The Successful Writer

Detail from a ceiling. Author Photo.

Ah, that legendary beast of misty lore, the creature that haunts authors’ dreams, whispering in the dark of night, then disappearing in the harsh light of dawn…

OK, sorry, that’s the neighborhood cat that gets Athena all riled up by perching on the windowsill.

These days, depending on which news stories you read, it is easier than ever to become a successful author, or you are doooooomed by the lack of government support (UK) and the enormous numbers of independently published books of dubious quality. Either you can make lots and lots of money, or the pie slices are shrinking faster than an ice-cube on the hood of a black car in Phoenix, Arizona in mid-August.

What is success? It depends on the author’s goals. How do you get there? It depends on your goals.

As Amanda, Sarah, Kate, Peter, Dave, Kiltie Dave, and others have said, and Kipling said so well, there is not One True Way. There are at least “nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And Every Single One of them is Right.”  Is there a wrong way? In some cases, but most MGC readers are familiar with the Horrible Warnings.

So what is success and can you achieve it?

If your goal is to write a family history, add some nice illustrations, and have copies printed for your relatives plus one or two for the local genealogical society library*, then once the writing and photo selection phases are finished, your path to success is short and clear. And one of my co-workers is doing this exact thing right now, and is delighted by the number of options she has to choose from in terms of publishing. She will be very successful by the end of summer, and is rightly proud of the fruits of her labors.

If your goal is to launch stories, or to write about your life experiences so that others can benefit from them, that too has become relatively simple in terms of getting your words into print. A small but grateful readership, people helped, that’s real success. Writing devotionals for your faith and having them published and well received is a success, no matter how much you do or do not earn in cash.

Success can be an excellent review in a professional journal. I have several of those, and my non-fiction has added to the body of historical knowledge. Plus people have said that they actually enjoyed reading my monograph and articles, which is a major bennie. 🙂

What about making a living as a writer? What is financial success? Ah, now it gets more complicated.

First, I would direct you to Larry Correia’s A-Z guide to writing success. He wrote it with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but it actually makes a rather neat way to see how you are doing, especially when you think things are going poorly.

I started at N, because of my mix of fiction and non-fiction:

N List –  Yeah, I’m Like Totally a Writer, Baby =$.

  • Authors who’ve published a book or maybe some short stories.
  • New Authors who all the other aspiring authors in their writing group secretly hate.
  • Authors who collect enough royalties to eat out occasionally, but only from the Dollar Menu.
  • An average Hugo or Nebula award winner.

Since 2013, I’ve moved up to K-list:

K List – Welcome To Mid List =$$$$

  • The average professional author with a writing career.
  • Authors making enough money to be really tempted to quit their day job except their spouse won’t let them.
  • Authors who are still really happy when anybody shows up to a signing.
  • Authors who are still terrified that their fans will realize they’re a talentless fraud any minute now.

I’m making enough after paying expenses to cover about a third of my bills. When all goes well. Day Job is still a necessity, but since I like it (except when I have to grade…) I consider myself pretty successful. I would like to go full time writer, but I’m not there yet.

What do the full-time writers have? In some cases, a very wealthy spouse or a huge inheritance. That’s not a bad thing: some of the most important historians in the US have been independently wealthy enough to be able to afford to do lots of research, and to find and copy and have translated thousands of documents from foreign archives. Their work laid foundations the rest of us build on, and my field would be much, much poorer without them. If this is you, congratulations! Now go write.

The most successful independent writers have a plan and a large output. We’re no longer restricted by publishing houses to X books, one or two per year at most, one every two years more likely. And the way the market has developed since 2010, someone who writes at pulp speed and writes well can prosper. A Chris Nuttall, for example, turns out lots of shorter books quickly, or longer books less quickly, but at a good clip. If you look at the top romance sellers on Amazon, several of the top 20 are indie books, and romance is the genre of the super-reader, readers who devour 30+ books per month. If you can get into that niche, you will do very nicely, and the books tend to be a little shorter than, oh, epic fantasy.  There are also lots of sub-categories of Romance, so you can tailor you work to fit a good niche.

My best year thus far, I released six books in two or three series. I could do this because I write fast once I have my research done (up to 40,000 words/week, six days per week), and I had several books per series written. I could release them while I was writing. With different series going, fans of any given series didn’t have to wait as long, so they didn’t forget my last book or get too frustrated waiting for the next. Chris Nuttall does that, or he’ll release a spate of books in one series and shift over to another series.

This may not be something you can do. We all write at different tempos, and life happens. There’s a reason I managed parts of three short-stories this past spring and that was it. Period. End. Day Job, plus a series of family illnesses, wiped everything else off the To Do list. This is the time to look at your back-list if you have one, to evaluate covers and ad campaigns, and to plan, and write short stories if you are able. If you are by nature a slow writer, it might be best to plan for one or two releases a year, with a PR build-up before each release in order to draw eyes back to your earlier works and whet interest for the new book. Collections of short-stories can do very well, and I enjoy Mary Catelli‘s collections. Each is different, but all are good or very good.

Do you feel successful? Then you are a successful writer. If you have books out there, income earning or not, congratulations! You have succeeded.


*I’m serious. Historians can gain amazing amounts of really important information from family and local histories. Two family histories completely changed my dissertation for the better, and I’m not the only one who’s had that happen. Please, please consider donating a copy to your local research library or archive.


  1. I feel mildly successful – somewhere between the K, L, and M spectrum. Don’t bother much with book signings, but it’s an absolute treat to get invited to a local book club because they did one of my books for their book of the month. I have 20 books out there in print now, 20 books in three separate series! Woo-woo!

  2. Larry Niven once said that one of the things that helped him to become a good writer was an inheritance (IIRC from an Uncle) that allowed him to work full time in writing.

    Oh, I don’t even count me as a “want-a-be writer”. 😉

    1. Doheny oil family, IIRC. The standing joke around LASFS is that Larry was born with a silver spoon in his mouth… the size of a snow shovel. 😀

      And I don’t seem to fit any of those letters very well, Perhaps I’ll try hieroglyphics.

  3. I think I’d put myself around ‘M’. I don’t bring in much per month, but it is definitely enough to take my father out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Considering how slow I am at output, I consider that a win.

  4. Firmly S list, and that “S” definitely doesn’t stand for success. I’ll start counting myself as a real writer if I reach the O to N range, and I’ll probably consider myself successful if I manage to end up in the J-L range.

    On the other hand, getting to “S” means that I actually wrote something, in my case 5 complete first-draft novels since NaNo 2017. One of those is even close to ready to show the world (okay, it is ready except for the cover, which I’m perhaps using as an excuse not to publish yet). That’s not where I want to end up, but it’s not a bad spot from which to begin.

  5. Well, I don’t have the costume, don’t have the skill to write pornography, and those aren’t my fandoms. If/when I deliver on my WIP, I can claim X list. Even if violent modifies ‘sweet romance’ in a different way than it does ‘pornographic bondage’. (There might not be enough focus on romantic relationships for a Romance, but if there is a romantic subplot, the level of sexual content should at most be Sweet Romance.)

  6. J to K ish. And . . . if I want to go higher, I’m going to have to try this thing called “Marketing” I hear people talking about.

    1. I’m _almost_ done re-reading Wine of the Gods. Of all of them, only one of The Directorate books had a link to “next” (already bought them, so it is “open next” not “buy next” link. I think it was between #2 and #3.

      It gets very confusing around the Cannibal World plot. The two series switch back-and-forth. I highly recommend updating all the “other books” sections at the back to include a “reading order” and linking them all together.

      There are also a few without a number (e.g. Lucky Dave (Wine of the Gods)). Some of this may be changed; I haven’t downloaded any updates. I still have the original versions.

      50 (good!) related books only gets to “J to K ish”? I’m doomed.

  7. Somewhere between S and T — I’ve written a couple of first drafts of novels, but I’m convinced they’re the first of my ‘Trunk Novels’ and should probably never see the light of day.

    1. So, you’re getting the rough bits out of your system, learning, and growing. That’s how we all start. When I go back and look at my PhD writing (I burned my teenaged odes-to-dead-trees), is flinch because it is so poorly written. But that was a decade and lots and lots of words ago.

  8. I’ve actually done some non-fiction writing, although it’s all evangelical rather than something I’d be paid for– my dream is to someday write a story that at least two people will read and enjoy.

    Very very much at the rough, learning stage!

  9. I suppose I can claim to be a “L”. Most of my writing is scientific-technical, which pays nothing, and I get to pay the research expenses, On the other hand, my next book will be my 24th.

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