How do you spell SUCCESS?

I was at a regional  writing conference last year (and I’m pretty sure I’m swearing off the foolish things forever) where the authors who had traditional publishers—even if they never saw an advance*—behaved poorly around the crowd of indie authors who were in attendance. From my conversations with the two groups, both seemed pretty well versed in publicity and book promotion methods. Both were focused on craft improvement. In fact, the only difference I saw between the two groups was that the Indie authors were making money on the sales of their books. And the trad authors, well, weren’t. (*Interesting note: The authors who had gotten sizable advances from their publishers didn’t tend to act like jerks lording it over the indies but the ones who hadn’t gotten any money up front, kinda did.)

It seems to me that there are two ways to claim success in any given field:

  1. You either produce something of quality that has your peers (or the general public) raving,
  2. Or you are well-paid for the thing you’ve produced even if nobody breaks down your door to tell you how marvelous you are.

After thinking not very long at all on this, I realized that my idea of writing success involves getting paid for my efforts—at least enough to live on.  I don’t have to win the lottery, but I’d consider a thousand bucks a month still “hobby” status. (I’ve been a freelance copywriter nearly my whole adult life so it wasn’t

You'll notice this writer, typical of most authors--trad or indie--is clutching a fistful of singles...

You’ll notice this writer, typical of most authors–trad or indie–is clutching a fistful of singles…

that big a jump for me to see writing fiction as something I should be paid for. I tend to believe this, in spite of the fact that artists and authors through the ages typically weren’t able to support themselves on their earnings. No one is more surprised than I am to realize that getting paid for my work—even work that doesn’t sell gym memberships or Lexus cars—is a baseline expectation of mine.

And of course, before you ask—yes, I’d do it even if I never earned a dime.

Goes without saying.

So along those lines is of course the other big reason to write. In fact, probably the main reason. It’s the reason most writers all started out with, and it’s the one that sustains us through the brown bar of shame on our Kindle Reports, the one-star reviews and the $1,000-plus editor and cover design costs.

John Gardner said it best, I think, on the last page of  his book, On Becoming A Novelist when he wrote:

“The true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga or way, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfaction no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

So which is it? Do you write for money? Or for recognition? Do you have to have both to consider yourself successful? Or do you just write for yourself and book sales are irrelevant?

Love to hear.

18 thoughts on “How do you spell SUCCESS?

  1. And to that I say YES! I confess, I suffer from author envy far more than I should. But I just keep reminding myself that my goal is to be able to make a living off of my writing, not to be the grandest tiger in the jungle or able to post more contest wins or guest posts or all those things that I see others doing. I sell well. If I keep on this path, I WILL be able to retire from the day job in a few years. By those measures, I’m a success. But it’s so hard to keep that perspective sometimes, isn’t it?

    • It definitely is. I can already tell that the money isn’t going to be enough! (By that I mean, when the money starts to come, then I’m going to want the recognition too so bring on the contests!) I have to say, tho’, that it’s awesome to be able to tie your art/passion with the ATM machine. If you’d asked me a decade ago, I never in a million years would’ve believed it possible.

  2. I scribble for a living, write because I like to, with the exception of headlines (art directors always write better headlines) some advertising print and broadcast. Everything else I wrote, I wrote for me and it lived under the bed or pushed way back on the top shelf or that hiding place I built under the chart table (during my sailing years) so no I don’t write for money, to tell you the truth I’m greedy, I write for “ME”. Yes, I have stories “kid’s Stories” that I wrote because I wanted a showcase for my design and illustration abilities. I think the stories are good, two have been performed on stage, earning stand up and holler reviews every time. Confession, if I had the gumption to give life to dreams and wishes I’d DESIGN and BUILD THE SETS and Direct “The Girl Who Walked with Music” then I’d be done. Same on a smaller scale, with other stories, books and poetry I’ve written, read it, let me read it to you, tell me you liked it, and I’m happy. Or Hire me (pay me) to create the cover art or illustrate the whole dang thing and we’ve got a deal. Artists and Writers do what they do because they have to get it out. Give it Life. Making money is great but in my opinion writers write because if they didn’t they’d explode.

  3. It’s reasonable to want to make a living from writing. Sure, it’s a calling. But it’s also a profession, and like any professionals, writers want to be paid. Not absurd amounts, but reasonably. I think the notion that writers should do it for free emerges in part from that old tradition where it was very much a part-time hobby; but also from the fact that – for both author and their readers – fiction in particular carries them on an emotional journey.

    The notion that this might be done for pecuniary gain seems somehow alien. I suppose the issue is less obvious for non-fiction writing, though to me, writing is writing. One of the curiosities of it, for me anyway, is the disconnect between when the work is actually done and when the payment arrives for it (or doesn’t arrive, as is more usually the case). Months, even years, can elapse before royalties finally roll in.

    • I’m not sure that a lot of the tradition of not getting paid (at least for fiction) doesn’t have to do with the deep-down belief that many people have that what writers do isn’t really work. I had a boyfriend years ago who read a short story I’d just gotten published and the big oaf screwed up his face and said “I don’t understand why they think this is special. This is how you talk.” (Yeah, we’re not together now.)

  4. just like any product, you build it, grow it, paint it, or buy it from Joe, take it to market, and if you’re lucky you sell some of this and some of that, it might take days, weeks or even years, some will never sell, writers, artists, crafters, publishers, farmers, film makers, builders and manufacturers all have the same problem. sure sometimes the writer hits the bulls eye first time, most of us won’t, we’ve all heard of starving artists, well it ain’t just artist, there are also starving writers, has to be. seems every bodies writing a book these days, or is going to tomorrow. doesn’t mean yours won’t be the one, or the ten, just means there’s bunches of competition out there.
    so it helps a bunch if you like the doing part as much as the getting part.

  5. OK, my situation may be a bit different, because I’m comfortably (semi) retired after a long career of self-employment. Our lifestyle is far from lavish, but we’ve educated the kids, are in good health, and have no debt, so it doesn’t take much to get by. I always wanted to write, but life sort of got in the way, so my first task when time allowed was to write a thriller. It was mostly a ‘bucket list’ sort of thing. I actually thought I’d just do this, get it out of my system (so to speak), and move on to something other than writing.

    However, after the first terrible draft, and a dozen complete re-writes, I kind of got hooked on the process. That said, I’m also a fairly pragmatic, bottom line type of guy. It turned out this writing stuff was a lot harder than I thought, and If I was going to do it full time and professionally, earning money from the effort was (and is) a requirement.

    I got lucky with the first book, and it continues to sell respectably, as does the sequel. I have a third in progress. I doubt I’ll ever be a NYT best seller, but that’s cool. Earning a solid middle class income from writing what I want, when I want, and being firmly in control of the process is pretty liberating. Would I write anyway if I wasn’t making money? Maybe, but I don’t think I’d feel ‘driven’ to to it, and I doubt I’d write every day like I do now.

    Different strokes for different folks, but I’m definitely in the ‘show me the money,’ camp.

    • I know I’d still write but probably not at the frenetic pace I am and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t spend the money I am on editing and covers! 🙂 BTW I think your situation sounds pretty close to being a perfect one. Sounds much more balanced, too, all the way around.

  6. Because I have not yet written for profit I must answer by default that the satisfaction off a finished product is enough. However, it is all I want to do, and therefore cannot possibly consider it as an option NOT to profit. Having said that, no one goes into the business of writing FOR the money. The love of the written word and its construction must come first.

    • Oh, that’s a hard one! I’m tempted to say it’s always the story…but then the way certain words sound and feel when they’re written by a master, like Flaubert’s “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity,” well I’m torn right down the middle.

  7. Awh but those words are elegant because of the images they call and the stories those images tell, think it’s a bulls eye right down the middle, always was, always will be.

    but without a story to tell the beauty of the words would be wasted.

  8. I’ve been paid for a couple articles and made a profit off my first book and I still sell a copy every once in a while – It’s good date night money. My second book came out in September and sales are slow, but so is the marketing :). I write because I have an urge and the urge is prompted by my desire to impact people’s lives. Some of those lives are the people in my house so making a profit is important to me, both for the income and the affirmation. I’ve self-published both books, so the financial exposure is real to my family. Getting that investment back is goal one and paying the bills is the next phase. But to your question, success to me can be making daily progress, completing the text, getting the book printed, etc, but I too hope to profit from what I feel so compelled to do.

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