Heinlein’s Business Habits

According to bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith, famous science fiction writer Robert Heinlein penned five business habits for being a successful fiction writer. They are:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

Since earning an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest, I have begun sending out my stories to various fiction markets. Like most aspiring science fiction authors, I am also beginning to accumulate my fair share of rejections.

In a vacuum, these rejections can be extremely discouraging. Fortunately, a rudimentary knowledge of statistics and a slavish dedication to Heinlein’s business habits can make the sting of these rejections much easier to put into perspective.

As in any profession, editors can sometimes exhibit herd-like behavior. In other words, they are more likely to back authors whom other editors have published. This behavior is one of the reasons it is so hard for aspiring writers to break into the business (in addition to inexperience). After all, why should editors risk their careers on some unknown, when they can back a different author whose subjective writing style another editor has validated, especially if that author has an established fan base?

Christie Yant at Inkhaven provides an interesting perspective on the sheer volume of submissions that science fiction and fantasy markets like Lightspeed see in any given month vs. the number of stories these magazines are able to purchase. She argues that the only way an editor will choose to purchase a story is only if it is “one of the editor’s two to five absolute favorite stories.” The problem here is that aspiring authors will never know the quality of the competition at the time they submit their own stories.

Given the unknowable factors of a particular editor’s tastes and the quality of competing stories, there are only two things an aspiring author can really do to improve his or her chance of success: 1) write well and 2) be persistent. While statistics cannot tell us very much about writing well, it can tell us a great deal about the power of persistence.

At first glance, the probability of getting a short story published is intimidating. For instance, Christie Yant suggested that Lightspeed purchases between two and five stories out of a field of 400 each month. In other words, the probability that magazine rejects any given story is between 98.8% and 99.5%. Most top-selling science fiction and fantasy magazines presumably have similar odds. The chart below shows some recent Duotrope statistics for twenty-six science fiction and fantasy markets sorted by fastest to slowest response time:

Source: Duotrope

It is important to note that Duotrope tends to underestimate the probability of acceptance for many of these markets because the data is self-reported. For example, the probability of rejection for the Writers of the Future Contest is far too low on Duotrope because many contestants erroneously record Honorable Mention, Semifinalist, and unpublished Finalist awards as an acceptance when their work for that quarter will never be published in the contest’s annual anthology.

Regardless, one can use these numbers as a basic proxy for how long it might take for a new author to get published. The probability that at least one of these twenty-six editors will want to purchase it (provided it is a good story, of course) is equal to:

1 – [(Probability of Rejection in Market 1) x (Probability of Rejection in Market 2) x … x (Probability of Rejection in Market 26)]26.

So, if one were to send this story to all of these markets, one’s probability of acceptance would rise from just 0.9% in one market (take Analog for instance) to 78.0% in at least one of the twenty-six. Unfortunately, an author can only submit this one story to only one market at any given time since most markets prohibit simultaneous submissions. Using the average reported response times in Duotrope shows that it could take as long as almost four years for at least one editor to accept one’s submission.

To reduce the number of days to getting an acceptance, it helps to have more stories in circulation. Again, the math is compelling. The probability that at least one of these twenty-six editors will want to purchase one or more of an author’s n stories is equal to:

1 – [(Probability of Rejection in Market 1) x (Probability of Rejection in Market 2) x … x (Probability of Rejection in Market 26)](26 x n).

The following graph shows the power of persistence in practice. To wit, an author has a 99.9% chance of publishing at least one short story in slightly less than a year if he or she has 20 stories in circulation vs. almost three years with five stories in circulation.

© 2012 Reflections of a Rational Republican

In essence, the age-old adage applies: you can’t win if you don’t play. The more you play, the greater the likelihood you will eventually win.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Business, Mathematics, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Heinlein’s Business Habits

  1. VR Kaine says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’m here in Vegas, but those are way too crap odds for my liking. I’d be curious to see how many times a recognized author’s stories get picked up a second or third time, and depending on that would be trying to approach things from the other side.

    We did that with a popular business magazine. Instead of trying to submit a whole bunch of articles hoping they’d get picked out of thousands, I just found out where the editor was going to be one weekend, found out who he knew there, waited until the end of his talk and spoke with him afterwards. My last question was, “Hey, if we’ve got something we think might look good as an article for you guys, who’d be the best to review it?”

    Can’t say we didn’t simply win the luck of the draw, and we didn’t get into the actual magazine, but within two months we did make it onto their blog, having zero experience or anything published beforehand.

    I’ve got no way to gauge whether a science-fiction story is publishable or not, but considering that you’ve earned Honorable Mention then I say you’d have better luck playing much higher up the ladder rather than trying to play those crap odds with all the chumps. With your background and current endeavors, I would say you’re better than the pool you seem to be trying to be picked from.

    • “I’d be curious to see how many times a recognized author’s stories get picked up a second or third time, and depending on that would be trying to approach things from the other side”

      I think established authors still get rejected, but not as often. I also think these odds apply more for relative unknowns. Moreover, some editors will actually look authors up before buying their work just to make sure the authors have an internet presence. I’m not entirely sure that in an industry that is notoriously dominated by liberals, this website helps me much. In fact, it may hurt me. 😉

      • VR Kaine says:

        “I’m not entirely sure that in an industry that is notoriously dominated by liberals, this website helps me much. In fact, it may hurt me. ;-)”
        Haha – too true. Well you’ll just have to go about it the conservative way then – scotch, golf, and bribes. 🙂

        • nickgb says:

          I really don’t think sci-fi is that liberal, I find it is usually far more libertarian. But very few people write stories about economic stimulus programs or tax policies, so libertarian and liberal look similar. Nobody is going to accuse Heinlein of being a Democrat, though, by any means.

  2. Is there a place I could read some of your fiction Sean????

    • Bruce,

      Unfortunately, not yet. If I post any of it online, I would preemptively violate any first electronic publishing rights any future editor would want their magazine to retain. I also only have about three fully complete stories in circulation right now awaiting responses from various publications. I am polishing another three, and I have ideas for another 10, which are in various stages of completion. My Honorable Mention story was the first story I’d ever submitted anywhere. Even if none of these stories are picked up, I aim to self-publish an anthology after I have about ten fully fleshed-out stories.

      That said, if you’re interested in providing high level feedback, I’d be happy to email you a story to review.

  3. mamorose says:

    Hi Sean, I very much enjoyed this article. Maybe it’s just my love of statistics, but I have to admire your highly useful marketing chart. I am planning to cross- reference it with my own spreadsheet which ranks which of these publications is the closest match to my writing style and try to maximize my speed in running the circuit.

  4. Christie says:

    Hi Sean!

    A Google Alert caught my name and I clicked through to see what was up. I’m glad you found my post useful.

    I do want to reassure you on one point: No reputable editor would ever accept or reject your story based on your personal politics. A short fiction editor makes his or her career based on the quality of the stories they print. When an editor looks up an author it’s usually to find a bio or to see what else they’ve written. PR tends to be the author’s own problem.

    I do qualify the above with “reputable.” There may well be people who look up the author before they buy a story, but certainly none of them are at the pro level, which is where I would advise any aspiring author to start with their submissions.

    Best of luck to you!



    • Christie,

      Thank you for stopping by! I also found your blog posts extremely helpful. They really gave me a better understanding of what goes on behind the curtain at many science fiction and fantasy publications. I also appreciate your assurance that pro editors ignore personal politics. When I read one of your posts that said many editors check out author’s blogs, I was initially concerned. My blog is primarily centered around my non-fiction writing, so I was worried that most editors might be taken aback and write me off. I appreciate hearing that it won’t be a liability in the process.

      As an aside, I am very impressed by how efficient your process is at Lightspeed. I appreciate that it renders decisions faster than any other market. As an former Army officer, I consider that to be an enormous asset to your magazine’s brand.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  5. Tom Elias says:

    Big Heinlein fan here, and randomly stumbled upon your page. This is good advice for those of us breaking into the SF market. Thanks for this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.