Guest Post: Monster In the Laundry Basket —
Part III: What is Literary Success?

by Caren Gussoff

When my first novel came out – in 2000 – by all weights and measures, I had “made it” as a mid-list fiction writer. I’d secured a two book deal (the second:  a collection of short stories, the most elusive prey on the planet), a tidy first-timers advance, and a round of positive reviews from all the usual suspects.

While ten-plus years is hardly a lifetime ago (using, at least, the geologic scale), as I peddle around my loooong-delayed third novel, the rules not only have changed significantly, they change near-daily, as the old guard rolls up/faux pas (mergers, DRM and pricing issues, trying to lock in rights for media not yet invented, fighting with Amazon, being Amazon, etc.); readers prove they will both read e-content and pay for it; and new opportunities to self-publish, self-promote, and find an audience expand.

There’s a lot of possibility.

There is also a lot of noise.

In the old model, there was still a lot to do to make sure your book made its way through the world, although, even for an unknown, most presses still pitched in with access to some PR folk. I hounded friends and loved ones to buy a copy, begged for readings at every bookstore on the coast, contacted libraries to request they acquire copies, sent out press releases (all the things still necessary for any new book). But “success” was easily measured: did it get reviewed by X and Y publications? Did it go up for this-and-that award? And then, in its way, the abstract financial measure: did the book sell? Did it make it to a second, third or fourth printing? Did it pay out its advance?

In short, a book that managed to flounder about long enough to sell a few hundred copies and appear on some lists was, at least when I started publishing, the measure of success.

But now there are authors with new models. Cory Doctorow gives away copies of his novels, DRM-free, at the same time Tor publishes physical copies for sale. Scalzi has proved the way to develop an audience is to create a comprehensive brand, one that includes a beloved-if-not-controversial online persona. Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, and a hoard of talented pals, have been quietly producing “Shadow Unit,” a SF serial that maximizes the Web as a delivery model (including, even, blogs from the characters); because of this, the series has garnered a massive, devoted following.

In short, there are many, many new avenues to “doing well.” New ways to expand and mature readers to ripeness – and new innovations and numbers to envy in our peers, as I have discussed in Part 1 and Part 2.

Now, little of what I have pointed out here is news to all of you. This is the reality within which we are writing and publishing … and taking, to a certain extent, sides. However, I no longer have any set idea of what to want for my work, and I suspect I am also not alone in this. So, I ask you: have your own definitions of success changed? Do you find yourself envying accomplishments other than the standard, old book contract?

What do you want for your work in this new, noisy future?


Science fiction writer Caren Gussoff lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and an artist. She’s trying to sell her third novel, a post-pandemic apocalyptic little story that actually has a car chase. Publications, awards and mutterings are available at


4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    I want what I’ve always wanted–to write the stories I want to write (there’s wiggle room there) and make a living at it. “Stories I want to write” covers a wide range, and I’m willing to work with one or more publishers in choosing what’s next (unless it hits me over the head with a hammer and drags me home, a captive writer, locked in its spell until I’ve written it, as some books do.)

    Would I like vast sums of money? Sure. Would I like rows and rows of awards? Sure. I treasure the one award I’ve got (thank you, SFWA!) But that’s not the core of it for me. The core of it is writing the stories I want to write…and not going hungry, cold, or raggedy. In the service of those primary goals, I want the books to reach the people who will a) like them a lot and b) pay enough for them that the lights stay on, the propane tank stays full, we eat well, and I can afford the gas to go sing in the city. So far traditional publishing has worked its traditional magic for me (yes, I’ve been lucky.) But I’m watching everyone else’s strategies and trying to think ahead, because I’m getting older…and I’m not Asimov. Much as I love to write–need to write–I don’t want to spend every remaining hour of my life writing.