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How to Become a Famous Author

Updated: Mar 2

I Googled “How to become a famous author” in double quotation marks to force Google to search for the entire phrase. That got me links to 168,000 hits. I don’t know why there are so many articles on the subject because there are only two steps you must complete to become a famous author.

How hard can it be to describe two steps? Here they are:

  1. Produce an exceptional product that is in demand.

  2. Be discovered.

Well, that was easy.

Step 1: Produce an exceptional product that is in demand

To complete this step you must know thoroughly the principles of writing, many of which are described in my Writing Tips blog stream on this website. These principles will help govern your progress toward becoming a better writer.

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Read every day

Most new authors have a sense of how much work is required to become a literary success. But a sense is not enough. Do you want to work at 5% efficiency or 85%? If you want 85% efficiency, you must read other authors’ fictional work every day.

This requirement applies to new and seasoned authors alike. In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes that he spends 50% of every working day reading other authors’ fiction. Even Stephen King follows this advice.

I know of only one author who spent no time reading. He said it was because so many ideas came to his head he had no choice but to write continually to keep up with them. His name was Isaac Asimov. He authored over 300 books. Unless your last name is Asimov, I suggest you read fiction every day.

My favorite quote on the need to read other authors' fiction is by Ray Bradbury. He didn’t just give solid advice, he did it like a master:

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days.”

Ray Bradbury

Be patient

No one likes to be told to be patient. Instead, I'm going to tell you something actually useful and important:

Don't be discovered too early.

Wait, what?

If you "hit it lucky" and get yourself noticed too early, you run the risk of flaring out because you won't yet have the skill and expertise to continue to produce an outstanding product.

You want to be noticed only after you're sufficiently skilled.

If you work hard at your craft long enough you'll see that your writing gets better over time. As you improve, you'll eventually start to think, "Why doesn't anyone notice me?"

Dismiss that thought from your mind! Until you're discovered, your job is to keep getting better. Someday, maybe five years from now, you'll receive acclaim. By then you'll have the tools, wisdom, and wherewithal to maintain that acclaim. That is when your fan base will increase naturally because you have become genuinely good.

If you try to rush it, you run the risk of becoming a "one-hit wonder."

One-Hit Wonders

Have you ever wondered how a pop band, author, or composer can make a creation so exquisite it practically takes over the world, but yet not be able to create a second or third?

Ferde Grofé composed the Grand Canyon Suite, one of the most recognized 20th-century symphonic pieces. This brought him worldwide acclaim. But what about his other compositions, including,

  • 10 movie scores

  • 47 orchestral works

  • 2 concertos

  • 4 ballets

  • 18 other compositions for concert bands, chamber orchestras, and solo works

Then there is the pop music group that performed one of the most popular pop songs ever recorded. The group was called Wild Cherry, and the song was called Play That Funky Music (1976). Wild Cherry succeeded in performing only one hit song in their career.

Neither Grand Canyon Suite nor Play that Funky Music were the first pieces created by their composers. What if Wild Cherry or Ferde Grofé had given up after their first unrecognized piece?

You must be patient as you write without recognition.

Even great performers and authors do not always get the early success they wish. You must keep working even if you experience a string of what seem to be failures.

Stephen King, who has published over sixty successful novels, has expressed concern that one of his earlier novels, The Stand, continues to be considered by many to be his best work (On Writing, Stephen King). He continues to try to write a better novel, but it is difficult even for him to do.

“If you want to be good at something, you must first be willing to be bad at it.”

Some Statistics

For a number of years, we have gone to the Sedona (Arizona) Film Festival to see the best Independent films created that year. We're often the first people from the general public to see these films. This year, we were surprised to learn that the festival committee had to choose from 6,100 independent films to show at the festival. They could show only a hundred or so. Imagine making a movie and having a one-out-of-sixty-one chance of it being shown anywhere.

Here's a terrifying statistic for authors: Only 1 out of 1,000 books written in the United States becomes financially successful.

One out of a thousand is the same as one-tenth of one percent. Remember the One Percenters, the top one percent of successful people in the United States demonized by the political Left? That’s not a small enough group for us authors. Our group is one-tenth that size.

Now that I've demoralized you, let me help you feel better.

Two-thirds of those 1,000 books are written by schlubs (rank amateurs). If you’re reading this post, you’re not a schlub.

Of the remaining one-third of annually published books, at least half are written by new writers who are well-meaning but not well-informed. If you study sites like this one, you’ll be part of the “informed” half of authors.

Now, your novel must compete with only 1/6 of one thousand books, or 1 out of 167.

It gets better!

Only about one of four published books in the United States is fiction. This means your novel must compete with only 1/4 of 1/6 of all published books annually, or 1/24 of 1,000, which comes to 1 of 42.

This means that—all things equal—if you were to write 42 novels, one of them would be a success. These numbers assume you're average. You're better than average.

Summary of Step 1:

I hope you’ve gotten the point that you must be extremely committed to your writing if you wish to be a literary success. You must take Stephen King’s and Ray Bradbury’s advice and read for hours daily.

But there is one more thing you must yet do. You must be discovered.

Step 2: Be discovered

As difficult as it is for new authors to manage Step 1, most beginning authors have even greater difficulty with Step 2. Most new authors consider being discovered as an event rather than a process.

You must, on your own, without spending any money or hiring an agent, complete the following two steps:

  1. Write well enough that many of your relatives, friends, and coworkers tell you with great intensity, “Really, you need to become a writer. You are good! You write better stories than the last ten novels I read. I’m serious! You need to do something about this.”

  2. The people to whom you’ve given a copy of your manuscript must, on their own, loan it to their friends, who in turn come to you and repeat the same speech your relatives, friends, and coworkers gave you.

Until complete strangers contact you and, with great desperation, insist that you "act immediately on your talent or the world will suffer unrecoverably," you are not yet good enough as an author.

This is not silly talk or heightened exaggeration to make a point.

The world will not accept you as an author

any more than those you know personally.

If your relatives, friends, and coworkers—and their friends and coworkers—are not legitimately and enthusiastically astonished with your work, it is not likely that the rest of the world will be more impressed.

This does not mean you should quit writing!

Keep honing your skills. But do it for free, without agents or marketing managers, until you complete the two steps described above. Meanwhile, keep your day job. If it takes years, then it takes years. So what? Spending money on an agent or a marketing manager won't help you become a better author any sooner.

These ideas are summarized by Andy Weir, author of the hit novel, The Martian:

To get discovered, self-publish the book.

If it’s good, word will get around, and it will sell. Publishers will then take an interest.

Andy Weir

Notice I haven’t said anything about self-publishing on Amazon, which you can do for free. However, I strongly advise you not to publish your novel on Amazon until after you have been discovered locally, when you have received significant adoration from those whom you know, and of those whom they know.

If you publish on Amazon too early, you'll receive negative comments that are extremely difficult to remove. These comments will discourage other readers from purchasing your work.

It won’t do you any good to publish on Amazon if your novel sits there and languishes. Furthermore, Amazon publishes the original date you submitted your book. It won’t look good to potential buyers if it has sat there for nine years and ranks 945284th in the Kindle Store.

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