Thursday, 6 October 2016

What does 'Success' mean for a Writer?

If you ask most aspiring authors what would bring them most joy, ‘Getting my novel published’, is probably the answer you’ll hear most often. To see your book in print - isn’t that what most writers dream of? But if you’re lucky enough to have had your novel published, what happens then?
Image: Openclipart

In my case, the term ‘getting published’ has been far from clear-cut. Having been advised at the start by my (then) agent to turn down an early offer from a UK publisher, my first books were published only abroad, in translation. It was an amazing start – I was *published* (that magic word), but none of my books were available in bookshops in my home country. Still, having got over those initial hurdles as a writer, I thought I would be home and dry. Surely, once you get as far as being published you’ve made it… Mmmm. Far from it.

I started writing fiction eight years ago and in my limited experience, it seems that the life of a writer is riddled with constant ups and downs. There is no stable plateau of success. Take, for instance, securing an agent and landing my first book deal - I felt utterly fabulous during those times, but, as part of the package, crippling disappointments and rejections followed close behind. After a year with said agent and having written two more books, I was devastated to be unceremoniously dropped. No one had warned me that could happen! I thought I’d broken through into a ‘special club’, but suddenly I was kicked back out again!

Image: Openclipart
Following a brief period of doubt and uncertainty, I was picked up by another agent, because he thought someone with my psychotherapy background was worth a try. A stroke of luck there – I was the right person for him at the right time. It was another real high point. I think back now to my utter disbelief when I saw my name alongside HG Wells on the agency’s website! But another fall from grace was on its way. After getting book deals abroad in 2012, no publisher in the UK was forthcoming, so we published independently through a special programme on Amazon, called Whiteglove. But, things weren’t going so well and I split with that agent. Another difficult patch, but I wasn’t giving up. I found a new agent, published two more books independently and they started to take off. I’ve now had sales of over a quarter of a million books in thirteen countries, which far exceeded my wildest dreams. After my latest book, No Longer Safe, came out, for a few days my ranking as an author on Amazon US put me higher than John Grisham and Lee Child! That period was pretty special – even though it lasted less than a week!

The flush of success is fleeting and seems to be made up of ‘moments’ such as these. ‘Working hard’ isn’t necessarily enough. Neither is being a ‘good writer’ – there are just SO many excellent writers out there. Sometimes it's down to luck – such as producing the ‘right’ novel at the ‘right’ time, or as in my case, a quirk of fate. My writing career took off when one of my books started getting mixed up with a bestseller that is now out on film (you can read about that here).
Thanks to Loretta Milan for the wonderful photo
What I notice now is how much the goalposts change and how the stakes keep on getting higher. In fact, I’m not sure there is ever a static point of success as an author. I know a lot of writers feel the same. While most have an initial goal in mind – to be published – if they are lucky enough and/or gifted enough to achieve this, new pressures, unforeseen ones (such as 'second novel syndrome'), quickly take its place. It’s all about the ‘next’ book. Will it sell? Will it be as good as the last one? I know of several well-established authors who have been dropped by their publishers, because they haven’t met their sales targets or a particular genre has become over-subscribed. Once upon a time, getting a publisher meant you’d made it! These days, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘in’ for life.

Having had a taste of ‘some success’ as a writer, I approach subsequent books with an edge of trepidation I didn’t have before. The business can be cut-throat at times and I'm now acquainted with that deep-seated fear, doubt and insecurity that can set in. I worry if readers are going to be disappointed and if early reviews are going to be any good. I ask myself ‘Will it be downhill from here?’

I love what Sarah Waters has to say about this:

‘Don't panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . .’ Sarah adds ‘Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end.’

Get your head down and keep going seems to be the best advice!

When I think about success, I find myself coming back to these fundamental questions: How do you measure true success as a writer? Is it about book sales? Is it feeling touched and humbled when lovely readers bother to let you know they’ve enjoyed your books? Is it a high ranking on Amazon or in the Sunday Times charts?' Or is it about doing your best? Is it the knowledge that you’re following your passion with conviction and authenticity?

Image: Openclipart
My Golden Rules

When I first started writing novels, I made a note of exactly what I was aiming for. Aside from the obvious ‘to get published’, I had other, deeper goals and these have not changed as I’ve gone along. Ultimately, what I hope to achieve comes back to these three guiding principles:
  •        To thoroughly ENJOY the process of writing – (If I don’t love doing the actual writing, then what’s the point?)
  •       To earn enough income to carry on writing full-time
  •       To develop and improve and be the best writer I can be
In times of uncertainty and setbacks, these core values underpin my work and keep me going. When things are going well, they remind me to look deeper than any surface acclaim or passing triumph, because tomorrow and the day after, the glory of a number one slot, for instance, will belong to another writer! I’m in a strange paradox where I’m living the dream, but still chasing it! Once you get beyond a certain point, it feels like there’s a lot to lose. That’s why it’s important to take stock and remember why I joined this writing roller-coaster in the first place and why I put myself through all the heartache.

How about you? Writer or not, what are the real drivers behind what you do?

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 AJ Waines' latest thriller, Inside the Whispers is released in TWO WEEKS on 20 October!
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  •  Over 1/4 Million books sold worldwide
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