Fair warning upfront: this one might get a little esoteric, so I hope you’ll all bear with me. One of the weirder parts of writing for a living is that there really aren’t many consistent career checkpoints to be aware of. In a corporate structure, your career is often defined by such markers in the proverbial road. Every year, you’ll sit down with a manager, talk about how you’ve been doing, and look at the career path you want to be on. Are you angling to run a certain department? Then you should already know the promotions and accreditations necessary to make it there, and are likely working toward it daily.
Working in the arts is different. While I’m sure this is equally true for those who paint, sculpt, act, etc, I only have professional experience in writing, so that’s what we’ll focus on. Go onto the Kindle forums and a frequent topic you can find with little searching is someone asking how many sales it takes before you are considered a “successful” author. That’s because “success” is so ill-defined in this business that it’s hard to have any idea where you fall in comparison to others.
Momentarily setting aside the fact that comparing yourself to others can be problematic in a lot of ways, there is something to be said for an idea of scale. I’ve talked about it before, but there’s a persistent conception out there that writers are either rich as shit, or so poor they are chewing on dry ramen to survive. Obviously it isn’t true, most of us doing this full-time are in the middle, paying rent but keeping an eye on our budget. The trouble is, you don’t really hear about writers in the middle, so the only ideas of success most of us have are the ones frequently talked about. Rowling, King, Gaiman, Pratchett, people who are household names with (well-deserved) fortunes. And good for them, they honed their craft to make works countless people enjoy. But as a writer in that middle, the idea that they are the only version of success is insane. Virtually none of us will ever reach that point, yet that doesn’t mean we aren’t successful at what we’ve set out to do.
Since our industry sets an almost impossibly high bar for what’s considered success in the form of our top achievers, we can’t look there for a standard. In a lot of ways, that’s a blessing. Having no clear form of what success means for 99% of writers means that there are no expected standards imposed upon us. In a corporate environment, success is easily quantifiable. Did you get the promotion/raise/account you were up for? If yes, then your success level increases. If no, then you are failing to move forward. Not much wiggle room in there, and while of course someone can have a rich personal life with a stalled career, today’s discussion is specifically focused on the jobs.
So, with no reasonable industry standard and no system through which to progress, what is success to a writer? Well, success is whatever you decide it is, and if that sounds like a copout of an answer, trust me, it isn’t as easy as it seems. If, to you, being published at all is a success, then you’ll achieve it the moment your first book is out. Maybe you want to be published by a press though, or perhaps you’re holding out for a book with the Big 5 before you call yourself successful. Hell, maybe you’re aiming high; nothing short of a movie deal is going to let you feel like you’ve made it. There’s nothing wrong with any of those, your dreams are your own, and that means you are free to aim at whatever heights you like.
There’s a problem with this strategy though, and it’s us. By us I mean the writers, the humans behind the keyboards stuffed with uncertainty and self-doubt. Part of the reason I try to peel back the curtain on writing books as much as I can is that I remember what it was like from the outside looking in. The idea of writing a book, getting it published, it seemed so arcane and impossible. Maybe that isn’t your exact experience, but I’ve talked with more than enough people to know I’m not the only person who has felt that way. And that’s part of the success issue. Publishing a book is not some ancient, unknowable process. It’s a thing that can be done, and, in the case of writers, once we have done it the task doesn’t seem so hard in retrospect.
To be fair, I think that’s true of most daunting tasks. In hindsight, they always seem easier than when we were staring them down, often we even remember them simpler than they were. Yet, that hindsight is still a problem, because when we look back it becomes so very, very tempting to downplay our accomplishments. “Well, maybe I should aim higher than just writing a book, if I was able to do it then it can’t be that hard.” “Yeah I’m published, but if that press was willing to take me, are they really setting their standards high enough?” “Sure I got a series, but then it tanked in three episodes. I meant I’m successful when I have a show that does well.”
Basically, most writers have at least a little of the old “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member” kicking around inside of their heads. Imposter syndrome is so ubiquitous among those in the arts I almost take it as a given that every writer I talk to has it. We doubt, we minimize, and what seemed like such impossible goals from the outside now don’t feel like they were hard enough to be proud of. Success through goals is an admirable idea, but often we’re the biggest obstacle to feeling a sense of accomplishment through that method.
With all that said, we come back to the question that started this blog: what is success? I meant what I said a while ago, that’s up to you to determine. The only real council I can offer is what has somewhat worked for me. And make no mistake; I’m definitely included in many of the groups I’ve talked about. This job doesn’t come with a roadmap for anyone; I’ve had plenty of wrong-turns. Lately, though, I’ve begun trying to define success not by the career itself, but by the life it permits me to lead.
One of the things I wanted most in a job was freedom. To set my own hours, to work when I was most productive instead of on a company’s timetable, to be able to travel without fear of asking for time off. And this job gives me that. Yes, there are downsides, but that’s true in any career. I’ve been working on leaning into the things I love; hence why I’ve been traveling to more cons. It reminds me of one of the things I enjoy most about this gig, and allows me to meet readers from all over while seeing new cities. Obviously at my career level I’m not on the road every week, yet even doing the occasional one is a nice, tangible reminder that I’m living my life the way I’ve always wanted.
To me, that is a mark of success. What will work for you is a question I can’t answer. You’ll have to look deep within and figure out your own ideas of success. It’s okay if you don’t find an answer right away. It’s okay if your answer changes over time. Our industry offers minimal measurements of success within itself, so as long as you’re staying true to what you want to be writing and doing then you’re a hell of a success. And don’t let anyone tell you differently.