Pub Rants

Overnight Success Takes 2 to 10 years

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STATUS: TGIF (Even though I’m blogging a bit late tonight.)

What’s playing on the iPod right now? IT’S TOO LATE by Carole King

Have you ever noticed that when an author becomes really popular, readers act like the author’s success appeared out of nowhere?

In reality, a big success takes anywhere from 2 to 10 years.

For example, in the young adult world (and in a lot of cases, the adult world as well), Stephenie Meyer’s name is on everyone’s lips. As an author, her Twilight books seem to “come out of nowhere” (if you talk to folks who have recently discovered her).

But the first book TWLIGHT, was originally sold in late 2003 and the initial hardcover of the title released in 2005.

It’s not three years later and suddenly this author’s name is everywhere (including a lot of non-print media). For a lot of folks, it feels like “overnight” success. However, that’s really an imaginary construct. Basically the book just reached critical mass in terms of awareness and thus looks like the success is sudden.

Here’s another great example. I sold my author Ally Carter’s first YA book, I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU back in 2005. It released in hardcover in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2 years later that this title hit the New York Times Bestseller list.

Overnight success indeed! I think I would call that more a slow build but except for rare exceptions, that’s how overnight success really happens.

31 Responses

  1. L-Plate Author said:

    Oh Kristen, what a superb post and at such a crucial time for me. I have been trying for nine years to get my books published. I’ve taken huges steps forward only to be sent backwards over and over but I’m still at it. At the moment I am a step forward, working with a mentor well respected in the publishing world who has told me to scrap my first book and concentrate on my other two with her help. Let’s wait and see.

    Really like your blog btw.

    Mel, Stoke on Trent, England

  2. Susan said:

    I think writers laugh when they hear someone called an ‘overnight’ success; we know how long it takes to write a novel, revise and polish and shop it around, and then wait again while it waits to see print.

    It’s nice to be reminded to not lose hope if something doesn’t wow the world right out of the starting gate: thanks for this post!

  3. Amy Nathan said:

    It’s good to remember this in many aspects of life. I always say it takes 10 years to get rich overnight. Same with natural beauty takes time and money (ok, once you hit 40)

    But I like to think a slow burn lasts longer too!

  4. Just_Me said:

    My writers group has a running gag about the idea of overnight success. It’s one of our favorite in-house jokes, because, didn’t you know?

    Writing is the quickest way to make money! After all, it’s just words on a page!

    And no there’s this handy software that won’t just print your pages neatly but will generate a query letter, grab you an agent, print cover art, and arrange a 6 figure deal with a major publishing house for you.

    Don’t you have that software at home? Why ever not?

    But wouldn’t it be nice? Submit the teeny tiny plot outline and have a bestseller print out… just like printing money…


    Never mind the editing, the rejection letters, the rewrites…


  5. David said:

    In an interview recently Neil Gaiman said he reckoned he had been an ‘over night success’ at least 6 times in his career…

    Does time just move MUCH slower in books?

  6. Anonymous said:

    why do you think Ally Carter’s book made it to the NYT bestseller after 2 yrs? was it word of mouth?

  7. jeanoram said:

    I understand what you mean. For me, Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ has been around forever. I used to work as a YA librarian and got used to this cover coming in and out of the library all the time. Now when I go to bookstores, I see it at the front of the store looking all gorgeous and think, ‘That’s not new’.

    As a writer, thanks for the reality check. It’s easy to get swept up in my husband’s dreams of me selling a book and two months later being on a book tour to a string of exotic places. Which would be okay, but I know that is pretty far from reality. Now I can show him this and say, “See, honey? It takes a little longer than a month or two.” His support is lovely, but sometimes a little misguided by his own dreams of grandeur. 🙂

  8. cindy said:

    i always assumed that you’d have to hit the nyt within a few weeks or months of release or it’s never going to hit it. (unless a film is made or some such.)

    do you know why ally’s hit it two years after the fact? i think that’s wonderful and amazing.

  9. K. M. Walton said:

    It seems society at large is obsessed with the term ‘overnight success’ – which is odd. It’s almost like we don’t want to aknowledge all it takes to become truly successful…in any venue.

    You know that old saying, ‘you reap what you sow’? Well, to me, its the recipe for sucess, with a little luck sprinkled in and a generous cup of determination. Bake for…oh, like, years…and voila.


    I hope MY oven is working because I’ve been on my quest for publication for a while.

    No cake yet.

    But, I’m not giving up…

  10. nomadshan said:

    Seems to be the case in music, too. When Shelby Lynne won the Best New Artist Grammy, she got to the podium and said something like, “It’s been 15 years getting here, but okay.”

    Depends on your perspective, I guess!

  11. Arovell said:

    Wow. I didn’t know that about Twilight. I used to be so impatient with the publication process, but the more I read blogs, the more I accept the way it works. It’s a reality check, but I’m glad to know about it. It’s not going to deter me, anywho. ^.^

  12. Anonymous said:

    Indeed, success often does not come overnight. However, given the climate in the publishing business today, I don’t believe that more than a handful would keep a book in print unless it sold a minimum of 5,000 or so copies in the first year.

    What’s your take on this?

  13. Doreen Orion said:

    I think that’s true for a lot of artist-types. Actors and comedians talk about it all the time.

    Still, nice to know since my book just came out 3 months ago!

  14. Kelly Swails said:

    Just like “overnight success” with actors. They’ve been auditioning for ten years, taking acting classes every day, but when they explode after their sitcom becomes a hit, it’s “overnight.”

    I think the term speaks more about the media machine than the artist involved.

  15. Kristin said:

    I am also wondering along with anonymous…how do writers find success with a book 2 years after it’s been published? What makes the publisher decide to keep in print so that it does find a larger audience and make it to possible bestseller status?

  16. John S said:

    Doreen and Kelly both made the comparison with actors. Walter Matthau said something like “All you need to make it in this business is fifty lucky breaks.”

    I like just_me’s roundup of ironic writer’s group comments. The thought process goes right along with the people who say “One day, I’ll write a book”, with the implication that all it would take would be a couple of free weekends.

    And of course, the people who say “I’ve got this great idea. I’ll tell it to you, you write it up, and we’ll split the profits”—!

  17. Anonymous said:

    This post is a little confusing.

    When writers are talking about someone’s “overnight” success they aren’t really talking about the length of time it takes the publisher to get their book onto bookstore shelves. They’re referring to people like Stephenie Meyer — to the fact that she “decided” one day to write a book, wrote it in only 6 months, and landed an agent in her first batch of quieries. Then, boom, had an auction and made close to a million dollars for her debut books.

    Sorry, that IS an overnight success.

    Same with Ally Carter’s books. An author who was not a struggling writer, but a struggling screenwriter at first — sold her books within a short time of you pitching them and became a NYT best seller.

    Again, that IS an overnight success.

    Most authors write 2-3 books before they write one that’s publishable, and even of those only a handful will be able to get an agent at all.

    I lurk at — hundreds of kidlit authors there, sharp and well informed in the industry, and some of them have been writing for years and yet can’t sell even if they do have an agent. And then there is always that one writer who snags a zillion dollar book deal after a measly 6 months and suddenly the author is a lead title somewhere, and will start tossing out advice to the other struggling writers, not realizing she doesn’t “know” any more than they do.

    While it’s always exciting to hear these stories — (and Ally Carter is the exception to this because I’ve heard her speak and she seems nothing if not humble and gracious) it is these Overnight Success writers that often come off as arrogant and ignorant of the process by stating things like, I’LL NEVER HAVE TO WORK AGAIN!!

    These are the people who I wish weren’t an overnight success, because if they struggled just a tad more, they’d be grateful instead of acting like it was only a matter of time before the world recongized thier brillance.

    Rant over.

  18. Adrienne said:

    With all due respect anon 7:42, I think you kind of missed the point as well.

    Certainly everything you said about how quickly some people get published vs others is very valid, as is the point about over inflated egos (though to be honest, I have yet to meet such an author, but I may just have been lucky that way). But that was not what Kristin was referring to. She is talking AFTER you have the publishing deal, the fame and success that follows it being considered overnight.

    The Ally Carter example is a great example. She released her first book. It did okay. But she was not on the NY Times bestseller list or anything, her name wasn’t recognisable around the web. It wasn’t until book 2 was released that suddenly everything exploded. To consider her this overnight success when she had already published a book is a fallacy. An overnight success suggests a first time author who gets published and then right away is winning awards and on bestseller lists. It took 2 years for Ally, not exactly a huge amount of time, but still, many authors when they first are published get really frustrated that they aren’t immediately a bestseller. Moreover, they assume that if they don’t make it right out of the gate, that’s it.

    This post is actually uplifting, letting authors know, minus a few exceptions, most of those “overnight successes” weren’t. They had other published books out there, and then finally they got their break. This posts tells authors that there is always a chance at the big time even if it doesn’t happen right away.

    Sure what you say about how some authors struggle for years, and others get everything right away is true, but that is not what this post is talking about.

    Anyway, thanks Kristin for this post. I have to admit it did make me feel a bit better, like there was still hope for me and my writing career! lol, silly I know!

  19. AstonWest said:

    But anon 7:42 does make a good point…and I’d venture a bit further and say that such stories tend to reinforce the myth that publishing is an easy business to break into, when the truth is often far different.

    I’d also be interested in finding out the story behind the two year delay mentioned. I would think the publisher, after two years, would have given up on the story. So, my guess would be that the author had a big hand in promoting the book on their own during those two years. Either that, or some freak happenstance occurred with a grassroots campaign.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Anon 7:42,

    Ally Carter started in women’s fiction (two titles that I know of) before making the move to YA. A writer needs depth of skill, and confidence in that skill, to pull off a genre change successully. That isn’t something you learn overnight. So she really is a good example of putting in the time.

  21. Adrienne said:

    astonwest – how exactly does Ally’s story perpetuate the myth that publishing is easy? Hers is the exact opposite. She had written several books before she got her success. Heck even with Stephenie Meyer the point was that even though she got the book deal quickly, it wasn’t until a couple years that she became the phenomenon she did.

    Also are you saying that authors should not get published quickly because it perpetuates some myth? I don’t get it, it’s not in their control. Some authors get agents and contracts right away, some take decades . . .exactly what are those authors supposed to do? Should they say, “No I won’t take this publishing deal as it will perpetuate the myth that publishing is easy.”

    As to the two year thing with Carter, I would wager that with her YA series, the first book sold fine, but then when the second book came out people noticed. That often happens, when readers see that an author has written more than one book in a series they start to pay attention.

    But that is just speculation.

  22. AstonWest said:

    Heck even with Stephenie Meyer the point was that even though she got the book deal quickly, it wasn’t until a couple years that she became the phenomenon she did.

    Sorry, should have clarified that I meant S.M. Getting published on your first round of queries after six months of writing your book is the exception rather than the rule.

    Also are you saying that authors should not get published quickly because it perpetuates some myth? I don’t get it, it’s not in their control.

    Hey, I wish that everyone could get published right out of the gate. I wish I could have… 🙂

    But the honest truth is that most authors aren’t going to. I’m not saying they should feel guilty when they achieve success that quickly, nor that they shouldn’t take it when it’s given. My point is that there are new authors who will use this to “prove” that success will be thrust upon them almost immediately. You and I both know that to be false, but it won’t stop them from using it, much like many POD authors spread around misinformation about popular authors who sold out of their trunk just like they are.

    When success doesn’t strike for them, some will become embittered against the industry, and others will become disillusioned and quit. All because they were under mistaken impressions.

    Some authors get agents and contracts right away, some take decades . . .exactly what are those authors supposed to do? Should they say, “No I won’t take this publishing deal as it will perpetuate the myth that publishing is easy.”

    You mistake my opinions as some sort of smack down on authors who achieve success. That’s not the case (did I mention I would have been more than happy to achieve success that quickly?). I’m just stating that authors who achieve success that quickly are the exception, rather than the rule. I’d much rather spread information about the pro authors who spent years getting into the business, because that’s the more realistic portrayal of publishing. It’s not that rapidly successful authors are bad people, it’s just misleading to bring those up as examples where new authors could get a mistaken impression (and likely kill a future talent when they get discouraged because it takes them years to find an agent alone).

    I wish I had time to find the YouTube video regarding an author’s impression of how publishing works…maybe I’ll be back later.

  23. Janny said:

    Unwittingly, some writers’ organizations also perpetuate the myth that there’s a certain period of time within which one “should” be successful, and if not, then you need “therapy” of some sort. Case in point was at one of my first RWA conferences, when there was a workshop titled, “What If I’ve Been Writing for Five Years and Haven’t Been Published?”

    At that point I believe I had been writing seriously for…about seven years, if not more. I read the title of that and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry first. I think I did both. Because, even though we *know* better, having a writers’ organization put forth the idea that somehow there’s an unspoken time limit on this craft, and that if you’re not “successful” within that time limit, there’s clearly something WRONG…perpetuates part of this myth as well.

    I, too, am mystified as to how a book two years old even qualified for the NYT bestseller list. I was under the impression that you had to hit that list right out of the gate, or very soon afterward, or you weren’t even in the RUNNING for it. So it’s actually encouraging to know that such a thing can happen when your subsequent book brings more “buzz” for your first, and more sales.

    That being said, I, too, have heard my share of authors who wrote for six months or a year or the like, submitted their first manuscript, and had it sell. Some of these authors are smug; some of them are “humble.” But I would also submit, as another post said, that it’s hard to sit and listen to these people giving workshops in things like “how to succeed at publishing” when their experience is so out of whack with the overwhelming majority of writers that listening to them isn’t informative, it’s depressing.

    OTOH, I did get a chuckle or two when, as a Golden Heart finalist, I told people my acceptance speech was going to be very short: “Ten YEARS. Ten friggin’ YEARS.”