We live in a world where success is considered to be directly correlated to the amount of commas in a person's bank account, and to some degree, success and monetary returns are tangentially related. Industries have different ceilings in terms of salaries, and of course, some people choose a particular field of study or job position largely in part of the amount of compensation they will receive studying that industry or learning said task, but does this mean that success should be measured by dollar signs? The booming tech industry is a perfect example of when the amount of money you are pulling in is very much in line with levels of success. Corporate jobs fall into this category as do many other careers in America and across the world, but there are outliers to this standard belief. People who choose a life of creativity, and more specifically those who do this without being under the umbrella of a traditional employer and salary, stand out from the rest of the world in this sense. In fact, novelists can often flip that correlation around, as large amounts of money, in some writers' and critics' eyes, does not necessarily equal success.
Novel writing is one of the hardest creative fields in terms of making a career out of book releases alone. For starters, it takes an incredible amount of time and dedication to write a novel, even longer to edit the draft into a form that is fit for publication, and after that, money is still not guaranteed. Debut novelists are unlikely to receive an advance for their novel totaling more than what they would have made at a day job during their time writing the novel. Even established authors with multiple books have a hard time getting a decent advance with the state of the publishing industry in the 21st century. It is a profession where you do not get paid for doing the work, but for the results of the end product as it moves to publications. Quite often, novelists do not even make back their advance on a novel, so they do not receive additional royalties for their work, leaving them to start another novel with, again, no guarantees.
With regards to novelists who actually make a living solely on their fictitious endeavors, there is a discrepancy as to what amounts to success, whether it be in their own opinions, the eyes of critics, editors, or the few or many readers. If you ask a novelist, a book critic, or a publishing house about success in the novel writing business, answers will likely vary as to what determines success. There are two distinct attributes that can be examined: Entertainment and Enlightenment. Novels that are strictly meant to entertain generally bring in more money, where as novels that are meant to enlighten serve a much different purpose, one that cannot be measured in monetary value.
Of course, novelists want to get paid for their work, and would love to see their books fly off shelves and become instant millionaires, but that is a rare occurrence. Writers know that certain types of books generate more revenue, and for some, they target in on that market, but there are others that write novels as expressions of the heart. Unfortunately, these types of books are not consumed by the masses whether that be because they deal with serious, sometimes depressing topics or require critical thinking. A lot of readers do not want to think very hard while they read, which is fine, but for people who cherish words and expert craftsmanship, serious novels are more in line with their tastes. Writers that choose to write for solely entertainment purposes and ultimately money, are generally not as worried about the craft of writing. Those that choose to write big complex, thought provoking novels, are not as inclined to care if millions of people buy them, as long as there is an audience, and they are considered great works of literature.
That is where success based off of money ends in the world of serious novelists. Ask any honest book critic in the world what their thoughts are on E. L. James and they will tell you that her bank account does not reflect whether or not she is a successful novelist. While that may sound harsh, it is only a statement about the meaning of success in terms of novelists whose job is to write for a living. She may have more money than every Pulitzer Prize winner of the past decade but there none of those writers would trade the greatest prize in literature for her money and readership. Most serious novelists would be content with being able to release their novels, make a modest living and continue to focus on their craft and providing influential experiences to dedicated readers.
No one that takes literature seriously is going to say that E. L. James's writing changed their life, but people will say that the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr impacted them with his words. In that regard, Anthony Doerr is more successful that E. L. James as a novelist. I use her as an example because she has made an extraordinary amount of money writing prose that can be nicely described as cringeworthy, but there are countless others such as the James Patterson writing factory in which he does not even write his formulaic novels anymore which are released on what seems like an every other month basis. The romance writer Nicholas Sparks has mastered the art of melodrama and made millions from his books and film adaptations, but he has stated that he chose to write romance novels because no other male was doing it at the time and he capitalized on that. People love his books, but when a novelist chooses to write based off of what the market is interested in, their pursuits are not at all literary.
To be clear, not every genre writer, which loosely can be interpreted as writing for entertainment and storytelling, is unfocused on their craft though George R. R. Martin writes incredibly well as does Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Diana Gabaldon, along with many others. Those are household names that sell way more books than the likes of Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Martin Amis, Michael Chabon, and Cormac McCarthy.
Is Stephen King more successful than Cormac McCarthy because he has more money? Better question, has Stephen King given more to the world of literature than Cormac McCarthy? When we look at it through that lens, the answer is that McCarthy has been a more successful novelist than King. As an avid King fan, that is not to slight King, but simply to comment on the idea that more money does not equal a higher level of success in the book world.
The simple truth remains that most readers will always buy the book that entertains over the one that enlightens, but everyone knows that a lot of books that sell well are actually very poorly written in favor of telling farfetched stories used for escapism. Novels that are nominated for the most prestigious literary prizes do not give you the option to escape, because they are meant to make you feel, learn, change, and expand your mind. Novels that have the ability to change the way a person views the world are priceless. Those types novelists achieve a different type of success by contributing an important work of literature to the canon. Money does not make a novelist successful when truly evaluating literature, that right is reserved for the quality of the prose.