I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.
How to Know When You’re a Successful Author?
by K.M. Weiland
How to know when you’re a successful author? I suppose almost every writer asks this at some point—and very likely at frequent points. There are multiple ways to define and measure the answer. For many of us, the answer seems come down to commercial success. And yet because commercial success is sometimes elusive, this metric often seems at least vaguely unsatisfactory.
Recently, Wordplayer Rhonda Denise Johnson emailed me the following thoughts on the topic:
If you haven’t already, would you be interested in doing an article on how to know when you’re a successful author? What is the sine qua non of a professional success? When you land a deal with a big publishing house? So, should indie authors count themselves out? When your aunt Harriet stops asking you when you’re going to get a job? To paraphrase a writer is not without honor except in his own house.
I sometimes feel discouraged because I’ve been disappointed by the quality of writing in one too many so-called best sellers. It leaves me feeling like excellence doesn’t matter in this industry as long as your books sell. What we do when we craft a novel seems too precious to be measured in dollars and cents like merchandise, vacuum cleaners, and cheeseburgers. How then should an author measure herself, and how does he know when he’s “made it” as an author?
Rhonda’s email reminded me that I did, in fact, write a post on this topic: How to Tell if Your Book Is a Success. I wrote it at a time when my own career was relatively young and when I was earnestly asking the same questions of myself. My personal take on the subject remains pretty much the same as when I wrote that post, but since it’s been ten years (!), I decided it might be worth revisiting the topic, for myself as much as anyone.
Why Do We Feel It’s So Important to Be a Successful Author?
Taken at face value, the question of “how to know when you’re a successful author?” offers some pretty basic and obvious answers:
- When you’re published.
- When you’re a bestseller.
- When you make at least a comfortable amount of money.
- When you’re famous.
- When you achieve critical acclaim.
However, as soon as we drill down to any depth, what is also obvious is that all these answers speak to entirely different experiences within the publishing journey. For instance, just because you’re published does not mean your book will sell, provide you a living, or be widely read. And as Rhonda pointed out, just because you’re a widely-read millionaire does not mean you will necessarily achieve universal critical acclaim.
Right away, we can see that perhaps one of the reasons “how to know if you’re a successful author” is such an unceasing question for writers is that there really isn’t a solid answer. That said, the one thing that all these answers have in common is that they are pointing to the experience of writing something that finds external validation. At first glance, we might think this simply points to the need for ego gratification, but I think if we go down yet another layer, we find that what writers are really seeking from these forms of external validation is simply a sense that what we’re doing has meaning.
We all write for many different reasons. But mostly I’d venture that, under it all, we write for two reasons:
1. To share ourselves.
2. To impact others.
Both of these objectives, however unconsciously measured, are foundational to the human’s need to feel that who we are and what we do has meaning—that our time in this life matters in some way. But both of these are highly abstract and thus difficult to measure. You may write something that changes my entire life, but you’ll probably never know it. In fact, I may not even know it. I may read your words, internalize them unconsciously, and never realize they were the fulcrum on which my future just turned. But it doesn’t matter if either one of us fully realizes what just happened. What you wrote—who you are—just mattered. I’d say that makes you a successful author. And yet… you may never know it. Certainly, you can’t measure it.
And so, we usually turn to more concrete measures of success, as defined by whether others are willing to read our work, publish our work, pay us for our work, and praise us for our work.
These are all entirely legit metrics of success, particularly if our abstract motivations are also driving eminently practical goals such as making or supplementing a living. But if we focus our definitions of what it means to be a successful author entirely on practical metrics, it can be easy to discount our true and deeply personal definitions of success.
My Evolving Definitions of What It Means to Me to Be a Successful Author
When I wrote my original article, pondering what it meant to be a successful author, I was about four years into the biz of being an indie author. I’d published two novels, neither of which had gone gangbusters, and my first writing-craft book, Outlining Your Novel, which had done well. It was a time when I was beginning to find the culmination of some of the more practical definitions of success, while also coming to terms with areas in which my career was not looking like the poster version. I was just starting to make enough money to be able to write full-time, and yet indie authors were still largely viewed as “less than.” Particularly since I wanted to be a full-time novelist, not a full-time non-fic writer, I sometimes felt conflicted.
Time went on, and the website continued to grow. I published more novels that met with only moderate sales and more writing guides that continued to sell solidly and allow me to launch into being a full-time writer. By most practical metrics, I could view myself, at least as an entrepreneur and non-fiction writer, as successful. I had accomplished many my goals, and yet the “success” finish line always seemed out of reach. I began to realize that continuing to measure my success by outside metrics was a never-ending treadmill. There were always better sales rankings to achieve, a higher income to chase, more awards to seek. Wherever “there” was, I’d never reach it. There was always more external validation to seek.
In short, my experience has been that defining success is a slippery thing. Even if you reach the baseline of what popular consensus agrees is “successful,” this doesn’t automatically mean you will have found either personal or perpetual success.
So how do I define a successful author—both for myself and others?
Certainly I factor in external metrics. By most commonly agreed-upon definitions, success does entail publication and decent sales. If I see an author who checks those boxes, there’s a little “success” light that goes on in the back of my brain. But the light also goes on when I read a little-known indie work or an unpublished novel and it’s awesome. And that light also goes on when I hear from writers who by their own definition have reached success, whether this means finishing a first draft, self-publishing, or even simply writing something for themselves that helped them find personal healing or happiness.
In short, I believe the single most important metric in knowing whether or not you’re a successful author is first and foremost getting super-clear on your definition of “success.”
How to Define Your Own Success as an Author
Why are you writing? It’s a question with a multiplicity of answers. But if you can dig down to the root, you’ll probably discover the essence of your own definition of success.
Most of us write primarily because it scratches a deep-down itch. But you are also likely writing because you want external validation.
For you, maybe it’s enough just hearing that a reader had fun reading your story or was moved by it. Or maybe, for any number of reasons, you want writing to be a lifestyle—and you need it to pay for itself. Or maybe you just want to feel your own joy and excitement about your story mirrored back to you in excited reviews.
Whatever the case, try to get as specific about your reasons as possible. Then create a personal metric that can act as both your mission statement and your measuring rod as you journey forth to seek success. Most likely, you will find that you have many layers of metrics, some of which will evolve with you as time passes. Examine not just your own goals (i.e., finish the first draft, get published, get 10 reviews, sell 1,000 copies), but also how you define other writers as successful. In your view, are only the super-famous such as Stephen King successful? Are only books about serious topics successful? Are only traditionally-published authors successful?
There are no wrong answers. There are only your answers. For instance, if you realize you need the stamp of a traditional publisher in order to feel successful, that’s probably a sign that, at least at this point, you should steer clear of publishing your book independently. If you realize you feel a certain dollar sign is your definition of success, then you can distill your goals to help you leverage your marketing. If your primary reason for writing is simply self-expression, this may help you feel successful even if external validation is lacking.
For me, two realizations are paramount in helping me define my own success.
One is that success is a moving target. At one point, selling 1,000 books seems like success, but after you’ve reached that, the definition may change into selling 10,000 books, 100,000, even 1,000,0000 or more.
Second, “success” is only the point insofar as it offers a reward. That reward may be simply the sheer practicality of keeping the electricity turned on. Or it may be the need to prove something to yourself—that you can write a book, publish a book, sell a book, share a book that matters to people. When whatever it is ceases to offer personal validation, it can no longer be used as a benchmark.
The pitfall to be avoided is identifying ourselves with any one definition of success—and especially if that definition comes from someone other than ourselves. Success, in the end, doesn’t matter. It comes and it goes. Only a few of the authors you now see ranking on Amazon will be remembered past their own lifetimes. To use metrics such as sales, reviews, etc., to calibrate our goals is one thing, but to define our identities as “successful” or “unsuccessful” based on these things misses the true heart of what it means to live a meaningful life as an author.