Thinking about how to define authorial success

What makes a book successful? What makes an author successful? What makes some books and/or authors more successful than others? All fair questions. I saw some discussion of this among my colleagues and friends on Twitter this past week, prompted by these thoughts from the amazingly talented Delilah S. Dawson. and it gave me some things to think about.

My first novel came out in 2013 — just three short years ago! I started writing it in 2010, got my agent in 2011, and nabbed a book deal in 2012. So I’ve been at it for six years now, and a published author for just half that time. My fourth book comes out Sept. 6 in hardcover.

Have I been successful? Abso-freakin-lutely. But that’s in terms of my vision of success. And I think it’s important to define your own measures for success going in — and to keep them realistic.

(This is a long-ish post. Get comfy. Go grab a beverage if you like. I’ll be here.)

When I started on this path, I felt like Don Quixote getting ready to tilt at a windmill. I had no idea whether I could even write a good novel, let alone get an agent, let alone get published. All I knew was that I wanted to try. Furthermore, I ruled out self-publishing very early on — I have a day job, and I knew I couldn’t take on the demands of doing self-publishing right.

So my measure of success, in simple terms, was to see a novel I’d written on the shelf at a bookstore. That was it.

And so when launch day for The Daedalus Incident came out, I went to Barnes & Noble (in Glendale, Calif., because I was visiting L.A. for work at the time) and, lo and behold, it was on the new releases table close to the front. This did my heart good. Mission accomplished. As a bonus, I knew from the reviews that it was a good book. It even made some best-of lists for the year. Another “achievement unlocked” badge.

So with The Enceladus Crisis, I wanted to see if the first book was just a fluke. I wanted to see if this was a repeatable phenomenon. And it was. And then with The Venusian Gambit, I wanted to see if I could wrap up a trilogy in a satisfactory manner. The starred review from Publishers Weekly answered that neatly and even made me a little weepy when I read it.

With each book, I felt I had leveled up. Daedalus got me in the door, Enceladus showed me I could do it somewhat consistently (and with a more complex plot), and Gambit showed me I was improving.

Now, let’s be clear. The Daedalus Incident sold fairly well considering the rough sledding at my publisher at the time, but as is the case with sequels, books two and three didn’t sell as well. I expected that, and so did my publisher. But the sales were good enough for them to offer on the MAJESTIC-12 series — three books, in fact. So that was another benchmark: I got a second book deal.

Plus, MJ-12: Inception is coming out in hardcover, with an announced first run of 20,000 copies. That’s another little boost. MJ-12 is darker and more nuanced than my past work, so it’s an artistic departure for me — and it happened to receive the most advance praise of all my work. One more challenge met.

So what are my success measures now for MJ-12: Inception? Well, we’ve been able to do a proper sales and marketing push for it, and given that the quality appears to be at least on par with my other stuff, I would hope that sales beat Daedalus. That’s my only real goal at the moment. That, and doing my best to make MJ-12: Shadows, now under construction, an even better book than Inception.

There are other authors out there far more successful than I am in terms of sales and earnings. I’ve seen debut authors score six- or seven-figure deals. I’ve seen authors who debuted the same year as I did land great second deals, film deals, you name it. Are they better authors than me? I’m sure at least some of them are, inasmuch as you can quantify something so arbitrary. But I’m not sure being qualitatively better always translates into better business success anyway.

Honestly, a lot of it is luck. My agent, Sara Megibow, likens selling a book to making a marriage. If the right editor falls absolutely in love with the right book, it can be wildly successful. But that means catching the right editor at the exact right time with a book that, at that very moment, will knock his or her socks clean off.

And then it’s a question of promotion and marketing, available bookstore co-op, the strength of the sales team and, finally, whether the book aligns well with the current mood of the marketplace.

I have no control over any of those things.

This is one of the major reasons why I’ll still have a day job for the foreseeable future. In fact, I fully recognize that I have a certain luxury when it comes to defining my authorial success, because the financial future of my family doesn’t depend on it. Delilah and others have chosen a different path — more fulfilling and more prolific, but harder in so many ways, and with so much more pressure.

Actually, she put it better:

So yeah, I recognize I’m privileged in the way I view success here. I’m committed to being the best novelist I can, but I don’t have that kind of pressure. I’m not sure how well I’d manage, frankly.

Victoria Schwab, whom I met at Phoenix Comicon this year, just hit numero uno on The New York Times bestseller list for young adults with This Savage Song, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for her. She wrote recently that her “overnight success” was nine years and 11 books in the making. “Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit,” she wrote. And that’s very, very true.

Heck, look at George R.R. Martin. George has been writing fantasy and science fiction since 1970. There was a time when he thought his career as a novelist was over after his fourth book bombed back in 1984. (Spoiler: He’s OK now.) A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and while it sold well and got lots of accolades, A Clash of Kings was actually the first ASoIaF book to make the NYT list in 1999. Sure, he’s a household name today — 46 years after he started writing.

And I’m in year three of my career as a published author. There ain’t nothing overnight about success, y’all.

I may never make The New York Times bestseller list. There are things I want to do that may simply not pan out. I honestly can’t say how MJ-12: Inception will be received. And I’m OK with that. I have to be OK with that, because if I’m not, there’s not a whole heap I can do about it.

All I can do is write a better book than the last one, and even that’s an arbitrary metric if you look for evidence externally. I simply have to trust in my ability, put in the hard work and hope for the best. And maybe make sure the beer fridge is stocked.


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