The Sweet Smell

- by Susan Lyons

Last week, a reporter who was interviewing me commented that I was a successful author. I quickly said, “Oh no, not all that successful.” Partly because I’m Canadian and we’ve been taught that it’s unbecoming to claim “success,” but partly also because I know that, in the publishing industry, I’m really not successful.

She pointed to the stack of books we’d built up for the photo she wanted to take. Yes, I’d thrown in my foreign editions, but even without them the pile would have been moderately impressive. Since I first sold in 2005, I’ve contracted for 11 novels of 90-100,000 words and 5 novellas, and I’m finishing the last single title now. My books are on the shelves of bricks and mortar stores, as well as coming out in electronic format.

To the reporter, that made me successful.

For me, it made me think about what “success” means. Is it completely subjective? Yes and no. You and I might think that having a dozen consecutive titles on the NYT bestseller list would equate to success, but how does that author feel? Maybe her parents have never said they’re proud of her, but keep asking when she’s going to stop writing those frivolous romances (or mysteries) and write a “real book.” Maybe the author still yearns for their approval, and won’t feel like a success until she wins it.

Having success in the eyes of the world is wonderful, and it did stroke my ego to have the reporter call me successful, but what’s really important is how you feel about yourself. And I wonder how many of us, in this very competitive, scary world of publishing right now, truly feel like a success?

Something I’ve found is that the goals keep changing. At one time, my dream was to see one of my books in print on a store shelf. And it happened, and it was thrilling. But it wasn’t enough. With that little taste of success, I wanted to move on to be a full-time writer, to support myself from my writing income. I’m still working toward that one, but I already know that if one year I manage it, it probably won’t be enough. There’s no such thing as job security for writers – and that’s pretty much true of any occupation these days. One day, you can be on top of the heap; the next, you can be unemployed. So, how can we ever feel like a success?

Is that why they talk about the sweet smell of success? Do you know what it smells like? I don’t. Maybe that’s because we never actually believe we’ve achieved it.

If that’s true, then I think we need a paradigm shift. Rather than chasing that elusive scent, let’s smell success often. In the yeasty aroma of the champagne that celebrates a new sale – whether or not the advance is higher than the previous one. In the invigorating smell of coffee as we sip the morning cappuccino that launches us on another day at the keyboard as a working writer. In the rich scent of the chocolate that’s our reward for finishing today’s 10 pages.

If it’s up to us to define our own success, then let’s be generous and find success in the small, day to day things that go into the writing life. Or, for those of you who aren’t writers, that go into the life you’ve chosen for yourself – be it as a lawyer, parent, actor, or volunteer.


  1. At our St. Pete conference, I saw friends I’d made in the 1980s. It’s wonderful that we’ve survived in this brutal business and for me, that’s success.

  2. You’re so right. Survival is a very sweet form of success. And it takes a lot of hard work to achieve it.