Success can come late for authors

Frank McCourt: a late starter

Frank McCourt: a late starter

If you’re a writer, you dream of the day one of your books will become a best seller. You imagine when your phone never stops ringing with interview requests from journalists, TV producers asking you to appear on chat shows, agents wanting to sign you up.

But for the vast majority of writers this dream will remain just a dream. According to a report from the International Publishers Association, UK publishers released 184,000 new and revised titles in 2013. That’s a staggering amount.

With such a crowded market place, getting noticed and finding readers becomes harder. Only a small number of books become genuine best sellers and find there way into the front of Waterstone’s and on to the shelves of airport bookshops.

However, there is no definition on what constitutes a best seller. Does it mean a book that sells over 20,000 copies, 50,000, 100,000? I think some publishers play fast and loose with this term. It’s seen as a good marketing tool to get a book noticed.

When my biography of Pope Benedict XVI was published in 2005 I was disappointed that the print run was only 5,000. I thought that it would be far higher. The book sold out, but the publishers didn’t do a second print run. They knew that the book had a limited time span. Its moment had passed.

At the time, I didn’t think 5,000 copies was an impressive sales figure, but now I think it was pretty good. Many books don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. Some don’t make it to three figures.

So if you’ve been writing books for many years, as I have done, and have only achieved very modest success, you might be tempted as you move through middle age to think your chance of producing a best seller has gone.

But it might not have. Success for an author can come late in his or her career. For proof of this, look at Frank McCourt, whose memoir of his Irish childhood became a huge best seller, won him awards, and spawned an equally successful movie.

“In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a Johnny-come-lately, a new kid on the block,” he wrote in is introduction to his third memoir, Teacher Man. “My first book, Angela’s Ashes, was published when I was sixty-nine…I never expected Angela’s Ashes to attract any attention, but when it hit the best seller lists I became a media darling.”

McCourt is not the only author to make it big late in life. Raymond Chandler didn’t make it until he was 51 when he published his first novel, The Big Sleep. Richard Adams was also in his fifties when Watership Down came out. Flora Thompson was 63 when she published the first volume of her semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy. And Mary Wesley waited until she was 71 to publish her first novel for adults.

So us authors in middle age can still dream as we sit tapping away at our keyboard and struggling to put sentences together. The most unlikely books can sometimes become best sellers, as can the most unlikely people.

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