Does pursuing success make authors unhappy?
Thoughts on career goals, "success," and the hedonic treadmill.
I don’t know a lot of happy trad authors these days. Most are frustrated with the state of the industry and many are also unhappy with the state of their careers.
This isn’t breaking news. I’ve written before about how how everyone in publishing is overworked and underpaid. The topic has also been covered in the Times and PW. But I don’t think the issues covered in these pieces are the core reason why so many authors are feeling…less than pleased.
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So what is the reason? It’s pretty simple, in hindsight, and but it didn’t click for me until I stumbled upon an old Atlantic article (‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy), which a friend had posted about on insta.
So much of this article resonated with me. I saw myself in the piece. In fact, I saw almost every author I know in it.
Author unhappiness, I’m now thinking, comes from the illusion that we can influence and shape our careers within the traditional publishing structure.
But let me back up for a moment…
Authors want to be successful. We want our books to find readers and we want to put more books in the world.
So what’s wrong with pursuing success? Nothing. It’s human nature. But the Atlantic article points out that success has addicting qualities. Praise provides a dopamine hit, making it easy to grow addicted to reaching that next career milestone, promotion, achievement, etc. Simply put, success makes us feel special. And, as the article also reminds us, people often “willingly sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success.”
We burn ourselves out chasing success, chasing specialness.
And to an extent, it’s no wonder. Regardless of profession, career success often means raises and financial security, and who wouldn’t want that when we live in a world where the cost of living continues to drastically outpace wage growth. (Plus, here in the states, American culture romanticizes overwork. The US is one of only a few countries to have no mandatory paid maternity leave, and US guaranteed paid vacation time is horrific compared to the rest of the world’s rich countries.)
Still, the Atlantic article goes on to point out that even when personal sacrifices are made and an individual achieves success at a massive level, the pinnacle of “specialness,” it rarely equates to lasting happiness.
Most people never feel “successful enough.” The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next goal.
Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which satisfaction wears off almost immediately and we must run on to the next reward to avoid the feeling of falling behind. This is why so many studies show that successful people are almost invariably jealous of people who are more successful.
In simple terms: everyone is trying to climb up the ladder of success. If we look at the publishing landscape, we can see this in action:
Aspiring authors would love to break into the industry (by snagging an agent or getting that first book deal).
Midlist authors just want to climb a rung or two up the ladder in terms of sales/recognition, and after that, maybe hit the Times list.
A recent bestseller wants to become a blockbuster, holding a slot on the list for months at a time.
The blockbuster authors want to maintain or keep growing, because otherwise they backslide. They move down the ladder. And where’s the dopamine hit in that?
And look, there is nothing wrong with ambition. It is human nature to want more, to crave success and praise. It leads to security, after all. It makes us attractive and desirable. It’s how we survive as a species! But it’s also making us unhappy…
Publishing “success” is relative
Whether a traditionally published book is deemed a success depends on a lot of factors. Namely, how much the publisher paid for it, their expectations for its performance, and the actual sales numbers. (Sales in preorders, opening week, first year, and beyond.)
In the writing community, we often fall back on this “success if relative” bit to reassure ourselves. Because yes, a book can be successful even if it sells only a fraction of what a recent bestseller did. And also because many books don’t sell lots of copies despite our best efforts. (Recent coverage of the PRH/S&S antitrust trial revealed jaw-dropping numbers to prove this, and even though comments from analyst Kristen McLean put them into a bit more perspective, it’s startling how many novels don’t succeed.)
The fact that the publishing industry uses book sales as its main metric for success is deeply problematic when it comes to author happiness. On one hand, it’s a business, so I get it. Of course we look at the numbers to determine if a book is successful. But those same numbers continually influence and shape an author’s career.
Trying to sell another book? Pubs will look at your past sales.
Negotiating an advance? A pub’s offer will grow or shrink depending on that sales track.
No wonder so many authors are unhappy. We’re all stuck on the hedonic treadmill, chasing the next milestone, but the main metric being used to determine our futures is book sales, something we simply can’t control but the industry heavily values.
Complicating things farther, those sales numbers follow us! In more traditional careers, you can often better your situation by changing companies. I did this when I worked in design. Accepting a job at a new design studio could provide me with an advancement in title and/or a salary raise—an opportunity that was possible at my existing job but may have taken a lot more time to come to fruition.
However, in traditional publishing, sales numbers follow the author. Leaving one publisher and moving to another guarantees nothing, certainly not a raise (higher advance). It might just result in the opposite.
The hard truth
The Atlantic article lays out some hard truths, mainly that no matter how successful you are, were, or hope to be, it is virtually impossible to find happiness on your career’s hedonic treadmill.
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