Let’s say it again: Rich authors are the exception, not the rule. Now, write that in nice red ink and stick it above your workspace.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I ended up in an email exchange with John Everson. We were both hanging around the same Yahoo list during the mid-2000s, when FB was merely a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, and I remember being terribly impressed with the fact that he’d been published and where he was at the start of what appeared to be a promising career. He still warned me that it’s a lot of hard work without any guarantees, and I thought, “Yup, I’m up for this. I’ll make it. I'm awesome. The sun shines out of my arse.”
Yet here I am. I’ve published a bunch of books. None of them are best-sellers, and I make more money editing other people’s work than with my own writing.
But what do we mean by successful author? What do we mean when we say we’ve “made it”?
If you’re doing this under the assumption that you’re going to earn wads of cash, you might do better simply investing in guaranteed schemes or buying property. Publishing novels is a lot like gambling. Actually, who’m I kidding? It is gambling. You simply cannot guarantee whether readers will glomp onto your work. No one could predict that Harry Potter, Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games or even adult colouring books would be the phenomena that they’ve turned out to be. But they are.
Hundreds of authors have tried to follow in these footsteps, to varying degrees of success. And I predict, that by the time the majority of those attempting to ride the coattails of the success stories get their novels out there, the wave will have passed.
(There’s a reason why I don’t write YA dystopias. Though I do admit that the genre itself has been surprisingly resilient despite me watching out for the Next Big Thing to take off.)
If you’re talking about financial success, then you need to write the more popular genres. Which means you’re going to look at erotic romance, crime/mystery, religious/inspirational, and fantasy … with horror lagging behind all of these… And it means you’ll have to immerse yourself in the genre you want to write so that you’re aware of the tropes. Readers are not stupid. They can tell the moment an author’s heart is not in the genre they’re writing and, nope, they’re not going to buy it if your offering is a lukewarm spinoff.
Some of the hardest-working authors I’ve ever met write in the erotic romance genre. These folks write a book every 2-3 months, with 6-8 releases a year in what is a highly competitive market with a huge turnover of newly published works every week. Their readers are voracious, and yet if an author misses a step, their name quickly sinks to the bottom of the pile. The ones who earn six-digit figures put in eight or more hours a day of writing, revising and promotion. It’s a huge industry, and frankly, I have to be honest with myself, I don’t have the stamina for it. I don’t have the love of this particular genre to push myself in this direction. The successful authors treat this with the same seriousness that they do any nine-to-five career. I don’t want this on the off-chance that I might make a financial “success” of it.
And yet ... Work ethic and talent most certainly help, but they’re no guarantee.
If you’re writing because you want people to tell you how amazeballs your stories are, think again. It’s easy to publish a novel these days. But getting people to read your work is difficult. Then getting them to leave reviews or ratings (those all-important algorithms Amazon loves so much before your book starts showing up in any promotion) is even more difficult. It simply doesn’t occur to many readers that they should leave reviews. Or they’re just not in the mood. Or they have better things to do. Your books don’t accimagically sell themselves, and only a select few (or incredibly savvy) ever make it onto the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores.
(Here’s a hint: go look at the SFF section at your local bookshop. Notice something? Yeah, it’s still mostly the same old names we’ve seen there for the past 10-20 years… The Hobbs, the GRRMs, the Tolkiens, the Jordans, the Canavans…)
The likelihood of you getting your small press or self-published book onto the shelves of your local bookstore are slim to none. Most of your sales will be from your ebooks. Which folks will only buy if they happen to stumble onto the book via a review or a mention on social media.
So, why are you writing?
I’ll tell you why I write. Maybe my story will resonate (and I'd love to hear yours – leave a comment below in the comments section). I’m playing the long game. I’ve decided I don’t want to wait until I become famous to write the kinds of books I enjoy reading. Unfortunately, many of my literary heroes are not runaway mainstream successes. By the same measure, the stories I tell are not mainstream. My readership is niche, but I love that niche – of rich, nuanced and slowly unfolding fantasy where there the conflict is often subtle and it’s not immediately possible to tell who’s the antagonist. I look to the writings of Storm Constantine, Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, Ursula Le Guin, Poppy Z Brite, CJ Cherryh and numerous others, and I express myself in a synthesis of what I love about their styles. Some of these authors you may have heard of. Others, perhaps not. But whether you have, doesn’t matter to me.
The point is I have stories I want to tell. I am a storyteller.
My rewards are subtle: It’s when one of my literary heroes tells me that she loves my voice. Or when I’ve read at an event, and a young boy walks up to me and tells me that my writing reminds him of Neil Gaiman’s. Or it’s when a reader writes to tell me that I made her forget to milk her goats. Or, it's that flash of inspiration when I pause in what I'm doing to daydream on a new idea then see its potential.
I write my own worlds, but I also write fiction that I cannot sell; my fanfiction often gives me so much pleasure because the response I have from readers is immediate and passionate. And for the same reasons, I read the fics of others, and I experience the same enthusiasm for our favourite worlds.
And my original fiction meets the fanfiction halfway, because I’ve written for existing intellectual properties in an official capacity, and it’s been awesome and financially rewarding.
I will close by sharing also that I’ve learnt to value my writing. I don’t submit to just any market that is out there. I don’t often give away my works for free. I always craft to my utmost ability then submit to the best markets. And, if for whatever reason these works doesn’t sell, I’ll later compile them into an anthology or release via my Patreon page. I aim high, for quality, not quantity.
I don’t make my living writing, though there are some opportunities that do pay well. Life is short, nasty and brutish, and I want to enjoy my writing while I’m alive. It’s not so much a stress of if a story will be published, but rather when, and how. If I value my art, and don’t sell it short, it means that there’s a better chance that others may cherish it too.
Am I a success? If you mean by am I writing the stories that I love reading, then my resounding answer is yes. I am a success.
Bio: After surviving a decade in the trenches of newspaper publishing, where she fought against the abuse of the English language, Nerine Dorman is now a freelance editor and designer who is passionate about words that not only sound good, but look damned good too. She’s also written a few books. You can stalk her on Twitter or, even better, support her authorly aspirations via Patreon. If you’re feeling particularly brave, and would like to inquire about her editing rates, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org