Writing Middle Grade - A Look At the Numbers

Background:

  • This survey was open from May 24th to September 15th, 2017
  • 76 published trade middle grade authors participated
  • I offered no compensation for taking the survey - THANK YOU AUTHORS for donating your time!
  • Results were self-reported and anonymous

1) Cumulative years of pursuing writing as a career before first book sold?

It took 75% of middle grade authors four or more years to publish their first book. 

1 Years writing before first book sold.jpg

2) What type of house published your debut book?

Half of the middle grade authors participating in the survey were published by Big Five publishers.

2 Type of house MG.jpg

I asked authors to rate their experience with their publisher on a scale from 1 (terrible) to 10 (amazing).

  • Large house average experience: 7.1
  • Smaller houses with advances: 8.0
  • Small houses without advances: 6.8

Authors at smaller houses with advances also reported more assistance with marketing than authors at large houses. However, here are the average (mean) numbers of copies sold by house size:

  • Large houses average debut copies sold: 22,800
  • Small houses with advance: 9,000 copies
  • Small houses without advance: 2,400 copies

Despite authors' lower perceptions of marketing help at Big Five publishers, they still publish significantly more copies than small houses. Maybe the marketing departments at large houses just aren't as transparent about marketing efforts, or maybe authors at large houses have higher expectations. Or, maybe marketing doesn't impact sales that much. In any case, author perceptions of marketing assistance isn't correlated to sales. It's a fairly scattered plot.

5 marketing assitence vs copies sold.jpg

Here's one more way to look at sales: the median (or middle-most) number of copies sold by house size.

  • Large houses median: 10,000
  • Small houses with advance: 7,000 copies
  • Small houses without advance: 2,400 copies

3) How many drafts did you write of your debut book before it was accepted for publication?

Fifty percent of writers wrote more than six drafts of their story before it was accepted for publication. Here is the count of number of writers (y-axis) vs. drafts written (x-axis):

3 How many drafts MG.jpg

4) How many hours a week do you devote to writing?

A third of all published middle grade writers don't have a regular writing routine.

4 How many hours per week MG.jpg

Authors working 0-9 hours a week were the least likely to be published by a Big Five Publisher (33%). Authors working 40+ hours a week were the most likely to be published by a large publisher (100%). According to the data, the longer and harder you work, the more likely you'll be published at a larger house. And as just shown, larger houses tend to sell more copies.

5) How many publisher rejections did you receive before your debut sold?

Most middle grade authors receive between five and thirty rejections, although 17% receive more than 30 rejections.

5 Rejections MG.jpg

Those receiving 20+ rejections wrote more drafts than those with fewer rejections (9.4 drafts vs 6.3 drafts). This means: more revisions = increased likelihood of selling your much rejected story. However, you might not want to pin all your hopes on selling any one story because...

6) The average middle grade author writes 2.6 "practice stories" before selling one.

In other words, middle grade authors write 3.6 stories (including their sell) on average before their debut payday.

7) So how much is the typical middle grade advance?

The average (mean) middle grade advance is $20,000. However, this lumps together those with no advance and those making $100,000+.

6 Advances MG.jpg

Here are a few sub-categories:

  • Average advance at a small house (with advance): $15,000
  • Average advance at a Big Five publisher: $32,000
  • Average advance for all authors without an agent: $3,000
  • Average advance for all authors with an agent: $27,000

Authors with agents typical have advances nine times higher than those without.

There also appears to be a connection between how many hours you work each week and advance size. However, this should come with the disclaimer that my 30+ hours per week sample size was rather small.

6 Advances hours worked per week MG.jpg

Here's the individual data. Each bar line is an author:

4 How many hours per week MG indicidual.jpg

You can see I only had data from a handful of authors working more than 30 hours a week.

Another interesting fact: Most of the authors with books out three or more years have earned out their advance (70%). However, none of the $100,000+ advance authors have earned out yet, even though one has had a book out for over 8 years. Royalties might not roll in for several years...if ever...for books with super-sized advances. Fortunately, these authors have gone on to sell other books, so they've continued to have writing income.

8) What was your total writing income last year?

84% of middle grade authors made less than $30,000 last year, and half of middle grade authors had writing incomes under the 2017 U.S. Federal Poverty Level for a family of one ($12,060).

7 MG income.jpg

The average income for a published middle grade author with an agent was $21,000. The average income for one without was $7,000. Once again, having an agent makes a big difference in income. However, writing middle grade (or children's literature in general) is still unlikely to make you rich. The highest annual middle grade income in the survey was $150,000.

9) What is the typical word count for a middle grade novel?

The responses varied from 15,000 to 140,000 words. The average (mean) word count was about 53,000 words.

8 Middle Grade Word count.jpg

The word count at Big Five publishers had a slightly narrower range: 19,000 words to 105,000 words, but the average was about the same (55,000 words).

Most middle grade novels are between 40,000 and 69,000 words long.

10) Was your middle grade novel pitched as a series?

Most middle grade novels are not pitched as a series.

9 MG pitched as series.jpg

More books turned into series than authors initially anticipated. BUT, most middle grade novels remain standalone titles. Here's a chart showing how many middle grade novels were turned into series.

9 MG became a series.jpg

11) Do you write in more than one genre?

Most middle grade authors (68%) write in more than one genre.

12) Was your middle grade book published with the help of an agent?

75% of middle grade novels debuts were published with the help of an agent. This is significantly higher than for picture book authors, where only about 50% of debuts were published with the help of an agent.

13 MG debut published with agent.jpg

Unrepresented middle grade debut authors have a 40% chance of going on to sign with an agent.

13) How many agents have you had over the course of your career?

Most middle grade authors have had one agent, although about a quarter have had two or more agents.

11 Middle Grade how many agents.jpg

14) How many rejections did you collect before signing with your first agent?

Twenty percent of authors received sixty or more rejections before signing with an agent.

14 agent rejections.jpg

I asked a handful of agents what percent of queries they take on as new clients. The responses ranged from 2% (a newer agent) to 0.01% (a well established agent). However, most of the agents take on less than 1% of all queries as clients. If you've been querying agents and receiving A LOT of rejections, you are in good company. It's a tough market, but don't let rejections get you down. Use them as information to improve. If you've sent your novel to more than 30 agents and haven't had any requests, consider a seeking more feedback and revising before sending it to additional agents. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is one place to find critique partners. 

For the record, authors with agents get rejections, too. A LOT! Here's how many times authors with agents were rejected by publishers before selling their debut:

14 publisher rejections for authors with agents.jpg

Twenty-five percent of authors with agents received more than thirty rejections before their debut work sold.

15) How many full requests did you receive before signing with you agent?

Half of middle grade authors received five or more full requests before signing with an agent. (Those with zero requests often met their agent through a conference.) Missing numbers are areas with no data.

15 How many full requests.jpg

I also asked authors how often they received personalized feedback from full requests. Authors hear back with specific feedback on less than half of full requests (46%).

16) How long after signing with an agent did it take to sell your first story together?

Twenty-five percent of published middle grade authors sell their novel more than a year after signing with their agent.

16 How long to sell first novel.jpg

17) If represented by an agent, how many different stories did your agent send on submission last year?

30% of authors had multiple stories out on submission last year. However, most of these authors write in multiple genres and some different age categories. These weren't all middle grade submissions.

17 How many different books.jpg

18) If represented by an agent, how many stories did you sell last year?

Slightly over half of middle grade authors with an agent weren't on submission last year. These authors were actively seeking offers from publishers. Of the authors on submission, about half sold at least one story.

18 How many stories did you sell last year.jpg

19) On a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10 (excellent), how much do you like working with your agent?

Most authors like working with their agent. There was a gap in responses between 1 and 5. This could mean most people don't remain in dysfunctional agent relationships very long and/or most agent relationships are either okay or horrible without much middle ground.

18 How much do you like working with your agent.jpg

67.2% of authors rate their agent a 9 or higher!

20) If represented by an agent, what percent of your editor submissions receive responses (rejection or acceptance replies) within four months?

Most agents hear back from 90% or more of their middle grade submissions by the four month mark.

18 Responses within 4 months.jpg

Only a small percent (3.5%) haven't heard back from most of the editors by four months. Also, it is unusual for your agent not to give you a list of who they submitted to. If you want a submission list, they should be able to supply one.

21) If represented by an agent, how many editors did your agent submit to on your most recent round of submitting?

Most agents submitted to 1-10 editors on their most recent round of middle grade submitting.

19 How many editors.jpg

At least 5% of middle grade submissions only went to one editor for contractual reasons (right of first refusal). There might have been more in the "one editor" category for this or other contractual conditions.

22) If represented by an agent, what types of houses did they submit to on your most recent round of submitting?

The majority of agented middle grade submissions went to Big Five publishers. 

21 What types of houses.jpg

The agent submissions that went exclusively to smaller publishers did so mostly for contractual reasons, again about 5%. (In case you're wondering why it was 5.4% in the last question and 5.2% here is that 59 authors answered the first question and 58 answered this one.)

23) How many trade children's book have you sold (with or without an agent) over the course of your career?

Most of the authors in the survey have sold two or fewer books.

23 How many books.jpg

The person selling the most books had been working for more than ten years. Book sales generally increased with years in the industry. However, this isn't guaranteed. 25% of authors working ten or more years had only sold one book.

Twenty percent of multi-published middle grade authors were not represented. However, all of the authors selling more than five books had agents.

That said, there isn't a clear correlation between books sold and annual income. An author with three books published won't necessarily earn more money in a year than an author with only one book. 

Similarly, selling a lot of copies of your debut book isn't a great predictor of annual income. Authors selling more than 10,000 copies of their debut novel had about the same annual income as authors selling fewer than 10,000 copies ($17,000 vs $16,000). However, authors who sold a book within the last year made significantly more money than those who sold years prior ($15,000 vs $27,000).

According to the survey, two things significantly improve an author's annual income:

  • having an agent
  • selling a book within that calendar year

Things that seem to have a neutral effect on your annual salary:

  • selling many books over the course of your career
  • selling a lot of copies of your debut book

It's not that selling a lot of different books or selling oodles of copies of your debut book is bad. It's just that it isn't as important as selling a new book this calendar year. Generally, a book advance is greater than annual royalties from existing books.

With all these surveys, please remember that data can provide a good overview, but numbers do not define you or your work.

I can't promise an author who writes 6.2 drafts and submits to 20 publishers will get a contract. I can't promise that signing with an agent will improve your annual salary. I can just tell you what's normal, average, and ordinary...

So, don't shoot for ordinary.

Get out there and be EXTRAORDINARY!

Best wishes with the query hunt!

Hannah Holt24 Comments