Sunday, July 16, 2006

I rejected a novel this evening ...

... which is something I never enjoy doing. The author wanted me to make up my mind about a submission to Robert J. Sawyer Books, because he/she had interest from a PoD publisher, and a web site had expressed interest in serializing the book. And so I did make up my mind. Here's what I had to say, since it might be helpful to others out there:
This is the second follow-up you've sent since submitting your novel less than three months ago.

I've read a good hunk of your book and like it on a stylistic level; I'm not 100% sure it's fresh enough in terms of content for me, and have been trying to find the time to read more of it.

I will say this: very few traditional print publishers move really fast in making decisions. I've been moving way faster than, say, Tor or DAW, would have; there, it's often over a year before anyone even opens your envelope, and usually at least two years after a first novel is bought before it's on the bookstore shelves.

The reason online/POD places can reply so quickly is that they're risking almost nothing; production and distribution costs on a book going into bookstores will run to tens of thousands of dollars, and so such decisions have to be made with care. If you want immediate short-term gratification, you're in the wrong field.

I'll also say this: repeatedly forcing an editor to focus his or her thoughts on your work by asking if a determination has been made yet may lead the editor to make decisions prematurely, and there's only one safe decision to be made that way. Since you want a decision now, here it is: I'm going to pass on your book.

As you yourself have just pointed out to me, I'm having no trouble getting submissions from established, bankable names such as Matt Hughes and Phyllis Gotlieb (not to mention Karl Schroeder), and although I am proud to have already brought a couple of first novels to market, they are harder work for the editor, harder sells for the sales force, and earn less money for the publisher; I fight to make them possible in a very competitive marketplace, but I can't do it without careful deliberation.

So, best of luck elsewhere. All that said, though, one writer to another, I think going the route of online serialization and POD are mistakes you will regret in the years to come. Online publishing and POD are a waste of time; you'll have fewer than a hundred readers, I'm willing to wager, in either format. But it's up to you.

All best wishes.



At July 17, 2006 4:03 PM , Blogger E.Jim Shannon said...

Man, some of these people have a lot of gaul. I'm currently outlining the scene sheets for a SF novel which I'm ready to start writing, Labor Day weekend? I'm unpublished but I want to do this right. I'm in my mid fifties but I don't intened on being as hard nosed as the example you gave. I've got lots of time and when I'm ready to market a book, I'll be busy writing another one.

Thanks for the education.

At July 17, 2006 7:32 PM , Blogger J Erwine said...

I'm not familiar with your guidelines, but do you even accept simultaneous submissions?
Personally, I think sending a novel manuscript to more than one publisher is a BAD idea, even if they do look at simultaneous submissions, and withdrawing a submission because a POD wants to publish it???? Obviously they just wanted the book published...might as well have gone through a vanity press...

At July 17, 2006 8:45 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I don't like simultaneous submissions, and I think this case illustrates why their not in the author's best interest in most cases: with simultaneous submissions, you end up feeling pressured to take the first offer you get, even if it's from a publisher lower down on your preference list. Heinlein said start at the top of the market and work your way down (yes, I know that means that my line isn't the top of the market -- but it sure as heck isn't the bottom!).

At July 18, 2006 8:19 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who owns every book published in your line so far, I'd say it's right up there. The books may not sell as well as whatever Forgotten Realms tie-in WOTC is pushing at the same time, but popular doesn't equal good!

John F,
Truro, NS

At July 18, 2006 9:02 PM , Blogger bookmaven said...

Hi Robert--I met you at Sechelt and loved your presentations. You are a generous editor to write that poor schmuck such a long and thoughtful rejection letter, and your comments are right on. I'm goiing to differ with you on the multiple submissions however--I always advise writers to go multiple, because who is going to live long enough to wait a year (or more) for each publisher to open your envelope? I advocate sending twenty submissions at a time--not whole manuscripts, but the usual cover letter/synopsis/sample package--and starting with your most wished for 20, then working down. My thinking is that 99% of the editors are not in the right position to take your ms at any given time, but 1 in 100 is--and the sooner you find that one taker, the better. I am an editor of 30 years experience, and so many people go the multiple route now I must admit, I don't hold it against them. In fact it probably makes me pay more attention, because it signals to me that this is a writer who values his time and knows the game.

At July 18, 2006 9:08 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Interesting position, Bookmaven -- and I've heard others take it, as well. I don't dispute that response times are way, way too long for unagented material from major publishers. In science-fiction, there are only about a half-dozen publishers worth considering in each tier, and I do worry about people sending out a novel with a flaw that's obvious to everyone but themselves to all their preferred markets at once. :)

At July 20, 2006 8:34 PM , Blogger Evo Terra said...

Hi Rob. Here's to hoping our friendship can survive a difference of opinion.

"Beyond the browser" technologies, specifically RSS distribution, is enabling many authors who have chosen the serialized route to find audiences in the thousands. There is a growing audience for serialized fiction. Of course, this assumes the fiction is well written and the author is aware of these new opportunities.

I've posted more on this topic at if others care to jump in to the conversation.

See you at WorldCon?

At July 20, 2006 9:10 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

It's not a misconception until you prove it wrong, Evo, old boy.

Thousands of hits, or downloads, or whatever, don't necessarily (or even reasonably) mean thousands of actual reads or listens. I eventually get around to reading or listening to maybe one tenth of the material I aggregate, and I'd be surprised if this is an atypical figure.

"Thousands" is an easy figure to bandy about; how precisely are you measuring readership? We're specifically talking about science-fiction novels here (and as text serialization, not read aloud in podcasts; that is, not at all what offers). Setting aside the text issue, science-fiction serializations are a small segment of everything offered at, and has just 4,888 active members, picking and choosing from 1,139 titles, as attested here.

Now, yes, if 100% -- every single one of those people -- was reading EACH SPECIFIC science-fiction serial, you'd have "thousands." Hell, if HALF of them were doing so, you'd still have thousands, in the sense that two thousand is a plurality of thousands.

But do you really think HALF the people at -- which offers business titles, essays, religious fiction, children's fiction, and more, in addition to SF -- read each specific SF serial? I very much doubt that. I very much doubt that even 10% of them read/listen to any given one -- and even if it were that many (actually reading it, not just aggregating the material) you're still only talking a few hundred consumers, and I suspect that's generous.

If you have access to other actual hard numbers, do share (although I'd really prefer to see them for print, since that's what I was talking about). Until then, I stand by my contention that a novel serialized online is likely to have fewer than 100 readers, although I do welcome being proven wrong with solid, verifiable numbers.

At July 20, 2006 9:33 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Assertions about huge markets always make me smile. I'm sure there are huge markets for some things, but this number inflation reminds me of another submission I rejected this week, although this was just a query. The author was proposing an SF novel in which the Internet figured largely, and said:

"With over 900 million Internet users, world wide, there is no doubt an audience is there to buy my novel. To wit, if only 1 percent of those users bought one paperback copy, my book could bring in $70 million. Consider the success of Harry Potter. Now, take into account that his fan base is not even a tenth of the Internet users on the planet. There is no doubt that my book can become huge."

Yup, no doubt at all. :)

At July 20, 2006 10:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a quick note, you have misinterpreted the numbers on

There are 1139 episodes, not titles.

There are only 58 titles there at this stage.

At July 20, 2006 10:23 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well, yes and no; I was aware of that.

But, as a writer, I count as readers those people who read my books in their entirety -- not just those who sample a page or two (or even a chapter) and set them aside.

If you want to call anyone who has sampled your text at all (by listening, say, to one free chapter, presumably the first one) a "reader," you probably can inflate the figures substantially, although I still doubt anyone routinely get thousands trying even the first chapter/episode of any given work.

But let's split the difference between trying just one installment and actually listening to them all. For the 58 titles at, how many have had at least two thousand specific individual users download/aggregate every one of the first half of the total number of episodes? The total maximum audience is 4,888, remember -- so to get 2,000 "readers" -- people who could potentially have made it through even half the book -- fully 40% of all the Podiobooks subscribers would have to download the episodes.

And out of that subset of the 58 that do have that many "readers," how many of those works are science-fiction novels (not fantasy, which has a bigger market base)?

The hard data is doubtless available to Evo and others who work at So let's have it. :)

But even if/when we get it, we have to take into account that material at is free; I say again that all sorts of people aggregate all sorts of material, especially when it's free, and never listen to or read it. I have the entire contents of Project Gutenberg (as of a couple of years ago) on one of my hard drives; I'll never read more than 1% of it. :)

At July 21, 2006 12:18 AM , Blogger Evo Terra said...

When we count "readers" at, we're talking *only* about those who have subscribed to a book. We're not tracking those who just take a quick listen to the sample and then go about their merry way. That's cheating and/or fudging the numbers. I'm more interested in accuracy than inflated figures. My ego is big enough as it is.

Since many of the books on our site are "in progress" (where the author is still uploading chapters on a regular basis), it's difficult to match your "how many half way" number. But since we do filter out all repeat data and only look at unique subscribers to a given book, 6 of the 58 titles have (or have had) over 2000 subscribers. 17 are over 1000. Just about all of them active longer than a week get well over 100 subscribers.

Of course, this doesn't count the number of Neanderthal listening in a quantum universe, where another Evo with a more pronounced brow ridge has managed to get thousands of his brethren to upload their books on his site. ;)

At July 23, 2006 7:18 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

For those who've come here from John Scalzi's blog, or other links to this one blog entry, a little redirection: the conversation on this topic continues in this post and further in this post. Enjoy.


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