It’s hardly an obscure word. I’m sure everyone knows what it means, but just in case, here is the definition from The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001):
adj. accomplishing an aim or purpose: a successful attack on the town.
having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction: a successful actor.
“Successful” is not the only word in the English language with two similar but distinct definitions, but this is why I brought it up.
Whether you’re an aspiring novelist, screenwriter, video game writer, or whatever, you’ve probably thought about what it must be like to be “successful.” And in those visions (I won’t call them “fantasies” because it’s neither frivolous nor inappropriate to visualize success) you’re likely focusing on the second definition. Everyone, including me, would love to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Wouldn’t it be great to open up a check for a million dollars, and even better to bring it to the bank, laughing all the way? Wouldn’t it be great if a major studio built a theme park based on your fantasy series, or Hollywood paid millions of dollars for the movie rights to books you haven’t actually written yet? Those things happened to Rowling and King respectively, and I’m not going to front like it’s better to be some kind of starving artist, huddled against the cold with only the ruffled pages of your fading manuscript to shield you from the stinging chill of failure. It’s perfectly fine to expect to get paid for your talents, and paid well if your talents achieve broad appeal.
But you know what I’m going to say next. You know I’m going to tell you that success stories like Rowling’s and King’s are rare birds. Even the so-called “midlist” author—good, even great storytellers who never hit best seller status but were able to make a decent living writing a book a year—is an endangered species in the recession-era publishing business’s feast-or-famine climate. I’m going to tell you to write for any reason except money, and I’m going to tell you that because I really believe it, and because I’m utterly convinced that if you write for the right reasons, your work will be better, and money will follow.
On the other hand, why come to Fantasy Author’s Handbook if all I’m going to do is state the obvious, repeat the platitudes, and not at least try to help you break through into that most coveted of places, that inner sanctum inhabited by the franchise author, where both artistic fulfillment and royalty checks flow like cool mountain streams.
Set aside for a second the fact that if I knew exactly how to do that, I’d have done it myself, and I’d be writing this from the deck of my yacht surrounded by the azure seas of the Greek Isles, and not at a desk in the upstairs hallway of my 1700-square-foot house in suburban Seattle.
Actually, though, my house is pretty nice. You know where I got the down payment? R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, Book V, Annihilation.
That’s pretty good, actually. Thank you, everyone who bought that book, by the way.
In regards to the crass subject of coin, financial “success” can have as many specific definitions as there are authors. In the dictionary’s example, “a successful actor,” notice how that was left undefined? Who is a successful actor? Will Smith? How much money has he made in his career? I don’t know, but I know it’s lots. If you’re grading entirely on net worth he’s more successful than, say, Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. But Rush won an Oscar and Will Smith hasn’t. If you define an actor’s success by the number and quality of awards then Geoffrey Rush is more successful than Will Smith, and Mike Resnick is more successful than J.K. Rowling.
It’s true in the publishing business and Hollywood alike that it can be more difficult to maintain a career than to get one started. So that could mean that the most successful actor is the one who’s been in the most movies. Who is that, then? I’m not even sure. Probably somebody like Harry Dean Stanton. My friend Mel Odom’s written more books than J.K. Rowling and Stephen King combined.
Honestly, though, who really wants to keep score? It feels slimy wondering how much money Will Smith has in his bank account, and somehow much slimier wondering the same about Mel Odom. The fact is, one particular sum of money is going to seem like a lot to one person, and hardly anything to another. Comedian Chris Rock, in an effort to describe the difference between “rich” and “wealthy” said that if Bill Gates woke up one morning with Oprah Winfrey’s money he’d jump out a window screaming, “I can’t even buy gas for my jet!” I’m pretty firmly middle class and hereby promise not to kill myself in exchange for Oprah’s riches. To someone who’s still working on that first sale, the royalties that allowed me to buy my first home would seem like quite a windfall. The other day I was walking out of a Dairy Queen after cheating on my diet and a guy asked me for spare change. Guilty for cheating on my diet, mentally off-balance from the sugar rush, I gave him what I had in my pocket (about 70 cents) and he thanked me and smiled. That’s a hilariously insignificant amount of money, but it got him that much closer to a cheeseburger. Financial success really does inhabit that broad a spectrum, all the way from the homeless guy in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, through me, past Oprah, and finally to Bill Gates.
Advances in recession-era publishing range from zero to maybe $100,000 if they think you’ve really got something commercial. You can still get million dollar advances, but only if your last book sold enough that your royalties ended up equaling a million dollars in the first year. The days of the seven-figure flat fee for first time novelists was a short, fleeting madness that the publishing business as a whole has awakened from, battered and nearly broke.
I guess I can’t tell you how to be financially successful in no small part because I don’t know what you mean by financially successful. Some dollar value greater than zero? That’s actually not that hard if you really learn how to write, keep doing it, and keep sending it out to agents and editors. If you want a billion dollars you’ll have to track down J.K. Rowling’s blog.
If you can find it, send me the URL, please. I have a kid who’ll be going to college in a year and a half.
That was only one of the two definitions, though, wasn’t it?
I’ll remind you of the other:
accomplishing an aim or purpose: a successful attack on the town.
Please don’t attack any towns, but in terms of writing, your gauge for this sort of success will be rather more subjective than the figures on a royalty statement. Sales aside, what makes a story successful?
For the record there are more subjectively successful books written in any given year than there are financially successful books, and there does not appear to be any direct correlation between the two. There have been very high-profile books that have sold enormous numbers of copies but are widely accepted as being badly written, ill-conceived, derivative, and otherwise unsuccessful as works of literature. Meanwhile, I can hardly count the number of books I’ve read that are just brilliant in every way, but went right out of print, without barely a pause at the remainders table.
Here’s another one where I have to admit my own shortcomings. If I could tell you in advance which unsuccessful narratives will become financially successful, or which successful narratives will become flops, I probably wouldn’t have been fired from my editing job—well, I probably would have anyway, but I would have gotten a new one more quickly.
No one really knows precisely why Twilight sold what it did while you probably don’t know a single person who’s read The Man on the Ceiling. Little, Brown certainly put at least a little bit more effort into Twilight early on than Wizards of the Coast put into The Man on the Ceiling. Or did they? Wizards of the Coast sent the authors of The Man on the Ceiling, Steve and Melanie Tem, to Book Expo America where they signed free books and pressed the flesh with booksellers and librarians. Advance reader copies were printed and (eventually) distributed by a New York publicist. There was a decent print run, with a major distributor (Random House) behind it. Matt Adelsperger, one of the best art directors in publishing, bar none, outdid himself on the cover. It’s beautiful beyond description.
And it’s just this brilliant, exemplary, amazing book written with immense wit, feeling, and maturity. It’s the kind of book I wanted to carry around door to door and just implore every single man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth to read. In every way but sales, The Man on the Ceiling is a successful book.
The Tems had a clear purpose for writing it, and achieved that purpose at an extremely high level. I can think of no more successful a book among anything I’ve ever read.
I guess I could ask the Tems if they’d rather have written The Man on the Ceiling and had it sell what it did, than have written Twilight and had it sell what it did, but part of me is afraid of the answer. If there was anything like a sense of reason to the publishing business, The Man on the Ceiling would have sold millions of copies, and Twilight would be for sale for a penny plus postage on Amazon.
I think Stephanie Meyer did the best she could with Twilight, and she unquestionably hit a chord with an awful lot of people—there must have been something to it. And I honestly don’t grudge her a penny of her success. But her story, and her success, makes it dang hard to advise aspiring authors on the publishing business. When someone comes out of nowhere, admits she had no idea what she was doing, writes a book that is widely considered to be a bad book by all the people who are supposed to know what makes books good or bad, and with little or no visible effort or rational explanation sells millions of copies and creates a massive international media franchise as if from thin air . . . now I have to tell you you can’t actually do that, and even with statistics to back that up, who’s going to believe me?
Where does that leave us on the question of success?
No matter what else happens, the only thing you really have control over is the quality of your own work. The odds are more in favor of your book being a flop than a mega-hit, and there’s precious little from a business or marketing standpoint that you can do to effect that either way. You’ll have to decide for yourself, but personally I’d rather be remembered by a very few for a book I’m proud of, like In Fluid Silence (which I wrote under the pseudonym G.W. Tirpa), than Baldur’s Gate (which had my name on the cover), a book that sold in excess of 75,000 copies but that I wish I could somehow, someday live down.
I try to live a regret-free life, but boy do I wish I could go back and switch those names. . . .
—Philip Athans, aka G.W. Tirpa
P.S.: Have I ever said this in public before? G.W. Tirpa stands for: Guess What, This is really Philip Athans. Oh, I’m so clever, and so moderately successful.