What Is Fiction Writing Success? by Dale T. Phillips

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”
—Bob Dylan

What to know up front about any type of fiction publishing: Success (in terms of sales) is not guaranteed.

Take the view that getting a good book published is success. Whether or not it sells is a matter of luck— but the harder you work, and the longer you keep at it, the luckier you usually get. More success becomes much more probable, even likely, if you plan for it, and constantly work for it. It will likely be hard, and won’t come quickly, but your chances improve over time. Most published books, Traditionally published or Independent (Indie) published, do not sell more than a couple of hundred copies.

If your main success and happiness criteria is making big sales, you’ll never have enough, never be satisfied. Authors who hit #3 on the best-seller list want to be even higher, and to stay on it longer. I saw one top-selling author (with sales numbers most would kill to get) enter a conference loudly complaining, because a local bookstore hadn’t set up his latest novel display just the way he wanted.

Many people have the desire to write a book. They have a story to tell, whether it’s the story of their life, someone else’s, or something made up. Many talk about wanting to do it, dream of doing it, but they just never seem to make it enough of a priority to find the time or the impetus to put the butt in the chair and do the work. So they never achieve their aim. Or they get discouraged along the way. Winston Churchill said that success consists in going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm, and who wants that?

Almost everyone thinks they can write, they just need some big blocks of time, you know, like maybe after they retire, despite not having done it for their lives. Hey, they write emails all day, how hard can it be? We use the language every day, it’s just a matter of recording words, right? Well, it’s a lot more than that. Stephen King has a great cheeky response to the types of people who say they want to write a book some day (but never will). “Yes, and I’ve always wanted to try doing brain surgery some day.”

Others make an actual start on a book. They get some words down on paper, almost always finding out that what is in the head is difficult to transfer clearly to the page. Many give up when they realize that finishing seems like an impossible task. I’ve known a number of talented writers who never got around to completing even one novel. It’s a shame, really, because they had real skills in storytelling.

A few go on to finish a draft of a book. For most, that first one is a tough learning experience, the result is not very good, and is more of a home project than commercial material. It’s difficult to create something wonderful when you’re just learning how to do such a monumental creation project. But they completed a book, and that’s a great step on the success path. Most writers will tell you of early novels of theirs that have never been published, because they were not good. Since the first novel or few is the learning part, many mistakes are made. The books produced are called “trunk novels” or “drawer novels,” because one writes them, but they’re so bad, they get stuck in a trunk or a drawer, and never see the light of day. The writers realize the (usually) low quality of that first production, and seek to do better. They’ll learn more about the craft, and work on another book, using what they’ve learned. A few unwise ones will try to sell that first book, despite the flaws. Most will not have success at that, for obvious reasons. Fewer still will finish another book, and go on to publication eventually, and more books.

Statistic: Over 80% of published authors stop after 3 books. About 10% of published authors make it to six books. Only 5% make it to twelve.

This is a field in which, with practice and proper learning, one can develop skill enough to have a good product for sale. However, very few will continue for years to learn and grow and do better, because the financial rewards are usually small. They realize that for the time spent, they could make more money working a minimum-wage job. Writers do it for the love of what they’re doing. Only a handful turn this quaint hobby from a dream into something more. Still, the level of success achieved depends in great part on the effort put out by the achiever. Those who produce good work, constantly learn more, and follow successful models should do well.

The married team of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch have been professional writers for over forty years, and they’ve seen too many writers just give up, because they could not sustain the success they desired. Most writers don’t stick around long enough to write ten books, so if you do, congrats. My original plan was that when I had ten good published novels, ten story collections, and 100 published stories, I’d have a good start, and be a professional. I’m close to that goal now, though I’ve set further goals.

Some writers push the concept of constant promotion and specialized marketing to achieve better sales. That’s fine for those who like it, and I do some, but I didn’t take up writing to become a marketer! I’d rather write more good books and stories than to constantly fiddle with algorithms and long, complex sales campaigns. To me, my success is that I get to do as much or as little as I want, how I want, on my schedule, and enjoy the results, as do many of my readers.

There are millions of books out there, more than anyone can ever read. This is now a world of infinite free entertainment (including music, movies, television, etc.), so if a stranger gives you money for something you made up in your head, you are a success! No one has to read anything you wrote, or give you so much as a penny for it. The fact that anyone does means you’re doing something right, that your stories matter enough to pay for.

Somebody said that the unsuccessful get halfway to the finish line and turn around. When the successful get halfway, they keep going. It’s the same distance at that point.

So set writing goals that are in your control. Sales, awards, great reviews, all are external. Continue to improve and publish quality work, and enjoy every small win.

Dale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale’s college writing teacher, and since then, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, radio, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy. He’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit Dale at