What is Success?

I’ve been away look­ing at the Eiger, so my post on J K Rowling’s recent exper­i­ence with a pseud­onym comes a little late. However, giv­en that the suc­cess or fail­ure of writ­ing careers turn on such mat­ters, I’m going to add my tup­pence worth here.

To recap: J K Rowling, whose has glob­al sales of 450 mil­lions books (accord­ing to one source), pub­lished a nov­el called “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseud­onym Richard Galbraith. The nov­el received warm reviews but did not sell many cop­ies. The BBC reports the fig­ure as 1500.

Whatever the sales were, they shot up once the true iden­tity of the author was revealed.

One of the most inter­est­ing responses to the story–or, more pre­cisely, to the effect of the story–was from the writer James Smythe.

In his post An Open Letter to New and Would-be Writers, James makes the point that we should not define suc­cess quant­it­at­ively (para­dox­ic­al though that might sound). The book is already a suc­cess if a pub­lish­er picks it up and runs with it. James cites the example of his own book, The Machine, which has not taken off as well as it might.

Publishing is just like any oth­er media busi­ness: you pro­mote some­thing, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a suc­cess. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to pray­ing for mir­acles, or rely­ing on blind luck.

I thought James’s post was inter­est­ing in sev­er­al ways. First, it’s hon­est. Second, he sounds like he means it. Third, he may be right.

What is suc­cess? Like porn, it’s dif­fi­cult to define, but easy to spot. Stephen King is suc­cess­ful. James Smythe is suc­cess­ful. Me…

I think all writers struggle with this. I’d say my writ­ing is suc­cess­ful in a nar­row sense. I sell books, get reviewed (only by cus­tom­ers on Amazon and Goodreads, but they’re hon­est and straight­for­ward). I’m with a lit­er­ary agency who count Pulitzer win­ners among their cli­ents. I receive emails from happy read­ers (the dis­gruntled nev­er say hello).

Smythe ends with this:

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bull­shit.

I used to think that. Now, I fear, I’m older and more cyn­ic­al. If you can sur­vive on intent, more power to you. However, I do agree that, in the case of a work of fic­tion, it either suc­ceeds by its own lights or it does not; nev­er mind the Booker Prize, is the work true to itself? Did you fix its prob­lems? Did you care about it?

I care. Still.