Chip MacGregor

April 22, 2016

Ask the Agent: How do you Define Success?


We’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. A lot of the questions have focused on the details of writing and publishing, but one person last week asked a profound question about the big stuff: “How would you define success?”

I have stayed away from talking about this topic on my blog a lot, figuring too many people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section that would make me want to barf (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). I think it’s easy to give a spiritual-sounding response. My problem is that I’ve been in this business for decades, and I don’t believe that sort of answer is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. That’s how most of us feel. Sure, writers are artists, and we want to express our creativity, but so much of the business of writing is based on sales that we tend to default to that answer. No, it may not be the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” or “creative freedom” when most of us talk about our writing careers.

So how do I define success as a writer? Let me tell you a story…

Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to tell people that “success is the feeling you get when you reach your goals.” I still stand by that definition. (And that wording is not original to me – it’s a bit of wisdom from management guru Bobb Biehl.) If you set a goal of getting one book contract this year, when you actually sign the deal, that wonderful feeling you have is the feeling of success.

That, of course, is why some people never feel successful, even if they’ve sold a boatload of books. If an author wants to sell 250,000 copies, but only sells 100,000, she doesn’t feel successful, even though she made a pile of money. If an author believes she deserves a $50,000 contract, but is only offered a $30,000 advance, she feels she hasn’t lived up to her expectations, so she’s not successful. That might seem crazy to you if you’re sitting out there waiting for somebody, ANYBODY, to offer you a couple thousand bucks for your unpublished novel. But that’s my point: success is more than anything else a “feeling” — an internal take on our external work. If you teach a writing seminar and everybody pats you on the back and tells you you’re the second coming of John Grisham, you feel successful… until you read the participant comments, and discover a couple people thought you meandered a lot, and some others didn’t appreciate your sense of humor, and at least one thought your outfit was ugly. Suddenly you feel like a failure. (And it’s amazing how ONE BAD COMMENT can take away your feeling of success.) And that’s what makes “success” such an ethereal concept. Some days I feel like a successful dad, since we raised three kids who turned into very nice adults. (Um…that’s mostly because of their mother, by the way. She did all the hard work. I more or less stood around and tried to look well groomed.) Other days, I feel like a complete failure as a father, since I remember I missed too many of Molly’s lacrosse games, and forgot to check and see how Kate’s dance recital went, and didn’t spend enough time talking with Colin when he was facing a hard time in school. You see? Success, more than anything else, is a feeling you get when you reach your goals.

As a writer, you have goals — to complete a book, to get a contract for a book, to land an agent, to hit the bestseller list, to sell 30,000 copies, to make $40,000 per year through your writing… whatever it is. If you reach those goals, you feel successful. If you don’t reach those goals, you feel like you’re not really all that successful.

Is that shallow? Of course it is! Who wants to live his or her life solely on the feelings of the moment? I don’t. I want my kids to know I love them, whether I’m feeling like a successful dad or not. I want my friendships to be permanent, whether I’m currently feeling like a nice guy or not. Success as a feeling is awfully fleeting — as soon as your one successful book starts to wane, you have to go do another one to regain the feeling of being “a successful author.” Every author who’s had a book on the New York Times list is worried when the next book fails to launch. So that’s why I remind myself that there is something more important than “success” in my life — there is the concept of “significance.”

Again, going back twenty years ago to the workshop I used to teach, I always encouraged people to consider “significance” over “success.” Significant people are those who made a difference in our world, whether they attained success or not. In fact, I defined “significance” as “making a difference in the lives of people over time.” And I still encourage people to make a commitment to be significant. Why? Because I think true meaning in life is not found in just achieving that good feeling of success, but in living with the knowledge that we made a difference in the lives of others. Maybe that’s why “service” is so important to living a good life. If you were raised in the church, you know none of the saints ever achieved greatness by exalting themselves — instead, it was usually earned by giving themselves up for others. I still think one of the most important messages in my Anglican faith is the notion that true joy is found in giving, not in getting.

Look, some of the best writers and artists of all time have not achieved success. Hawthorne never really felt successful in his lifetime. Van Gogh believed himself an utter failure. So did Poe. Their “success” (in terms of sales) came after their deaths. And some of the best American writers achieved great success, but died unhappy because they couldn’t retain the feeling (and probably because they were so focused on themselves that they never figured out how to be significant in the lives of others). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For that matter, take a look at any of the Lost Generation writers. Successful? Sure. Significant? Um, a mixed bag.

But just so you know, there have also been writers who have led significant lives, investing in other people, and I’ve found they are almost always happier than the successful authors. (Need evidence for this? Look at all the recently-successful authors who are suing everybody in sight.)

Okay, so a personal story: the guy who stepped in to help me after my father’s suicide was no success. I was 12, and I needed a mature guy in my life. Jim Peabody pushed a broom in a steel mill and probably never made more than $25,000 a year. He died at age 40 of liver cancer, proving once again that life ain’t fair. You’ve never heard his name before — he didn’t write any books or get on television or run for office. He wasn’t a celebrity, or gain any national attention. But Jim is one of the most significant men I ever met. He took a bunch of teenage boys who didn’t have fathers, or who were from rough homes, or who were living in the thriving town of Witch Hazel, Oregon, and showed us all how to be men. Today I can point to writers, teachers, engineers, US Navy officers, pastors, and solid husbands and fathers who are all at least partially the result of Jim’s work in their lives. I’m proud to be one of them. I’d like to be more like Jim. I wouldn’t be the guy I am if it hadn’t been for him. AND I can point to dozens of other lives that were changed because the guys Jim helped turned around and helped others. There have been hundreds of people influenced because of Jim’s life — a more-or-less “unsuccessful” guy who ended up living a significant life. I’ve always thought that was something Jim could take with him. There was perhaps no temporary feeling of success, but there was a firm belief that the world is a different place because of his work in the lives of a bunch of dopey, small-town guys.

You know, I’ve frequently had people ask me, “Why didn’t you make your living as a writer?” The fact is, I did for years. But I was basically a collaborative writer, and that was because of a simple reason: I didn’t really have anything to say. To do a great book, you need to share a great truth, have a profound message, and the fact is, I’ve only had one significant thought my entire life. But, since it relates to today’s topic, I’ll share it here: No matter what your spiritual beliefs, most everyone thinks that judgment happens at the end of time.

I don’t know how you feel about the concept of judgment, and no, it’s not a popular topic. I think the organized church has focused a bit too much on judging people, worrying who’s making mistakes rather than how we should all be nice to each other. But if you read what scholars and priests actually say about judgment, it seems that judgment doesn’t happen the day we die. (And I don’t care if you believe in all this religious stuff or not — just stay with me for a minute.) In nearly every faith, judgment happens at the end of time. Why? Because it won’t be until the end of time that the full influence of a life can be measured. The people Jim Peabody impacted are still making a difference in the world, so the full effect of Jim’s life isn’t complete yet. Therefore God (however you perceive him to be) is going to wait until the end of time, when we can all appreciate the influence Jim had on the world. Conversely, this is why Hitler hasn’t been judged by God yet. His thinking and writings still influence people for evil, and the full extent of his evil won’t be able to be completely evaluated until the end of time, after every life has been lived. Whether you believe in this same sort of thing doesn’t matter to me – we all want to believe in an eternal justice of some kind, so most of us assume something like this is what awaits people — that at the end of their life, we’ll see and evaluate the impact they had on others, whether for good or evil. And that’s why significance matters more than success.

As a writer and agent, I want to live a life of significance. I keep seeing “success” as a necessary part of earning a living, but I worry about throwing my life away in trying to achieve it. I don’t want to spend all my life answering emails and doing deals, and never having made friends, or fed the hungry, or helped a friend achieve something great. And that requires me to focus on someone else. Maybe this is why Saint Paul encourages all of us to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” so that we’ll have a mind focused on significance instead of mere success.

This is probably longer than you wanted, and no doubt much more philosophical than you were expecting, but it’s my take on the notion of success for writers. Would love to know what you think.

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  • Ellen Gee says:

    Great post Chip. I felt successful today when two of the moms I’ve been working with at my church’s single mom’s ministry got baptized. And one got baptized with her young daughter. We just try to do life with these women. We help them budget their finances, discipline more effectively, deal with their ex’s, and sometimes we talk them off a cliff or two. So today, I just sat there thinking how different these two lives had become. And how satisfying it was to play a small part in that change. You’re right, the story of our little group, way over here in Orlando, isn’t finished being written. But it’s beautiful to watch this chapter play out.

  • Sam Hall says:

    Chip, I take issue with a few points. You, not having anything to say? C’mon, my man. Anyone who’s been around you for more than 5 minutes will stick around for another 30. There must be a reason, you suppose?
    What makes you a (dare I say it?) successful collaborative writer/businessman/commentator/leader? Did you set out to get 47 comments (as of this moment) on this posting? Nah, you started philosophizing–showing us your heart. Give Jim Peabody credit. He taught you about being a man and you did what we (women & men) all want men to do–the unmanly thing of speaking of that which is inside you. Being real. Vulnerable. A dangerous thing to do.
    You mention the Apostle Paul. Despite setting records for sentence length, he wrote not for significance but for the uplifting, correction, and preserving of his audience. Yet he was one of the most significant writers of history. I doubt that he looked behind him to re-read the press reports.
    And what about this august group of Christian writers who’ve spoken on this page? We are blessed to be vessels of truth and hope and inspiration. The numbers don’t matter that much.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    Oh so true, Chip!! I used to have those goals of: agent, contract, book awards, sales, success. But significance is such a more appropriate and reachable goal!! I am a writer who has sold books and have had the pleasure of speaking with those who have read my books. Their words, our conversations, have more significance than anything award or contract ever could. I have learned much through loss this year. It has changed me and altered my goals: I will write what I want to write for my readers and for myself (personal growth) to make a significant contribution to this world. Those who left me this year, left without knowing the impact of their contribution to my life. I refuse to let that happen again, especially my life. My books will be left behind. I want them to matter.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good thoughts, Ruth. Thanks. What artist doesn’t want others to enjoy their work? Appreciate this.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Inspired post, Chip, and perfect timing for me today.

  • Aimee L. Salter says:

    So much truth here! (And not a little perspective). Thank you!

  • Danika Cooley says:

    I appreciate the distinction between success and significance that you’ve so clearly outlined, Chip. I want to serve… and it’s easy to forget that’s my purpose, especially when business is largely about numbers. I’ve been praying a lot about this, and I appreciated reading this today.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice to hear from you, Danika. Thanks for the kind words.

    • Danika Cooley says:

      I read all your posts, Chip, and always find them enlightening. This one was truly great. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And for those who don’t know, this would be Danika Cooley, who just published a wonderful biography of Martin Luther for younger readers, entitled “When Lightning Struck.”

    • Sam Hall says:

      Danika, just yesterday I re-read the notes from the workshop you gave at the OCW one-day conference. Just so much good material! And you were exhausted at the end; you gave your all. It was significant to me (and probably to most of the other writers there who were scribbling like mad to keep up), primarily b/c you approached it from the perspective of helping others. Therein lies your significance, in your servant’s heart.
      Thanks, Kiddo.

    • Danika Cooley says:

      Aw. Thanks, Sam. I’m so glad that serving others is what you got out of it! And next time I speak, I might try not to do it as I’m recovering from pneumonia. 😉

  • Kelly Stanley says:

    This is timely. I’ve been wondering about “success” in God’s eyes. I’ve had a book published, and it’s done okay but nothing stellar (i.e., less than my expectations, thus dashing my feelings of success). My second book comes out in August, and I have hopes that it will do better (of course). I really believe God made me to write… but if I don’t achieve certain levels of sales, I won’t be given more opportunities by publishers—which is why it’s easy to equate success with sales. I’m trying to work through what God would view as success—reaching just one person? The changes that He’s effected in me through this process? The discussions that have taken place in my family alone since they read my book? I think it’s a challenge for writers of faith to find that balance between doing what we feel called to do and meeting expectations on the business side. All of this is a very long way to say that your thoughts on significance vs. success are thought-provoking—and just what I needed to hear. Living a life of significance is the right goal. Thank you.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure it is, Kelly. It’s a tough balance for EVERY writer between “writing what we want to write” and “selling enough copies to make money.” But that’s the business we’re in. I think we have to remember that sometimes we write for art or calling or desire, and other times we write to pay the bills. That’s just reality… but I don’t want the money part to be the ONLY reason I write.

  • Angel Moore says:

    Wow. This is filled with poignant truth. Thanks for sharing something so precious from your youth. I’m sharing it now with someone who needs to know their personal value. Perfect timing. And feedback on your outfit? Really? I would say that was the epitome of insignificance.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s just reality, Angel. I’ve spoken at a bunch of conferences with people who were awfully concerned about how they looked. All of us like to look good in front of a crowd. Me too.

  • Great post, Chip. Excellent distinction. All so true. My success seminars start by defining success based on a very similar concept from Albert Einstein. He said, in essence, don’t think about success, or try to be successful. Focus instead on being of value. Genuine success is a byproduct of value. Find your gift(s), practice, develop them to the best of your ability, and then give them away. Success follows naturally.

    So true about the saints. Humility is primary–always putting other people ahead of your self.

    And I love the concept that our significance continues beyond our short times here, that judgment comes at the very end, long past our time here. Clarifies perspective.

    What you’re saying is the same as the genius, Einstein. I always knew you were pretty bright. Great minds think alike. 🙂

    Great blog post. Not too long, I’d say just right.

  • Lynette Eason says:

    It’s interesting how your posts keep popping up when I have time to read them. I’m guessing that’s because God has something for me to get from them. Ha. Anyway, I agree with your definition of success. It is definitely a feeling. And I’ll admit that, no matter how many books I’ve sold or how much money I’ve made, because I’ve never even been nominated for a Christy, I sometimes don’t FEEL successful. (I know it’s stupid, but there you have it…:)) But this post is a good reminder that here’s where we (I) have to desire significance more than the world’s definition of success–or rely on my feelings as a true indication of whether or not I’m successful. 🙂 If that makes any sense at all. So thanks for that reminder, I appreciate it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I really appreciate you saying that, Lynette, because it’s the sort of thing other writers need to hear. “I don’t feel successful because of THIS…” Exactly right — success is a feeling, and it will wax and wane. Good of you to comment. (And for those who don’t know, this is bestselling suspense novelist Lynette Eason, who has had big success and knows her stuff.)

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    God bless you, Chip. This was a great post and I loved it. You say you didn’t write for a living because to do a great book, “you need to share a great truth, have a profound
    message, and the fact is, I’ve only had one significant thought my
    entire life.” IMO your one significant thought is worthy of the time it would take you to write that great book.

    Significance, as you say, is key. It trumps success because success is fleeting and transitory.
    When all is said and done, the only lasting success will come at the end of time when works by folks like Jim Peabody will be judged for their significance in the lives of others . . . when we hear the “well done, thou good and faithful servant.” I guess that’s what keeps folks like me (who will likely never gain worldly acclaim) plugging away at the craft, trying to bless and comfort others through any available means–even a Christian advice column.

    I’m thankful for the significant role you have played in my writing life.

  • Allen says:

    Shockingly honest post. I was lucky to have had my own Jim also.

  • Traci Hilton says:

    This is so very wonderful. Thank you for writing it. I’ve shared it around some writer groups.

  • SteveHooley says:

    Fantastic post, Chip.

    As a physician/writer, I go home each night feeling beaten up, trying to take care of the needs of others. The frustration and fatigue leads to burnout. And the burnout makes me wonder, at times, what I’m accomplishing.

    Your post has reminded me why I got into medicine in the first place. It’s just what I needed. And it’s made a light go on as to what my writing goals should be.

    Thanks for a great Friday morning sermon.

  • Lauren Stinton says:

    Loved this. Well done.

  • Mike Sheehan says:

    Although many of your blogs contain plenty of humor, which I appreciate, this more philosophical one hit home, and I feel is the finest you’ve written (at least of the ones I’ve read). Thanks for your thoughts. I recently finished a draft of my second novel and was thinking about this very topic, of what success would look like this time around.

    A powerful message and good job.

  • Great post, Chip. Success is definitely in the eye of the beholder. To me success is having a solid opportunity to edify others. When a legacy publisher turned me down at the last stage of the acquisitions process and I signed with a smaller house, I didn’t feel as successful as I’d hoped because it’s hard to get a book noticed and harder if you have less people and less marketing dollars. But when the best publicist in the business got behind our project and God blessed me with the funds to afford her (knowing that my publisher is very competent to put together a high-quality book), I felt extremely successful because now I know that I will have a solid opportunity to make a difference. If the book doesn’t sell well, I can live with that. “Love me (always nice), hate me (with contest scores ranging consistently from 60 to 99 it’s bound to happen), just don’t ignore me (give me a chance to be significant in the life of others, sharing a message that took me 42 years to figure out on my own).” Thanks for sharing your story. Cheers!

  • Kathy Nickerson says:

    I think you have just lifted a heavy load from our shoulders if we will listen. You have certainly helped me. Thank you.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Really? I lifted a heavy load? I didn’t realize that, Kathy (or plan on it). I’m glad you wrote.

  • Thomas W. says:

    Many thanks, Chip, for your strong insights here and for sharing from your personal past… Grateful for you!

  • Wow, Chip! I was going to briefly check my emails while I made my morning coffee before heading downstairs to my office. But I find I’ve finished my first cup as I read your post on the sofa! Your concept of significance vs successful has given me much to think about as well as judgement at the end of time vs at the end of life. You’ve made an impact on me today – I’ll be looking at my goals in terms of significance and remembering Mr. Peabody.

  • Sandy Quandt says:

    Chip, I appreciate this post for many reasons but the main reason is your statement, “Because it won’t be until the end of time that the full influence of a life can be measured.” which had very little to do with how to write, but so much to do with why I feel we write. Thanks.

  • Lisa Godfrees says:

    Great post. I’ve always wondered how authors who are multi-published could be insecure, and now it makes sense–because their definition of success differs from mine. Authors who have unrealistic expectations will never feel successful no matter what they’ve achieved. /light bulb/

    Will you also answer the flip side of the question: What do publishers consider a success?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What a great question, Lisa… Publishers are ultimately looking for the same thing, I think. They want to sell books and make money, AND they want to do good books that influence people. I’ve never met a publisher who wanted to do bad books — they all want to do great titles and make a difference. Love this question. Thanks.

    • Lisa Godfrees says:

      LOL. You’re giving me credit for being more profound than I am.

      I was hoping for a more numerical answer. We hear about best sellers and mid-list books. You mentioned in the post about indie publishing that an agent/publisher wouldn’t pick up a self-published author who hadn’t had much success selling their own books. I was wondering what counts as success in terms of number of books sold? 1,000 copies? 10,000 copies? 100,000 copies?

      A self-published author may feel successful once they’ve recouped their expenses and start making money, but the industry might not consider them successful until … what? Perhaps that’s still hard to quantify and I’m asking a naive question.

      I know ACFW has tried to put a monetary value on this with their QIA requirement to enter some of their book award contests. I’m guessing that’s more of a minimum requirement (can’t remember if it’s $1000 or $2000 earned). Just wondering your thoughts.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay — love this question, Lisa. I’d like to answer it in its own blog post, so that it doesn’t get lost. That okay with you?

    • Lisa Godfrees says:

      Of course. Do I get some kind of reward for inspiring the most blog posts? 😉 Looking forward to it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — you’ve won a Grand Prize, selected especially for you!

  • Patricia Zell says:

    Powerful and so much good content, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, on judgment: the concept of judgment is not focused on punishment, but on setting people free from everything that keeps them from success and significance. When all is said and done, the force of judgment will work good in everyone’s life.
    Second, to me, success is achieving my goals, but it’s not a feeling and it’s not bound up in what other people think and/or do. Success is the satisfaction of knowing that I set a goal for myself, that I made the persistent effort required to meet that goal, and that I’m pleased with my results.
    Third, I don’t have the worry of throwing my life away in trying to achieve success. I’m okay with not having a whole lot of “friends” because I’m gearing my life towards reaching out to multitudes of people and bring them the joy of happy stories. I’m okay with not feeding the hungry (I went through a couple of seasons where that was a major focus) because I can’t reach everyone with food, but I can reach them with God’s light, love, life, and good in my prayer closet. And, as far as helping a friend achieve something great–something a lot of people would say you are already doing–every time I pray God’s blessings on everyone (a continual practice for me), great things are released in everyone’s lives.
    As you are aware of, I have a completely different context (that I work from) than many people. I see things in the context of the resurrected life that never ends. Thus, the overriding goals in my life are to be of the generation that experiences the return of Christ and to never die. The way I’m meeting those goals is to live in the Secret Place of the Most High with every single breath I breathe. And, living in the Secret Place of the Most High is the key to the success and the significance that is eternal.

  • Jackie Layton says:

    I’m going through a huge transition in my non-writing life now. I’ve worked at the same business for seventeen years, and the owner is retiring. He sold the business to a chain, and I’m going to work for them now. I’ve been concerned about my customers. I’ve been taking care of them for years in our pharmacy. I know their voices on the phone and their health conditions and their families. It’s been sweet to hear so many say they will follow us to the new store. While I’ve quietly gone about my job it seems as if I’ve made a difference to more people than I imagined.
    Your post today ties into the emotions of my week. Thanks for the reminder to stay focused on God and the rest will fall into place.

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