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