Want to write a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to turn a book you’ve already written into a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to publish one book, see it instantly become a massive, runaway international best seller then immediately retire, rich and famous? Want to see your fantasy novel turned into a theme park because it was such a massive, runaway international best seller?

Well, I know exactly what you should do, and it works every single time, which is why thousands of books a year are massive, runaway international best sellers!

Okay… now I’m writing fantasy!

Of course that’s nonsense. We all have to know that very few books published in any given year become massive, runaway international best sellers. Very few become national best sellers. In fact, very few sell enough to earn out the advances paid to the author. And if you’re operating in the indie sphere and haven’t treated your self-published books like a business, so they aren’t “self-published” but published by a small press that you also happen to own and operate, there’s little chance of you selling more than a few hundred copies.

So then, what does that mean?

There’s no hope for anyone, it’s all just a big fool’s errand, and all the success stories we’ve heard about are lies?

Not at all. There are some publishing success stories that aren’t entirely honest, sure, but there are also a lot of perfectly legitimate success stories out there. I’ve worked with indie authors who sell books in the tens of thousands, which is really good. I’ve worked with authors in the traditional publishing world that sell in the hundreds of thousands, and a small handful that have grabbed that golden ring and are doing really quite well for themselves.

And not a single one of those success stories was even explicable, let alone predictable. If a huge publisher has somehow decided they’re really going to get behind your book, there are things they can do—money they can spend—to get books shipped. They can pay for placement in bookstores and on Amazon, and maybe get you on TV or the right podcasts… stuff like that… to give you a leg up.

But even then, there have been books that have been seriously hyped that fell flat when potential readers stayed away in droves. Reviews sometimes hurt, rarely actually help, and usually do nothing at all. You can do everything right and still fail. You can also do everything wrong and still succeed. Your book can be patently awful and still be a massive, runaway international best seller—and you know the books I’m talking about. Likewise, your book can be brilliant, resoundingly well reviewed, beloved of a small cult audience, and not break even.

I’ve been doing this—working in one way or another in the publishing business—since 1986. You’d think, in all that time, I would have cracked it. That I’d be in possession of the guaranteed success strategy for any novel, especially fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels. I’m sorry to report that no, like literally everyone else, I have not cracked it.

And this is not me giving up, or showing you my charmingly self deprecating side. This is me telling a truth that, as Thomas Jefferson said, we hold to be self-evident: If there was a guaranteed success formula, I would have applied it by now, and so would every editor of every book ever published.

This success formula simply does not exist, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you differently.

No publisher puts money, time, effort, and reputation into a book they hope will be a flop. Likewise, every author goes into publication at least hoping that this is their best effort. Everyone wants to succeed and tries to succeed, and yet most fail.

And it sucks when you fail.

It does.

I’m not even going to try to sugar coat it.

You’ve put maximum effort into something—writing a novel—that is, no matter how you slice it, incredibly difficult. If you’re doing it right you’ve literally opened yourself up and poured yourself into it. Then you’ve worked as hard as you can work to give it the best chance out in the world. You have done the sincere and difficult work.

And no one cares.

This is fucking horrible.

And I know it’s insufficient for me to just say, “Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!”

But you know what? That’s all the good advice I can give you in terms of answering the question, “Will this sell? Will it be a massive, runaway international best seller?”

The educated, experienced, expert answer is: I have no idea, but hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

I do feel, having been doing this as long as I have been, that I know what’s “good” and what isn’t. I know what I like and what I think will sell. I have a good sense of what’s being published and what’s selling, and so on. So if I say, “This is great—this has a great chance out there,” I’m not just blowing sunshine up your skirt. I mean it.

But I don’t know—I can’t know.

“Everyone thinks they have a book in them. The truth is that most people don’t,” wrote Joy Fielding in “What’s the Secret to Writing a Bestseller? Hint: There Isn’t One.” “The truth is that even those who do have a book lurking somewhere inside them will not write a book that more than a handful of people will want to read or pay money to buy. And the hardest truth of all is that no one—and I mean  no one, not your editor, not the publisher, not the critics—has any idea what makes one book sell millions of copies while other, often better, books do not.”

I think you can define a writer as someone who knows they live in a world of random subjectivity but still they persist. And they persist not just at writing, but at being a writer. The amazing Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said in an interview with The New Yorker:

As you may know, it’s not easy to be a gentleman and a novelist. It’s like a politician trying to be Obama and Trump. But I have a definition of a gentleman novelist: first, he doesn’t talk about the income tax he has paid; second, he doesn’t write about his ex-girlfriends or ex-wives; and, third, he doesn’t think about the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

If you’re reading this and you have a book ready to go out into the world, you very well might have a massive, runaway international best seller on your hands. You might even have a solid midlist genre novel—which is perfectly fine, and I know a lot of good writers who make a good living doing exactly that. You might also make effectively zero dollars. If you’re thinking of writing—in any form, category, or genre—as a get rich quick scheme, you need to seriously reconsider and maybe get into real estate or stock speculation. Writing, at best, is a get rich maybe, and probably really slowly and anyway hope to one day make a living doing it scheme, but for me, anyway, doing it, living in it, associating with fellow readers and fellow authors and editors and book people in general, makes it instantly and infinitely more rewarding than real estate or stocks. Call me a Socialist, but I’d rather be middle class and happy than rich and miserable.

I’d rather be writing, either way.

So, yeah, your first book hasn’t found an audience (yet) on Kindle Direct? Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. So much truth here! I was briefly part of an online forum where a troll got upset at me for posting the question: What makes you a writer? Several people had answered when he began ranting about their answers. His point? Unless you were supporting yourself by your writing, you weren’t a writer. Needless to say,I disagreed. And notice I said my membership was brief. I bailed after I explored how much this troll “contributed” to discussions. Way too much to make it worth my while to stick around.

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