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Successful Author

What is your personal benchmark for success? How do you define it?

Larry Correia gave us his alphabetical list of author success (which is just about as off the wall, NSFW, and funny as you’d expect from the guy who came up with the Internet Arguing Checklist.)

Dean Wesley Smith, who’s been in this business for a few decades, has said that he knew a crusty old bookstore owner who figured you weren’t a “pro” until you had ten books out, as he’d seen far too many writers quit before they got that far. So the day Dean slapped that tenth published book on the table, the old gent acknowledged that he was “no longer a neo-pro.”

But for actual hard numbers, Author Earnings has pulled back the curtain and let us take a good hard look at actual sales figures, and the amount of money going to the author from those sales. They found about 10,000 authors are making $10,000+ a year from their sales on Amazon.com. (May 2016 Report). Of those, slightly over 4,600 were earning above $25K/yr on Amazon.com (not counting .co.uk, .au, .de, .ca, or kobo/iTunes, etc., so I expect the actual numbers are a little higher.)

Now, if your definition of success is “Support a family of 4 while living in a penthouse in Manhattan”, writing is a really, really tough way to accomplish that. But if your definition of success is “Pay half the bills & raise the kids while my spouse works, while living in rural Idaho”, then it’s a lot more likely you can get there from here.

But two notes for you. First, don’t pin your definition of success on things you can’t control. “Ridley Scott makes a movie of my book” requires Ridley Scott to want to make it, and making a successful case to all the backers and funders that he can pull a profit on it, and having an open schedule… There is no way you can control any of that.

Second, “Success” is rarely a lasting state, as opposed to a milestone that can be reached. Even outside of writing, a successful mountain climber is a person who put in the time, effort, training, money, logistics, and persistence to climb a mountain. And then they come back down; the living don’t stay on Everest. You are a freelancer; your income will fluctuate. When the last book in a trilogy, or series, is written, you’ll get a small boost from readers who were waiting until it was done, but you’ll also experience a sales loss because anything else you have going is a new series, and doesn’t have the traction of your last series. (Marketing a finished series is another topic for another day.)
When you switch subgenres, much less genres, you’ll carry some fans over, but not all by any means – and it’ll take time to build up new fans.

Peter made five figures one year, but we made almost nothing a few years later, when he was in and out of the hospital and in too much pain to write. (It didn’t conform to a neat calendar year, but trust me, it was well over 12 months.) Is he no longer “successful” because his income dropped? Depends on your definition of success, eh?

Frankly, given that he’s at home cleaning the garage (Thank you! I love you!) in the house that his royalties helped buy, and we’re not struggling to make it on my salary, I’d say he’s pretty darned successful. Granted, small town rural Texas has a much lower cost of living than Anchorage, AK, so the royalties go much further. But it’s not just the money; we have the company of writer & non-writer friends over for dinner. (We’ll make LawDog show up with the latest chapter when he comes over for dinner yet – but I can’t do that now, or he’ll say something like “You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” Life was easier before I published…)

But then, I got the book out. That’s a small success all its own, since I don’t plan to make a living from writing.

What’s your definition of success? How far are you down that steep and thorny path?

31 Comments
  1. Happy New Year!!!

    December 31, 2017
    • No fair, geographical privilege!

      December 31, 2017
      • Mary #

        Happy New Year!

        I’ve been wishing people it for a week.

        December 31, 2017
      • yeah, NOW its Happy New Year! Woo hoo! And in a couple more hours, it’ll be happy new year in Arizona.

        December 31, 2017
        • Happy New Year, everyone! (And seventh day of Christmas, too!)

          January 1, 2018
  2. Quote, “Second, “Success” is rarely a lasting state, as opposed to a milestone that can be reached.”

    So true.

    I’ve just published my first novel, Bad Dog, which is a success, yet I’ve botched so much while doing so; not getting the print and eBook up at the same time due to inexperience of formatting a book for POD. That’s life.

    Book here, for those who are interested.

    And that just leave me to say, thank you for all the posts. Inspirational stuff.

    December 31, 2017
  3. Draven #

    Uh… let me get back to you on that.

    December 31, 2017
  4. Success for me? I think if I have a small fan base and earn enough to be a stay home parent with a side job would be a great goal. To start at least. No illusions about the industry these days.

    December 31, 2017
  5. One component of success is to have readers looking forward to the next book.

    I haven’t published anything for a year and a half, but I hope my readers remember me well enough that when Mercenary Calling comes out next month they’ll check it out. (Apparently, leaving my day job and setting up my own business slowed my productivity down. For various reasons, however, I’ll be able to publish two novels and a couple short stories next year.) So, publishing again will make me feel more successful.

    Another weird thing that made me feel successful was finally getting one of my books into print. I plan for Mercenary to come out in print and ebook at the same time, and then I’ll start working on getting the rest of my backlist into print.

    As for financially, I have no idea. I didn’t make enough to start paying the mortgage with it or anything, but Sleeping Duty’s steady sales when it came out made me feel successful.

    Honestly, Dorothy, this is just a hard question. 🙂

    December 31, 2017
  6. 1. Meeting someone who doesn’t ask, “Have you actually published anything?”
    2. Meeting someone not actually related to you who has read one of your books and didn’t hate it.
    3. I forget what 3 is, probably because I never achieved it.

    December 31, 2017
  7. Pat Patterson #

    All of the life-essential things have to be working before you can be a successful author. My spouse has to believe in me and support me. Kids have to be reasonably beamish. I have to be at peace with my own health conditions.
    I say that, because if those things are not working, success as an author probably isn’t something I’m gonna have any concerns about. If the are working, then I think I’m a successful author if I am engaged in the art and science of putting words on paper according to a reasonable schedule. Having done that for a sufficient amount of time, I’m a successful author if I have the work critiqued by appropriate readers. I’m a successful author if I apply the information gained in the critiques appropriately, which might mean throw the manuscript into the back of a drawer, or it might mean disregard the critique if it’s off-base. The, I get the cover designed, and self-publish, if I am a successful author. I MIGHT make a submission or two to trad publishers, but I sure don’t trust them for happiness. If I get a contract, cool, but that does NOT make me a successful author. If I don’t, then I self-publish, which is what I should have done in the first place. Then, if I am a successful author, I gather up my notes and continue with the next thing I’m writing.
    You notice that I don’t say “When my writing allows me to quit my day job, “ or anything like that. That’s because I don’t think money has much to do with being a successful writer.
    Maybe the last thing you do If you are a successful writer is ask Pat Patterson and other friends to reviews your book.

    December 31, 2017
    • I always ask Pat Patterson.

      December 31, 2017
  8. “What’s your definition of success? How far are you down that steep and thorny path?”

    Currently, with zero publishes, -dozens- of sales looks like success. I’m a book-cover and a final edit away from “success” right now.

    Real success? Like the Capital “S” kind? My book series in hardcover, on the endplate of the SF section. Published by Baen, of course. Because I’m a child of the 60’s, and being a Real Author means a shelf of hardcovers in the bookstore. There can be paperbacks on the spinner rack too, that’s like a bonus.

    Some money might be nice too. >:D Do they pay you for this writing thing?

    Is all that going to happen? Apparently not, and I’m not even pursuing it right now. I’m getting my book cover wangled up, I’m going to post on Kindle [Real Soon!] and I’m going after my “dozens of sales” goal. When/If I hit that, I’ll re-set sights for hundreds.

    I’m probably approaching this all wrong, but that’s how I do everything in life. Completely wrong and ass-backward.

    December 31, 2017
  9. Happy New Year to All! I am less ambitious. Success is books out the door and up at Amazon, Smashwords, Third Millennium,… and perhaps someone likes reading one of them.

    December 31, 2017
    • Absolutely, as the saying goes, keep it real.

      January 1, 2018
  10. C4c

    December 31, 2017
  11. I’m about an I or J list, as an author – local fans who are not my family and love my books, mild interest when I do a book signing, but in a good month I could get a tune-up for the 1991 Accura with the royalty payments. (Matter of fact, no one in my family reads my books at all. They appear to think I just have a pointless and expensive hobby.)
    I’ll count myself really successful when I have a reliable $6,000-$8,000 yearly in royalties for both print and ebooks.

    December 31, 2017
  12. Success is people I’ve never heard of buying my books, hunting me down on line and asking for more. And money. My husband’s being dragged kicking and screa . . . OK, grumbling and glowering . . . into retirement, so the money from writing is starting to matter just as it’s grown large enough that it _can_ cover a lot of the bills.

    December 31, 2017
  13. When a friend and I first published our first books, we called them “stranger sales,” a sale that coincided with no one we knew telling us they’d just bought our books.

    Another time I felt successful was when someone I didn’t know at all came up to me at the end of a day-job conference and told me he’d read my books and loved them. Yes, that was the plural “books.” I walked on air for days.

    December 31, 2017
  14. Zsuzsa #

    The success of my dreams? That would be to reach the point where Tor comes to me, hat in hand, begging for me to sign a contract with them, and for me to look it over, consult with my lawyer, and say, “No thanks. It doesn’t look like you have anything to offer me. I’ll stick with indie.”

    In terms of “success that I hope to achieve in the next year or two,” my goals are a little more modest. On Larry Correia’s list, I’ve been an S-lister for many years, but in 2018, I want to become a solid S-lister: not merely someone who has finished a novel, but someone who has finished multiple novels and usually finishes a project she starts.Then, if I can manage that, the goal is that by the end of the year, see if I can work my way up to N-list: have something worthy of being published cleaned up and on Amazon for sale, even if the only people I sell it to are my parents and my old college gang!

    December 31, 2017
  15. Success – having books pay for themselves in a year or so, and then keep being bought. I love it when that happens faster, but some of my books cost more to release than others (editing is biggest expense, followed by covers). Having readers who ask for more. Having really happy readers who ask for more, MORE, MOAR!!!!!!!

    Dream success – to earn enough from writing that I can keep my Day Job part time and not take up full-time duties. And to pay over half the bills, with some left over for Rainy Day Fund.

    December 31, 2017
  16. I’m an odd case, in that I’ve already been very successful as an author of books. They just weren’t fiction. Writing computer books made me a great deal of money as these things go. I’m 65 now and have retired from that field. I’m going back to my roots and writing SFF again, this time systematically and as my primary creative effort, not just something I could do when nothing else had to be done.

    It’s hard to say what I would consider success. My biggest seller in the computer book world is often used as a textbook and has a $65 cover price. My novels sell for $2.99, though I suspect I will raise cover prices in the coming year. I doubt I can make as much money writing the fiction I want to write as I have writing the computer books I wrote over the past 30-odd years. It’s really not a fair comparison.

    So it comes down to reputation. I want to be as well-known for writing SFF as I was well-known for writing books about programming and networking. If I can do that, I’ll call it the success that caps a life that’s been pretty successful overall. What it’ll take I’m not sure, though another ten or fifteen novels certainly wouldn’t hurt. Clock’s tickin’. Time to get to work.

    December 31, 2017
  17. Happy New Year! May the next be better than the last.

    Loved your book, btw. Just reread it today.

    December 31, 2017
  18. I honestly am not sure what qualifies as success in the eyes of other people in this business anymore.

    I know I’ve been successful from the point of being able to do this for a living for three years now. The last quarter of this year has been especially good for me. But I’d say that it really comes down to what you wanted to get out of this business when you got into it.

    December 31, 2017
  19. mrsizer #

    Low bar: Finish something. After that, the bar will move.

    January 2, 2018
  20. Wait, I’m actually up to N level? (Well, I don’t compulsively check my Amazon rank—in fact, I have a bad habit of forgetting that I’ve actually published.) Huh. Weird.

    January 2, 2018
  21. Mike Houst #

    Urk. I see I’m way down Larry’s List. Either top of the bottom 20% or bottom of the 4th 20%.

    It’s a long way to Tipperary…

    January 2, 2018
    • I hear you. Currently an S, hope to make it to at least N by the end of the year. 🙂

      January 2, 2018
  22. I’m going for small successes. First success. Get the current WIP into a useful format. Second success. Get enough of the other things I have queued in a similar state that I can have two years of steady releases while I get a system down. Third success: Start those two years of releases.

    Beyond that we’ll see. It would be nice to be able to earn my living from books, but I’m the primary bred winner, my husband’s job being very feast or famine. We can’t afford two of us on that rollercoaster so for now. I’ll settle for getting to the point I can get stuff out the door.

    January 2, 2018

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