How do you know if you are, objectively speaking, a success as a writer?
Although I may be accused of taking too simplistic an approach to this question, I really do think that it comes down to just one thing.
Well, in practice, of course, there are many potential indications of success. For example, people telling you they like what you write. People asking when your next book is coming out. That sort of thing.
However, nice as such accolades are, they don’t pay the rent, and talk is, or can be, cheap.
No. For me, the ultimate test of whether a writer is successful is whether someone wants to actually pay for his or her work. Payment represents a commitment that has consequences.
For example, when a magazine editor offers to pay you for an article, she has to make sure that the payment can be justified: to readers, the the accounts department, and to her boss.
When a publisher offers you an advance it is taking a chance, and gambling on you rather than someone else. They are saying, in effect, “We think your work is going to sell, and we’re willing to pay you.”
Payment is also an acknowledgement that your work is valued. And why not? If you spend time and effort honing your craft, you should get paid for your work.
And the corollary of that statement, of course, is that if you write for no payment at all, what does that say about the value you place on your own work, your own expertise, your own craftsmanship? If you are going to write for nothing, make sure you have a really, really good reason – not least so you can bear to look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.
If you would prefer a more altruistic reason not to work for nought, consider this. There’s a case for saying that the greater the supply of cheap or free articles, the less even paid writers can command. I’ll be exploring why this is in another article. In my opinion, it’s all to do with perceived cost.