decided not to take on for the same reason (and some of those books have since sold via different agents). A referral isn’t going to make someone take on your book if the book isn’t what they’re looking for — and being turned down on a referral doesn’t mean a book isn’t what someone else might be looking for.
In other words, the people who got their first book published without any of that are only the baseline number of people who 100% definitely didn’t need anything except the book and the willingness to put it out there. The people who got their first book published after having published short stories or working as a journalist or getting a referral to an agent or meeting an editor at a conference might have needed that extra stuff to get noticed… but I think there’s a good chance that many if not most of them would have gotten noticed regardless, if they hadn’t had those credits to mention, if they’d cold queried the agent or submitted to the editor without the meeting, because it was the right book at the right time.
Those are my thoughts — I’d love to hear yours!
(And remember, if you’d like to contribute data for a broader analysis, you can still do so here. )