Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When is an author successful?

When I'm successful . . .

I keep telling my wife: "When I'm successful . . ."  She keeps responding with "You're already successful."  The fact of the matter is that there are different definitions of success in every field.  However, I'm going to talk about the field writers are in.  (Different than fields with cows . . . unless you happen to have your desk in a field of cows, but that would just be silly)

So what is successful for a writer? (Or an author if one wishes to sound sophisticated *ponders* what is the difference?)  How does each person define their own success?

The beginning success.

I truly believe the first part of being a successful writer is writing something . . . I'll give you a minute to digest that revolutionary concept . . . got it?  Cool.  It's true though.  You can't get to the other levels of being a writer if you don't actually write something.  I supposed you could talk about a story, but then you'd be a talker and nobody likes that.

So you write something, a poem *runs screaming before you can recite it to me*, a short story or maybe even a novel.

Here's the thing: just writing something is an accomplishment.  I was very proud of my first poem even though I cringe in horror when I look at it now.  For me, writing a novel was when I considered myself a successful writer.  That's what my wife means when she tells me that I'm successful.  I did it.  I accomplished my goal of writing a book.  It is something to be very proud of and it still feels good, even after I've written a few more now.

So what's the next step?

From here, there are a few ways to go.  Some people are done after the first book.  They've said all they want to say in writing or they get hit by a car, like Margaret Mitchell who wrote "Gone With the Wind". 

Others (like me) start immediately on their next book.  Actually, I edited my first one a few times and let it sit while I began the second.  If one wishes to make a living doing this, then writing more and more books is the best way to go, especially with the advent of epublishing.

That brings us to our next level of success:

Becoming a published author

There are different ways to go about becoming a published author and different definitions of success here too.  For some it can be as simple as getting a poem included in a book (pretty much a scam, but hey, if you want to pay to see your work in writing, well . . .) For others, it can be getting an article in a newspaper, even a local one.  But the one most people shoot for is getting that book published.

The traditional way of publishing consists of trying to find an agent who will then distribute your work to a publisher.  The problem is that it can take years to find an agent that will actually read your novel.  Then it can take years for them to convince a publisher that it's a good bet.  All the while, you’re editing it and rewriting it to try to make it more appealing.  It's a frustrating process.

If the writer does succeed at this, then there's only a tiny chance that they will make it big and become the millionaire version of successful.  There's a good chance that only a few books will be published and the publisher will lose interest and go find someone else, trying to find that magical lightning strike.  It's honestly a rather depressing and soul crushing process.  (Full disclosure: I decided not to go through it, choosing to self-publish instead)

Another option is to write short stories and submit them to magazines.  Traditionally, there are magazines like Asimov, or Astounding.  Recently, online magazines have been popping up for just about every genre you've heard of and a few you haven't.  It's a good way to get noticed and if the stories are popular, it makes novels an easier sale.

And then we come to a new avenue of success:


This used to be called vanity publishing and required a significant investment, but the world has changed.  Self publishing had created a new breed of writers who call themselves Indie Authors.  The key to this has been the rise of eReaders and eBooks.  Gadgets like the Kindle, Nook, iPad, Galaxy tablet, readers by Sony, Kobo and others have become popular in the U.S. and are beginning to find their way to the rest of the world.

Amazon is the obvious leader in this field with their Kindle, but companies like Barnes & Noble and Apple are putting up fierce competition.  A new company called Smashwords is creating a massive change in ways that greatly benefits Indie Authors and readers.


Smashwords was started a few years ago by Mark Coker.  He created a site with tools that greatly help a writer get their works published as eBooks.  The meatgrinder takes a writer's document and turns it into formats that work on every eReader available.  They distribute to companies such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Diesel in order to broaden the author's availability.  It costs nothing and the author gets 60-85% royalties on all sales.

It's great for the reader too.  Once a book is purchased, they have access to it no matter what reader they own.  Many of these new authors are trying desperately to gain an audience so they sell their books at insanely cheap prices, like $4.99, $2.99, $.99 or even free!  They're worth checking out at those prices.

Indie Publishing

So this brings new definitions of success.  Getting a book published is now easy.  Seeing it on sites like B&N, Apple and Amazon is thrilling.  For some that's enough even if they only sell a couple of copies.  Most people (like me) want to sell much more.  So what is success?

The obvious answer is lightning in a bottle.  That random sequence of events that lead to millions of sales and make the writer suddenly rich enough that they can afford a desk chair with all the wheels on it and a very nice house to put it in.

For me, the definition of success will be to sell enough books on a regular basis to make a living and support my family.  I figure I need to sell about 3000-4000 books a month.  It seems like a lot, but I know it's possible.  Two authors who write fantasy (the genre I write) are Michael Sullivan and David Dalglish (I linked their Smashwords profiles, but you can find them at other bookstores too.  They also have their own webpages which are linked on their Smashwords profiles.)

One of the keys is having lots of books to buy.  It's much harder to sell a lot of copies of one novel than it is to sell a lot of copies of ten novels.  I'm working on that part. (Actually I'm blogging at the moment, but after this . . .)


Every person has a different definition of success.  My wife tells me that I became a successful writer when I wrote that first book.  For me, I will be successful when I can support my family and write every day for a living. :)

I wish you all the very best of luck in finding your own successes.


Robin Sullivan said...

Nice post. One of the interesting things about writing for a living is there is always a new goal to aim for.

- Write the book
- Publish the book
- Reach 1,000 sales
- Reach the top 100 on Amazon
- Make enough to earn a living
- Become a household name

The list can go on and on. Thanks for mentioning Michael (my husband) in your post. He does indeed consider himself successful now. Not only does he not have a "day job" but we make enough from his writing that I could quit my six-figure day job as well. It can happen - it takes talent, persistence and hard work. Keep at it...only those who stop will fail.

Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

John H. Carroll said...

Hi Robin!

I'm working my way up that list and I'm definitely going to keep at it. Having people in the community like you that help others with advice and encouragement makes all the difference in the world.

Thank you for reading and commenting. :)

Anonymous said...

John I had just read your advice on the do’s and don’ts of getting started in writing. My journey is just beginning and I found your words inspiring. It is often said, that we all have a book inside of us, but for many, it never goes beyond a dream. I am in the process of writing my first book and I need all the, direction and inspiration to keep this one effort going. That aside, I did take your advice and put my toe in the water the other day and published a short 600 word ,children’s story on Smashwords ( for free) and I was amazed to see 23 downloads, not to say it’s any good but at least it keeps you going
Keep well
Steve J

John H. Carroll said...

Hi Steve,

That's wonderful. :) I'm impressed that you're giving it a shot. It takes some courage to do, but the journey has been a blast for me.

With each thing you write, take a win and pat yourself on the back. Learn with every new story and keep improving.

All my best,