Nearly six years ago, in the January 2015 issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, I wrote an article on what I call “the Success Equation.” In that article, I identified four crucial factors that determine whether you succeed or fail as a writer.
And what is “success?” I’ll define it right from the get-go as the amount of money you earn from your writing. You can define success differently, if you like, and I have no quibble with other definitions. But other definitions tend to be much harder to measure. Whereas it’s easy to measure your earnings. So if you prefer an artsier definition of success, that’s fine. But in the rest of this blog post, just substitute the words “Dollars Earned” every time you see the word “Success.”
In any event, back in early 2015, I believed that Success is the result of multiplying four critical factors.
Then about two years ago, I read Professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s brilliant book titled The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. Barabasi is a network scientist who’s compiled a massive amount of data about what makes some people successful.
After reading the book, I amended my Success Equation to include one more factor.
Here’s my amended Success Equation, the one I now teach on the rare occasions when I teach at conferences:
Current Success = (Past Success) x (Target Audience Size) x Quality x Production x Discoverability
Note that those are multiplication signs. If you fail in any one of them, then you are going to fail as a writer, because zero times anything is zero.
If you do moderately well in each one of them, then you should be pretty successful. If you are outstanding in each of them, then you will be astonishingly successful. Because the whole is not the sum of all the parts. The whole is the multiplication of the parts.
Let’s look at each of these factors:
It’s just a fact. If you’ve already published one best-seller, then your next book is likely to be a best-seller too. Because you have a built-in crowd of people waiting for you to give them “the same thing again, only different.” Everyone expects you to succeed again, and that gives you a huge advantage.
On the other hand, if you’ve done very little so far, then your next book has a much lower bar that people expect it to jump.
If you don’t have a great track record, this means you’re going to have to work hard on the other four factors so that your current book will do “better than expected.” Which means that next time, you’ll have raised the bar of expectations. If you do that five or ten times, you can bootstrap yourself from a low level of success to a very high level of success.
Let’s note that, very rarely, an unknown author will write a massive best-seller on their first book. But you shouldn’t count on that happening. You’re vastly more likely to succeed by working hard and smart over a long period of time. (People win the lottery, after all, but that’s a bad retirement strategy. Whereas a good retirement strategy is to save 10% of your income right off the top and invest it in something that grows faster than inflation, such as stocks or real estate.)
Target Audience Size
Your Target Audience is the set of people whom you intend to be delighted by the kind of novel you’re writing.
Don’t waste time trying to identify your Target Audience by demographics—age, gender, social status, etc. For most novels, demographic information is useless.
What matters is psychographics—the emotional hot buttons that your novel is going to push. Your Target Audience is the set of people who like having those particular hot buttons pushed.
It really is as simple as that. The purpose of fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (I invented this phrase for the very first talk I ever gave on fiction writing, back in the fall of 2000. I have never changed my mind about this. The reason your reader reads is to get a Powerful Emotional Experience. So the reason you write should be to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.)
Now the question is how many people are in your Target Audience? You can’t know this exactly, but you know perfectly well if you are pushing the emotional hot buttons of a large group or a small group.
Everybody seems to have a different definition of Quality.
For example, if you Google around, you’ll discover that a fair number of reviewers believe that Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, is a low-quality writer.
Various reviewers will tell you that Brown uses words poorly, has an agenda, and is a terrible researcher. And on and on.
So why is Dan Brown so successful? I say it’s because he delights his Target Audience. And the market rewards him for that.
Quality is in the eye of the beholder, after all. So here’s my opinion, and you can decide for yourself if it’s sensible: If you’re a writer who wants to succeed, your Target Audience’s definition of Quality is the one that matters.
I define “Quality” to mean “how well do you delight your Target Audience?”
It’s a simple fact that Dan Brown has a large Target Audience and his books delight them. He punches the set of emotive hot buttons that they want punched.
That is high Quality writing. Most readers don’t read mainly for beautiful writing. They don’t read mainly to avoid being exposed to an agenda (actually if they like the agenda, it can be a plus.) They don’t read mainly for great research.
Most readers read mainly for a Powerful Emotional Experience. The more powerful it is, the higher the perceived Quality of the writing.
For the record, I’m not in Dan Brown’s Target Audience. But it’s obvious that he’s making his audience happy. Dan is a high-Quality writer. Ditto for James Patterson, who knows exactly what his readers want and delivers it.
Production is the number of books you write per year.
All other things being equal, the more books you write, the more Success you’ll have.
Dan Brown writes a book every few years and each one is a massive sky-rocket.
James Patterson writes a book every few weeks and each one is a pretty good rocket.
That’s why James is the #1 selling author in the world in this century. Production matters.
Beginning about ten years ago there’s been a trend among indie authors to focus on Production. It’s good to be productive, and it’s something I’m trying to improve on, but in my opinion, this should come after you’ve clearly identified your Target Audience and got your Quality up to snuff. When those are clicking, then start ramping up your Production. Set a weekly quota of time you’ll spend writing, or words you’ll produce, and then meet that quota. Every week of the year.
Why not focus first on increasing your Discoverability before you think about boosting your Production? Because some of the most valuable tactics for raising your Discoverability require you to have several books out. So you’ll find that a steady Production schedule makes it much easier to build your Discoverability.
Discoverability means how easy it is for your Target Audience to discover your work.
The number of books published in the whole history of the human race is said to be more than 130 million.
Your book is one of that 130 million-plus. How easy are you to find?
There are many ways to increase your Discoverability, and I can’t possibly cover them all here.
I’ll just make one key point. The best methods of Discoverability are the ones that require the least resources from you. You have limited time, energy, and money.
If you spend all your time, energy, and money on methods that barely affect your Discoverability, then you’re going to fail.
Mapping Your Future
The order of these factors matters. When you plan out your career, first choose a decent-sized Target Audience. Then study the craft of fiction writing so that you can deliver the highest Quality possible for that Target Audience. Then set a steady Production schedule and push out books into the publishing pipeline at the best speed you can that doesn’t sacrifice Quality. Last of all, focus on a few effective methods of raising your Discoverability.
Nobody can predict the future, and all plans are going to smash head-on into reality. Still, it’s better to plan than not plan.
In mapping out your future, remember that the main thing is to focus on the main thing. You have no control right now over your Past Success. It is what it is, and your goal is to build your Success over time by working on the things you can control. You can control them by asking yourself these four questions:
- Can you write for a larger Target Audience?
- Can you increase your Quality by finding a way to delight your Target Audience better?
- Can you increase your Production?
- Can you increase your Discoverability at minimal cost in time, energy, and money?
Those are the things I think about as I plan my own writing career.