Every person, every family, every culture, every country, race, ethnicity, or religion has some definition of the concept of success. Even specific industries measure success with some (or many) type(s) of metrics. From a young age we’ve all had someone or some institution in our lives hammering what success is supposed to look like into our heads. Is it money? Other material possessions? Some milestone such as starting a family or retiring early? Is it autonomy from the machinations of society?
What is success? How do we measure it?
The concept of success is entrenched in the world of writing and publishing. Just like any other industry. Benchmarks and milestones and achievements of what that looks like are presented to us as a way of quantifying and validating whether or not what we’ve managed to accomplish is actual success.
Most of it’s bullshit, to be quite honest with you.
Success is a concept, not a destination. Because what happens when you hit the milestone that means “success?” And it can vary greatly on even a microscopic level–from person to person.
Unfortunately, as with most things that are abstract–such as success–I can’t give you an answer as to how you should decide if you’re successful as a writer. However, I can share with you what success means to me as an individual, and leave you to help it guide you towards your own definition.
For me, success is measured in both quantifiable measurements and by using intangible measurements. It’s a multi-level system of deciding if I’m doing well as a writer that I usually check in on each day.
The quantifiable stuff is sales, rankings, feedback from readers, and how much I am able to accomplish that I can hold in my hands (i.e. actual finished products/books).
The intangible is how I feel. Am I fulfilled? Am I happy? How does writing as a career work with my life? Am I doing this for the right reasons still?
The intangible is usually a lot harder to figure out as compared to the quantifiable, measurable stuff.
But let’s start with the things that we can quantify and validate. How do I measure success in tangible terms?
If I’m selling books everyday, I feel successful. If all of my books are rated at least an average of 3-stars, I feel successful. If readers tell me that they enjoyed what they read, I feel successful. If I am able to write at least 5k words a day, I feel successful. If I can publish a book and feel proud of what I’ve published, I feel successful. These are all things–except maybe the pride–that are measurable and can easily be determined as having been met or not.
But let’s talk about each of these. Some authors sell a lot of books one day, very little or none the next. Some sell consistently each day. Some sell a bit here and a bit there. It depends on the author. What feels good to me may not feel good to another author. Consistency and longevity is what I’m looking for in my career, so selling some books each day works for me. Some days the sales are high, some days they’re “meh.”
Only 3-stars makes me feel successful? That sounds crazy, right? Well, I love when readers say one of my books was a 5-star rating for them. And 1-star ratings can sometimes make me feel horrible (which is one of the reasons why I don’t look at reviews unless I’m tagged in them or someone tells me about their review). Also, what someone thinks about my book is subjective, so reviews don’t really help me much. However, if a book has an overall rating of at least 3-stars, I know that my book was average or above for the majority of my readers. I did my job. It’s impossible to have a book be 5-star ratings across the board–unless you have very few reviews–so I don’t even bother shooting for that goal. It’s unrealistic and will only end in disappointment.
Each day, I write for 6-12 hours. At least, that’s what I shoot for each day. In that time, I try to write at least 5k words. They don’t all have to be the best words I’m capable of, I just have to hit that goal. I can measure that. Some days, it’s less. Some days, I write until I feel like I wrote an entire novel (though I’ve NEVER done that in a single day). This goal and milestone tells me if I worked hard during my day. It makes me feel good and accomplished to hit 5k words.
Lastly, if when a book is published, I feel I can stand behind my work, that is a measure of success. The rest is kind of out of my hands–sales and ratings, I mean–so pride in my work has to be a goal I use to measure how I feel about it. So far, I haven’t felt ashamed of any of my work (except the early erotica short stories–and not ALL of them were horrible).
So…that’s the measurable stuff. Let’s talk about the intangible.
Do I feel happy with my career? Does writing fulfill me each day? Does this work for me? My life? Am I still writing for the right reasons?
Well, to answer the last question first–each day I wake up with a story in my head. A desire to pick up a pen, open my phone’s notes app, or hop on my laptop or computer. I can’t not write. Even if no one gave a shit that I was writing, I’d have to write. So, I feel that I’m writing for the right reasons.
I am a writer.
Each day I ask myself if I am still happy publishing. If I’m happy sharing my work, the scrutiny that comes with it, and the hard work that it entails. The answer is always “yes.”
Does writing fulfill me as a career? Do I feel that I’m missing something in life by dedicating myself to it? Always “yes” and “no.”
Does writing and being a writer work with my personal life? Is it causing problems or getting in the way of a full life, good relationships, or reaching my potential as a human? It does work with my life and, other than losing sleep to work into the wee hours of the night, it rarely causes a problem.
So…I feel that I am successful. Have I been on the New York Times Bestsellers List? No. Have I debuted at #1 in my genre on Amazon? Yes. Have I had books in the Top 10 in my category? Yes. Do people enjoy my books? More often than not. Do I feel that this is a career that is sustainable and will be something I can do the rest of my life? Yes.
I feel successful. I feel happy. Why would I get mad at myself if the way I measure success is different than the way another writer measures their success?
Sure, it’d be great to see one of my books as number one on the NYTBL – especially one of the LGBTQ+ YA books (since that’s rare) – but I don’t need that to feel good about my success.
Admittedly, I once felt successful just because I finished a book – JUST A DUMB SURFER DUDE – and it was simply published. Just having a book available for people to buy felt like I was super successful. The definition for success may change over time for each writer. But let it be on your terms – not some vague concept society has created and demanded you abide.
Make your success about you. Not them.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,