Dreams or Delusions? The Real Odds of Author Success
Many new writers have a passionate dream of being a full-time, well-paid, maybe even famous author…until we see the odds of reaching those dreams. Then? All our enthusiasm and optimism suddenly leaks out *farting sound of deflating balloon* leaving space for doubt, anxiety, and defeatism.
Granted, odds of author success will be different depending on the dream, what our idea of ‘success’ happens to be. The odds of ‘being published’ today are far better than when I started out, but ‘being published’ is no longer the single largest challenge we face.
If we want to replace the day job with being a full-time author–whether that is on a self-published, indie, legacy, or hybrid track—we have some tough work and tougher decisions ahead. I do have good news, though. While our mind can be our greatest enemy, it can also be our greatest ally.
Perception dictates reality.
This means we need to get our head in the game and make certain we’re framing our goals in a way that increases our odds of realizing our dreams.
Do Some People Lack the Talent to be Authors? Sure. But, in my eighteen years of experience, I’ve found that’s actually quite rare.
Why most writers fail to transition from amateur to pro has less to do with lack of innate talent and far more to do with a lack of a professional’s mindset and work ethic. We can’t keep amateur hours and hobbyist habits and expect to reap professional rewards. That’s basic logic.
Blind luck is an option. It’s a sucky one. But it is still an option. For those who want more than blind luck, how does this all shake out?
So glad you asked!
What Are the Odds….Really?
I didn’t even consider becoming a writer until 1999 after my father passed away suddenly. Funny how death can make us take a hard look at life, right? Anyway, I recall feeling soooo overwhelmed. I mean my odds of even getting published were about as good as winning the Power Ball.
And the odds of becoming a best-selling author? Well, mathematically speaking, I had a slightly greater chance of being mauled by a black bear then hit by lightning…on the same day. Plenty of people told me the odds. Encouraged me to get a ‘real job’ instead of chasing rainbows.
Between the negative voices in my head and the dream-killers posing as ‘concerned friends and family,’ it was all I could do not to give up before I began.
After countless rejections, stories that fizzled, and failure after failure I hit a low point. Then, I realized my perspective about my odds of succeeding were skewed in a self-defeating direction.
Often it feels like we are the victims of fate, at the mercy of the universe, when actually it is pretty shocking how much of our own destiny we control.
The good news is that if we can get in a habit of making good choices, it is staggering how certain habits can tip the odds of success in our favor.
Time to take a REAL look at our odds of success. Just so you know, this is highly unscientific, but I still think it will paint a fairly accurate (and encouraging) picture.
The 5% Rule
It has been statistically demonstrated that only 5% of any population is capable of sustained change. In lay terms, we call this GRIT. Though grit is simple enough in concept, training grit into our character is a lot of hard work—which explains why it’s called grit not a sparkle unicorn hug. Developing grit is a bumpy ride with more lows than highs, which is why long-term grit is a rare.
Thus, with that in mind…
When we start out, we’re up against presumably tens of millions of others who want the same dream we do. Yes, tens of millions. It is estimated that over 75% of Americans claim they’d one day like to write a book (and this is just Americans).
That’s a LOT of people.
From one angle, it’s easy to believe our friends and family are right. We DO have better odds of being taken hostage by feral circus clowns than earning the title New York Times Best-Selling Author.
Yet, I believe this generality isn’t entirely accurate because it fails to take into account the choices we make. These ‘odds’ aren’t factoring in how many variables are within our control.
Let’s say we accept we’re up against presumably tens of millions of others who desire to write a book/become a famous novelist.
Ah, but how many even start? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step and write even a single page?
Feeling Lucky? Upping Our Odds
So only 5% of the tens of millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the millions.
But of those millions, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH that novel? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to set firm boundaries with friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?
Okay, well now we are down to the hundreds of thousands. Looking a bit better. But, finishing a book isn’t all that’s required. We have to be able to write a book that is publishable and meets industry/reader standards. How many who write a novel will hire a seasoned content editor to make sure it really is…a book?
Or, if they don’t hire a content editor, how many join a critique group for professional feedback?
Ah, but this is where it gets tricky…the place where many writers who make it this far get stuck.
Aspiring Writers vs. Pre-Published Authors
The best dose of humility I ever received was in my first critique meeting with ACTUAL authors (as in NYC published). I thought my novel was the best thing since puffy kitten stickers, and OMG so did everyone else!
It was AMAZING. They all wept because they’d failed to bring enough star stickers to paste all over my pages! No rose petals to throw at my feet! No lyres to sing songs of my book’s greatness!
More like I spent an hour ugly-crying in my Honda, wondering if throwing myself off the library would kill me or merely wing me.
Despite the sound beatings, I sucked it up and returned week after week. I kept at it and improved despite having to sweep up my pride and self-esteem at the end of every meeting.
This said, how many take the step to attend a critique group, and then stick to writing even after a blistering critique? Many blistering critiques?
This marks a major fork in the road. The critique stage is the dangerous level. We’ve made it SO far…but can end up jammed in the funnel.
Talk is Cheap
As a neophyte, I truly believed everyone who attended a writing critique group would be published. I mean they were saying they wanted to be best-selling authors. I was saying it.
But did they mean it? Did I mean it? Good question. But first a test…
How many of you reading this refer to yourself as an ‘aspiring author?’ Raise your hand. No one can see. Now, if you raised your hand, slap yourself HARD and never use that title again.
If we don’t take ourselves seriously, why would anyone else? So long as we refer to ourselves as ‘aspiring’ we’re locking into a hobbyist/dabbler mentality. To go pro, we need to think pro.
From now on, I recommend pre-published author or emerging author. I use pre-LEGEND 😛 .
Anyway, for years I faithfully attended various critique groups. I had a blast…once the swelling went down.
Over time, however, I noticed that many of us were more in love with the idea of being a New York Times Best-Selling Author than actually doing the work required to become a NYTBSA.
I was BIG TIME guilty, because I didn’t understand critique groups can become too comfy. I started novels I never finished, complained NYC just was publishing junk, prioritized my writing after laundry, dishes, cleaning behind the refrigerator…feeding orphans in Somalia on and on. After ALL that was finished, THEN I would write.
Lots of talk, no walk.
Truth was, I was an amateur because I thought and behaved like an amateur. Since I didn’t approach my craft like a professional, I was at best, a hobbyist and, at worst, hopelessly delusional.
Suffice to say, good critique groups can help us grow in our craft but they can also become a place where activity and productivity are easily confused. This is the most common place for a funnel traffic jam, so stay frosty 😉 .
Back to the REAL Odds
So, of the tens of thousands of writers who write a novel and survive evisceration from a hard-core critique, how many commit to learning the craft and developing their skills? Maybe take some on-line classes, read/study a stack of craft books or—WHOA—perhaps save up to attend a major conference?
You guys are good….5%.
And of those who attend a conference, how many, when an agent asks for their pages, actually follow through?
Believe it or not…5%. Most chicken out.
Alas, of that percentage of writers who rally the courage to send in pages, how many will land an agent right away?
Out of all of those authors rejected, how many writers, determined to impress, are willing to GUT their novel and wage wholesale slaughter on entire villages of Little Darlings? Maybe even hire a professional hit man (editor)?
How many are willing to let go of that first novel, take it as a learning experience, and move on? Write until they finish a truly good book?
Of the writers who land an agent or are brave enough to go indie or self-publish, how many of them get dead-serious about building a large social media platform? Comprised of cultivated followers/fans?
Again? Probably 5%.
***More hard news. Publishing a book is not enough. There is no ‘write it and the readers will come’ no matter which publishing track we choose.
Odds Favor Those Who Suck It Up
Thus far, we’ve weeded out all the ‘aspiring writers,’ which means the competition is not near what it appeared to be when we began. Alas, so many writers make it this far and believe gimmicks, shortcuts and algorithmic alchemy can deliver success.
*shakes funnel* *muffled screams*
Of those published authors on-line, how many are effectively branding their names so their name alone will become a bankable asset? Versus taking the easy way and buying followers and spamming everyone in sight?
Of those who self-publish, how many will keep writing more books and better books until they hit a tipping point for success (instead of
beating marketing one book to death)?
Of writers who self-publish, how many will invest in professional editing and cover art?
Thus, when we really put this dream under some scrutiny, it is shocking to see how many variables we actually control.
- Taking the Decision Seriously;
- Setting Boundaries;
- Developing Discipline;
- Training/Improving Skill Level;
- Writing the Book;
- Finishing the Book;
- Editing the Book;
- Learning the Craft;
- Investing Time and or Money Into Professional Training;
- Following Through;
- Pressing On in the Face of Rejection;
- Writing Another Book;
- Finishing Even MORE and now WAY BETTER Books;
- Doing Everything in Our Power to Lay a Foundation for a Successful Career.
I am not saying that finishing a book is easy, because…
None of This is Easy
Just because something is simple in no way makes it easy.
This job is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, which is exactly why most other ‘writers’ will never be genuine competition. If we fixate on all the tens of millions of other ‘writers’ we are up against, we set ourselves up for failure. We place ourselves in danger of becoming overwhelmed and eventually giving up.
If, however, we will choose to focus on decisions and actions we control, our odds of success drastically improve.
Toss in tens of millions of people with a dream, and only a very small number will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most of us, the harder/smarter we work, the ‘luckier’ we become.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Yes, I just quoted The Hunger Games…cuz it can feel that way.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Does this dream now seem a bit more achievable with this ‘fresh’ perspective? Have you been psyching yourself out? Bought the lie that your dream was silly? Have you fixated too much on factors outside your control instead of focusing on what you can control?
Hey, I’ve been at this a LONG time and still need the reminder. It’s why I’ve blogged on this exact theory multiple times and updated it. We ALL need a pep talk now and again.
I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft, and next time we’ll resume talking abut structure. Those new to my blog, I hope you’ll check out this series. Look to the column over there–>
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
I’m offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). More advanced material, and lots of FUN! Just because we’re tackling advanced material, doesn’t mean we can’t make it a party. As always, recording is included with all classes FREE of charge 😉 .
Also, my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist is a great follow up, and this class will help you plot faster and tighter than ever. It’s being held March 29th (7-9 EST).
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
***February’s winner is Gabriella L. Garlock. Please send your 5,000 word Word document in a doc.x file, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen @wana intl dot com. Congrats!
By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.