The Dark Side of Being a Bestseller

There’s an unspoken perception of bestselling authors that reminds me of the 1987 vamp flick, Lost Boys. You know, the one with Kiefer Sutherland in his pre-Jack Bauer days when mullets were still en vogue.

The film’s tagline was, “Sleep all day, party all night. Never grow old, never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Ah yes, the eighties. Good times.

Replace the vampires with marquee authors and you might get something like, “Write all day, play all night. Never go unnoticed, collect fat checks. It’s fun to be a bestseller.”

Kevin-kaiser-featuredkevin-kaiser-productThis guest post is by Kevin Kaiser, who has helped authors and publishers reach over 20 million fans worldwide. His online community, 1KTrueFans, helps writers find their voice, build an audience from scratch and create for a living.

Follow him @1KTrueFans.



The thing is, there is a dark side to being a bestseller. There are secrets they don’t share publicly.

I know because I’ve worked inside the Publishing Machine for nearly a decade, advising multi-million dollar bestsellers and publishers on everything from creative development to grassroots marketing. I’ve been equal parts strategist, editor, and counselor.

Bestsellers carry secrets, and if they were to share a few it might be these.

[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]

Expectations Change Everything

A New York Times bestselling novelist once told me, “You’ll never be as free as you are at the beginning. It’s easy to forget how to take risk and write as if no one is watching.”

She went on to explain how success creates a cycle that few authors know how to handle expertly, especially when recognition comes early.

Everyone loves the popular kid. In that way, life (and publishing) is a lot like high school. But, the popular kid is expected to not only stay popular, but to do a better trick next time so they can become even more popular.

Publishers expect it (who doesn’t want to be the popular kid’s parent?), retailers expect it, and readers expect it, too. Expectations can feel unrelenting and I’ve seen the pressure it brings to authors who feel the weight of it as they sit down to create.

Truth is, they don’t know why something becomes popular. No one does. But in a day when publishing decisions are made based on two to four weeks of sales performance, and not the long-term promise of an author, expectations are everything.

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Fear Doesn’t Take Hush Money

Success begets success and opens doors that were previously closed. It’s true and it enables you to “trade up” to higher social circles and opportunities. But even that too is a twin blade.

I’ve watched time and again as authors who were once large fish in a small pond find success. But inevitably, they find themselves surrounded by others who have sold more books than them, command a vastly larger platform, and might have even been on Oprah.

Like the rest of us, they often slip back into the comparison game. The tendency to play the game always leads to self-sabotage and fear. Fear of missing out, fear of not being successful enough, fear of being found out as a fraud.

No amount of money will quiet those fears, which is why refusing to play the game at all is so important. Authors who log decades of prolific output create their own rules, and the most important one is childlike in its simplicity.

[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]

Only one thing really matters.

If there’s one core lesson that has embedded itself deeply in my psyche, it’s that doing the work is what matters most. It is the point. The point isn’t having written, as many are so fond of saying, but the actual activity of creating that matters most.

You see, once you’ve released a story into the world it no longer belongs to you. The reader brings their world to the edge of yours and what they experience from there is a process we don’t control.

Doing the work for the sake of it truly is the staying power. It’s the love the craft, our surrender to the art of exploring and illuminating new ideas that matters most. Of course, recognition and compensation are nice, but the shine wears off quickly. Every success carries within it the seeds of suffering.

[Do you underline book titles? Underline them? Put book titles in quotes? Find out here.]

Act Like No One is Watching

Take my friend’s advice, no matter where you are in your writer journey. Write as if no one is watching. Write as if no one will ever read it or judge your work. That’s where the magic lies, and that is ultimately what readers want to experience, too.

I might change one thing. You’re never as free as you are right now, and the beautiful thing is that you can choose just how free you really are.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter





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6 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Being a Bestseller

  1. DreamClaimer

    I’m in the final stages of editing for my self-published book. And frankly instead of being excited I have been freaked out and couldn’t figute out why. I am rarely risk adverse. Then I read this in your article “You see, once you’ve released a story into the world it no longer belongs to you. The reader brings their world to the edge of yours and what they experience from there is a process we don’t control.” These two sentence illuminates much and I am grateful for that so thank you. This must be how parents feel when a child goes to college/moves away – the process is bitter/sweat.

  2. kevinkaiser

    Being a bestseller gives an author options just like having more money gives you options. But the seeds of discontent are ever present. I’ve met several multi-million selling bestsellers who hate the pressures of having to perform and top themselves with each new outing. They’ve lost the sense of lightness and play.

  3. Lydia Sherrer

    Wow, thank you so much for posting this piece! Though at heart, my passion is for the story, for telling and crafting, I am easily distracted by all the colorful trappings of fame/best-seller status. I find myself thinking about it as a kind of fantasy, as if all my problems will be solved “if” or more positively “when” I get there. Deep down I know that isn’t true, and it is helpful, and comforting, to be brought back to a solid, no-nonsense ground by this article. You can only truly carry on writing well out of love, and on love I will try to focus. Many blessings to you!

    1. kevinkaiser

      Thanks for the kind words, Lydia. You’re exactly right. Love for the work is the true staying power no matter where you find yourself on the “ladder of success” (whatever success happens to mean).

  4. writerdeeva

    After I completed my first novel I think I fell in love with it: the characters, the intrigue, the whole story! So, while working on the second novel I feel failed already…like it won’t live up to the first one. I am not in love with the characters…yet…and I have so much more to complete before I can turn to it and say, “I love it!” Fear is taking over making me feel like it will not be as good, or live up the first one. When you give your novel for others to read and let it go -and they love it, all I can think is, “Will they love this as much??? So writing the second one is not the same “freedom.” I am assuming it is like children: Your first you love so much you cannot imagine loving another, until that “other” comes out and your love just multiplies. I will take your words of advice and try hard to remember…I am a storyteller first! Everything else are just details to tend to…..


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