At a very large workshop once, I sat on a panel with with a group of successful women’s fiction writers. All of us had been writing for a decade or more. A woman in the audience asked a question about the New York Times bestseller lists. I can’t actually remember the specifics of the question, but I remember this part of the exchange:
“Well,” I said, “you don’t have to make the New York Times to have a successful career.”
The woman shook her head like a bewildered dog. “What? What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. You can have a long and successful career as a commercial fiction writer without ever coming in within sniffing distance of the lists. Any of them.” [pullquote]You can have a long and successful career as a commercial fiction writer without ever coming in within sniffing distance of the lists. Any of them.” [/pullquote]
The other panelists confirmed this; in fact only one of us was actually in that hallowed group. But the woman didn’t understand it. She asked the question several ways, looking for another answer. She was very, very invested in that single, admittedly powerful marker of success and couldn’t imagine any other trajectory for herself.
In publishing, The New York Times bestseller list is the holy grail. But I have never made it. Not with The Lost Recipe for Happiness, which went back to print eight times and was beautifully published around the world (I will forever love my Australian cover of that book as much as any cover I’ve ever had). Not with How to Bake A Perfect Life, which was a Target Book Club pick and lots of subsidiary deals. Not with any one of my four RITA award-winning women’s fiction.
I have supported myself and sometimes a family with my novels for more than two decades. The only time I took on another job was when I faced the double financial whammy of getting divorced during the same two years when my eldest son was starting college, and neither of those side jobs lasted longer than six months. I’ve published 11 works of women’s fiction, more than 25 romances of various sorts, and a sprinkling of novellas, short stories and articles.
Not so bad, really. A life as a writer, publishing widely around the world, winning awards and finding my readers.
Don’t get me wrong—publishers and agents and writers (even me!) love that big, splashy, highly toutable proof of success. [Read more…]