When I first began writing seriously, many years ago, I dreamed of being published. That was the goal, the Grail, the thing all my effort was directed at. Then in 1988, I got “the call” from Avalon Books. The editor wanted to buy a novel I’d written. This wasn’t the first novel I wrote. It wan’t the second or third or fourth either. It was the sixth. I made a few small changes the editor suggested, and I got a contract.
The book came out in 1990. By the time it was released, I’d sold a second book to them. I thought I had it made. I’d sell a few more books to Avalon and then I’d move on to a bigger publisher with bigger advances and wider distribution. I did in fact sell a couple more books to Avalon, but then the editor I was working with left and the new editor wasn’t as enamored of my writing.
But I planned to move on to bigger things anyway. At least that was the plan. The reality was that I had four teenagers living at home and a full-time job. There was no writing time. When I finally did have the time, the publishing industry had moved on without me and I was basically starting all over again.
It was hard. The track record I had was too old to impress agents and editors. I did eventually gain some traction just by my writing. Since then I’ve sold books to three New York publishers. One of them shut down the line before my book came out; one of them was bought out by another company that shut down the line; and finally I sold a mystery to Five Star, which brought out the first book in my Market Center Mysteries series, then shut down the mystery line while the second book was in the editorial process. It’s not an unusual story in this business.
By the standards of an unpublished author, just starting out, I’ve had considerable success in publishing, with something like a dozen or so novels and novellas published by companies large and small. I’ve had books released in hard cover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, and ebook. I’ve won a few awards and been a finalist in quite a few contests, including some fairly prestigious ones.
Do I feel like a success? Heck, no. I’ve never had a book go into widespread distribution. Meaning I’ve never seen my book in an airport bookstore or the grocery store book rack. I’ve never gotten a five-figure advance. I’ve never made a bestseller list.
And when I look at it objectively, it’s pretty ridiculous. I’ve had all those books published. I’ve won awards. I’ve gotten a lot of good reviews and positive feedback. I haven’t earned a fortune, but I’m made some money on my books.
But what I have come to realize after twenty-some years as a published author is that success is all in how you define it. The business is like a ladder more than it is like a platform. There are lots of rungs and lots of levels. There are always some below you and some above you. Even for the unpublished who are trying to sell their book, there are the many writers who’ve never finished one, who are below them on the ladder. Only you can decide which achievements spell “success” for you.
I’ve decided to try to remind myself of all that I have achieved and how successful that looks to many others. I’ve worked hard for that success. I’ve shed tears for it and spent countless hours at the keyboard banging out stories I was never sure anyone else would read. But others have read them. Many have paid to read them. And that’s good enough for me.