How the Most Successful Authors Made It Happen
You’ve got big dreams. Maybe you want to be a best-selling author like Stephen King or Agatha Christie. Perhaps you dream of becoming the defining voice in your genre like Danielle Steel or Barbara Cartland. Maybe you’re looking to leave a legacy like Octavia Butler.
Whatever vision you have for your career, odds are you clicked on this article because you’re reaching for the moon.
You’re probably also aware that moon-getters represent a teeny-tiny percentage of all authors. Very few writers can afford to live off book sales alone. Even fewer can boast consistent best seller status and millions of copies sold.
So what sets those magical beings apart? And what will it take for you to become one of the best selling authors of all time?
Full disclosure: it’s possible to do everything right and still miss out on fame and riches. So if you’re gonna do this thing, I recommend doing it because you love it no matter what the outcome is.
That said, it certainly won’t kill you to learn how the biggest and brightest came to be so big and bright. Sit tight and we’ll go over:
- The metrics we use to define successful authorship
- How a couple noteworthy authors became so darn successful
- The traits and habits that the most celebrated literary figures tend to have in common
- Advice for your own writing journey
First, the big question:
What Does It Mean to Be Successful as an Author?
Success doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, especially when it comes to writing.
For many aspiring authors, getting published or making a living off their novels would be enough. Others feel successful if they’re simply able to maintain a consistent writing routine (as they should). Some want fame, others want prestige, and others want to sell a million copies of their first book.
All that really matters is what success means to you. Having said that, I strongly suspect you’re here because you want to talk about monetary and reputational success. So let’s look at some of the concrete ways the most revered authors of all time stand out.
Literary Awards and Recognition
There are two big benefits to being a highly acclaimed writer. First, you get to feel like a genius because a bunch of smarties in the business decided your work was special. Second, you get to put a li’l sticker on your book that will probably boost sales.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that there is no perfect system when it comes to literary awards. Humans are gonna human, which means politics, access, money, and unconscious bias can influence which novels get considered for recognition in the first place.
I mean, if you win a Pulitzer, you should definitely feel good about yourself. I’m just saying you can also be proud of your work without a Pulitzer.
Here are some of the most noteworthy awards in the English-language literary world:
Well-Regarded Literary Awards
Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature - Also administered by the ALA to young adult authors, as you likely guessed. (United States)
Coretta Scott King Awards - Another ALA operation, this one for African-American authors and illustrators who create books for children and young adults. (United States)
Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction - These awards name the best fiction and nonfiction books for adults. (United States)
Nobel Prize in Literature - Per Alfred Nobel’s instructions, this one is awarded annually to the author of “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Not totally sure what that means, but it’s kind of a big deal. (International)
British Book Awards - This one honors authors as well as folks in the industry like booksellers and publishers. (UK)
Costa Book Awards - The Costa awards authors across all genres. (UK and Ireland)
National Book Awards - These awards are presented by the American Booksellers Association to standout works across multiple categories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. (United States)
Man Booker Prize for Fiction - This one is awarded to the best English-language novel. (International)
Pulitzer Prize - There’s a Pulitzer for just about every type of literary work under the categories of journalism, literature, and musical composition. It’s administered by Columbia University. (United States)
When most people say they want to be a successful author, they’re talking about becoming best-selling authors—a million copies sold right out of the gate, translated into multiple languages. This outcome is rare, but it happens.
Genre can have something to do with it. Danielle Steel, Barbara Cartland, and Corín Tellado have all made a killing in romance, the most lucrative fiction genre. Danielle Steel has sold over 900 million copies of her books and her net worth is estimated to be $310 million.
It’s probably not surprising that commercial fiction as a whole tends to be a better money-maker than lit fic. Several genre fiction writers rank among the 10 richest authors in the world, including Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and John Grisham.
Also a solid strategy: creating a best-selling series fans can’t get enough of. With 516.5 million copies sold, manga creator Eiichiro Oda is doing pretty darn well.
And of course it helps if your books sustain their popularity for a century or four. Shakespeare holds the title for best selling author of all time (assuming he is just one guy). Agatha Christie is the world’s best selling fiction author—two billion copies sold for that lady.
Unraveling the Journeys of Highly Accomplished Authors
So how do you become one of the most [fill-in-the-blank] authors of all time?
Well, there are no promises that any specific path will work. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn a thing or two from the journeys of some of the most successful fiction authors.
Let’s take a look at how a couple revered writers made it happen.
Case Study 1: Octavia Butler
Sci-fi isn’t one of my top genres, but Octavia Butler is one of my favorite literary figures. She made a comfortable living in her life, though she didn’t become a best-selling author until long after her death. She did, however, receive multiple prestigious awards and leave an indelible legacy in her genre.
Here’s how she did it:
Where She Started
Butler’s passion for fiction began at a young age, as she frequently disappeared into books to escape the bullies who convinced her she was “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” She was painfully shy, struggled with dyslexia, and warned by her aunt that a career as a writer was not an option for a Black woman.
When she began pursuing her art in adulthood, her goal was to center Black women in her stories—a bold ambition in a genre whose best-selling authors were white and male.
To put it simply, Butler did what she wanted to do. She wrote the stories she wanted to tell, trusting that those stories had an audience.
She also gave herself fully to her craft. Shirking the steady income of secretarial work, Butler worked a series of temp jobs that gave her more time to write, often getting up at two or three in the morning to work on her novels. She actively sought opportunities to continuously improve her work through college classes, mentorship, and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop.
Oh! And she constantly psyched herself up with her own motivational notes.
Like many wildly successful authors, Butler’s first wins started out small—a few published stories. But soon she was publishing novels, winning the Hugo Award, and becoming the first sci-fi author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She also revolutionized the genre, no big deal.
Case Study 2: Hugh Howey
While Octavia Butler is a good role model when you’re looking to build a solid legacy, Hugh Howey is a great example of financial success. He’s also self-published, so he’s one to check out if you plan to go the indie route yourself.
Here’s Howey’s story.
Where He Started
When Hugh Howey decided to ditch the small press he had a deal with and self-publish, he was working as a computer technician and a yacht captain (as one does). Writing was something he did for kicks in his free time, and he enjoyed sharing his work on his own terms through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Then something happened. His $0.99 digital novella Wool took off, drastically outselling his previous stories.
While Butler’s strategy was to follow her own compass, Howey’s move was to give the people what they want. He set aside the National Novel Writing Month project he’d been planning to write further installments of the Wool series.
That move landed him on multiple Amazon best seller lists, so he combined all five installments in a single volume. The book hit The New York Times e-book fiction best seller list. Soon, he was looking at 30,000 copies sold each month… and six figures a month in royalties.
Obviously, the result is that Howey became a financially successful author who was able to quit his day job. But there’s actually more.
The scope of his success made it possible for him to land a print distribution deal with a big five publishing house while still retaining his rights to digital publishing. Pretty dang impressive.
Traits and Habits of the Best Selling Fiction Authors
So what do all these legacy-leaving, genre-defining, barrier-smashing, best-selling authors have in common? What were the qualities that made Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler the literary rockstars they are?
Discipline and Consistency
“I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad, and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.” This is how John Grisham describes his writing routine while he was practicing law.
If you search for advice from any highly accomplished writers, you can expect to see more stories like his.
Continuous Learning and Improvement
The best writers always want to be better. They’re hungry for feedback and eager to take classes, attend workshops, and join writer’s groups. They’re never too proud to see their own potential for improvement or seek new knowledge.
Also—and this is important—great writers are voracious readers. You learn so much by observing the work of outstanding authors. Plus, the more novels you consume in your genre, the better you’ll be at writing to market.
Bottom line: if you’re serious about selling a million books someday, you gotta get serious about reading a million books now. Or just a lot. It doesn’t have to be a million. Just get reading.
Creativity and Originality
Noteworthy authors become noteworthy by standing out. They offer unique ideas, revolutionize genres, create unforgettable characters, and invite us to see our world from an entirely new perspective.
That’s why it’s important to keep in touch with your inner voice even as you plug into the standards of your genre. The goal is to take what’s familiar and make it your own.
You can nurture your creativity by journaling, dabbling in other arts, exploring your world, and doing regular writing exercises.
Advice for Aspiring Authors
Becoming one of the best selling authors of all time is a lofty goal. Before you can get there—before you can even become an adequately selling author—you have to plant those feet on the ground and get to the practical business of setting up a writing life that works.
Here are some proven tips for the aspiring writer:
Setting Goals and Establishing a Routine
Start by getting clear on where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. It’s okay if that final destination is still a little fuzzy or if it changes as you go. You might spend a couple years trying to be the next Agatha Christie and then realize what you really want is to be one of the best selling horror authors of all time. It happens.
For now, choose a direction that currently makes sense, then set up a structure that will help you reach your goal. A few quick tips:
Break your big goal into smaller goals - Let’s say you want to be a highly acclaimed literary fiction author. That means you’re going to have to write some novels. Let’s start with one.
When do you want to have your first draft finished? To do that, how many words do you need to write this month? This week? Today? If you’re a Dabble user, the goal setting feature will do these calculations for you. You can also check out this article to learn more about setting up goals.
Find your Why - Why is becoming a published author so important to you? This journey is going to be tough and financial success isn’t a guarantee, so find something deeper than “I want to sell a million books and get really rich.”
Commit to a routine - Set up a writing schedule and show up as consistently as you would for any other appointment in your life.
Developing Writing Skills and Techniques
The best selling authors of all time tend to have some serious skills. Some are literary masterminds, others really know how to work their genre. Many check both boxes. If you want to follow in their footsteps, you’ll have to make sure you’re continuously improving your craft. You can do that by:
- Taking writing classes in person or online
- Joining a writers’ group
- Checking out online writing communities like Dabble’s Story Craft Café
- Reading a ton
- Using free resources like DabbleU to learn more about the craft
- Checking out books on writing
We learn best by doing, so it’s essential that you do your best to apply new lessons to your work right away. Regularly review your work to see how you can improve it and invite feedback from people you trust.
Also, if you could use a guide as you write your novels, Dabble has a free e-book that covers everything from plotting to revising. Click this to download it.
Persistence and Resilience
Know that whatever your goal is, this is going to take a little time. There’s nothing quick and easy about writing novels. Once you’ve written a solid draft, it takes at least as long to find an agent, land a book deal, and get published.
Even if you go the self-publishing route, you still need time to work with editors and cover designers. And once your book is out in the world, it’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) that your first book will be the one that sells a million copies.
Like any career, it takes time, experience, harsh lessons, and a bit of luck to achieve your dream level of wealth.
This is why I advise against identifying wealth as your Why. Being a writer means disappointment, rejection, and projects that pretty much always take longer than you expected.
But if you know what you stand to gain from it—the chance to share a message with the world, leave a legacy, or spend your days doing what you love—you’ll have an easier time staying on this path.
It’s fun to dream big. There’s no harm in occasionally imagining your novels in bookstore windows with Pulitzer stickers on them. It’s fine to think about how nice it would be if your first book sold a million copies.
Just remember this:
Another thing best-selling authors have in common is that they’re passionate about writing. The money is a happy accident that happened along the way.
The Next Step on Your Journey to Becoming a Best Selling Author
If you could use a little more inspiration to get you amped for the long road ahead, check out these articles:
- The Best Writing Advice to Level-Up Your Craft
- How Much Do Best-Selling Authors Make Per Book?
- Inspirational Authors Who Will Rekindle Your Love of Writing
- How to Become a Successful Author if You’re Just Some Person
Ready to draft your first (or second or seventh) masterpiece? Make the process way easier with Dabble.
If you’re not familiar, Dabble is a super intuitive writing tool that streamlines the entire writing process from brainstorming to revisions. It’s most famous for the Plot Grid that helps you keep your storylines organized and allows you to see your entire novel at a glance.
But you’ll also love all the little bells and whistles that help an aspiring writer stay consistent. Auto-focus tunes out distractions, goal setting tracks your progress, and it’s usable on any device, online or off, so you can write anywhere, anytime.
Check out these features and all the others for free for 14 days by following this link. No credit card required.
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What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
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