My view of success changed with one email

I’ve heard since I started on this fiction writing journey that writers aren’t successful. The money is low, the sales aren’t less than you think, the fame is fleeting, if that, and the time you invest is something you never get back.

(Except if you’ve got a surname like mine. People seem to think I’m related to JK Rowling. Despite our names being very different.)

It can be disheartening when you’re starting a journey to find out the destination isn’t that hot anyway. But all those metrics have one thing in common: success equals return. And that return is measured in numbers – money, popularity, sales.

And those metrics don’t have to be used. You can select others that you’re happy with.

So, fellow writer, what does success mean to you?

Over the past three years I’ve talked to hundreds of authors about their writing journeys and their craft. Some of them have been striving for those number-based metrics, but some others haven’t. They’ve been focussing on completely different things – because they’ve defined them.

Maybe that’s the key to understanding success as a writer. You can define what you think success is. Please don’t think I’m downplaying commercial success or sales figures – they are valid ways of measuring achievement and I hope to get there. But what I am saying is that they’re not the only ways of being a successful writer.

Let me illustrate: ten years ago I published a book written to help couples who were having trouble conceiving. Called Swimming Upstream (, it was written to meet an emotional time for a couple for whom that longed-for child isn’t arriving like they thought it would.

I put the book out, and started going down the well-worn path where success meant sales numbers.

Until I got the email.

One morning I received an email from a woman who had bought one of the few copies of Swimming Upstream I’d sold that week. She and her husband had read it together in one night. This was her email:

“David, I wanted to thank you for writing your book. My husband and I have not been coping since my fourth miscarriage, and we were on the rocks. But we read your book – together – and we are starting to turn the corner. I’m not overstating it when I say that without your book we would be divorced by now.”

I read that last line about 100 times. “…without your book we would be divorced by now.”

Up until that email I had been disappointed with how the book had been going. It wasn’t selling like I thought it would. The marketing was hard work. It was starting to feel like a failure.

But it had played a role in saving a marriage.

God challenged me right then and there. Does success mean selling 100 books or helping one marriage? What if it’s one or the other? What if it’s both?

I’ve found looking beyond the usual metrics to be a way to keep on track, and to keep going when the numbers aren’t stacking up like you thought they would. And I’ll take it into my debut novel launch in March. Yes, I want to sell copies of The Baggage Handler (so does Thomas Nelson) and I would love for many people to have the chance to read it. But if lives are changed, that’s not a complete failure. It’s just a different type of success.

So what does success look like to you? What role does your writing play beyond the usual measurement tools?

And are you happy with that?

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