Frank Herbert: The Meaning of Success

Dune wasn’t supposed to sell 12 million copies.

In 1957, Frank Herbert was broke.

He had an idea, but ideas don’t pay bills. Masterpieces need time — time to research, time to write and time to think. It would take six long years to make Dune into a reality.

To support the family, Herbert’s wife Beverly made the ultimate sacrifice. She abandoned her own writing career.

In 1963, Herbert finished his manuscript. But there was a another problem: nobody wanted it. Rejection followed rejection. It was too long. It didn’t have robots. People don’t like change.

Even after Herbert finally found a publisher, but the problems continued:

The critics had panned it. More than twelve publishers had turned it down before publication. There was no advertising.

No advertising? Bad reviews? In the publishing world — where books sell on fake value generated by marketing machines — Dune was dead.

But something strange happened.

People started talked talking. House Atreides. Sandworms. Melange. Arrakis. They whispered the words of Dune in coffee shops, dorm rooms, and dark office corners around the world.

Dune refused to die.

A trickle turned to a stream and the stream to a torrent:

For two years, I was swamped with bookstore and reader complaints that they could not get the book. The Whole Earth Catalog praised it. I kept getting these telephone calls from people asking me if I were starting a cult.
The answer: “God no!”

Herbert calls Dune’s journey the “slow realization of success”:

What I’m describing is the slow realization of success. By the time the first three Dune books were completed, there was little doubt that this was a popular work — one of the most popular in history, I am told, with some ten million copies sold worldwide.

Most bestsellers are illusions. If you’re a tie-wearing businessmen who wants to title of bestselling author, all you need to do to hit the New York Times is hire someone to write your book and then buy ten thousand copies.

But lies can’t live forever. Time shows bad books for what they really are. In a few short years, these illusory bestsellers are dead.

More than 40 years later, Dune is still selling.


What happened?

Why did Dune succeed when so many books fail? Was it a fluke? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more — something about how Frank Herbert approached his art.

Here’s Frank Herbert’s on his writing process:

When I was writing Dune, there was no room in my mind for concerns about the book’s success or failure. I was concerned only with the writing. Six years of research had preceded the day I sat down to put the story together, and the interweaving of the many plot layers I had planned required a degree of concentration I had never before experienced.
There wasn’t room in my head to think about much else.

This reminds me of Steve Jobs, who obsessed over the aesthetics of the inside of his computers — things that nobody will ever see.

Herbert wasn’t out to sell books. He simply wanted the best possible experience for his readers:

A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story — don’t waste your energy on anything else.

Don’t think about money. Don’t think about success. Instead, focus on making good art. Everything else will follow.


The Meaning of Success

Herbert was often asked, “What does success mean to you?”

It surprises me. I didn’t expect failure either. It was a work and I did it. […] I was a writer and I was writing. The success meant I could spend more time writing.
Looking back on it, I realize I did the right thing instinctively. You don’t write for success. That takes part of your attention away from the writing. If you’re really doing it, that’s all you’re doing: writing.

You hear the man. The next time you get a crazy idea for a book, product or business, here’s something to ask: Do you work for success, or does success work for you?


Many of the quotes in this article came from a letter written by Frank Herbert in Heretics of Dune, sixth book in the Dune Book Series.

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