The Myth of the Overnight Literary Success

By Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh

You’re a writer, and you are elated that you got your first book contract. Even though you know this is a dicey and fickle business, in the back of yourmind you are basking in the brilliant light of your inevitable fame, signing autographs for thousands of adoring fans, and spending your well-deserved fortunes.

Now for the reality: the overnight success is as mythological as a unicorn. It would be really cool if it were real, but it just isn’t.

The truth is that writing is hard work, and being a financial success as a writer is even harder. Every author will tell you the stories of the agony of rewrite after rewrite, the frustration of trying to attract the attention of a publisher, and the soul crushing inevitability of multiple rejections.

And every published writer will tell you that a book contract is not the Golden Ticket to success. In best-selling author Jodi Picoult’s essay in the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, says, “My hardest time as a writer was when I realized that I’d grabbed the brass ring. I’d published a bunch of books, and I still wasn’t a success. . . . I was still toying with the idea of getting a job application from Home Depot so I could help support my family.”

She goes onto say that if you are writing to get rich then you are in the wrong business. Writing just for profit (at least in the creative sense) will poison your outlook and convolute your priorities. However, it is difficult not to pare monetary success with validation that you are good and your work is being noticed.

Most of the Word Branch Publishing writers have told me, in frustration, “I don’t care about being rich, but I would like to see enough money to make it practical to spend the time writing my next book.” And believe me, as their publisher, I would really like them to be financially successful. It hardly seems fair that after all the hours, months, and years of writing and rewriting that the rewards are not immediately evident, but I realize what many writers don’t: seeing your book in print is only a step along the way to being a commercially successful writer.

Michelle White from Writers on the Brink came up with some rather dismal statistics. Of the tens of thousands of manuscripts submitted, only a handful (she cites around nine) will ever be accepted by a traditional publisher. And then it may be several years before you see your book in print—if then.
I would challenge you to find a financially successful writer who wrote a book, published, and immediately became a hit. But the ones that are successful all have some things in common. The act of writing, or rather rewriting, is hard, sometimes painful, work. But without extensive rewrites and editing, your work will never be as good as it can be. Successful writers are dogged in their quest. They’ll keep writing through all the rejections and all the criticism. And successful writers grow a pair. By their nature, most writers are pretty timid about promotion, but to succeed, you have to believe in your work and plow through all the obstacles.

Speaking as a publisher and editor, to be a successful published author, you need to develop a willingness to learn and grow by taking advice from others. Writers need to remember that editors and publishers are not their enemies and that they have everyone’s best interest at heart. And before all the writers jump up defensively and tell me horror stories about overbearing editors, let me add this. Having a healthy working relationship with an editor doesn’t mean that you lose your soul and control of your manuscript; it means that you are willing to listen and discuss the points your editor is making. The writers who succeed learn to have a working relationship with editors and publishers.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed all the writers in the audience, let me spread a little good news. It can be done. While the overnight success may be a myth, the hardworking, patient successful writer is not. It may be difficult to be patient and persevere through the times that you want to give up, but the only way that you will have a chance to achieve financial rewards through writing is to stick with it and keep writing.


About Stacy Bender

Author of Ursa Kane and the Sav'ine series.
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