Go beyond the initial answer to the deeper reasons we create because writers are not a homogenous bunch, and we all strive for different things, for different reasons, and this may change over time. But it's important to identify these so you can measure your journey, celebrate your successes and understand how far you've come over time.
It comes down to three questions:
• What is your definition of success – for this particular book and for your writing career?
• How will you track and measure that success?
• What do you want to do with that success? What is the point in your creative work?
Your answers will also tend to change over time, as your definition of success will be dependent on the progression of your writing career. Here are some of the more common variations as well as potential options for measuring them. All of them are valid and possible. The important thing is to decide what you're aiming for.
(1) It's my life goal to write a book. I want to create something I'm proud of and hold my book in my hand
This is perhaps where we all start – with the desire to finish a project and create something tangible. This is also why most first-time authors want a printed book that they can put on the shelf and show people. The focus of success here is on a creative project, which is a totally brilliant reason to write!
Arthur J Penn with Joanna Penn, celebrating!
For example, I helped my nine-year-old niece publish her first book, which led to her winning a national prize for speaking publicly about the experience. I also helped my Dad with his historical thriller, Nada. Neither of these are commercial prospects, but success can be achieved through self-publishing a few copies for friends and family.
If this is your goal, look at print-on-demand and read my book, Successful Self-Publishing.
If you don’t want to do it yourself, I recommend that you read Choosing a Self-Publishing Service by the Alliance of Independent Authors so you can avoid the (ever-increasing) scams in this growing industry.
(2) I want to get an agent and a publishing deal
This is easy to measure in terms of whether you make this goal, but remember that every agent and every publisher has their own definition of success e.g. some want a celebrity memoir that will sell millions, others may publish poetry for the love of it with no consideration of financial return.
Make sure that the agent/publisher's goals match what you want to achieve. Choose who you pitch to wisely. Then consider what other aspects of success are important to you because publication is only one step on the journey.
(3) I want to see my book on the shelves of a bookstore
We have shopped in bookstores all our lives and for many of us, a bookstore is a place of solace as well as adventure. When I was most miserable in my old day job, I would go to the bookstore at lunchtime and indulge in retail therapy to escape my life for a time. To see a book with our own name on it on those shelves must surely be every author's dream.
If you get a traditional publishing deal that includes print publication (and many are digital-only these days), then you will get into some physical bookstores. But remember that bookshops can only carry a limited number of books for a limited amount of time, so most that are not perennial sellers remain for a month and then are returned to the publisher to make way for the next batch of releases.
If you self-publish, it is difficult to get into physical bookstores, although it is possible. It’s costly even if you can manage it because of heavy discounting and returns. You can definitely achieve this through services like Ingram Spark, and it’s also possible to build relationships with your local bookstore so they will stock your books.
(4) I want to reach readers with my words
It's great to focus on readers, but I always challenge this definition of success, because it is so intangible. If you want to reach readers, then just put your book out for free on every platform in the world. But generally, most people don’t mean this kind of ‘reach.’
So, be more specific with this type of definition. How can you measure it? For example, is it achieved when you have ten five-star reviews on Amazon, or you receive a fan email from a reader you've never met? Or do you really want to measure success by book sales?
(5) I want to sell 10,000 books
This is a better definition than (4) because it is measurable and you will know when you get there. The number is obviously dependent on many things e.g. the genre you write in, as a children’s picture book will sell far fewer copies than a commercial romance novel; a narrative non-fiction memoir will generally sell less than a commercial thriller. It is also dependent on how many books you have, as you will more easily reach higher sales figures with more books.
This volume type of definition will also change over time. I started off with 1,000 books as a goal when I only had one book. Then I moved to 10,000, and I've now sold over 400,000 books, so my goals have changed again to aim for 1 million books sold. You can make it more specific if you include a timeline e.g. I want to sell 1,000 books in the first six months of publication.
(6) I want to receive critical acclaim and win a literary prize
You’re far more likely to win a literary prize if you go through the traditional publishing route. It’s the goal of most Master of Fine Arts (MFA) or Creative Writing programs to produce books capable of winning prizes. As for critical acclaim, again, you’re more likely to get that through traditional publishing and reviews in literary journals.
However, it is possible to achieve this as an independent author. A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava started out as self-published and won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize and was shortlisted for the Folio prize. The Alliance of Independent Authors also has an Open Up To Indies campaign, which will hopefully mean that more prizes and festivals open up to self-published books over time.
If this is your goal, you should also be aware of research that shows literary prizes can make the book less popular and most literary novels will sell fewer than 5,000 copies. So this definition of success may be incompatible with financial goals and significant sales volume.
(7) I want to make a full-time living with my writing
The definition of ‘full-time living' is different by country, even by region, as well as the huge difference between income needs for a family with kids to a professional couple or single writer, so be specific about the actual figure you're aiming for. Think about how that may grow over time based on how much you're writing over the next few years, as well as your own financial requirements.
Then have a look at AuthorEarnings.com to see if your genre is likely to earn that kind of money. I also go into a lot more detail about how to do this in my book, How to Make a Living with your Writing.
This became my definition of success in 2009 and was bound up with my self-esteem as a financially independent woman, as well as wanting to live life on my own terms. After much hard work, I left my job as a business consultant in September 2011 to become a full-time author-entrepreneur, and I've never gone back to the day job, so it is possible!
Of course, an income goal is not necessary for everyone, and for many, creativity alone is the reward. The full-time writing life is not for everyone.
(8) I want to create a body of work that I am proud of over my lifetime
This is the definition that will keep you honest about your creative output. You won’t rush a book to publication. You won’t put a book out without a professional edit, or a professional cover. You will strive for the best this particular project can be.
In the end, I want to write for the rest of my life, hopefully for at least another 50 years, so I’m in this for the long haul. But the creative journey is the point and there is no final end game. I want to earn a good living, but more than that, I want to be able to keep creating until the day I am no longer able.
“You're entitled to your labor, not the fruits of your labor.” Krishna, quoted by Steven Pressfield in Turning Pro
This article is an excerpt from The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn.