Sacrifice? Moi? Eight Things Successful Writers Learn To Lose

Bookstore HS germany
Ooooh, I want to be there!Image via Wikipedia

What do you mean sacrifice?

Isn’t becoming a successful writer — speaking here specifically of publishing your books commercially through major houses — all about winning? Money? Fame? A shot at being on Oprah?

Not so much.

Writing and selling your book, or books, is a terrific and exciting journey and one thousands of us make every year.

But even those who insist on self-publishing (even the super-successful like Amanda Hocking) learn the hard way it’s never an easy route.

Here, with my second non-fiction book out in two weeks from Portfolio, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, are eight lessons in loss I’ve learned along the way:

A fixed definition of success

The best-seller list? Only the tiniest fraction of us will get there. Huge sales? Ditto. The thrill of your family and friends beaming with pride? That’s a for-sure. Whatever you hope for your book, don’t attach your ego or future income stream to any specific outcome. Let the process unfold, even while working your hardest on every aspect of promotion, marketing and sales. You may not hit it out of the park the first, second or third time. But a solid single or double is something to be proud of and may still be sufficient to win your next contract.


This might be the biggest and most important of all. The paradox of writing a book for public consumption — and skilfully fielding the resulting media attention you need to sell it — demands an ego strong enough to firmly believe that there are readers out there eager to hear your ideas. But along the way, your ego is likely to visit the woodshed more than a few times. Your agent may ask for multiple revisions of your proposal. The proposal may never sell. The book may sell but require significant revision; one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read, “Absolutely American”, was rewritten twelve times, the editor told a writers’ conference, before it made the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Or the publisher might simply refuse it as “unpublishable.” It happens. You must be prepared to work closely for many months with your agent, editor, copy editor and publicist. It’s much more of a team sport than it appears.


You might need to shelve fantasies you’ve harbored for years. It’s important to dream, and dream big. But the process of moving from idea to manuscript to bookstore can look a lot different from your cherished dream or that of your writing friends. Be open to it!


Authors get book tours, right? Authors get on all the big TV shows. We travel far and wide on our publisher’s dime. Not! The average first-time advance for a new author of a trade book is low, as low as $15,000 to $20,000 — paid in four installments, each with 15 percent taken out first by your agent. Do as much homework on the publishing industry as you possibly can, attending writers’ conferences, reading wise blogs, devouring smart books like “Thinking Like Your Editor” so you’re heading into the fray well-prepared. The most successful authors are also those who know how to work within the system, and become the writers their agent and publicist and editor look forward to working with again. This tough business is no place for naievete.


It is hard to overstate how much time it takes, usually, to get a book from the inside of your head into a bookstore. Like — years. Let’s say you have a fabulous idea and, within weeks of having it (and already having built your “platform”, the gazillions of readers who already know and love your work) you’re fortunate enough to find an agent you can work well with. (It’s not always automatic.) They will want you, for non-fiction, to produce a proposal, which can run up to 30 pages or more and must include at least one sample chapter. The months you spend polishing the proposal will require a steady income from elsewhere. Even after you have sold your book, the first advance payment may take several months to show up. Then, when you think the book is finished, you may need to revise it to your editor’s liking for weeks or months.


If you have another steady source of income allowing you to focus solely on producing and polishing and promoting your book, terrific! If not, where’s that funding going to come from? This is the money you’ll need for a variety of expenses: researchers, assistants, FOIA requests, travel for your own research, creating and updating your book website, planning and executing a book tour, polishing the book between advance payments (that can take up to a year.) You may find funding from grants and fellowships, or teaching or a full-time or part-time job. But be sure to have several thousand dollars at the ready for all of these costs. You have one shot at making your book the best it can possibly be. This is not the time to cheap out!

Social Life

If you really want to produce, you’ve got to plant your bum in the chair. That means not: having coffee/lunch/dinner with your friends or colleagues, taking vacations, going to movies or shows or concerts. It may mean missing out on all sorts of fun things you’d really rather do. Not while you’re on a book deadline! That date is no joke — an entire team of people you may never meet (from the production editor to the sales team) — are relying on you. Your spouse or partner and your kids and friends and relatives may really not get it. Writing is easy, right? You can do it later, or tomorrow, or between the kids’ naps or playdates. Maybe. Maybe not. Stay in close touch with other ambitious and successful writers. They know what it takes, and will steer you back to the computer.

Competing projects

These range from laundry and exercise to a tempting new job or lucrative or fun assignment. Every writer knows we have to shut down other sources of income and projects demanding our time, energy and attention. Something, and often many things, are competing for our time, which is limited. If you’re an avid volunteer, you may need to withdraw or scale back for a while. No matter how tempting these sirens, stay focused on your book!

Here’s a great blog post about a new book that really explains the trade publishing industry in the U.S. and U.K. Every would-be author needs to read it!

25 thoughts on “Sacrifice? Moi? Eight Things Successful Writers Learn To Lose

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for sharing the grim reality. It is a good reminder that writing is not really for the weak, and not just about good writing. Sigh.

  2. I know it’s not happy, shiny reading. I think it’s important to really understand what you’re in for — and if you’re up to all of it. I love writing books but it is not easy!

    1. It’s not all bad news — but there is a great deal that gets lost in the translation. I weary of reading dreamy blog posts by people who don’t realize what it really takes to get ahead in this super-competitive environment.

  3. Caitlin. I am a succcessful writer. Over the past 20 years I have written numerous books that have helped thousands of globally mobile families move around the world and home again. I have lectured in 30 countries (that I can remember, probably more). The last five years of my touring (I have stopped because five countries in SEAsia in two weeks was my breaking point) was on someone else’s dime, including hotel, airfare, speaking fees, shipping my books, handling my book sales and generally treating me like the queen (for not having to handle any money so I could sign books).

    Did I mention I am a self-publisher?

    According to your blog today, however, I am not successful because I have not published my books commercially through major houses…which ironically I did for my first two books (and ended up number one on the Hong Kong bestseller’s list, even if they never told me and I had to find out accidentally by reading a two week old South China Morning Post back in Beijing where I was living at the time).

    Try getting up each morning, trudging to the library, working to a deadline only you set for yourself, and having not a dime of an advance….and then working with editors, book designers, web designers etc…you get the picture…

    I like your blog, I like you, and I like what you wrote today.

    But get your head out of the sand about self-publishing because I can give you hundreds of names of these so called vanity writers but I’ll just mention Virginia Wolff who started her own publishing company to publish her work.

  4. I’m not out to start a war! And, yes, this is a provocative post.

    It’s clear many writers have done very well on their own — but have you witnessed the recent trainwreck of this woman? It’s one strong argument for the ego-obsessed (which some writers are, who simply refuse to handle the rejection of the conventional route) to chill OUT and learn to behave with some self-respect. Writers who have worked with editors learn this fast or they quit.

    Talk about going viral!

    You, having been trained as a journalist, were way ahead of the self-publishing game when you began: you knew how to write, how to work with editors, how to revise, how to meet a deadline. That’s a hell of a lot more than many of the bloggers I read every single day who are utterly persuaded they are so much better than anyone who — sniff — needs a publisher.

    I am not dissing you or your peers. But I am really fed up with those of us who do NOT self-publish increasingly being dismissed as 18th century fogeys.

    I outsource the expertise I need — all the tasks you, and other self-published writers choose to assume — and hope for the best.

    Your model, which we know is extremely successful, fills a strong niche and more power to you and to your success within it. For people pumping out 2,000 more vampire novels, things might look a little different.

  5. Caitlin…..I couldn’t agree with you more about the train wrecks out there and the digital noise of a gazillion blogs (just another form of self-publishing only worse, no editing). The first thing I tell people who want my help with self-publishing is that the ego has to be the first to go because you won’t see your book in a bookstore so get over it….

    I apologize for my rant too….this is what happens when you read stuff too early (remember, I live in your former part of the world, on the west coast of Canada); the dog (on his last legs) lookes at you like you are going to be his executioner; the rain is (as Bob Hope once said) ‘car wash’ rain this morning; and I should know better than to hit send/post when I’m cranky!

    But that self-publishing stuff just pushes my buttons which is a good thing I am retiring from all of it this summer after 37 years of writing, reporting etc….

    So keep up the good work, keep motivating writers, and forgive me please for my rant! (And what kind of writer am I who spells successful with three ‘c’s?? 🙂

  6. Whew! It wasn’t like you to be so testy…. 🙂

    I think the whole publishing world is very challenging for all of us! The self-pub. route, as you know, is super-demanding in ways (marketing, design, distribution) that traditional is not….My title was given to me on Malled (!) which is sort of like someone naming your kid….Although I LOVE it and could not seem to come up with one of my own anyway.

    Soon we will all beam our books into one another’s brains. That’ll solve everything.

    Stay dry! Go to the Sylvia and have a martini for me?

  7. I’m glad I am forgiven! It is indeed so unlike me…

    You couldn’t have a better name for your book either…can’t wait to read it and spread the word about it (while I’m still chained to this computer)…

    And my only last comment and question(before I head out into the rain to get pills from the vet for the old dog)would be this: how the heck would I get a DRY martini in this horrible weather? I’ll wait until you and I can both kick back at the Sylvia Hotel and celebrate your hitting one out of the ball park with Malled..

  8. Love the back and forth between you and Robin. I am one of the many gazillion contributing to the digital noise within the blogosphere, my lack of edits will prove this fact. The fact is this, my love for writing brought me into the blogosphere, and my laziness will more than likely keep me here. The reality check this post provides, affirms my belief that I am where I belong – for now.

  9. This is an amazing post. I love the way you write, and I LOVE the message you’re putting across.

    I hope it’s okay that I mentioned you in my most recent post. I linked to your blog, too. Can you let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to change?

  10. Hey broadside, I feel lucky to have stumbled on your blog. I usually look out for the blog titles that speak to me instantly, personally, that’s my approach to randomly selecting blogs to follow. Whew! I can’t say I like much the stormy path to trek to being a published writer but your post about its reality tells it all, thanks for the insight- a great post.

    1. What can I tell you?

      Either the truth — as I have experienced it (might be MUCH easier for others but I know dozens of authors and few find it simple, quick or lucrative) — or a pile of BS. Who has time for BS? Not me!

  11. Thanks for an interesting read, I hopped over the the review you mentioned as well. Sad. I think I am only half way through shedding the items you mention. Other work, ego and social life keep fighting back hard.

    I’ll keep looking at your work and reading thanks,


    1. Thanks….

      It’s very easy to procrastinate when it comes to getting rid of stuff. Stuff can be very comforting.

      But the day you suddenly have to go through boxes and bags and closets of someone else’s is a real wake-up call as to what a burden it would be for someone else to do for you.

  12. curiosikat

    Just jumped on and discovered you after you discovered me! Great post, really love the clarity and honesty in it. And I didn’t find it depressing at all, I found it motivating, it really spoke to me. I’ve put your RSS in my reader now, so will be following…
    Also loved the discussion between you and Robin – really great to see that kind of intelligent, productive exchange.
    All the best with the forthcoming book!

    1. Thanks!

      Robin is terrific — we’ve become good pals (two Canadian women, natch!) only through email and blogging.

      As you read the blog (and thanks for that) you’ll see that’s how I write…I hope you’ll visit and check out my new memoir, which is getting terrific reviews, partly because I held little back…

  13. Cynthia Clay

    I’m self-published, but when new fiction writers say they are going to self publish, I warn them not to. For one thing, the stigma remains against self-publishing. Next, many of the self-publishers who have been able to make a good living self-publishing got their start with traditional publishing. The traditional publishers established the author’s name which is so extremely important, having one’s name established as an author worthy of reading. Then there are legit e-publishers who will edit your book, create a cover, and sell the book on their site for you, all for no cost to you, and paying you royalties. You only have to write and market, just as you would with a traditional publisher. I feel self-publishing is a last resort. I think fiction authors should use all three forms of publishing, traditioal, e-publishing, and self-publishing, with the self-publishing only when you are well established enough to go it alone or when your book is so unique and so good that even though it doesn’t “fit their lists” it should be available.

    1. Thanks….Lots to think about here.

      I know fiction is very different but your larger point is really true: readers want to find, and follow, terrific writers. First, be terrific!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s