Success is a 4-letter word

By Joe Moore

Okay, it’s really a 7-letter word. But I know a lot of successful authors that would use a 4-letter word when asked what it’s like to be successful. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, success is impossible to obtain. You can obtain “better”. You can achieve “improved”. But you’re always working to be successful. Success can be nothing more than a carrot on a stick just beyond your nose.

Second, success means something different to everyone. It’s a lot like describing an object as being green. Are we talking forest green, lime green, Irish green, puck green, or foam green? How about that green on the Beatles Apple logo or Kermit the Frog green?

I’ll bet if you asked any author who just sold a million copies of his last book, did it make him feel good? The answer will probably be, “Absolutely!” Does he consider himself a success? 4-letter-word no! Why? Because now his publisher expects him to sell 2 million copies of that next book he hasn’t finished writing yet. No pressure there. That’s not success. That’s a problem, albeit one we would all like to have. Now his sales are a bold number on the publisher’s ledger sheet. Now employees’ jobs rely on his success. It’s not just good enough to write another great book that sells lots of copies, he has to worry about the folks that are counting on him for their salary, their jobs, and their future.

So what is success in the publishing industry? Is it when you sell 25,000 copies, 50,000 copies, a million, become a New York Times bestseller? When can a writer kick up his or her heels and declare, “Mission Accomplished”?

Here’s a tip. Success is what you predetermine it will be. It’s what you decide before it comes. If you don’t approach success in that way, you are destined for disappointment. For some, being successful is walking into a bookstore and seeing their novel on the shelf. For other’s it’s the rush of holding a book signing and seeing the line of fans snaking out the door. And for many, it’s money.

But even if it is money, try to remember that it’s more important to predetermine what you’ll do with it, rather than wanting to be “rich”. For instance, determine the amount you’ll need to quite your day job. Or to pay off your mortgage. Or to move to Cape Cod or Palm Beach, or just a bigger house.

The point is, you determine what will make you successful. Be specific, not vague. And if you achieve it, relish it, celebrate it. Because everything after that is the sauce on the steak. And if you do achieve your predetermined success, always say the two most powerful words in the English language: Thank You.

When do you consider a writer to be a success? Have you predetermined your Mission Accomplished criteria? Have you already achieved it?


Coming up Sunday, June 7, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown. And watch for Sunday guest blogs from Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

16 thoughts on “Success is a 4-letter word

  1. I went to John Wooden’s basketball camp in HS, and always liked the great man’s definition of success being “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

    Since outcomes are out of our hands, we can only truly compete with ourselves. If we do the best we can, day in day out, outcomes are “gravy.”

    I do think the absolute, most important point Joe makes here is–remember to say Thank You. To God, the Fates, the universe or whatever it is you look to. Because gratitude is the secret to contentment, and Lord knows writers don’t often have an oversupply of that sitting around in a jar.

  2. I used to think of “success” as having a published series. Now I’m thinking of success as being able to make a living writing without working a day job. Later, my definition might be keeping a place on a major bestseller list. The definition of success appears to be a constantly moving target, so like Mark said, one might as well look at it as a journey, and not a place!

  3. I’m glad you agree, Kathryn. Too many people, writers or otherwise, get caught up in winning the race while forgetting that it’s the race itself that’s the challenge.

    And Jim picked up on what I believe is truly the key; rather than asking for what you don’t have, acknowledge what you do and be grateful.

  4. Great post Joe. I have never felt successful. I have been on the NY Times list at 16. I have had about two million books in print (and sold a few), I have supported myself by writing alone since 1986. I’ve been nominated for two literary Awards. I’m in 12 languages. I have a Wikepedia page (this alone impressed by 13-year-old grand daughter). I have achieved more than I ever thought I would, but I never set specific goals that would tell me, “I’m there. Now where?” With each accomplishment I feel pleasure, and maybe it’s good that I never defined a stopping point.

  5. You have a great list of accomplishments, John. Congratulations. And by anyone’s standards, you are a successful author. And yet, true success can only come from within us. I could easily believe that a writer who sees their first novel stacked on the new release table of their bookstore might feel more successful than another who has achieved greatness but lacks fulfillment of their personal goals. This whole concept of success revolves around a fleeting moment that may never come despite dollars earned or copies sold if no finish line is defined.

  6. I also think keeping on, despite setbacks, is “success.” The fight. Preston Sturges, at the height of his popularity, said, if it all went away, he’d buy a pencil and ten cent notebook, sit on the curb, and start all over again. That has to be inside you, I think, for any possibility of outward markers we usually deem successful.

    It’s also important to keep things personal and AWAY from comparisons. There will always be those above, as well as below, where you are. And good to remember all “glory” is fleeting. The other day I was talking to a young film lover and brought up the aforementioned Mr. Sturges. Her answer was, “Who?”

  7. Any of you who read my interview the other month on Murderati will remember this piece of advice, but, if you don’t mind, it’s worth repeating in connection to your excellent post, Joe.

    “Three, be happy (I’m indebted to Joe Konrath, on whose site I first saw this advice, and which I’ve adapted a little). Do you know what I’m talking about here? Look, you all know people who think like this. I’ll be happy…when I finish my book. I’ll be happy…when I land an agent. I’ll be happy…when I sell that book. I’ll be happy…when I sell three books…when I make 100K a book…when I hit the NYT bestseller list…when I hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list…when I hit #1 for 5 weeks on the NYT bestseller list…when the movie from my book, starring George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep, makes $400 million at the box office and wins best picture…

    These people are never happy. Be happy now. Of course, set goals for yourself, then set new goals, move yourself forward. You never be a perfect peace with this business. All you can do is try your best, learn from failures, and celebrate successes no matter how small. Be happy now.”

  8. Success I believe should be incremental. It comes in steps until the day you die.

    I put my goals on a timeline of sorts from teen years to end of days

    1 finish high school – success
    2. join Marines – success
    3. Marry beautiful Korean girl I can’t keep my eyes off of – success
    4. win Hennessy Award for best dining facility- almost success 3rd place computer business – success
    6. return to Alaska – success
    7. As an EMT – don’t puke on messed up dead guy…or messed upper survivor – success
    8.get good paying gov. job – success
    9. survive kids teen years – success
    10. write good novel – success
    11. get 10k listeners to podcast versions of novels – success
    12. sell novels for as much as possible – getting there
    13. buy house with big yard for grandkids to play in – working on it
    14. live to 120 and tell stories around the firepit to my great-great grandkids of life in the twentieth century. – working on it
    15. be on the right side at judgement day – to be seen

    So in my case, writing goals are just another step along a long path towards success. Whether or not success is attained at each level one must continue, and be fluid enough to change goals when they become irrelevant. In the end the sum of success will not be known until I stand before God on judgement day he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter your rest.”

    …or not.

  9. “It’s also important to keep things personal and AWAY from comparisons.”

    Jim, that is so true. As writers, we can never compare our work (or success) to others, even in the same genre. Nor should we ever begrudge the success of others. If anything, seeing another writer sell in high numbers should reaffirm that the industry is healthy. Although we all have access to the same words, how we string them together is as individual as our thoughts.

    And Neil, your comments are dead right. Chasing an illusion is a whole lot more frustrating than working towards a goal. Although that George Clooney thing would be pretty cool.

  10. Nice list, Basil. And good luck with those you still need to check off, especially that last one.

    Before I quite my day job in the corporate world to write full time, I had a mentor who was also the president of the company. He had one rule that he never let anyone break. He forbid the use of what he called the “S” word. “Success will never come,” he said, “it will only be coming.”

  11. Great post Joe. I struggle with the concept of success all the time and have to admit I feel more unsuccessful than successful most of the time! Part of the problem is I do worry about all the things out of my control – perhaps one day I’ll let go of all that:)

  12. I love this article, and the comments. Trouble is, the people around us have their own definitions of success. Then my “walking on air” is their “well, it’s a step.”

    Still stepping, definitely thankful, and hoping the clouds will hold me up.

  13. I think you nailed it. To me, the key is to (as I think it was Neil who said) be happy now. What comes after is gravy.

    For me, the gravy would be much like Kathryn’s: A published series (to provide some supplemental house-paying, retirement income) and, the ultimate, to be able to at least cut back on my day job, if not quit altogether.

    As for the expectations of a publisher, I’m promising myself now that, should I ever be in that situation, I’ll be grateful for the success, but that all I can do is write the best books I can. I am not responsible for their expectations.

  14. That is such great advice, Neil.
    A while back I was dating a singer who suddenly shot to the top of the charts. He had finally achieved success after a decade-long struggle, had a platinum album, ridiculous amounts of money…and he was such a stress case he ground his molars down almost to the bone and needed to go on anti-anxiety medication.

    Now, his star has fallen, and he’s become a terribly bitter person. At no point did he manage to enjoy where he was. Live in the moment, it might be all you ever have.

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