What Is Literary Success?

…Success is in the eyes of the reader.

J. Michael Straczynski
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

What Is The Message You Want Readers To Receive?

Success (contextual noun): 
a reader understanding the communicated message or story.

-personal definition

I work full time as a copywriter, copyeditor, and webmaster. No one will ever see my name on that work, but to me the work I do each day is vital. It serves a purpose to hundreds of thousands of people and my readers understand the messages I deliver. To me, that is success.

In regards to my personal work, I hold myself to the same standard. I’ve raised my standards to meet those of my professional work, including building a Content Management Plan and hiring a content manager for 5-10 hours per week. No one cares about the name that they see on the cover. No one cares about my author photo other than photographers or the curious few. Maybe the people who are in the acknowledgments will read the acknowledgments. It’s still my work and I’m still the author, but does anyone care that it’s “me”? No.

I am nobody.

Success is when my work stands on its own and delivers a message. But is that message consistent with what I’m trying to communicate?

Speaking Your Reader’s Language

There are several circumstances that can impact a reader’s ability to comprehend your work. Language and cultural barriers make up a blended cohesive layer that impact much of the literary world’s divides. This is often difficult for authors to anticipate and understand without extensive research and preparation. Additionally, multi-lingual authors who are first starting out often are unprepared for the issues they may encounter when writing in languages that have strong nationalistic identities associated with regional forms of their language. This can often lead to bigotry directed toward authors who are attempting to cross these barriers and share information on a global scale.

In circumstances like this, defining your reading audience and speaking your reader’s language is important. However, language is a complex and metaphorical thing which often lends itself toward ableism in this regard. Readers can come in every variety. If they see a message in your writing that makes their worldview feel threatened, even if it was not intentional, they may write a review. Often these reviews will be negative and based entirely on that emotional reaction instead of any careful thought or self examination as to why their worldview has been challenged.

Did you challenge that reader’s worldview on purpose though? Did you challenge their worldview in a way that was intentional and controlled? It is important as a writer to deliver our messages with intention and control. By being intentional with our writing, we are mindful of the consequences of the words we put into the world and how they may be perceived by others.

So often individuals forget to be intentional and fail to be mindful with their words. That is why sensitivity readers and developmental editors are such powerful assets for an author to access when preparing any piece of work. Ask yourself, if you’re afraid of offending people, who are you afraid of offending? Do you think, maybe, it’s okay that they’re offended? Or is this a group of people historically targeted and oppressed? Are you representing some aspect of them as a caricature instead of a character? 

As authors, once our mass produced publications have gone to print, our words are our actions in writing. These have consequences we must be prepared to face, including the feedback we receive from our readers.

How Are You Taking Feedback?

Incorporating feedback is vital to improving one’s craft and delivering a message successfully. Can your work be divorced from you and stand on its own? The reader is the one who decides this. A reader has no context for who you are once your work is out in the world. So, why would you assume anything other than positive intent from those who do know you and have shown you that they care in the past?

There is a tendency among authors to expect only positive reviews from those who know or interact with them. Criticism comes in many forms and not everyone is your friend. People are not nice, and many people have self serving intentions. There are those who seek to sabotage those who they see as a threat for whatever reason. There are those who seek to demolish honesty that “threatens their success.”

But as I’ve already addressed, what exactly is that success that is so threatened? Two definitions of success I recently saw shared mostly included: recognition for work and money.

Part of observing this definition involved some bizarre hypocrisy. Individuals who said they did not want fame were the same individuals who regularly post pictures of themselves, aim to raise follower counts, have private DM chat groups dedicated to sharing their social media posts, and use other such “fame” focused behaviors for marketing. Is this part of the “success game” of social media that has been created within this “Writing Community” we have created? If I told that person of this observed hypocrisy, would they ever speak to me again? Or would they be so offended that they would drop me. Would they treat me and the years of communication we’ve had as a personal attack or view it as feedback on how they could improve themselves through self examination? Is it potentially even no longer safe to give positive feedback in many instances due to risks of misinterpretation without extensive editing?

How Do You Respond To “Bad” Reviews?

As previously mentioned, challenging a reader’s worldview can result in a negative review. This is not a “bad” thing. In fact, challenging a reader’s worldview can be a measure of success. There are books with a high impact on changing our society for the better with negative reviews because they challenge the reader’s worldview. 

In fact, here are some examples from famous titles currently available on Amazon, including sadly commonly challenged worldviews ranging from feminism and adolescents’ rights to self discovery to a conspiracy theory still used to promote Holocaust denial:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume

All American Boys – Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

Diary Of A Young Girl – Anne Frank

In many of the above instances the individuals giving the “bad review” needed to be offended. The negative review has everything to do with the content being challenging to the worldview of the reader. It’s not a bad thing to challenge a reader’s worldview.

Do You Care More About Being Understood Or Selling Books?

So, what is success? 

Selling books is great if people read them. Selling books is great if you have found an audience who really, truly loves them. But what if people are buying your books and not reading them?

In 2015, Jellybooks revealed that 40-50% of ebooks purchased through their network are never read.

Readers connect with plots. Readers connect with book covers and hearing other readers talk about your stories. Readers connect with public libraries, newspapers, and radios talking about your books and writing. Readers connect through comments on WattPad, AO3, personal blogs, or whichever platform you use. 

Readers connect with engaging stories that they understand in a consistent way that they can share with those around them until someone says, “can you just send me a link to it?” or  “who did you say the author was again?” while writing down its information.

 Knowing that someone understands your work is so vital to having that person authentically share your work, and that is the first step.

Choosing to ignore finding that audience or once they’ve been found, slighting them, and or hurting them with mindless actions are the worst things any author can do. At best, these actions are self sabotage. At their worst, we can look to the example of Joanne Rowling who has destroyed her entire body of literature’s fan base. Some claim that she never existed and the books materialized out of the ether. Others, myself included, view them with a new interpretation – that everything contained within is in some way a reflection of who she actually is. Every deceit of herself, every lie to her reader, every ploy as she struggled to keep up with social change is now buried within those lines of text.

Your definition of success originates from within. Remember that committing to your definition through consistency in action matters. I hope this reader focused definition of success offers those still searching for their own definition an option.



2 thoughts on “What Is Literary Success?

  1. Thank you. It was a very useful article. I also ruminate on how to gain readers’ attention and what strategies are best for selling books. There’re lots of authors nowadays, and rare of them get success. I understand your point of view, you are very thoughtful. I understood thaat it is important so that the book stood out on its own, without the author.

    Liked by 1 person

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