What Makes an Author Successful?

How do you know if an author is successful? The answer hinges on one’s definition of success, though the most common one is large numbers of books sold and profits made. By that measure, the Covid-19 pandemic was bad for authors. But I hope it may be good in the long run.

Success Comes Easiest to the Already Successful

An April 18 New York Times article, “What Snoop Dogg’s Success Says About the Book Industry,” notes that physical bookstores were hard hit by pandemic shutdowns. Readers bought and read books when more-social activities were curtailed, but their behavior did not lift all booksellers and authors.

The Times article authors note that, “The pandemic altered how readers discover and buy books, and drove sales for celebrities and best-selling authors while new and lesser known writers struggled. Many of the 200-plus new books that Chronicle [Books, a large independent publisher,] released failed to find an audience and quite likely never will.”

As Tyrrell Mahoney, the president of Chronicle Books, told the newspaper, in the category of celebrity sales, the rapper Snoop Dogg’s two-year-old cookbook From Crook to Cook “sold 205,000 copies in 2020, nearly twice as many as it had sold in 2019.” However, Mahoney continued, “It was harder to get people’s attention around books that didn’t necessarily have a big name attached to them.” Then she wondered, “Are those gone forever?”

So what of those other books? From a traditional publisher’s business standpoint, authors without name recognition aren’t as likely to be successful as Snoop Dog, so they’re unlikely to get long-term promotional support.

The Times article notes that “about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”

The Times article notes that “about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.” That means only 2 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. Those numbers aren’t making many authors financially successful.

While unknown and lesser-known authors suffered, publishers in general did not. “Overall, publishers’ revenues in the United States, which had been steady but stagnant for much of the past decade, climbed nearly 10 percent in 2020, to $8.6 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.” The lesson publishers have learned: Success feeds success. Name recognition matters more to the bottom line than quality or taking a chance on publishing a potentially amazing new author.

How I Measure Success

I’ve been a writer and published author my entire adult life. Four decades of stringing words together and hanging them out for public viewing have shaped my definition of success.

I remember the thrill of seeing my first byline on a book review in a respected academic journal. That counted as success for a graduate student. When I became a visiting assistant professor, having a chapter of my dissertation published in a more prestigious journal and my American literature survey course syllabus included by an anthology publisher signaled my membership in the academy that stretched beyond my own university. Those visible achievements would have been essential for academic career success if I had stayed on that path.

Since leaving academia, I’ve measured authorial success in both public and private ways. If an internal or external client returned for future marketing or publicity services, I was successful. If a magazine article or editorial got a healthy number of clicks, that was externally validated, quantitative success. If a book broke even or better on expenses, that spelled financial success. Then there are awards. Winning awards for your writing is nice, and I’ve collected a few, but the kudos that have provided more lasting gratification have been personal and private.

When the president of a college whose mission I support thanked me for developing a fundraising theme and ghost writing collateral materials that resulted in one of the most effective campaigns in the school’s history, that felt like success that mattered because of its long-term effect on students’ lives. And when a professor and novelist praised my profile of her in a university community relations publication, I savored the success of recognition by a fellow author.

When a power industry professional whom I’d never met sent an email telling me how an industry-first article about women in the field made him realize he needed to think differently about his own future employee roster, I knew I’d been successful in shifting attitudes. When readers not only say they enjoyed Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles but also that they appreciated seeing a particular sort of midlife experience as the centerpiece of a novel—because they felt seen or because the story inspired them to think more expansively about their own future—I know I’ve provided a spark of hope for another person’s journey through life.

In my experience, measurable, public success is a prerequisite for business and professional sustainability; private, sometimes intangible success is essential for maintaining one’s passion for the work.

Measuring Your Own Success

If you’re not an author, this publishing-focused reflection may seem irrelevant. It’s not.

Whatever your job title or identity labels—banker, baker, consultant, teacher, runner, parent, activist—your successes and failures, as measured by external metrics, can change in a heartbeat, as the characters in Optics learn. I hope the pandemic experience has helped you reevaluate what success means for you. I hope you’ve found healthier, more sustainable, more life-affirming ways of defining success for yourself, your family, and your career.

Public success will always have its place; it’s useful in providing the physical necessities of life. But maybe the most meaningful success now is lacing up for a run three days instead of once a week, a thank you note from a new hire you mentored remotely over the past year, or enjoying lower blood pressure thanks to altered news-consumption habits. Celebrate the external successes and treasure the private ones.

Celebrate external successes and treasure the private ones.

Measure Success Over Time

At the top of this post I suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic might be good for authors in the long run. The enforced time at home alone (even if with one’s family) gave many people just enough non-work hours to get serious about writing that book they’d always wanted to produce. Aside from a potential spurt of new books and authors, I hope the pandemic experience encouraged more people to write the books that need to be written, rather than just the ones they think publishers and readers want.

By the metric of first-year sales mentioned in that Times article, I’m in the 98% rather than the 2%. However, as I was reminded recently, I’m in this writing and publishing business for the long haul. Even though we write in different genres, I find the professional development tools provided by best-selling novelist Alessandra Torre to be just the inspirational kick in the butt I need when I’m stuck. Her latest webinar reminded me that a book can have many lives—as a stand-alone, part of a series, revised, translated, etc.—and any book can have a long sales life. As a reader and a former English professor, that’s obvious to me; as a writer, I needed the reminder so I don’t let moderate initial success with one book hold me back from moving on with the next.

Yes, books have a long life. They can be discovered and become even more successful years after they were first published. Just ask Stephen King or Snoop Dog.

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