Many writers and would-be writers aspire to be successful authors, with on-track careers, big publishing gigs, and the much-discussed “NYT Bestseller” attached to their names. But when you come down to it, how do you measure that?
The obvious one, the one that most people can wrap their heads around, is fame. Most people can name famous authors in the genre of choice, reeling off names like George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy. These are people who have sold millions of books… they have movie (or TV) franchises. They’re famous, that means success, right?
But then again, Phillip K. Dick has a ton of movies based upon his books and short stories (even several remakes). His life, if you look him up, isn’t what most would consider “successful.”
As for the vaunted NYT Bestseller, there’s been multiple times that people have scammed it, with the latest example being just last year (link). When you dig into what it involves, too, you see that the stamp represents sales in a very specific, very small part of the US.
Amazon bestsellers, you say? Amazon’s algorithms have been fooled before (link). I’ve earned the status the hard way, selling actual books in the genre they’re meant for, but there’s plenty who haven’t and lots of them are eager to sell new authors books, lectures, and videos on how to be a bestseller.
So these two metrics, fame/notoriety and the Bestselling category may not be the best method of determining success. What is? Total sales? Depending on your genre, a few dozen sales a day may be very good, whereas for some others, upwards of two hundred purchases a day is normal. The advent of Kindle Unlimited has changed things a bit, too, where power-readers treat Amazon like their library. Some authors see practically no sales at all in their genres but they see thousands (or tens of thousands) of page reads a day.
The answer there seems to be money. In fact, American society often judges success by money. That guy has a nice car, he must be successful. That person has a big house, they must be successful. But I have to ask, is money why you’re writing? I mean, there’s lots of easier ways to go about making money. You can avoid the crippling self-doubt and the long hours of forcing words out and go into something far more lucrative and more likely to actually make you rich. Larry Correia’s has a fantastic post on the different levels of authors based upon their “success.” His is focused mostly on money and fame, too, which I can’t fault. But the number of authors who make enough from writing to support their families, much less buy a McMansion is relatively low.
I know a lot of authors. By a lot, I mean I personally know a couple hundred and I’ve met and interacted with thousands. I’ve seen quite a few who get into indie publishing very excited and enthusiastic about this one book they wrote… and one year later, I don’t see them at conventions anymore or when I do, they’re sitting in the crowd, not up on a panel (which is fine, mind you, I sit in the crowd, sometimes, because I like listening in on what some people have to say). But a lot of people massively underestimate the sheer work involved in self-publishing. They underestimate the grind of getting out the next book, and the next. And they fall behind.
There’s a saying that when it comes to jumping out of perfectly good planes, the second jump is the hardest. The first time, you have no idea what’s going to happen, no frame of reference. The second time, standing in the doorway, you know exactly what it’s like, the rush and exhilaration… but also the understanding of what you’re doing and the lizard brain kicks in. Lots of people freeze in the doorway, unable to move.
The same thing happens to aspiring authors. They may have hit publish that first time, or even the second and third, in a rush of “this one will be great!” Writing that first book is hard. Writing the second or third one is just as hard, but a lot of aspiring authors have gone that distance. Writing that fourth book after the first one or two didn’t land a movie deal or pay the mortgage… or sometimes it didn’t even buy the bottle of wine to drink while you hit refresh on your Amazon page while you wait for reviews/sales. It’s hard. It’s brutally hard to get back to writing when it feels like all your dreams have shriveled and everyone has rejected you.
Success is the person who keeps on writing after that. Success is the author who gets on the never-ending treadmill and churns out a novel regardless. That person is a successful author, because that writer puts words on page, day in and day out. It’s part of being a professional author. There’s lots of “good” writers, some of them are best-sellers with tv-shows and movies, who can’t do that. And sometimes, getting up the strength to put even a single word on the page is a herculean fight.
Success is never giving up. If you’re still writing, if you haven’t stopped, you’re successful. Now go out there and write your next book.