The Definition of Success is Success

24 Feb

I spent most of today with a colossal headache, which didn’t really improve my mood, so I went out in the hopes it would make me feel better. I came back (after a long walk) to discover that Larry Correia had written an article fisking another article from the Huffington Post. The basics of the article boil down to ‘JK Rowling should stop writing and make room for other up and coming authors.’

I had a long response half-written in my head when I realised that Larry had said pretty much all I wanted to say. So I thought I’d say something else instead.

A writer’s success is measured by the number of books (and spin-offs) he or she sells.

That’s it. You can write a cutting edge story with infinite diversity in infinite combinations – and it might be a lousy story. You may win awards for being edgy, for addressing social problems and issues or speculating about the future, but ordinary readers may find your books inaccessible. JK Rowling is popular because she wrote a series of books that were extremely accessible (I actually started with Chamber of Secrets) and caught the public imagination. They’re not great literature, nor are they as clever as Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. But it’s a great deal easier to move from Harry Potter to Jonathon Strange than it is to go straight into the latter.

There isn’t that much super-original about Harry Potter. At best, they are classic boarding school stories with magic. (The Worst Witch predated them by over 20 years and includes quite a few comparable elements.) But JKR took a tired old theme, gave it new life and placed her own stamp on it. She more than earned her successes.

The writer of the first article would have us believe that JKR is crowding out other, newer writers. There is a limited amount of truth in this – publishers can only publish a certain number of books a year – but publishing is a business. JKR’s fans will make her next few books successes (I salute her for moving away from Harry Potter) and why should any publisher choose to turn down certain profits? Why, it would take the imperious curse to make them reject her in favour of a newcomer.

I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to have a book rejected and I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt.

But this is what happened to me. I took the rejected book I thought would be a success – The Empire’s Corps – and put it on Amazon, then thought nothing more of it until a friend pointed out that sales were very good. I checked … and discovered that I had sold over a thousand copies. We ate that night <grin>. I went on; I wrote (so far) seven more books in the series and saw sales climbing higher and higher with each new book. I’ve had several Kindle bestsellers and a few glorious hours in the Top 100 selling authors on Amazon – and I’ve signed contracts with two separate small presses.

I’m not saying this to brag, but to prove a point.

If you have a book that you feel is bound to be a success, put it on Amazon and see what happens. Bypass the traditional publishing model and sell your wares directly to your customers and see what they make of it. If nothing else, strong sales figures are something you can take to potential publishers and use to show that you do have a market.

But I will tell you this. If you want to write professionally, work hard. Learn from JKR and the others like her, then actually write a book. Then write your next one, and your next one, and your next one. Writing is a skill you will need to develop as you go along. Very few people are automatically great (or at least sellable) writers. JKR took two years, IIRC, to get her first book published. I’ve been writing since 2005.

Eric Flint once noted that it takes about a million words to produce something sellable. Have you written those words?

For what it’s worth, JKR introduced a whole new generation to reading.  For that, if nothing else, she deserves her fame.

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9 Responses to “The Definition of Success is Success”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 24, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    I’ve never been able to get into the Potter stories *but* I agree that JKR deserves her fame.

  2. johncwright2001 February 24, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

    Bravo. Well said.

  3. Walt Dunn February 24, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    A hearty “Amen” to you. It makes more and more sense every day that the harder you work on a story the better it will do. Besides, you’re smart and use forums on Baen to develop and get comments as well as soliciting them from your blog. Keep it up, yu\ou’ve found a workable avenue.

  4. tanya reimer February 25, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    I believe you said it well, one must write and write more and write more to succeed.

    • chrishanger February 25, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

      That is the only way to do it, I believe. I’ve never met anyone who succeeded, but didn’t indulge in some very hard work. Chris Date: Tue, 25 Feb 2014 05:24:27 +0000 To: christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com

      • Barb Caffrey April 15, 2014 at 9:09 am #

        Chris, Malcolm Gladwell in his book OUTLIERS discusses this; he said that you need to do something for at least 10,000 hours in order to get good at something. Continuing to work on it after that is essential, too, of course . . . but it takes a lot of hard work, most of which people _never_ see, before you get to the point where you start to succeed.

        I’m glad you’ve found success. You’ve earned that success. You work hard, you improve all the time, you write good stories that people love, and what’s not to like about that?

        So I say, keep on, keepin’ on.

        And as far as J.K. Rowling goes, I enjoyed the HP books (some more than others; wasn’t a big fan of book 5), and wish her all success moving forward. (Life is too short to be upset at other people for doing well, don’t you think? Besides, what’s the point of that? I never did get why anyone would think calling out J.K. Rowling, of all people, would ever be a good idea.)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. There’s No Such Thing As An Exclusive Writing Fan | The Chrishanger - February 26, 2014

    […] days ago, I posted a short note on a article in the Huffington Post that suggested JK Rowling should give up writing and leave room […]

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