Why Money Doesn’t Equal Success

I often have had writers come to me and say they feel they have failed as a writer. They tell me they want to give up. And I find an alarming number of people measure this failure by one simple fact.

They’ve not made any money from their work.

In 10-11 years of blogging and writing regularly, I’ve interacted with many writers. And in my experience there are way too many writers who have been led to believe that their success as a writer or artist is defined by how much money they make from their work.

And it’s a total and utter lie.

It’s not money or profit which defines your success.

Its how true you are to your voice. (you can tweet that)

I recently wrote about how our art doesn’t have to be our day job. But this is different – as you can make money from your work without it being your job.

Or you might not.

I have not yet made too much money from my work. I have sold a very small number of e-books and had some minor, one-off paid work.

But I don’t consider myself to have failed.

Would I like to make more money from my work? Yes. I won’t lie. Would l love it to be my day job? Yes. Definitely. But if that doesn’t happen I am not a failure as a writer.

The only time I’ve failed in the past, and would consider myself to have failed in the future, is if I am not true to my own voice. If I am unfaithful to the message that’s in me to share.

That will mean I’ve failed. (And as a side point, even if I fail, this won’t make me a failure as a person. If I fail, I’ve failed – but it doesn’t make me a failure).

If you or I compromise our work simply to make a profit, then we’ve failed. No matter how much money we make, or how big our status becomes. Or how many speaking engagements or publishing deals we get.

Because if we do that,  we’re essentially just writing marketing prose. Lying – to ourselves and our readers – to make a buck.

If we ever do that as artists, we just failed.

Selling Out & The Lesson Of Achtung Baby

A more obvious example of this is found in music. How many bands do you see come along and create fresh, innovative music. With a fresh sound. A fresh voice. But instead continuing to risk, continuing to innovate, they find a formula or sound which guarantees success, and they stick with it.

It’s called selling out. And the reason is, because they are sacrificing innovation for the guarantee of financial success. Money has become more important than their art. And their work loses something when this shift in priorities occurs.

And it’s the same in all art. Writing, painting, film – anything.


In 1991 U2 had just had one incredible success (Joshua Tree) followed by a failure (Rattle and Hum). Their reputation was on the line. If U2 wanted to guarantee good sales of their next album, they could have just stuck to a formula which worked – made Joshua Tree 2 , which the fans were crying out for.

But they didn’t. They went away, dug deep, and listened to their inner voice. They worked and worked and looked deep inside themselves for something fresh, something true.

In the words of Bono, they risked it. And what came out of that was Achtung Baby, one of U2’s freshest, most innovative albums. Strangely enough, it was also one of their most critically acclaimed, and best selling.  But that wasn’t the point. The point was they were willing to risk failure, and to them money was secondary to creating their best, most honest work.

It’s an example to all artists.

Never compromise your true, raw, authentic voice for anything. Not money, not anything else.

Share the work you were created to make. Promote it. Put it into the world and tell people about it.

And just surrender the response.

If you do that, you’re already a success. Whatever the outcome.

Are you with me?


Question for Reflection:

How do you define success?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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(Picture Source: artwareforgood.com / wikipedia.org)

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  1. Elyse Sussman Salpeter on February 15, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    It was like this blog was talking to me. I’m a sales rep in my real life, I’m competitive and yes, for me, my mentality won’t allow me to distinguish success without monetary gain. Meaning, all this work, all this effort and yet I can’t pay for coffee on a monthly basis yet. I’m starting to get a fan base, I’m getting books out, yet I can’t mentally call myself a success. I think it’s because others look at my writing and think it’s a cute hobby and unless I MAKE money, then that’s all it will ever be. I need to start telling myself I’m a success as soon as one person contacts me and says “I loved this book.” Nice post.

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Wow, that’s incredible Elyse – so so glad this post was helpful to you. You’re a success, definitely. The day those books released, they were successful, you were and are succesful. Keep going and thanks again for the kind comment and encouragement!

  2. Wendy van Eyck on February 15, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Great post and so true!

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks Wendy for the encouragement – glad you agree!

  3. Holly Brooks Pennington on February 15, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I am learning to appreciate the creative freedom that comes with writing and not making money. For me, right now, writing success is learning, taking risks (2 kinds of risks: in my actual writing and by submitting my work to new places), and feeling energized by writing. Thanks for the great post!

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks so much for this encouraging comment Holly! So awesome that you see success as learning, that’s such a great attitude to have & example to many of us. Keep risking!

  4. T.O. Weller on February 15, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    This will resonate for so many writers!! You get online these days and everywhere you look, there’s someone telling us what/how/when/where/why to write. Not only does that make a lot of us question ourselves, it makes it that much harder to hear our own still, small voice.

    I just published a post about “quitting your day job”, but it’s less about making enough money with your writing and more about finding work that will help you find more room for your writing. Because, you’re right … if it becomes all about making money and paying the bills, it can so easily turn into writing marketing prose.

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      So glad this post was helpful, thanks so much for your wisdom and encouragement – great comment and totally agree.

  5. Liz Mallory on February 15, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Studies have shown that the more you are paid for your work, the more you value it. It’s a hard mindset to get out of when you switch over to your art. But like you said, failing doesn’t make us failures 🙂

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Yep, get that logic about payment and value – I believe (and I’m sure you agree too) that we should value all our work whether we get paid loads or nothing for it, and all our work has value. And definitely – failing never makes us failures.

  6. lisajey on February 15, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Truer words were never spoken James! Great post! So important to stay true to your art… and it’s hard to do, if you see some trickle of financial success (not always a risk for a writer – haha)…

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks Lisa Jey – really appreciate the encouragement!

  7. Scott Bury on February 15, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    I agree, James. Thanks for this. I define success as achieving the goals you set for yourself. As a writer, I think the sign of success is that the reader understands the story you wanted to tell. Although like you, I would not argue against having more readers.

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks Scott – glad you agree, on all fronts!

  8. Diane Rapp on February 15, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I’m happiest when I’m deeply involved in writing a new book. After the book is launched, I get worried that it won’t succeed, fret about daily sales, and wonder if the marketing world has once again shifted to a new direction. Since writing makes me happy, writing gives me more chance of selling, then writing makes for success. Will I starve if the sales lag? No. Then it’s time to jump into a new project. Anyone care to take a new trip into space?

    • James Prescott on February 15, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Absolutely the right attitude I think Diane – great comment!

  9. Marianne Sciucco on February 15, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    Great post. Love the reference to U2, my favorite band. I’m editing a 156,000 word YA novel right now, wondering what to cut because it’s “too long.” But that’s how many words I needed to tell the story. I have a feeling it’s going to stay a long book. The folks I’ve written it for won’t mind.

  10. Charles Dougherty on February 15, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Great post, James. I agree with your points. The only certainty is that if you don’t write, you fail.

  11. Luke Strickland on February 16, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Completely agree with this, and really relate to it too – yes I’d also love to make more money from my writing and content creation, but the act of creating, being authentic and putting it “out there” is as much success as the bottom line. As you say, the challenge is staying authentic. Great post and thanks for sharing!

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  13. Jules on August 21, 2017 at 8:52 pm

    oh so needed to read this! floundering a bit at the mo with my writing, over future direction and stuff, so good to be reminded to just use my voice! thank you 🙂

  14. Vicki Nelson on August 21, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Really cool post, James. I think part of the problem with any artistic endeavor is that we are often reminded by well-intentioned people that all artists are ‘starving.’ That success comes to the rare few (and by success, they mean money). I hear comments like this often. I’m learning to ignore them, though sometimes it’s hard. Thank you for reminding me that I am a success, just because of who I am.

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