"I'm Not Successful as a Writer. Should I Quit?"

It’s time we (re)defined success as writers.
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Dear Milo,

My debut went out a couple years ago and I’m still not over how bad it did. No lists, no awards, no social media attention, no tour. I’m one of those failed writers and I’m embarrassed. Nobody wants an unsuccessful book like mine. I’m thinking about stopping writing. Should I quit?


Dejected Debut

Cambridge, MA

Dear Dejected Debut,

The short answer is no, definitely don’t quit. Your idea of success has been (very understandably) distorted by outside forces, and the things you’ve mentioned here aren’t a reflection of success or lack thereof.

For the long answer, this is an important topic with a lot of branches. My response is a big one. I considered breaking this up into a series of sorts, but ultimately decided it works best as a whole.

While our new friend here is the one who wrote in with this question, I’m also talking to everyone out there reading this. We in the writing community need to discuss and (re)define success as writers. I’m (mostly) not doing deep dives here because these could easily be a post themselves each. But, as you can see, this is a big puppy regardless. There’s just a lot of false senses of success out there. But this also means I’m talking in broad strokes and sometimes, based on the lack of definitive and/or citable information out there, anecdotally. Please don’t take the information in this response as infallible, but rather something to chew on. I don’t have comments on my site for capacity reasons, but I hope this sparks conversation elsewhere and encourages knowledgeable folks to fill in any gaps I have here.

This post is deliberately one-sided to the negative. We all recognize the benefits that can come with any of the below situations, so I’m mostly not going to bother mentioning them. This doesn’t mean that the below should be avoided or demonized. If you’ve received any of the below, celebrate yourself. Seriously. What I’m about to divulge isn’t meant to dampen the positives from these, but rather show that every pro has its con, that things aren’t always how they appear, that the industry doesn’t talk enough about these things, and just because someone didn’t get any of the below doesn’t make them any less successful as a writer or their given book any less valuable.

Also, this isn’t a golden ticket for anybody to be a jerk about anybody else’s moment. If somebody is celebrating themselves, let them. Don’t go barreling in like the Kool-Aid man all, “BUT MILO SAYS…”

Yes. I did says. But these are things to ponder regarding your own publication journey, not to chuck at somebody else’s face with neither consent nor warning. That’s just rude.

Lastly, you may feel disheartened while reading this post. But my intention is to be honest with you about the realities of the industry, and hopefully, by the end, you can start the journey of redefining what success as a published writer means to you. In my eyes, it’s better you know now rather than learn the hard way later.

I want you to celebrate yourself when the time comes, not wallow in despair with the belief that you’re somehow not good enough. Never rob yourself of the joy you earned.

Getting Rich Off Your Book

I’m starting off with this particular heartbreak because it’s a popular one that needs to be made clear: It’s not going to happen. There’s no money in publishing. If you’re the one-in-a-billion that proves me wrong, I’ll be sincerely happy for you. (Really.) But don’t prioritize financial wealth as your end goal for writing, nor your measure of success. Tuck it away as a potential happy surprise. Between Amazon monopolies, predatory Big Tech, everyday online pirating, the general publishing business model of modern times, and many other barriers, writers are fairly screwed in the money department.

Would you like the sad, sad numbers? Based on the standard range of royalty rates, you’re going to make ~$1.50 to $2.50 per hardcover sold, and ~$1.00 to $1.50 per paperback sold. And that’s after you’ve paid off your advance, which can be a leap in itself. (See below.)

Getting a Big Advance

Wow! Money! We like that! We all want that million-dollar advance so we can skip off into the sunset. But not only is it highly unlikely, it turns out there’s a downside.

Let’s do some transparency here. When I got my book deal, the initial offer was a $7,500 advance. My agent talked them up to $10,000. Some folks were aghast when I told them, knowing how many years of researching and writing I did for this book, not to mention all the years prior of hard work to get to a book deal. However, this is an entirely normal advance, especially for a smaller publisher. (And, honestly, this is a pretty good advance for a smaller publisher.)

Now, $10,000 is indeed nothing to sneeze at. It’s a sizable amount of money, especially to someone in my financial situation. But between my agent’s 15% cut, the 30% tax rate of the US, and the common practice of doling out an advance in increments stretching from the signing of the contract to the physical debut of the book itself, let’s just say I’m not leaving any of my jobs anytime soon. Is it helpful and am I grateful for it? Absolutely. But it’s also not what most people likely envision when they hear someone scream, “I got a book deal!”.

But am I upset about this? Nah. I pursued publication knowing the realities of the industry. And one of the realities is this: By having a smaller advance, I’ll earn out of it that much sooner (or, at the very least, I’m more likely to earn out of it at all). To earn out of an advance means that you’ve sold enough books to “pay back,” as it were, the money the publisher gave you upfront. That advance isn’t payment for all of your past work writing the book; it’s an advance of the bare minimum of money they expect your book to make. (Though it’s a misleading name since most of the money isn’t given to you ahead of the book’s publication. It’s more like guaranteed money.)

Every writer who wants to keep writing wants to earn out of their advance. If you don’t earn out of your advance, you risk not being published in the future, by your current or another publisher. Because every one of them looks at your sales before considering giving you another book deal. Is it your fault a publisher gave you such a high advance? No. But it somehow becomes your problem. And while I probably would’ve accepted a million dollars like the next person, I’m also grateful that I don’t have that extra stress dangling over my head. The higher your advance, the more pressure you may feel about how “well” your book performs.

But don’t get too obsessed about this, either. Anecdotally, it’s believed only 25-30% of books pay off their advances. Does that mean we never hear again from 70-75% of authors? No. This is because earning out your advance is based on your royalty percentage, not the total cost of the book. (Remember that ~$1.50 to $2.50 mentioned earlier?) The bad news is this means it takes significantly more book sales to earn out. The good news is this means your publisher will see a profit long before you earn out. However, the numerical value of what they expect from you is different from writer to writer and shrouded in mystery. The only surefire breath of relief for a writer is earning out. Earning out means your publisher is happy and will certainly want to work with you again.

To sum, no publisher is looking to give you the most money possible. Because this business is indeed a business, they’re looking to give you the least amount of money possible. Even with the Big 5, an advance of six figures or higher is unusual and unlikely, especially if it’s only for one book (as opposed to a multi-book deal) and wasn’t part of an auction.

Believe it or not, this is all a simplified breakdown. It gets more complicated than this, but it doesn’t necessarily change the point I’m trying to make here. Small advance = good. Small advance = safe. Small advance = little indication of how a book will perform or how it’s valued. It's just the line of guaranteed future publication in the traditional industry.

Going to Auction

But never mind that! Oh boy, oh boy, you’re going to auction! This means that more than one publisher wants your book, and wants it bad enough that they’re willing to pit themselves against other publishers. Your agent will handle all this, but the rules are pretty straightforward: Best deal wins. As you can imagine, things can get wild. And this is where that elusive, fabled million-dollar advance can happen.

Sometimes a book goes to auction because it truly is desirable to more than one publisher. And that’s great. But sometimes, a book goes to auction because publishers get competitive with their business rivals.

I jokingly refer to it as “toddler logic.” A toddler isn’t interested in a toy on the floor. Another toddler picks it up. Suddenly, that first toddler is obsessed with that toy and must have it and it’s their favorite toy in the world how do you not see that?!

Big advance risks aside, this mentality could seem like a benefit for an author. But the heat of an auction can get the best of any of us. And even if the book was truly desirable beyond the competition wanting it, a publisher may walk away victorious only to realize…umm…how much did we just spend on that advance? Guess who doesn’t have any money left for that same book’s marketing budget. That’s not a good place to be. (Fun fact: Advances used to be doled out in 2-3 equal installments as a somewhat universal expectation, from the signing of the contract to the actual launch of the book. But some bigger publishers have started doling out those funds sometimes as high as 6-7 installments. This isn’t as a courtesy to the author for more frequent payments. It’s because the publisher doesn’t actually have the money in larger increments.)

Getting a Multi-Book Deal

A multi-book deal arguably has a greater chance of happening at auction (or if you otherwise already have some sort of social media or celebrity fame), but it can happen in the wild, too. A multi-book deal is what it sounds like: The publisher offers you a deal to represent not only the book your agent submitted to them, but also other future work(s) of yours.

A multi-book deal can be great because it can 1) give you a bigger advance, such as hitting a six-figure deal, and 2) secure the publication of later work(s) without needing to go back out on submission after your debut, even if your debut tanks. Cool, right? That publisher loves you so much that they want more of your work before you’ve done anything with your first book, sometimes sight unseen.

Despite the perks, I’ve seen some folks fall into considerable stress with their multi-book deals. Some of them had deadlines so close that they had to write their next novel while they should’ve been solely focused on their debut finally releasing into the world. (You know, all the self-promotion and talks and interviews and articles and whatever else you can do to get your book some attention.) I’ve seen others feel confident about their next book—whether as draft or idea—only to have it rejected by the publisher, which meant they had to pull a new book idea out of thin air and start writing it after publisher approval. I’ve seen others be so excited about their multi-book deals for sight unseen future books, only to have it finally dawn on them that…they actually don’t have any ideas for other books. The list goes on.

Sometimes, in a worst-case scenario, you can negotiate with your publisher about various things. (This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to have an agent that has your back!) But if your initial advance included payment for the second book? Guess what, you have to give them a second book. Even if it’s not very good. Even if you’re not proud of it. Even if you’re embarrassed that it’ll be out in the world soon enough with your name on it. (And then your sales may be less than expected and then…)

Want to ask for a deadline extension? I mean, sure, you can try. But remember you’re under contract and they may not be willing, based on their own publishing deadlines. And even if you do get an extension, extensions cost time, and time costs money. Simply put, if you’re granted an extension, it’s probably coming out of any marketing budget they’d set aside for you. You don’t want that.

Selling a Lot of Books

The problem with this goal is its entirely relative. How many books is “a lot” of books?

Here, have 100 M&Ms. Well damn, that’s a lot of M&Ms, right? You’re probably really happy with all those M&Ms. You’re sitting there, eating your M&Ms, having a good time…until you voluntarily sneak a look at everyone else who has M&Ms and notice they all got 200, 300, 1,000. Suddenly, you’re not so stoked about your M&Ms. Why?

Now let’s flip it around. You have your 100 M&Ms and are really happy, and then notice the others around you with M&Ms have only 50, 25, 5. Do you like your own M&Ms even more now? Why is that? (Somehow, in both situations, we forget to notice the people who never got any M&Ms at all.)

Why, specifically, do you want to sell “a lot” of books? Is it because you believe it’s a metric that’ll heighten your chances for a future book deal? Or is it because you want to quantify a way of being “better” than other writers? (There’s no “better.” More on that later.)

When cornered to provide a number, most folks seem to shout out in a panic, “One million books!” One million is a nice, round number. An impressive number. Lots of zeros. But that number goal seems to only come from a vague sense of expectation. Where did we get this expectation that a million copies equals success? And that anything less simply won’t do? We don’t know.

Just like with advances, the numbers related to the average copies sold of a book are elusive. But this great breakdown from Kristen McLean, lead industry analyst from NPD BookScan, helps give us an idea:

The data below includes frontlist titles from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Disney, Macmillan, Abrams, Sourcebooks, and John Wiley. The figures below only include books published by these publishers themselves, not [publishers] they distribute.
Here is what I found. Collectively, 45,571 unique ISBNs appear for these publishers in our frontlist sales data for the last 52 weeks (thru week ending 8-24-2022).
In this dataset:
>>>0.4% or 163 books sold 100,000 copies or more
>>>0.7% or 320 books sold between 50,000-99,999 copies
>>>2.2% or 1,015 books sold between 20,000-49,999 copies
>>>3.4% or 1,572 books sold between 10,000-19,999 copies
>>>5.5% or 2,518 books sold between 5,000-9,999 copies
>>>21.6% or 9,863 books sold between 1,000-4,999 copies
>>>51.4% or 23,419 sold between 12-999 copies
>>>14.7% or 6,701 books sold under 12 copies
So, only about 15% of all of those publisher-produced frontlist books sold less than 12 copies. That's not nothing, but nowhere as janky as what has been reported.
BUT, I think the real story is that roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over 52 weeks. […]
And less than 2% sold more than 50,000 copies.

Jane Friedman, as interviewed by Courtney Maum, says, “When I’m asked by writers at conferences about how many books they should hope to sell, I tell them to expect to sell between three and five thousand copies.”

So there you go. The expectation of selling a million copies or just “a lot” is setting you up for a fall. Don’t do that to yourself.

Having Multiple Print Runs

A print run is the amount of copies a publisher has printed of your book, based on how they believe your book will perform in the market upon its release. Back in the old days, these print runs could be pretty big. Say, an average of a couple thousand copies, depending. So when a book went into its second (or third or fourth) printing, especially when it was still in preorders or only in its first couple weeks of debut, this was a huge deal.

These days, you may have noticed an increasing number of authors celebrating their additional print runs. And while this is still a great thing, it’s becoming more common because it’s now easier to do. We have advances in technology these days that makes it faster and easier to print a book, making it less necessary to start off with big print runs that could end up pulped because they never sold. Saves money, saves trees, saves headaches.

Sometimes, a book really does have a large initial print run, does fantastic, and has to go into a second. But other times, a book goes into a second print run because its first one didn’t have that many copies in it to begin with.

How many copies are in your print run? It’s a highly individual number and most publishers prefer to stay mum on this. All we know is that if you sell out your initial print run, your publisher will be very happy. Even if it was just 100 copies. But that same person celebrating this feat online organically makes it sound like the print run was 10,000+. It’s not that person’s fault, though. They don’t know what their print run was and they probably never will.

Debuting in Hardcover

Seeing your book in hardcover is an understandable desire. But it doesn’t actually mean you’re a worthier author if you debut in hardcover and are a less worthy author if you debut in paperback. If anything, a paperback debut can work to your advantage. Paperbacks cost less, which means readers are more likely to buy them, which means a greater chance of selling copies. In fact, many paperback debuts sell more copies than their hardcover peers. (Some old sources even claimed twice as many, though that number has probably changed now that eBooks are a thing.) So why are there hardcovers at all? While they sell for notably more than paperbacks, they’re not that much more expensive to print. So even when hardcovers sell less copies when compared to paperbacks, the publisher may still be making more money due to the higher return. But does this benefit the writer? It depends on what that writer considers beneficial. This is one of the reasons how a writer could be making a bit more money than a given paperback peer while selling less copies than that same peer. But if you want to sell as many copies as possible in the initial weeks of your launch, a paperback debut could very well be your best friend.

Done. Next.

Getting on Bestseller Lists

This is one of the bigger dreams for writers, but we won’t spend much time on it here because it’s such a mess and deliberately mysterious. To this day, not many answers are known. But we do know that many of the recognizable bestseller lists can be misleading based on how they label themselves. They say they’re the “bestsellers,” but it turns out many of them don’t necessarily relate to (accurate) sales, whether in relation to that particular week or in general.

For example, The New York Times will put, say, one book at #5 on their list and another at #9. But when a person looks at the actual sales numbers for that week, #9 sold more books than #5. Some folks believe an act of curation is in play, but this might instead be because The New York Times bases their list only on sales from books sold in bookstores that specifically report to The New York Times. (Which almost sounds logical until you sit and think about what that means.)

Likewise, to gain the title of a “national bestseller,” according to Courtney Maum:

Earning the right to claim that your book is a “national bestseller” is equally opaque. “There are no set guidelines,” says an editor at an independent press who preferred to remain anonymous. “But there is a rule of thumb: you have to appear on two or more national lists such as The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, or USA Today.”
Just like with the national print bestseller lists, the “national bestseller” label gives a leg up to the book and its author, cachet-wise, but it’s certainly not a guarantee of continued sales, nor is it true reflection of a book’s success. “A lot of books are national bestsellers that don’t sell well as other books that aren’t “‘national bestsellers,’” admits our anonymous editor. “Often they are sold-in very smartly in a specific week, in a specific region. You could have a book that sells six or five thousand copies that makes the national bestseller list and another that sells twenty thousand copies, but doesn’t, because of how it was sold-in.”

So basically, publishers who have the knowledge and ability to game the system game the system, but it often doesn’t change how a given book actually performs. So basically nothing means anything and you should just move along. The most you’ll likely gain is bragging rights and a momentary feeling of pride and success…only to be sad once more when you didn’t get something else. Are we noticing how that void in our lives never seems to get filled?

Winning Awards

I can’t say it better than Alexander Manshel and Melanie Walsh already did, so I’ll just start with them:

[T]he Post45 Data Collective published the extensive work of Claire Grossman, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young, which includes information on winners and judges from nearly forty awards (worth $10,000 or more) between 1918 and 2020. Pairing this with data that we’ve gathered—on the demographics of fiction prize judges, winners, and finalists over the last 35 years—reveals broad trends about how the composition of prize juries influences the works and authors that they celebrate.
…Over the last 35 years, just 25 people have served as judges more than 700 times for over 30 unique prizes. These 25 people make up 25 percent of all jury positions in that period.
…[O]ver the last 35 years, a mere five people—four of whom are professional reviewers—have constituted more than a fifth of all jury positions (22 percent) for the Pulitzer. Add the next five names and it’s more than a third (35 percent).

Adding onto this situation of chronically repeat judges, you’ve probably already heard that selection committees for literary awards, even at the best of times, are subjective. (Check out the above article in full, especially in relation to diversity.) A given selection committee can also significantly vary in size. I’ve been on the selection committees for various literary things over the years. But there have been, for example, times where there was all of three of us on a selection committee for an award. And even though we were fully aware that we were only three people with particular tastes, however diverse from one another, and we tried very hard to be mindful of our individual tastes and biases, listened to each other, and had thoughtful conversations, we were still only three people.

It’s wild. The whole thing is wild. When a book wins an award, it may mean that as few as three people in a given room on a given day in a given mood liked the book. Maybe it was more than three people in that room. But no matter the number of people in that room on that day, it never means that said book is the most beloved book in all the land. It just means those three people liked it. Are those three people particularly special somehow? No. They just happened to be in positions of relative literary power.

Which brings up the problem of bias, bigotry, nepotism, and gatekeeping with awards. It’s most definitely a thing that happens. I’ve seen it, heard it, and (yes) reported it. The ones I witnessed thankfully never moved forward, but it definitely opened my eyes to how frequent it can occur.

A “said the quiet part loud” example of this problem is the 2023 Hugo Awards controversy. Usually, the Hugo Awards represents (somewhat) more accurate literary awards, as instead of having a small committee of supposedly stuffy judges to declare the winner, anybody willing to pay the $50 fee can vote on the shortlist. Hosted in Chengdu for the 2023 year, leaked emails showed that certain Hugo nominations were removed to appease China’s strict censorship laws. These rejected (oh, sorry, ineligible) submissions included Neil Gaiman, R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao, and fan writer Paul Weimer. Even one of my own acquaintances, Naseem Jamnia, was momentarily considered for the chopping block (for identifying as and frequently writing about queer, trans, and nonbinary topics, according to the leaked emails).

So that’s that about that. Literary awards are often a mess, just like bestsellers lists. If you manage to nab one of these, that’s awesome. If you didn’t, just do your best to move along. The only definite, positive thing that’ll happen from getting an award is feeling good about yourself. For a short while.

Publishing Young

It’s not just you; debut writers are getting younger and younger. It’s also not an accident. Back in the day, publishing young was some sort of sign that the individual was, for lack of a better term, above average. A rising star of a writer who would one day join the pantheon of the greats because, hey, look how young they’re starting out.

This may or may not have been (or be) true, as nepotism and access to given resources was and continues to be the most direct pipeline to traditional publishing, regardless of how the book ends up performing. But regardless, publishing young tends to be (part of) a book’s selling point these days. Read this book! Look how young they are!

And this would be all well and good if two things didn’t start to emerge from this trend: 1) the publishing industry skewing notably toward younger writers to the point of sometimes completely shutting out older writers (as in, 35 or older*) for consideration for agent representation, publication, awards, or reviews, and 2) the assumption that the younger a writer publishes, the more “naturally gifted” of a writer they must be, and therefore a better writer than ones who debuted older.

With the exception of some rare cases, this is largely bunk. Younger writers are often no more or less talented than older writers. Again, connections and access to resources go a long way—longer than anything else a person could ever do to get published, if we’re being honest—but there’s also a problem we’ll get into more another day: younger writers are easier for the industry to take advantage of. There’s a whole “content mill” section of the industry. And when a writer is (understandably) a young, shaky-legged foal, it can be easier to manipulate them into less pay, subpar editorial assistance, and minimal industry guidance. This makes for not only a book that’s being treated less than it deserves, but also for an unnecessarily harder debut experience for the writer. And if that given writer has a meltdown, buckles under the pressure, or otherwise doesn’t get decent sales out of the subpar book the publisher never bothered to bring to the greatness it could’ve been, you can just toss them aside. There are countless other young writers—now even younger than that writer, given the slow path to publication—who are eager for the chance to be the next potential “it” kid. Who would say no to a shiny book contract, especially at a starry-eyed age? I certainly wouldn’t have.

Lastly, it appears that older writers may have a less traumatic time with their debuts than their younger counterparts. This is all anecdotal and broad strokes, but it’s a pattern me and fellow writers of various ages have noticed. Debuts are highly stressful no matter your age, but older folks tend to have less mental health situations related to their publication path such as depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and (debilitating) obsession about debut performance and one’s own self-worth.

Of course, mileage can vary widely, depending on the nature of a person’s experiences, current mental health and support structure, etc. But what I’m trying to say is that the older a person gets, the less likely they give a shit about what other people think of them. (This is an awesome age to hit, trust me.**) This can make it less difficult to wave off a bad review than if you’re unsure about your general worth, seek your validation from outside sources, and/or still figuring out who you are. Or, at least, it’s less likely that a bad review will wreck you.

If you’re a younger published writer, that’s excellent. Truly. Just make sure to take care of yourself, both health-wise and with navigating the industry. And if you’re an older writer, try not to sweat it. It’s frustrating that you may have a harder road toward publication and receive relatively less attention once you’re published, but there’s a chance you’re actually better off for it.

*Ever notice how all those buzzy “25 under 25” or “30 under 30” lists abruptly stop by the age of 35? The only thing weirder than focusing on age and writing in this way is the fact that there’s an inexplicably early cutoff.

**Is it a coincidence that the “I don’t give a shit” stage usually starts to show itself around the age of 35?

Publishing with a Big House

I want to be clear that each sized publishing house—small, medium, large, etc.—has its own pros and cons. I’m not trying to make it like only big houses have their problems. All sizes do. But since publishing with a big house is seen as a sign of success, we’re going to focus on them here.

We’ve already gone over the problem of big advances, but there’s also the problem of author autonomy and the publisher’s dedication to the author’s work. Generally speaking, the bigger the publishing house, the more these things are at risk. This is because the bigger the publishing house, the more titles they print a year. From the article “The Invisible Forces Behind the Books We Read”:

According to the companies, Penguin Random House publishes “15,000 print books each year,” and Simon & Schuster publishes “more than 2000 titles annually.” It might be possible for someone to read every book that the extraordinary small press Graywolf releases in a year—about 30 titles—but no one is looking at, let alone reading, 2,000 or 15,000 books. And that’s just one year.

Even with more staff at the bigger houses, the editor-to-author ratio is off. Add in the current dilemma of layoffs, burnout, and poor pay, and things just get worse. Authors may find themselves with an editor that’s so exhausted and strapped for time that they’re just editing the book to “good enough” status. Authors may find themselves with zero marketing budget and an otherwise distracted marketing team. Authors may find themselves with no guidance, no input on covers or book titles, and the last to hear about major, important updates, such as a change in their release date. They may find themselves an afterthought for the publisher.

I know folks who were published by the Big 5 (or their imprints), sometimes with a six-figure advance or higher (!!), only to receive little-to-no support for their debut or its launch. It turns out that out of those 15,000+ print books a year, only a small handful are selected to receive, well, virtually all the marketing money (and attention) available for that year. (And that decision itself is completely arbitrary, not even related to the size of the advance the publisher had already paid out, and can end up drastically failing to meet the expectations applied to it.) That can equal a book that nobody hears about, which can lead to fewer copies sold, which can lead to not earning out of one’s advance. Oh, and again due to the number of books coming through, burnout, and understaffing woes, sometimes marketing teams haven’t even read the books they’re marketing. Eep.

Simply put, the size of the publisher doesn’t predict a book’s success. It likewise doesn’t affirm the value of a given book.

Going on Tour

Okay, but let’s say you’re kissed by the publishing gods and you’re the publisher’s arbitrarily chosen golden child. You get a huge marketing budget! And a whole marketing team! And a national, financed book tour!

There’s no money in book tours, which is why most publishers don’t finance them anymore. The cost for travel, lodging, and staff hours organizing the whole thing versus books actually sold through said tour is often far too imbalanced. Going on a book tour (or not) isn’t going to make or break your sales. Nor does it indicate (or not) the potential for your book’s future sales. Everything’s done online these days. (Oddly enough, book tours these days seem to mostly only be doled out for books that are already doing well.)

Also, going on tour pretty much guarantees that you won’t be writing. This could be a blessing of a break or it could make you feel sad and not like yourself. Travel-based tours can also be grueling, mentally and physically.

The one true loss of no book tour is missing the chance to meet and talk with your fans. If you want to finance your own book tour—or crash on various friends’ couches, same thing—do it for that reason, not for some sort of false success badge.


Being a Buzzy Book Online

Woah, that one book is, like, all over social media right now. Every platform you visit, every post or video you see, it seems like someone’s commenting on it, brandishing it, talking about it. We’re so jealous, right?

There’s a good chance it’s just your algorithms, my friend. The internet these days has all of us living in our own little bubbles, ultimately driven by profit. You lingered on that one thing? Well, here’s a bunch more of that thing. Same goes for specific types of books, sometimes right down to the specific title itself. You’re seeing more of that book mentioned because you showed interest in that book, which can create a false sense of connectivity.

According to Kyle Chayka, the author of “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture”:

These digital platforms and feeds, they kind of promise a great communal experience, like we're connecting with all the other TikTok users or all of the other Instagram users, but I think they're actually kind of atomizing our experiences, because we can never tell what other people are seeing in their own feeds. We don't have a sense of how many other people are fans of the same thing that we are fans of or even if they're seeing the same piece of culture that we're seeing, or experiencing an album or a TV show, in the same way.

Sure, people are indeed posting about the book—and that in itself is a great thing and all that—but it’s not all over social media like your algorithms would lead you to believe. People in your bubble—and perhaps people in the closest and most overlapping bubbles to yours—know about this book, but it likely ends there. At least, on any seemingly mass scale. Stop a random person on the street and they’ve probably never heard of the book.

Oh, and one more thing. While marketing is indeed helpful with getting people who would be interested in your book to actually hear about your book, it doesn’t make a person interested in your book who otherwise wouldn’t be. Readers aren’t fools. They know what they like and they know what they’re willing to give a chance within their towering stacks of TBR piles. I know everyone’s different, but personally, I’ve never bought a book (or read a book) purely because talk show hosts, internet banners, and NPR were telling me to. If I can’t find a reason to be interested, then I’m not going to be interested, no matter how much a stranger tells me that I’ll surely read it in one sitting and be left breathless. The only time I listen to someone else about buying or reading a book is when it’s one of my loved ones. You know, those people who know me really, really well. Even if I’m otherwise skeptical of the book in question, an earnest, “Trust me, this one’s right up your alley,” will always get me to give it a go.

For most readers, no matter how much marketing a publisher (or author) pumps into a book, (individually personalized) word of mouth will always rule supreme. This is why you need to be best friends with librarians and independent booksellers.

Being an “Instant Success”

Okay, but let’s say people really are talking about it everywhere. At least, anywhere where books matter to people. You marketing team is on it. Those advanced reader copies have gotten into every influential hand imaginable and they are talking about it. Hot damn, you’re set for life!

We all know that book. Right out of the gate, it won all the awards, sold a million copies, was gushed over on all the morning talk shows, and got a film option. And that’s great. Good for that book.

But despite all the pressure for books to perform their best within their first 4-6 weeks—and now sometimes expectation is solidly in the preorder stage—books simply perform in different ways at different paces. Various trends on social media are the most common example these days of books suddenly gaining attention, sometimes long after their debut, but one of my favorite examples is Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. It was first published in 2016 by independent publisher Riverdale Avenue Books (in paperback, if memory serves me). It did fine enough, got selected for a couple of things, etc.

And then Roxane Gay got ahold of it and called it “fucking outstanding.” That review started making the rounds and the book eventually gained such an increase in attention that it was re-published in hardcover in 2019 by Dial Books, Penguin Random House.

Slow and steady can indeed sometimes win the race; and that “instant success” book can indeed sometimes end up nothing more than a flash in the pan. Not that a buzzy book somehow deserves to be forgotten over time. It’s just that the more instant a book’s attention, the higher the risk that mainstream media will treat it as a trend. As in, it’ll eventually no longer be trendy to like or even talk about. None of us wants that fate, and I’m guessing most of us would choose our books to be quietly remembered rather than loudly forgotten.

Redefining Success

Okay, so here we are. If none of the above determines success, then what determines success?

1) If you’re able to keep writing

Do you want to continue writing beyond this book? Does the outcome of your book allow you to keep writing? If the answer is yes to both of these questions, then seriously, you’re golden. Writers write. It doesn’t matter if your book underperforms, whatever that may mean to you. As long as you’re still able to turn your debut into the start of a career—which is likely—nothing else really matters.

Many people want their book to overperform until they see what that means. You’re on tour, you’re on endless podcasts for interviews, you’re constantly writing articles related to your debut, you’re teaching sessions, you’re drowning in blurb requests, you’re exhausted, people just plain won’t leave you alone. You get sick of your debut. But you can’t abandon it to work on something new because you’re expected to ride this wave for as long as it lasts.

You know what this means? That, suddenly, you’re doing everything but actually writing. And you can’t turn your debut into the start of a career if you’re not writing other books. Some “successful” authors stall in their writing careers because of that success, whether it be from obligations or burnout.

2) If your work is meaningful to people

I know a lot of us say that as long as our work makes a difference to just one person, that it was worth it. But when we say that, we need to mean it. Truly. Although we’d all love a million dollars in addition to this, I encourage you to start viewing that million dollars as a potential bonus to the true feeling of satisfaction, which is reaching readers who get something out of your work. Maybe I’ll change my tune when my day comes, but in the meantime, I’d much rather a smaller following that got something out of my work that a larger crop of readers that forget my work as soon as they finish it.

3) If your child self would be wowed

I like to think that if my therapist is reading this right now, he’s super proud of me for this one. (Hi!) Maybe it’s cliché, but I assume that the bulk of fiction writers were avid readers as children. We grow up wanting to create the very things that brought us so much joy and wonder when we were little. So go back to that little kid. It doesn’t matter what age; whenever reading was the best thing ever and published authors were viewed as gods. Emerge from the portal—I don’t know how time travel works—and tell your younger self what’s in their future. That, one day, they’ll publish a book. And think about, exactly, how stoked that kid would be. You could go into numbers—copies sold or not sold, awards won or not won, dollars made or not made—but that kid isn’t going to care. Pretty sure they’re already no longer listening. We publish a book?! Their lack of care about the specifics—of so-called success of said published book—isn’t naïveté of how success works, but rather a pure, raw understanding of how it does. Hold onto your younger self’s reaction. They’ve never been so excited to be you.

The End

Let’s start bringing this home. First, stay aware of the habit of moving goal posts. When we set out to write with the intention of publishing, that’s the goal. Publishing the book. But once we publish that book—or more specifically, get the book deal—we suddenly move the goal posts. And once those new goal posts are reached, we move them again. And again. It doesn’t matter how many goal posts you actually hit; you’ll just keep moving them. And consequently, no matter how many you hit, you’ll be miserable when you fail to hit one. As said by Arthur C. Brooks:

Unfortunately, success is Sisyphean (to mix my Greek myths). The goal can’t be satisfied; most people never feel “successful enough.” The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next goal. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which satisfaction wears off almost immediately and we must run on to the next reward to avoid the feeling of falling behind. This is why so many studies show that successful people are almost invariably jealous of people who are more successful.

Much like the image of your younger self’s excitement, hold onto your original goal post. Don’t move it. Anything beyond it is just gravy. A happy bonus. No more, no less. To gain or fail to achieve those bonuses doesn’t change the fact that you’ve succeeded in your primary goal: publishing the freaking book.

Also—and this is the one that authors endlessly shout from the rooftops—stop comparing yourself to other writers. (And taking it further, stop comparing other writers to each other. All you’re doing is continuing this judgement cycle, but have just taken yourself out of the equation. Try to stop this practice entirely.) To quote Arthur C. Brooks again: “Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.” Why chase after a quantifiable measure of your supposed success if it’s just going to make you miserable regardless of the outcome?

Success is not dependent on you being “better” than other writers, nor are you unsuccessful by being “worse” than other writers. There is no better or worse. Art is art, and as such, as individual as the person who created it. Nothing is inherently better or worse than something else in terms of “success”; there are so many elements, specifics, and moving pieces, that success for a writer is highly individualized. (Also keep in mind The Carrot Problem, which I’ve already talked about elsewhere.)

Lastly, if you recently got a book deal, are about to go out on sub with your agent, or are leading toward any of these stages of the publishing journey, get yourself a therapist if you don’t have one already. (If an affordable therapist that’s a good match for your needs is understandably not an option, at least try to get yourself a mindful, patient, and trustworthy loved one who you can consensually unload on if/when necessary.) The publishing journey is tough and stressful at the best of times and it’s good to have someone already at hand if you need them. Everybody has their mental health situations they deal with, and publishing can exacerbate those things, especially in terms of quantifying success.

Because here’s the big question: Is it that we want to be successful? Or that we want to feel special? This isn’t a judgement, but rather an inquiry for us all to individually explore. I feel we've long since conflated the two and all it's done is cause us grief. Grief, most especially, when we're meant to feel joy and accomplishment.

This was a long post. And probably stressful, scary, and disheartening to read. But here’s the ironic upside: Nothing matters. Once you accept this reality, it can be quite freeing. Absolutely still promote yourself and do your best job, but otherwise, let it go. Have fun with this roller coaster of a process. Laugh off the snubs, failures, and potholes. Know that you’ve done the best job you could and be proud of that fact.

Look at what you’ve done. You’ve done something amazing. You’ve published a fucking book. Do you know how hard that is? You’ve done the work.

And that, my friend, is a writer’s greatest success.



Milo Todd's logo of a simple, geometric fox head. It has a black nose, white cheeks, and a reddish-orange face and ears.
Until next time, foxies! Be queer, write books!