The Writing Life (1): Gauging Success

How does a writer gauge his success? Or, at least, how does he or she do so in a manner that makes it possible to carry on?

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

(We’ll say ‘he’ and ‘his’, if that’s alright, as I’m the one that’s most on my mind). If you are Dan Brown or, here in Canada, Margaret Atwood or—all kudos to him—Lawrence Hill, then the question may not even occur. If, however, you are in the wilderness of the middle ground along with most of the rest of the writing community (and where even Larry Hill languished for many years), then you are likely to do so by two barometers.

The first will be whatever is your measure of critical success—good reviews, comments from friends, being nominated to lists, perhaps even winning a prize or two. These plaudits matter, even more so when that first royalty statement arrives and you realize just how much in the wilderness you are even with all those good reviews, comments from friends and nominations and so on. This may be enough to have you carry on without deciding that you are costing your family too much by the money you are not earning or the often less than charming company writing makes of you and about which you feel quite guilty a lot of the time. And such kudos may help in the face of the advance you have likely not earned back, information that is of course now available not just to your own but to all publishers, who will be making only one calculation: the number of units sold as a portion of your advance and portent of profit.

The second barometer, of course, is income. Most writers, the ones who cannot count on royalty streams, do something else—teach, broadcast, write for newspapers, magazines or advertising companies, etc. The sensible writer sets himself a target, has a ‘P & L’ sheet, a bottom line and decides on a figure in this, the first week of January, that says “it is permissible within the context of my family to keep at it.” I’m lucky. My wife has never, ever, put such a question to me (it is a question, the question of whether or not you can meet your target), and though I think of her as my Canada Council and understand the tolerance and encouragement that is her much greater gift to me, nevertheless I set myself targets and list all my possible sources of work and revenue to gauge whether or not I am operating as a successful company.

For writing—for the practical—is a business, is still a job, and for it to be pursued successfully then I must take all sorts of measures, and take stock, for instance, of the time I must invest not just writing but acquiring work and tending to my employers and sowing the seeds of possible work with others. Some of this information, at least to me, is quite interesting. “I am able to see, for example, that revenue accrued from my work on the web grew from less than 1% of total income in 2007, to about 2% in 2008 but to over 16% in 2009. Last year, possibly an anomaly, web earnings constituted my second largest “account,” amounting to a greater sum than I earned last year from all of Canada’s conventional newspapers and weekly periodicals and four times as large as I earned from any one of them individually.

I am sharing this information not only because I think that some sort of education about how to actually make money, writing, would be a valuable component of a creative writing course (I have never taken one), but because I am interested in the abstract and this trend confirms what, in the public arena, we already know, which is that the digital universe is becoming even despite us a very important part of our lives, not just for what it offers as entertainment or through social networks but as a generator of work dribbling down even to those who may not be seeking it.

And so, the New Year demands a plan. A business plan. But this year, the plan and the numbers are different. More anon.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on


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