Monday, February 7, 2011

Literary Agent Erin Murphy: Success Is Like A Snowflake, Too

[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.

# # #

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.


Mike Jung said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post - I believe I'll have it tattooed in reverse on my forehead so I can read it in the mirror every morning. Seriously, these are words to live by. Thanks Erin, and thanks Robin!


So true that all of our successes are different - for each book and for each person.

One of my recent successes has been a large number of fans who are using portions of my first novel in verse in live poetry performance competitions in Illinois and Texas. It's so exciting! Not many other authors would know about it, but for me, what an honor and thrill.

Great post Erin and Robin!

Katherine Longshore said...

Thank you for reminding us that all successes should be celebrated. As much as I'm looking forward to seeing my books on shelves, I'm looking forward more to the connection I'll make with readers.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

This is lovely. I'm filing your very helpful list away.

olugbemisola said...

That last one on the list is especially wonderful. Thank you so much for the whole post!

Lisa Schroeder said...

I've been talking about some of this very thing on my blog lately, because it's been on my mind a lot. It can be hard with all of the internet "noise" to feel successful some days. But really, there is success in simply being creative. In having the opportunity to do what we do! And with so many of the other things you mentioned as well.

"Appreciate your successes; don’t downplay them." This is what I'm trying to do more of. Instead of wishing for things I don't have, appreciating what I DO have.

Great post - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thank you! I don't have a book published yet, but last week I had the opportunity to speak to my daughter's class about writing as a career. Now half the kids want to become writers!
Sharing my love for the craft is my snowflake of success today!

Anonymous said...

Love this. Thanks for sharing!

alwayserin said...

Thanks, everybody! I'm so glad you like the post. I mean every word!

Laura Resau said...

So, so wise, Erin! I need to print out this post and make copies and tape them all over my house!

Audrey said...

I am not proud that I read that list of healthy ways to measure success and was checking off the ones I've not yet achieved. Probably not what you had in mind.

So I'm going back to read the whole post again, and I'm pretty sure this time it will sink through my very thick skull.

Thank you for the healthy reminder to focus on the right things.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

I only started calling myself a writer a few years ago, though I have been one a whole lot longer. It just took me a long while to realize it.

The "success" trap almost brought me to the point of never writing again because I don't have my own books or anything so substantial. But this past year, my productivity has increased, I am getting positive feedback, even published but what steals the show is when someone writes me and tells me they enjoyed what I wrote; it makes me feel like a giddy child.

lindsayeland said...

An amazing, wonderful, insightful post! Thank you so much for your thoughts and encouragement!

Katie said...

What a great post! Thanks for sharing these insights.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Erin and Robin! What a great post and an eloquent reminder to focus on what really matters. If we can do that, the rest will follow, no? And even if it doesn't, we'll all be a lot happier in the meantime. ;)

kathrynjankowski said...

This is such a lovely post.

Thank you, Erin, for reminding us that success comes in many forms.

tammi sauer said...

Bravo, Erin!

Thanks for the reminder to appreciate the good things that comes our way.

Wild About Words said...

Two words: Amen, sistahs!
Two more words: FB repost!
Two final words: Thank you!

Amy Goldman Koss said...

I'd consider this post a success.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

It's so funny that with each milestone come new goals and insecurities. If we don't stop and smell the roses, we can feel like we're never getting anywhere--forgetting how far we've already come.


Sarah Stevenson said...

Thank you so much for this post--the timing couldn't be better, with my first book just out (and me being the type of person who will, despite my best efforts, constantly wish I was accomplishing more!).

The point on your list that I am truly grateful for, though, is the relationship I've had so far with my editor and publisher. It's been amazing. Thank you for reminding me how important that is!

Unknown said...

E, this post is so wonderfully you--positive, supportive, and realistic all at once.

Gabrielle Charbonnet said...

Thanks, Erin and Robin. What a useful and affirming post. Some days I feel successful if I manage to wear matching socks, and some days it seems like nothing I do will ever be enough. This is a necessary reminder to enjoy whatever comes my way.

Nancy Viau said...

Really enjoyed this. Just what I needed.

Susan Meyer said...

I love, love, love that I have an agent who feels this way, who doesn't just care about the huge and the super-lucrative, but one who cherishes each snowflake, who numbers the sparrows. Thank you so much, Erin. I'm going to save this post. These are words to live by.

Sherrie Petersen said...

What a fabulous post! There's always something more to strive for, but it's so important to appreciate what we have, and what we have accomplished. Thank you for this awesome reminder.

Jen said...

Wow, Erin, this is EXACTLY what I needed to read. Thank you for such wise words, and thank you Robin for posting it. This goes into my forever keep file.

What I think I loved best is the message that with every success comes a challenge, and in every challenge we can find the signs of success.

Barbara Dee said...

I'm printing this and taping it to my monitor. Actually, maybe I'll print two copies--one to tape to my monitor, the other to my mirror.

Thank you, Erin.

R.L. LaFevers said...

I'm so glad you all got so much out of Erin's brilliant words of advice. This wisdom of hers is just one of the reasons she is an awesome person to have on one's team. :-)

bfav said...

Great advice and insight. I'm glad I found your blog.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great advice! My small-press-published YA novel is almost two years old, so I don't get a lot of school visits anymore. However, this week I had a wonderful discussion with students and staff at an alternative high school for expelled and excluded students. Drawing on the first chapter of my novel, we focused on language that dehumanizes people and contributes to violence. As writers, we know the power of language, of showing rather than telling and of using emotion for effect, and we can use our skills to help others understand this and use language in ways that are constructive.

For me the measure of success is getting to express the things about which I'm passionate and seeing other people relate these to their lives.

Janet Fox said...

What an excellent post, and what wisdom you've shared, Erin. It's easy to start making the comparisons, having an out-of-kilter wish list; it's hard to just build your craft, one word at a time. Thank you - I'm keeping this one!

Swati said...

Erin, thank you so much for this post. It is lovely and definitely important.

Lisa Yee said...

Fantastic post!

alwayserin said...

Thank you once again, everybody! I'm so glad this hit a good chord. I especially love hearing about the things that you are marking as successes of late--the stories that are particular to your own experience. Thanks for commenting and sharing!

Regina said...

So much good information. Thank you for the post!

danielle said...

Love this!--especially the mention of accounting for the inward joys and successes of writing. Bravo.

Candyland said...

Such a breath of fresh air. I NEEDED this in a bad way. Thank you:)

Donna said...

Insightful post, Erin!

I agree that the writer's joy in the writing process is equally valuable. The term "meaningful work" springs to mind.
Thank you for sharing.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Thanks for this uplifting post!

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

I found this at just the right time. Thank you.

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