[I am very excited to share with you the wisdom and perspective of my agent, Erin Murphy in today's guest post!]
Success is Like a Snowflake, Too
It’s not just writing careers that are like snowflakes—it’s equally true that the success that each writer experiences is unique.
This is something my clients and I talk about a lot as we look at the big picture of their careers. Some big quantifiable measures of success out there in the publishing world for all to see: Bestseller lists; deals that Publishers Marketplace calls “very nice,” “good,” “significant,” or “major”; star treatment at conventions like ALA; special placement in chain bookstores; starred reviews and awards; Amazon rankings.
And those measures are even more visible today than they were just five years ago, thanks to the many authors and industry professionals who talk about their experiences on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. Sometimes I think it must feel impossible to believe anything else is important when you’re a writer.
These seemingly quantifiable measures are simply not as concrete as you might expect. There are many articles out there about the myth of the bestseller list and the Amazon ranking, and about the negatives of large advances. And the major chains (perhaps soon to be the singular “chain,” although I certainly hope not) carry such a small percentage of new books on the bricks and mortar shelves that I believe our entire industry needs to stop using a buy-in from the chains as any kind of requirement for satisfaction.
However, these things are not the only measures of success in publishing. It might appear that way, but it’s just not true.
In Robin’s case, it was tremendously helpful for us to realize that she had reached a benchmark point in her career: her publisher values her steady contribution to their catalogs and sees her as a lifetime author, someone whose work is valuable on their backlist and continues to grow in value as she continues to publish and grow creatively. While her sales figures aren’t bestseller-level, they are steady, and most importantly, her publisher is happy with them.
There are many authors out there that don’t know or understand that their publishers are happy with their sales, or aren’t sure their publisher will want the next thing they write. So having achieved this is huge, but it isn’t quantifiable. And it certainly isn’t as sexy as a significant deal or NYT Bestseller designation.
The danger of the most obvious benchmarks is that it’s too easy to fall into the comparison game, stacking up your own career against someone else’s. You can’t compare apples to oranges, and you can’t compare one snowflake to another and declare one prettier or better.
The author whose books have never been carried by the chains is jealous of the one who has a presence there. The author who has never had a starred review is envious of others who have. The authors who are unhappy with their advances are jealous of having never cracked the elusive “very nice deal” ceiling. But oftentimes there is a darker side to each of those scenarios. A huge buy in from the chains can mean equally high returns. The stress of earning out big advances can rob writers of their joy in creating the next book—or even block then entirely. Or that NYT bestseller might suddenly find themselves pigeonholed by their publisher for a type of book they’re not compelled to write anymore.
If each one would note the success she has achieved instead of what she hasn’t, the writing world would be a happier place. How many times have I pointed out to a client that she’s so fortunate that her books always get carried by the chains, for example, only to have her say, “But that always happens! I never get ___!” Yes! It always happens! And many other writers long for it to happen. Appreciate your successes; don’t downplay them.
This is not to say that it’s not okay to have goals to reach new kinds of success—but you will stay much more sane if those are goals you have some measure of control over. Most of the high visibility measures of success are completely out of your control—and therefore crazy-making.
Here are some other ways to measure a successful writing career. They don’t get nearly as much attention and buzz as their higher profile cousins, but they can be vital in solidly anchoring a writer’s success:
• Passionate hand-selling by independent booksellers.
• Inclusion on state library lists.
• A happy, nurturing, and fruitful editorial relationship.
• A happy, nurturing, and fruitful relationship with the entire team at the publishing house.
• Acceptance of the author for inclusion on panels at state and national conferences for teachers and librarians.
• Regular publication of new books.
• Sale of subsidiary rights (audio, foreign, etc.).
• Regular requests for school visits.
• Generally positive reviews of each new book from the major publishing review media.
• Featured placement in book club catalogs, teacher resource guides, and the like.
• Inclusion of a book or body of work in the national or international discussion of an important or issue, indicating the book has helped raise awareness.
• Fan mail—especially deeply personal fan mail that shows a writer has reached readers at crucial moments or has turned non-readers into readers.
I could go on and on, and still just be talking about outward signs of success—we haven’t even touched on the writer’s joy in the process, satisfaction with pushing herself creatively, or engaging with readers directly, which are also valid, but very different, measures of success.
One of the many things that stood out for me when I read about Sarah Zarr’s much-talked-about speech at the 2011 SCBWI New York conference was what she called “the commodification of creativity”: valuing your creative work “only in the context of the marketplace.” Don’t let that happen to you. Each individual success is worth noting, celebrating—and claiming for your own.
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Erin Murphy founded EMLA in Flagstaff in 1999. She works with publishers of all sizes all over the U.S., and has placed clients' books with every major children's house in New York and Boston, but she cut her teeth in regional publishing. Erin represents writers and writer-illustrators of picture books, novels for middle-graders and young adults, and select nonfiction. She is especially drawn to strong characters and heart-centered stories.