Your chances of becoming a successful writer are about the same as your chances of becoming a successful anything, maybe better because the success of one writer does not preclude the success of another.
There can only be one Super Bowl champion team a year. Tally up the players, coaching staff, trainers, and everyone else who gets a ring. Let’s say it’s around 100 people per year. Multiply that by 52 Super Bowls and that’s 5,200 people total who can walk around saying they are Super Bowl champions. Actually fewer because there are players, coaches, and teams that have won multiple times. There are 32 teams in the NFL. Every year, 31 of them lose. Every year, 3,100 people are not successful. Multiply that by 50 and over 160,000 football professionals are walking around who are NOT Super Bowl Champions.
So, are they failures? Isn’t making it into the NFL a sign of success? Considering how few people make it to that level, yes. Let’s count making it to the minors or the college playoffs, or even getting a scholarship to college because they’re all a form of success.
Why Your Chances are Good
Let’s circle back around to what I said at the beginning of this article: The success of one writer doesn’t preclude the success of another. The difference between being a success in writing and being a success in some other fields is that one person winning doesn’t mean another person loses. That’s not how writing works. There are hundreds if not thousands of true bestselling authors every year. The New York Times currently has 11 different weekly best seller lists: combined print and eBook for both fiction and nonfiction, there’s paperback and hard cover lists. The paperback list is further divided into “Trade” and “Mass-Market Fiction and Nonfiction.” There’s “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous ” and four different categories for Children’s and Young Adult books. Add to those lists, the USA Today and Wall St. Journal Best Seller Lists. Then there are regional and state best seller lists and various awards from small competitions to the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Okay. You win that one and you’re definitely a successful writer.)
Let’s look at the New York Times bestseller list for Paperback Trade Fiction. There are 15 top books every week. ALL of those authors are selling lots of books and making good money. I am willing to bet that the dedicated readers of one of those authors are also dedicated readers of other authors. If I buy one book, it doesn’t sap all my disposable income; books are relatively inexpensive. I might be able to buy only one new car every few years, or one house, or take one vacation per year, but I can pretty much buy books to my heart’s content. I can read articles and blogs, and short stories and poems and just because I have read one author doesn’t mean I won’t read another. In fact, I am more likely to read (and buy) another author’s work. Writing is not a zero sum game.
So, your chances of becoming a successful writer are good—if you look at it from that perspective.
But it’s not the right question.
The Question is NOT What Are the Chances of Becoming a Successful Writer
When someone asks that question, they are not asking for odds. They’re telling me they are afraid to try. They want some level of success assured before they take up the endeavor. They want to know, “What are MY chances of becoming a successful writer?”
Your chances of becoming a successful writer depend on you and the amount of time and work you are willing to invest. Your chances depend on your ability to believe in yourself and to keep going when you’re “lost in the weeds” and feel like you can’t write yourself out of a hole to save your life, or don’t even know where to start. Your chances of success depend on your ability to stay strong when a client or editor says, “This is shit” and then later comes back to you filled with apologies for taking out their bad day on you.
Your chances of success also depend on your willingness to learn about more than writing. You need to learn the business of writing. That sometimes means investing cold hard cash in seminars and courses, buying (and struggling through the learning curve of) software that is standard for a professional writer to have. Over the years, I have spent tens of thousands of dollars traveling to seminars, buying courses and software, to be better at what I do. I learned how to build websites in three different software programs and each learning curve was frustrating and headache inducing. I have learned about email platforms, and payment processing, how to edit videos, and create podcasts, use social media posting programs, and a million other technical things I have no fucking interest in because I needed to know it. (And now I know when someone I’m hiring to do one of those tasks is doing it right.)
There are few guarantees for success in any business. You can be the fastest runner the country has ever seen and a shoe-in to make the Olympic team—until you trip over a curb and break your leg. Your parents can hand you a thriving, multi-million dollar business, only to have you drive it into the ground. Anyone who guarantees you writing success without finding out more about your skills, background, and drive is usually selling something.
When I meet up with someone looking for guaranteed success in anything, I give some pat advice and keep moving—quickly. Someone looking for guaranteed success doesn’t want to work at it. They want to hit an easy button and reap the rewards. Unless you’re already wealthy and/or famous, there’s no easy button.
The Better Question: HOW can I be a successful writer?
This question tells me you are willing to put in the work. That you are willing to define your goals and create a path to reaching them. That you don’t expect to call yourself a writer one day and have Oprah’s people calling you the next.
What makes you successful at one thing is what makes you successful at anything. It’s the willingness to do whatever it takes (legally, ethically, morally, thank you) to become a success. Part of that involves learning to do things that have nothing to do with the writing process itself.
Many years ago I lived with an extraordinarily talented fine artist. He was not only talented, but he overcame a truly Dickensian childhood and had worked his way through art school. His formal training in art included anatomy, sketching, brush techniques, art history, using various media, chemistry, restoration techniques, and who knows what else. He could make copies of paintings by grand masters that looked as good as the originals (don’t worry—his signature was always hidden in the painting). He had talent, training, and drive. What he didn’t have was a lot of money. He turned to me one day and said, “It doesn’t matter how good you are as an artist, if you don’t know how to market your work, you’ll starve.” He learned to market his work. Was he successful? If you judged him on the works of art he created, there is no doubt he was successful. He was never famous, he never made a lot of money, but he made a living as an artist until the day he died.
The way to become a successful writer at any level is two-fold: understand your craft and understand marketing. Most people who want to be a successful writer just want to sit and write. I get it. I just want to sit and write. But you have to market your work. You even have to market your work in order to find the people who will market your work, i.e., an agent and hopefully a publisher. You will then be disappointed when you discover that the publishing house expects you to do some heavy lifting in your marketing efforts.
You become a successful writer by learning as much as you can about your craft and as much as you can about the business of your craft.
How Do You Measure Success?
You knew it would come down to this question, didn’t you? Success is in the eye of the beholder. Success doesn’t have to be all-encompassing; you can be a failure at one thing and a success at another.
Most people measure success by the dollars they bring in. It’s an easy way to measure. Some measure it by results, whether that is fame, helping people, or making it through the day without killing someone. (Just me?) Some people keep moving the goal posts on themselves without ever taking the time to acknowledge what they’ve accomplished. Don’t do that. Life is so much better with cake and champagne.
There are many ways to measure success. What if you just make a “good” living while doing something you love? Are you more successful than the guy who makes more money but hates his life? How about the single mom who put her two kids through Ivy League colleges writing romance novels… in the early 60s? You had to churn out a lot of heaving breasts and wistful sighs back then. She never had a bestselling book but she reached her goal of giving her kids a top level education.
There are many examples of people who have achieved external markers of success who are still unhappy. There are many examples of people who haven’t achieved those external markers of success who are unhappy.
You get to create your own definition of what being a successful writer is. It might be being published by a major publishing house or self publishing, making a full time living as a writer, making some side money, or making millions from your bestselling book. Your success can be measure by the number of lives you have changed or receiving one letter from one person whose life you changed.
Success as a writer is whatever you want it to be.
There are two skills you must learn to increase your chances of becoming a successful writer: Learn how to write well and learn how to market your writing.