Many authors in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres track their writing progress and provide a summary of it at the end of each year. For instance, John Scalzi, Joe Abercrombie, Naomi Kanakia, and Jason Cordova provide fairly comprehensive years in review that cover what they wrote and published in 2021. In 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, I published posts tracking my progress up to those points in my writing career. Similarly, this post tracks the entirety of my writing career up to and including 2021.
2021 was the second year of the COVID pandemic. Again not to diminish any of the suffering, but have 15-20 extra hours a week of not commuting to work has been a godsend–I hope we never go back to the Sisyphean exercise of sitting stressed out for hour in traffic each week. I often found on the days that I was required to come into the office, I’d have to spend 18-20 hour days on the two subsequent days catching up on the work I didn’t get done in the office. In other words, not only did I save time from the commute, I am also 5-10x more efficient working from home. In 2021, I taught 5 courses in strategy, finance, and communications as a course facilitator at Stanford’s Executive Education program, completed my second anthology as editor, got the green light to produce a third anthology, completed a novella, a short story, and started work on a military science fiction thriller.
Now that I’ve outlined the broad strokes, let’s dive into more detail about what I accomplished in 2021.
Key 2021 Accomplishments
2021 marks the tenth year I’ve made a concerted effort to generate income from my writing. During the year:
- The mass market paperback of my first anthology as an editor, Weird World War III, was released by Baen Books in September.
- 4 of my stories appeared in print, on the web, on ebook, or in audio for the first time, including:
- “Scion of the Swarm” Galaxy’s Edge, Issue #48 (Arc Manor / Phoenix Pick: January 2021)
- “The Killer App“, MYTHIC: A Quarterly Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, Issue #17 (Founders House Publishing LLC: October 2021)
- “Beneath Oblivion’s Black Stars“, 99 Tiny Terrors (Pulse Publishing: October 2021)
- “Mandible“, Tales to Terrify, Episode 512, (November 19, 2021)
- 2 of my reprints appeared in print, on ebook, and in audio:
- “The Demon Piper of Holy Hill“, The Best of MYTHIC: Volume One (Founders House Publishing LLC: April 2021)
- “The Pogonip Fog“, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 6
- I Made 1 professional-rate sale to the Worlds Long Lost anthology.
- I sold a total of 6 short stories, including 4 new stories and 2 reprints.
- I received 2 short story reviews for “Scion of the Swarm” (Tangent and SFRevu).
- I got my first Publishers Weekly review for Weird World War IV.
- I received an invitation to submit to the Worlds Long Lost anthology from Baen Books.
- Weird World War III: China was greenlit by Baen.
- I taught 5 courses at Stanford’s Executive Education Program in Strategy, Finance, and Communications as a course facilitator.
2021 Accomplishments vs. Objectives
While I certainly made some progress in 2021, I came up short on many of my goals. In an effort to keep myself ruthlessly honest, I’ve coded goals I’ve accomplished in blue, goals I’ve failed to meet in 2021 because of factors beyond my control but are still on track in gray, and goals that I’ve failed to accomplish in red. I’ve also included some commentary to note how close (or how far) I was from realizing each of these goals.
- Write 10 new short stories. Unfortunately, I only wrote 1 short story and 1 novella this year, but have already sold both.
- Make at least 5 professional rate sales. I only sold 1 story this year at a professional rate.
- Complete and sell a novella to Systema Paradoxa. Mission accomplished. “Hell’s Well” will be released on October 20, 2022.
- Sell a story to one of the big three print publications: Analog, Asimov’s, and/or Fantasy and Science Fiction. Unfortunately, I only submitted 1 short story to Fantasy and Science Fiction and no stories to the others all year, so unsurprisingly I failed to sell a single story to any of these three venues. You can’t win if you don’t play.
- Appear in a “Best of” anthology. “The Pogonip Fog” appeared in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 6.
- Complete my horror novel. I focused much of my time on other things this year. Maybe next year?
- Sell my novel to a major publisher. I haven’t done this yet, because I haven’t put much effort into writing a novel in the past year. That said, my publisher solicited me for a novel proposal, which I delivered in mid-December and subsequently wrote ~18% of a first draft of that novel by year end.
- Do at least one panel and/or podcast. While I did not do either a panel or a podcast, I did do a radio interview and a written interview, so I think that suffices.
- Publish my second short story collection. I haven’t done this yet, because there is still one story in the anthology that I’d like to sell somewhere else first and another story that’s been sold, but still hasn’t appeared in the publication that purchased it.
- Complete the Weird World War IV anthology for Baen. Mission accomplished. Weird World War IV will be released on March 1, 2022.
As you can see, I’ve accomplished 4 of my goals this year, am still on track to accomplish another two of them, and have failed to hit the remaining 4. While I can do better, the very discipline of setting these goals kept me focused throughout the year. As such, I will be setting my goals for 2022 at the end of this post. However, before I do that, I’d like to cover my annual writing statistics starting with my 2021 writing revenue.
I still continue to make an embarrassingly little amount of money from writing. In fact, my business school classmates would probably look at me crosswise when they see the numbers and wonder why I’m wasting my time.
But you have to start somewhere. And in writing, the barriers to entry are very low. Let’s face it: all you need is a keyboard, a rudimentary understanding of English, and an imagination, and you can submit to most magazines. To stand out among thousands of submissions you have to write something that blows away the competition. Over time, as one establishes oneself, it seems to get a little easier. It just takes a long time getting there.
All that being said, 2021 was the highest revenue year I’ve ever had. The majority of that revenue can be attributed to my teaching and writing work as a course facilitator at the Stanford Executive Education Program (87% of it to be specific), followed by the first installment of the advance for my second anthology, Weird World War IV. However, because of the rates I paid the authors, the anthology must do slightly better than earning out the advance before I see a dime.
While the revenue numbers above are still low, my revenue growth rate has roughly doubled each year from 2013 to 2015 and tripled in 2016—a marked improvement. Then revenue declined–down 8% in 2017 and down 56% in 2018. In 2019, revenue shot up by 509%, primarily due to a partial advance on a short story anthology. Excluding this advance, my revenue would have been up 23% in 2019. Revenue was down 9% in 2020, but up substantially in 2021 (+1,031%) and driven primarily by my teaching revenue. Short story revenue was up 181%, anthology revenue was up 23%, and revenue on my first collection was up 59%. 2022’s backlog is standing now at roughly 54% of 2021 revenue, so 2022 is already shaping up to be a great year.
I also find consolation in the fact that I’m literally making money by conjuring stuff out of thin air.
My revenue stream was slightly more diversified in 2021 than it was in 2020 with three primarily sources of revenue in 2021 vs. two in 2020. As always, I’m hoping that a future novel sale will help diversify these revenue sources.
Other Writing Statistics
Since December 2011, I’ve written a total of 68 short stories / novellas. By the end of 2021, I sold 52 or 76% of them, and 48 have already been published. If I count the 248,500 words I’ve sold to date, I’ve sold 80% of the 311,400 words I’ve written and sent out for submission. While a 76-80% hit rate seems pretty impressive on the surface, I’ve made 2,588 submissions to publishers and have accumulated 2,346 rejections to get there.
I only produced one short story and one novella in 2021, which is down substantially from the 5 I produced in 2020 and fell far short of my goal of writing 10 new short stories in 2021. That said, I wrote the fourth highest number of short story words since 2011, so I wasn’t that lazy.
As I noted above, an alternative way of looking at productivity is how many polished words I completed in a year. From that perspective, 2021 was my fourth most productive short story / novella writing year on record with 32,900 completed words, which is roughly flat with 2020’s 33,000 words.
As I noted above, I sold 6 short stories this year, which is down slightly from my 2020 sales of 7 stories. However, to put that number into perspective, prior to 2016, I’d sold a total of 16 stories in my lifetime. From 2016 to 2021, I’d made another 48 sales, including 36 originals, 1 corporate sale, and 11 reprints. More importantly, 1 of those 2021 sales was at a professional rate. While that’s not very impressive, it’s important to note that I only wrote 2 new stories in 2021, 50% of which have already sold at a professional rate. Also, prior to 2016, I had only 1 professional sale; including and after 2016, I had 11. As I mentioned above, I have also sold 80% of the words of the stories I’ve ever submitted.
You can’t win if you don’t play, and the more you play, the more you win. For a relatively unknown author, the writing game is one that rewards persistence. There’s also a huge element of luck. Sometimes you have to hit the right editor at the right time with the right story. You can’t do that if you aren’t constantly taking shots on goal. As such, from 2014 to 2016, I’d consistently submitted at least one story a day to various publications. Since my acceptance rate doubled from 2015 to 2016, I sent fewer submissions in 2017 and 2018, primarily so I could spend more time writing than submitting. I continued to follow this strategy in 2019 to 2021, but I had far fewer submissions, mostly because I had written only 10 new short stories / novellas over that three-year period.
The writing business isn’t for the faint of heart, and rejection seems to be the only constant. The flip side of making a huge volume of submissions is that you receive a massive number of rejections. While I’ve sold over three-quarters of the stories I’ve written thus far, I’ve collected nearly 2,400 rejections. The good news is I’ve received so many of them I’ve built up enough scar tissue that they hardly bother me anymore. In fact, they only encourage me and spur me on.
The Funnel of Persistence
Putting it all together, I’ve made decent progress since my first short story submission in December 2011. While I’m nowhere near quitting my day job, I’ve made enough progress that I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Below is how the numbers have shaken out thus far for me. As you can see, I’ve sent nearly 2,600 submissions to various publications to yield a total of 64 sales for 52 original short stories out of a 68-story inventory. But for most, writing isn’t a blitzkrieg, it’s a war of attrition. And it’s a war I’m determined to win.
Looking ahead, there are a number of things I hope to accomplish in 2022, including:
- Write 10 new short stories.
- Make at least 5 professional rate sales.
- Complete and sell a science fiction thriller.
- Sell a story to one of the big three print publications: Analog, Asimov’s, and/or Fantasy and Science Fiction.
- Appear in a “Best of” anthology.
- Complete my horror novel.
- Sell a novel to a major publisher.
- Do at least one panel and/or podcast.
- Complete the Weird World War III: China anthology for Baen.
- Course facilitate 6 courses at Stanford.
There’s a lot on my plate for 2022, but I’m confident that if I continue plugging away, I’ll continue to make progress.
Here’s to a very productive 2022!