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Measures of Success

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 inphoto by alex torrenegra [1] 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 [2], which went back to print eight times and was beautifully published around the world (I will forever love my Australian cover [3] of that book as much as any cover I’ve ever had).  Not with How to Bake A Perfect Life [4], 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. It’s lovely to get there, but a lot has to be in place make it happen. The NYT mainly measures velocity.  So a book that has had a tremendous amount of pre-publication push and visibility, then a very clean lay-down (when the books hit the stores, all stores, all at once, as close to the same hour as possible) will have a much better chance to make the lists.  For a very long time, the list favored indie bookstores, who tend to stock fiction of a certain type, which meant literary or literary-leaning novels had a better shot.  The addition of trade paperback lists, mass market paperback lists, and ebook lists have served to help preserve that literary-leaning hardcover list, but made the rest of the lists much more democratic.

Once in awhile, a book catches fire and word of mouth increases the velocity of sales over a long period of time.  Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane was a bestseller of that nature. She’d written books that were just as compelling, but the subject matter of Firefly caught the gestalt of the moment, and it just sold and sold and sold and sold (I seem to remember it was on the trade paperback list for eight or nine months).  Water For Elephants was another word of mouth bestseller, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. All are books that are so gorgeously, perfectly commercial and such amazing, compelling stories  that readers pushed them into other readers hands.

That’s an organic form of bestselling that is immensely satisfying for everyone involved. But it also requires publishing support to keep the book on the shelves when it’s showing signs of velocity, to keep throwing a little co-op money at it, to keep supporting it, with a little push. It would be easier to marry George Clooney than to get that co-op money for a book that is three or four months old, but sometimes it happens.

One other way to make the list is to write a successful series. The first books capture readers and then draw them into the world, and as the series grows, so does the readership, so by book five or eight (a lot of writers say eight is the magic number), you have the following to make that book a mega bestseller: Game of Thrones for example, or Bella Andre’s Sullivan series.

But what if you never make the lists? How do you define success for yourself? What would “success” look like if we took that one measure off the table?

Here’s my definition: I have written more than 40 novels. Some have been enormously successful, winning awards and acclaim; others have languished for any number of reasons (bad timing, bad covers, lost editor, publishing house eaten by another, etc etc etc).  Some books I considered on the lower end of my quality line have become beloved by readers, and some I considered to be some of my very best work have been ignored.  I’ve gathered a group of readers who are earnestly passionate about what I do, a fact I consider one of the greatest gift of this writing life.

I make enough now (it took time) to finance my penchant for travel abroad, my only weakness in the luxury realm. Before that, I made more than my siblings at very earnest jobs, teacher, nurse, electrician.  I consider that successful.

But mainly, I consider myself a success because I have had the vast good fortune to have made my way as a writer for my entire adult life. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, every single day of my life.  I write books I love and offer them to my readers and—good heavens!—I am paid well for it.

That’s a pretty hefty measure of success.  Would I love the NYT marker beside my name? You bet. I’d dance a jig and call everyone I know and celebrate with some crazy expensive meal somewhere.  Bring it on! But I don’t feel like my career is faltering without it.

What would be markers of success for you? Enough money to pay a few bills? A good review in a particular publication? What kinds of things mark “having made it” for you?



About Barbara O'Neal [5]

Barbara O'Neal [6] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [7], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [8].