Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, March 6, 2008

How Long Does It Take to Sell A Novel?

About that long.

In the last couple of weeks I've received several distressed e-mails from authors who have reputable agents and who have novels out on submission to editors, and really they want to trust their agents and they're trying to be good and non-high maintenance, but seriously could the submission process really take this long?

Yes, it can.

But what if, one of these authors asked, a publisher expressed interest several months ago and then nothing has happened at all. Could they really still be interested? And if they were interested a couple of months ago why in the heck haven't they made an offer already?

Happens all the time.

I always assure these authors to just keep in touch with their agent, be patient, take up knitting, and go easy on the bourbon. Settle in for the long haul. A book might sell in a week or it might sell in a year. You never know.

So why does it take so long for an editor to make a decision anyway? Well, there are many reasons. First of all, it takes a long time to read a book. 6 hours on average, if you are a speed reader (and you'd better be if you're in publishing), and editors receive multiple submissions a day. Do the math and there just aren't enough hours in the day, especially when you already have a full time job while you're not reading. The first major delay is the editor simply sitting down with the book in question for a six hour stretch.

But let's say the editor does read the book, loves it, and wants to make an offer. What then?

Well, unless they are a serious publishing mucky muck, editors have to get approval to make an offer, a process similar to unlocking a nuclear bomb. They have to get it past editorial board, they have to get more reads, these reads have to be good, they have to unlock the failsafe and contact the president to press a button on the nuclear football, the sales team gets a look, some higher up has to sign off on it..... and all of these people have to read the book too. Multiply those six hours by ten, and then maybe the editor gets approval to make an offer of a certain amount.

Now, what's funny about all this is that when there's a hot project all of this goes out the window and people quickly lose their minds and the whole above process can be condensed to a couple of hours. Frankly it's a good thing publishing companies don't actually control our nuclear stockpile -- one whiff of a rock star memoir and bye bye Uzbekistan.

So I know it's terribly frustrating to go months and months looking for an agent and then FINALLY the book gets submitted....... and then wait months and months while you're waiting for editors to read it.

Welcome to publishing. You have no choice but to stay a while.






72 comments:

Ulysses said...

Thank-you, Nathan. I found this post enormously informative.

And we have to keep Uzbekistan just for the spelling. That and "Kamchatka" (sounds like a Russian dessert).

Diana said...

I'm going to have to point all of my family, friends and colleagues to today's post. They mean well, being so supportive, but they all assume that just because the MS is finished, the book will be on the shelves any day now. I want to shake them and say, "Do you understand what a miracle it is that ANYTHING is in print?"

Heidi the Hick said...

While this is exactly what I didn't want to hear, it's what I needed to hear!

I think we writers get impatient because it can take so dang long to write the book. Like, can't everybody else get their act together more efficiently than me???

Um, no. I must remind myself that I really do want those who make the decisions to actually read the darn thing.

Must remember that anything worth having is worth waiting for... thanks, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

From this brief explanation I suddenly feel that I understand the entire world of publishing. Brilliant job. Thanks, Nathan.

Kimber An said...

Yep, Queryland is a good place to learn patience.
;)

Sam Hranac said...

I get it. Hotel California was about the publishing industry!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan. Even though I've heard my own agent say basically the same thing before, and know it to be true, it's still nice to read another post about how grueling and long the submission process can be....especially when you hear so many stories about auctions and selling projects within weeks and even days.....gets very demoralizing...

La Gringa said...

And the bigger the publisher, the longer the wai.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan,
Thank you for this bit of plain-speaking.
And although the wait for a "yes" answer can be long, the wait for a "no" answer can be just as long and much more devastating.

Jackie said...

Nathan, what can we do as "wanna be Authors" do to help smooth things along and speed the process up?

Luc2 said...

At my online critique group, many youngsters roam, who still have to go to college. I sometimes envy them. I wish I would have kept writing at an early age and try to kick myself in the head (but my stiff limbs won't let me). My biggest fear is that my wife will read me my first acceptance letter on my death bed...

Katie said...

*chuckling here* I've heard this before and understand it, but this is by far the most humorous (and perhaps for that reason, most effective) explanation I've read!

Thanks putting these hard truths into humor so we can bear them better.

(And Diana... this is why my SIL/best friend is the ONLY one in my family who even knows I write! The others won't find out until/unless my book is actually sold and released!)

Nathan Bransford said...

Jackie-

Nothing.

Adaora A. said...

I think it comes from a misconception that publishing is quick. What if they had a quick time of landing an agent? They might assumed - if they are not informed via blogs like this - that it is not uncommon for things in publishing to be glacially slow - then they assume it's going to be just as fast.

They might be excited that the ball is rolling and forget that their submission is one of many.

People email you asking these questions and you answer? Where do you find the time.

Anonymous said...

I think the key to patience here is probably the ongoing communications and conversations between the agent and the author.

As an artist, I have had commercial agents who weren't pushing my work or who had messed up their ends of deals so badly, that artists' agents have a terrible reputation.

In art, it is better to get a lawyer and learn how to talk in the boardroom yourself, rather than behind an agent.

But in the writing world, an agent is a professional field and hopefully contributes enormously to the process a writer must go through. In many cases, he/she is probably essential.

But art or writing or business of whatever, keeping in regular communication is reassuring.

Not hearing anything is hell, especially if you happen to have a very active writer's imagination or are paranoid or insecure or all of the above.

Anne Dayton said...

The waiting part is incredibly frustrating. It's the worst thing about publishing. But if you're waiting, that means they haven't said no yet, and that's always a good thing. That's what I try to tell myself anyway.

Christopher M. Park said...

Welcome to publishing. You have no choice but to stay a while.

That's a great line (well, two lines). Made my day and made me laugh, both. Humor really helps in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances, doesn't it?

Jackie said...

thank you for answering my question :)

you are telling me it is,pretty much, impossible to have an offer from a Publisher in 4 months (I have 3 chapters written-the ones I sent you but improved, finals- then I have chapters 4-10 written but not edited. My goal is 12 and I do have a Literary Agent that offered to represent me).

:) be aware that if you say "yes" I will prove you wrong (joking intended)

Jackie said...

thank you for answering my question :)

you are telling me it is,pretty much, impossible to have an offer from a Publisher in 4 months (I have 3 chapters written-the ones I sent you but improved, finals- then I have chapters 4-10 written but not edited. My goal is 12 and I do have a Literary Agent that offered to represent me).

:) be aware that if you say "yes" I will prove you wrong (joking intended)

Anonymous said...

Nathan said, "to wait months and months to finally get an agent" and then "take months and months to get your ms read."

Uh, sort of... but for most of us its been more like, takes years and years to find an agent, and then six to ten months to hear back from editors. I like your version much better though!

does anyone know the stats on how long the editor takes to get back to your agent vs. if they then buy the ms? Seems like some books are snatched up really quick and others don't ever sell if they've been on submission for a year or more.

Tom Burchfield said...

Hey Nathan: You forgot one more thing the Waiting Writer can do . . .

. . . go work on the next book. . . .

Anonymous said...

Tom,
Great Point!

I know two fabulous writers who gave up writing when they couldn't get their first book published.

Honestly, they could use words so well, they made other writers pale by comparison. So they thought too. But they still didn't get their first novels published and they both stopped writing.

I kind of like the Stephan King kind of model -keep those ghouls coming!

And one day, if you are ever picked up, there's a wealth of books already in the drawer.

And, you'll get better as a writer.

Hopefully.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Excellent reminder, Nathan.

Same holds true for short story submissions to magazines--the pro publications often take months to respond. I had one short story out for a year to a publisher and every time I queried they said, "Still considering your submission, thanks for your patience." The story was only 1200 words long, what's to consider. However, they bought the story at last--and then took 3 years to publish it (and pay upon publication)!

Writer's life: not for the impatient.

Redzilla said...

Nathan, this post wasn't supposed to cheer us up, was it? ;o)

Jackie said...

had to step away for a bit, sorry.

:) stick with me ANON., when I order a cheeseburger I want it the American way...fast. Then someone pinches me :)

Anonymous said...

I was talking to a friend of mine today who's decided she has an idea for a series. A children's picture book series. The first book isn't even written yet, she's still formulating the concept. She wanted to know, did I think it would be possible to have something published and out in the stores by Christmas? After all, it doesn't cost much, it's just paper and ink and binding, and we've come so far, technologically speaking.

I said, This year? 2008? Uh.. NO. Then I ROFLMAO! (quietly, of course)

Mark Terry said...

"A book might sell in a week or it might sell in a year."

And what Nathan has refrained from saying here is:

"A book might sell in a week or it might sell in a year or it might not sell at all."

Even if you're a published author, your next book might not sell. To your same publisher or to a new one.

Unless your name is Stephen King or Dan Brown, not a hell of a lot is guaranteed in publishing.

So although Nathan suggests going easy on the Bourbon, I'm unconvinced.

Jackie said...

cheesburgers, remember cheeseburgers ANON...

Jackie said...

would you like fries with that??? no Bourbon

Mark Terry said...

Yes, yes, you can thank me later for allowing in that ray of sunshine.

Anonymous said...

This is HYSTERICAL but true!! I've been waiting about six months on one house today, five on another, two on some others.....and I have an agent!

Jackie said...

congrats ANON

Jackie said...

I am still amazed that people request my writings (I share with a handful of family and lifetime friends) but I don't think I will ever get use to being Published (because I will gosh darnit)

be optomistic

Anonymous said...

a process similar to unlocking a nuclear bomb.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that a simile??

Bad Nathan. Bad, bad, bad.

Josephine Damian said...

Luc, my blog buddy: Just wait till you're my age and still don't have a book deal. But yeah, I think if there's only one piece of advice I could give to writers it's: Start young.

Katie, my fellow RWA chapter member: I'm with you. My family and the people at school only vaguely know I'm a writer (they don't even know I have a story coming out in a magazine). I don't intend to say anything more till if - when! - I have book out. I think keeping mum avoids a lot of awkward questions from people who are ignorant about the biz.

Mark, pass the bourbon: I heard that only half the writers who get signed by agents ever get a book deal, and then there are those who do get deals and are eventually dropped by their publisher (some regroup and reinvent themselves - "Dexter" author Jeff Lindsay comes to mind) and some give up.

Nathan, I think the same advice applies to waiting on a query, waiting for an agent to decide to sign you, waiting for a publisher to decide on your book: Stay busy! Whether it's writing a new book, articles, short stories, spending time with family and friends (whom you might have neglected while you were writing), have a great hobby... a career... a freakin' life outside of writing so that you don't become a neurotic wreck while you're waiting on any of this stuff.

Jackie said...

We write because we enjoy creating.It is quite pleasant to live in "never never land" and is much more special if we acheive giving that to someone else.

right?

Margaret Yang said...

Been there, done that, currently wearing the t-shirt. What helps is when my agent calls every now and again and says "You keep writing and don't worry. I WILL sell this book."

Any agents out there--call or e-mail your authors sometimes. It helps. Boy does it help.

Jackie said...

...Margret, then there is Nathans Blog! Thank you so very much Nathan!

XMenonite said...

Anon, "a process similar to unlocking a nuclear bomb" is not a simile.

Nathan's off the hook.

Colorado Writer said...

THANK YOU!

Jackie said...

hmmm my t-shirt says "your parents will hate me" :)

Jackie said...

my brother lives in Colorado. A few years ago a mountain right next to him had a forest fire...they called it Burning Mountain before that fire, imagine that

pjd said...

While this is exactly what I didn't want to hear, it's what I needed to hear!

It occurs to me that I see this or some version of it on every. single. post. Typically from different people, but still.

You could save all of us a lot of time and have a bot auto-post this comment every time you put up a new blog entry.

Aimless Writer said...

TAKE UP KNITTING???
No, no, no, you're suppose to say get to work on your next book.
Thanks again, Nathan. If publishing teaches you nothing else...its patience.

Tiffany Kenzie said...

I love forced patience [really--I say this with a smile] I'm a now kinda gal... great post, it's something we all learn with time, sorry bad joke.

And yes, waiting for those no's is a long time... I'm still waiting [taps fingers] really I AM more patient than I used to be *g*

And I am working on many next books... maybe I'll have a fleet of 'em to sell when I finally do get picked up?

Anonymous said...

the two cents of my continuing saga; book one took a few years to write, never landed an agent. Book two took a year to write, landed an agent, but after a year of submissions, book 2 never sold. In the meantime, I had finished book 3, and after about 10 months of submissions, I came real close (some second reads with major houses), but still no sale. While waiting, I wrote book 4. We'll see what happens with that one. Publishing is tough.....

Kirsten said...

Katie, Jospehine, I agree. I didn't tell anyone I was writing a novel when I was working on my first. Then I got a whiff of publisher interest and told family and friends. I'm also a painter... so have now condemned myself to an existence where "Sold any paintings lately?" and/or "What's happening with your books?" replaces a usual greeting. ;)

Denise said...

"Now, what's funny about all this is that when there's a hot project all of this goes out the window... Frankly it's a good thing publishing companies don't actually control our nuclear stockpile -- one whiff of a rock star memoir and bye bye Uzbekistan."

Little piece of advice to the newcomers: Never, ever, EVER read anything Nathan Bransford has to say when you're drinking soda. Screen gets very messy, very quickly. You also look rather foolish with it spewing out of mouth and nose.

Thanks, Nathan. Great post.

Kirsten said...

Nathan, funny... I got most of that info at a publishing seminar, but it was presented like a two-by-four to the head. I think I am one of the only fools who took the 'thou must wait' mantra waaay too far. (I'm a trusting soul). My first book stayed with a publisher for over a year, before they rejected it (there was a first rights clause for them attached to a contest they'd selected it from). Now book #2 is with an agent who says I can't shop it around to other agents while I wait ~3 months for their verdict.
Sorry, I've pestered w/ similar issues in another post, but I just want to clarify: I get the waiting game. I feel like a bit of a dumbass for taking passive, eggs-in-one-basket style waiting to the extreme, rather than having the good sense to send my MS out in the enterprising spirit most other authors seem to... Now I'm trying to find a happy medium/common sense approach, and figure out where I maybe need to get a little more proactive. :)

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

A related question...What number of editor passes indicates that an agented book probably won't sell? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? I know there are always exceptions, but at what point should an author figure that there is little hope for her book in the current market, especially when the passes don't point to any major problems and seem to boil down to taste?

Thanks for the insight!

P.G said...

Ok, that DOES explain all those novels about knitting clubs. The author wrote her first book, took ages to get published, took advice from her agent "start knitting" and joined a knitting club. Had nothing else to write about so wrote about her adventures in the knitting club..
So I think my second book to be published will be about cross stitch since I cannot knit.. Hrmm maybe that is why I cannot get published! ARGH! I am cursed.

Linnea said...

That's why I have no fingernails.

Luc said...

How is it that there ended up being two Lucs commenting on this blog? Alas! Fortunately, I seem to be the (slightly) younger Luc, although statistically that would also suggest that I am the less wise one.

On a bit of a tangent, I wanted to mention to anyone who might not know that non-fiction books can often sell more quickly than novels, as there's often less to review (outline and sample chapters rather than the whole book).

Nathan, do you have any comments on the subject of an agent working on selling more than one book at a time? (This assuming that the agent is enthusiastic about each book involved, of course.)

Nona said...

Not hearing anything is hell, especially if you happen to have a very active writer's imagination or are paranoid or insecure or all of the above.

Anon:
Prescription drugs help enormously with this. (I'm serious.)

Anonymous said...

And one day, if you are ever picked up, there's a wealth of books already in the drawer. And, you'll get better as a writer.

That's what Jane Austen did.

Jackie said...

Nathan, can a person have more than one Literary Agent but request a Publisher which Literary Agent they accepted the pitch from?

Nathan Bransford said...

Jackie-

What? No!

Jackie said...

greedy, isn't your industry? :)

Jackie said...

did I mention I am female? :)

Jackie said...

thank you for answering what appears to be an absurd question...outta here, have a wonderful weekend (I am sure warm and sunny weekend as it is snowing here)

toodles

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

To carry foward "on a bit of a tangent" as per Luc

Re: "...non-fiction books can often sell more quickly than novels, as there's often less to review (outline and sample chapters rather than the whole book)"

Yes, back to Margaret "Seltza" - I kept thinking of Eminem in relation to all this...and the so-called "W-word" phenomenon - Eminem grew up near 8 Mile, a lyric of his is quoted on Wikipedia: "cocky Caucasians who think I'm some wigger who just tries to be black 'cause I talk with an accent and grab on my balls."

And I do recall an article somewhere, exploring the weighty question, why was there no white female equivalent to Eminem? So maybe that was the "vacum" that Margaret Seltza was supposed to fill, in a book instead of a CD?

And so I just wonder also, how this all relates to that "hot project" that makes "people quickly lose their minds" in the publishing industry.

I mean, maybe a person could include this in their query letter, placing themselves in a trajectory from Eminem to Seltza (I like to call her that now) to yourself and your own book...of fiction..."the book that Eminem could have written, and Seltza only wishes she'd written."

Having grown up 4 miles north of 8 Mile myself, I have to wonder, maybe that's something to throw into a query letter. Locate yourself geographically like that.

Back to the box of Girl Scout Cookies and medical transcription...height, weight, blood pressure, respiratory rate...

Kim Stagliano said...

I'm off to ebay to see if I can buy some patience. Of course, I'll want to use the "Buy it now! feature, since I hating waiting for auctions to end. Lord, I'm doomed.

Ithaca said...

One of my New Year's resolutions was to stop leaving chippy comments on blogs by people who simply report on a system they did not create (why not save them for the semi-privacy of my own blog, was the thought). But I loved the story of your grandfather - the sort of husband who would clearly have worked better for my mother. 8 years into my parents' marriage my grandfather gave my mother a grand piano which he had happened to pick up at auction, which my father (a diplomat) then had to cart resentfully around South America. Years after their divorce my father was still aggrieved. (There is a happy ending of sorts: my mother upgraded to a professor and a Steinway.)

Anonymous said...

I DO realize it can take forever to sell... I really DO trust my agent and I will always stick with her.

I'm afraid the length of time it takes to sell my work will have HER dumping ME.

*shivers*

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

Brilliant post. Confirms everything I've always been told by friends in publishing and I'm going to make everyone who hassles me with "is your book published yet, do you have a publisher who's interested yet" read your post. Or maybe I'll just stick it up on the door to my study and point at when someone even begins to ask.

kathy evans said...

Nathan - thought you might like to know this has become a mantra for me, temazepan for my desperate moments - after a year of my novel being led into the world by my (highly respected) agent I wonder will it ever sell? I've even finished a second book and find myself wondering is it worth starting this all again?
I have to trust that it is x
Thank you,
Kathy

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan:

A quick question for you on this subject - it's been four weeks since my agent submitted my proposal. A few editors have expressed interest, but no offers have been made. My agent is thus, setting a closing date for them. What do you know of and think of this strategy?

Christine Lakatos said...

Thanks for this post as I just finished my first book (My Diva Diet: a fat-loss system for women to get into great shape; using "fitness superheroes" and "diet villains" to portray its message) and we started selling it September 8, 2008. The publishing industry is a very complicated world to break into. How long does it take for a self published book to take off? Any suggestions would help!
www.MyDivaDiet.com

Amy said...

A tried and true military adage comes to mind."Hurry up and wait."

moonman said...

Thanks, Nathan. You made my day!!!

Stacy Allen said...

Thanks, Nathan. Being an author can be exhausting. Not the writing. That's fun. The waiting, though. The waiting can destroy your spirit, drive you insane, and - as one of my friends so aptly put after watching me go through this process - it can wither your spirit.

CL said...

Okay, this makes me feel much better. I'm new to this whole traditional publishing thing and have been wondering if I should take up knitting or be hyperventilating in a corner for every day I don't hear something. Knitting it is. Thank you!

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