“Literary” SF&F and self-publishing: quantitative results

WHM reports on the quantitative results from the 32-respondent survey he did looking to evaluate the perceptions of value/interest in a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form.

Many thanks to all of you who took my survey on “Literary” SF&F and self-publishing novel length fiction. As of earlier today when I turned the survey off there were 32 total respondents. That’s not a huge sample size (although it’s larger than I thought it would be). Nor was the survey itself built to produce anything approaching scientific validity so even though there are numbers below they shouldn’t be taken as anything but an interesting snapshot of a limited SF&F readership where that limit is “is connected to me in some way or is connected to someone who is connected to me” and “was willing to fill out the survey”.


As I wrote on the introduction to the survey: “This survey is motivated partly out of self-interest — there’s a chance I might self-publish genre fiction in the future. But it’s also reflective of my general curiosity about how novel-length SF&F w/literary elements is perceived by those who regularly purchase that kind fiction as well as my overall interest in the publication and reception of genre fiction, which you’ll sometimes see me musing (or ranting) about on Twitter or my author/critic website.”

In particular, what I’m interested in is a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form. It seems to me that self-publishing short work is generally acceptable across most of the SF&F readership. However, novel-length work is less acceptable (or perhaps simply less of interest). It’s especially less acceptable if the author does not have some sort of editorial imprimatur. If your publisher cancelled your series, then maybe self-publishing is an okay route to finish the series. But if you have no track record in novel length fiction then  And it’s even less acceptable or perhaps more skeptically viewed if the author is presenting themselves as more toward the literary side of the SF&F ecosystem.

In terms of methodology:

  1. I did not ask for any sort of demographic data. I didn’t know how many respondents I would get and the fewer you get the less useful that becomes. I also wanted the survey to be as quick as possible to fill out. Note that this is a major blind spot in the survey and anyone who is purporting to truly provide a portrait of the field should collect some form of demographic data.
  2. I did not ask respondents to identify themselves, although a few chose to do so in their additional comments.
  3. I linked to the survey via my Twitter account, personal Facebook account, and on a web forum I participate on where most of the participants have an interest in SF&F. It’s not a wide sphere of distribution. However, based upon my knowledge of those groups, I think it’s safe to say that I drew upon a fairly wide spectrum of SF&F fans. If someone were to do this type of survey in a more robust way, they would have asked some questions about literary preferences and genre consumptions patterns so that they could identify some groups to compare data against. I didn’t do that.
  4. I ask about price because it seems to me that self-publishing is seen as down market and traditional publishing as up market (or just: the real market) and that debut authors are an especial risk so if those assumptions are correct then the pricing should reflect the calculations that go into a consumer deciding how much of a risk the novel is.


On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy? Where 1 = wouldn't buy it and 5 = would totally buy it. Results: 1 = 6.3%; 2 = 25%; 3 = 25%; 4 = 34.4%; 5 = 9.4%
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Assuming you do decide to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy what factors would be most important in helping you take a chance on the novel?
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Because the answers to this question were really long, they don’t show up in the image so here’s the key to the graph above. Note that respondents could select 1-3 of the options that they thought applied most to the situation:

  1. Debut novelist has established record of short stories I like (43.8%)
  2. The novel gets a good review from a reviewer I respect (56.3%)
  3. The novel gets recommended to me by a friend or acquaintance whose tastes I trust (81.3%)
  4. The cover, marketing copy and excerpt from the novel interest me (25%)
  5. I’m friends or acquaintances with the author and I like what they have written on Twitter, Facebook, their personal blog, etc. (34.4%)
  6. The novel has good Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Library Thing and/or Goodreads ratings and reviews (25%)
  7. The author does a podcast or online/print publication interview that intrigues me (25%)
  8. Other (no responses for this option).
What's the highest price point you'd consider paying for an ebook edition of this debut novel if one or more of items in the previous question were to take place? Results: $7-12 = 40.6%; $6.99 = 3.1%; $5.99 = 18.8%; $4.99 = 21.9% ; $3.99 = 9.4%; $2.99 = 0%; $1.99 = 6.3%
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What's the highest price point that would make it a no brainer purchase? Results: $6.99 = 9.4%; $5.99 = 3.1%; $4.99 = 12.5%; $3.99 = 3.1%; $2.99 = 34.4%; $1.99 = 18.8%; $.99 = 18.8%
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One of the truisms in the self-publishing scene is that making a print-on-demand trade paperback available alongside the ebook is a must. Is the presence of a trade paperback version of a self-published debut novel something that you value?. Results: 50% = no; 25% = prefer paperbacks; 12.5% = because might want to buy paperback if really like book ; 12.5% = yes, because paperback shows self-publishers is serious
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Here’s what jumped out to me:

  • I’d say that based on the results of question one, there’s cautious optimism for a self-published “literary” SF&F novel — if, of course, it meets all the standards it would need to in order to present itself professionally
  • No surprises, I think, in the most important factors that would lead folks to buy such a novel. Word of mouth is still king. Reviewers matter (and probably matter more in this particular situation). The track record of short stories is a bit higher than I would have expected, but I suppose it makes a lot of sense — that track record would matter to fans buying a self-published novel for the same reason that editors at traditional publishers would see it as a factor: it’s a way of assessing if the writer can write well, and if you like their sensibility.
  • On the pricing, I was a bit surprised that respondents were willing to go as high as some of them did, but, then again, I think it shows that if someone perceives the novel as interesting and good quality, that they’re willing to pay for that. On the other hand, it wasn’t surprising that the $0.99-2.99 is the sweet spot for no-brainer buying of a novel. That’s long been the conventional wisdom among self-publishers and traditional publishers have also started to use the same pricing tactic.
  • When it comes to offering a paperback: I find it interesting that the main reason that the self-publishing conventional wisdom provides for doing so wasn’t much of a factor.

For the qualitative results (the comments that people submitted) I need to spend some time summarizing and excerpting them so those results will come in a future post. Thanks again to everyone who participated!

Also see: qualitative results from the survey

NOTE: first time commenters are put in moderation; once moderated, any future comments are published right away.

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