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Who is a success and who is a failure?

29 May 2013

There are a lot of good comments under Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now. Here’s one from Thomas E:

So, who is a success and who is a failure?

I’ve watched traditional publishing for a long time, and I’ve seen some trends. More often than not someone takes ten years to break in, having written more than two million words in that time. Other people sell their first story. I’ve seen glittering bestsellers… who five years later can’t sell a book to a publisher. LOTS of them. I’ve seen people who were told they were a failure for many long years that have hit a single home run and been able to retire.

Every writer in traditional publishing had a different story. But the one thing I have seen is that only one in a thousand people who want to be a writer actually ever have a book published.

And, most of the people who get a book published, even get ten books published… never make a full time living off it, and sooner or later get ditched by their publishers.

Success… Is that guy with the bestselling novel. Today. But in a decade will he be here? Still writing?

Failure… Is J.K. Rowling in her static caravan, typing a book that no one else believes in…

All I know is that at this stage I have been indie writing for two years, and written over a million words of fiction, and am still in my novice phase. Yet, I am receiving money every month. I wouldn’t have received any money yet in the traditional system.

Am I a failure? I am far from making a living with either the traditional or the indie method. I am learning.

Will I be a success in ten years?

Who knows. Can’t be predicted. All I know is that if traditional publishing was the only method on offer, I wouldn’t have taken the risk.

The one thing I know is that I’ve only seen two things in common with all the writers who have broken through into writing for a living. They all write good books (for their target market) and they all carry on writing even when they are a failure.

Writing Advice

18 Comments to “Who is a success and who is a failure?”

  1. This is great. I’m so glad to see more people asking this question. All the so-called “self-publishing success stories” focus mostly on one thing: the indie author who uploaded to KDP, sold a go-jillion copies, and then signed with a corporation.

    And that’s only one thread.

    There’s a huge number of authors who are finding readers. Maybe not a million, but many more readers than they would have had they stuck with querying agents and pursuing contracts with corporations.

    There’s also a huge gap between the “self-publishing success story” and quality. None of the breathless reporting pauses, for a moment, to consider a really important consideration: sure, a million copies have sold, but of what quality are they? No one seems to want to talk about good writing or stories. Just sales. It’s so . . . vulgar.

    For what it’s worth, I think success is what you make of it, or what you’re grateful for. If you’re happy selling one book to one person, and touching that person deeply, and knowing that your story made a difference to that person–what greater measure of success is there? Selling a million copies to a million readers who promptly forgot about it?

    • if you sell a million of anything there is a market for your product. And obviously the quality was good enough. Your book is a product, never forget that.

      • It’s ok to forget it from time to time.

        You’re running a business, but at the end of the day, if you want to be proud of what you’re selling, that’s fine. And if you need to stop thinking of it as a product sitting on a shelf, and want to think of it as your own precious baby that you feed and nurture and grow — if that’s what it takes to end up with a product you believe in — then by all means do that.

        At the end of the day the people who can think about their books dispassionately the whole way through will probably have the business edge. But that doesn’t mean the other people can’t succeed.

      • Sorry, I meant for the operative clause of the previous sentence to be “If you’re happy.” Selling a million of anything guarantees neither success nor quality, just the fact that a million were sold. Which is, as Jaye notes below, success of one sort.

        I think maybe the surest measure of success is whether one feels successful.

    • “No one seems to want to talk about good writing or stories. Just sales. It’s so . . . vulgar.

      Bears repeating and repeating, and…

    • Even though it’s more fun to disagree with Will, I have to give him +10 for this one.

      It’s easy to mix up value and price and easy to equate one with the other. Sometimes the writing, the thing holds an inestimable value that has nothing to do with the market.

      The book that sells a million copies is a success of one sort. But the book that satisfies the creator for having accomplished something special, for fulfilling a personal need, is also a success, even if it finds very few readers.

  2. I hate all the articles that talk about success as if success was a hard and fast thing that is the same for everyone. The truth is that the definition of success varies for every person. Or perhaps you could come closest to a universal definition by saying that success is achieving your goals and those goals vary from person to person.

    And the higher you set your goals in the beginning, the more likely you are to be disappointed. If you start out with the goal of selling a million books, that’s almost certainly not going to happen. But if you start with setting yourself the goal of having someone you don’t know read and positively review your book, you’ll almost certainly meet that goal. Then you can raise it to selling enough to go out to dinner every month and then to paying your mortgage every month and each time you achieve your goal you can raise it again until perhaps someday you will have sold one million books. But you’ll have been a success the whole time.

    • Great comment, Sarah.

      Puts things in perspective — to have “continuous successes” rather than a single, distant-horizon “success.”

    • “But if you start with setting yourself the goal of having someone you don’t know read and positively review your book, you’ll almost certainly meet that goal.”

      Yeah! +1

      That’s where I am right now, and each time it happens…I’m thrilled and amazed. “Wow!” I say to my husband, “another complete stranger read my book and liked it. Cool!”

      I’ve just transitioned from sporadic sales to a tiny (but steady) trickle of sales. Who knows where this will lead?! :D

      • This is the stage I’m at now–collecting some 4 and 5 star reviews from total strangers–and it feels good. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

  3. Rather than trying to emulate the big SP success stories, perhaps we’d learn more by finding good books that aren’t making it big and studying what the author is or isn’t doing to promote their books. When I thought about this, I tried to think of a really good book I’d read by a tradpub that didn’t take off, and to be honest I couldn’t think of one. Now lots of readers like books I consider meh, but a consensus builds around good books, at least under the old model. Whether this was the result of word of mouth or the marketing push by tradpub or the author’s promotional efforts or all of these combined, I don’t know. What I do believe is that no amount of promotional effort will made a bad book a best-seller. We can quibble about what makes for bad writing, but a good story can trump pedestrian writing and elevate it out of the bad category.

    • Literary quality is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but I can think of plenty of wonderful trad-published books that never got the attention they deserved. Ditto for indies. Just as I can also think of plenty of bad books, both indie and trad-published, that did go on to sell a whole lot of copies.

  4. These discussions are very good, but they remind me of when I was young and wanted to start a band and sell a million records. I didn’t. Writing and publishing books is like writing songs and playing in a band, of one. How many singers/musicians have hits? How many authors have hits? It is the same thing. In the end what it takes to “make it” and sell huge, “vulgar” sales, or mediocre sales is sticking with it and continuously writing new and better stories. And the only way you’ll stick with it it’s if you love what you’re doing, writing.
    Since I mentioned hits, let’s talk what makes a hit in books. I’m just finishing writing a short story about a vampire (I know, me and half of the writers.) Besides the Twilight series, I haven’t read any other vampire books. I decided to read some and see what is out there on this subject. One story I read was very well written, but the subject was the same old story, vampires and superhuman people (rich too) killing vampires. Will this become a hit? Maybe, but a story resembling Buffy the vampire slayer is not likely to do it. Will it sell many copies, probably if the market is big.
    Bottom line is this, you have to write a story that readers are in awe, shock, baffled, mystified, or warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside. In other words a hit, like in music.

  5. Great comment, and an excellent point. First, success can happen over time. Also, defining success purely in terms of sales leaves out so much. For some people, simply being published is the acheivement of a life goal.

  6. I was asking this same question when I read that other post. How do you define success or failure in self-publishing? Am I a failure because, three and a half months after releasing my first two titles, I’m still just selling at pizza-money levels? Or am I a success because after writing for 23 years, and with only two titles out, I’m actually making money from my writing, and I’ve got a third book coming out in June and at least seven more in the pipeline, and a long list of ideas after that, and in the meantime I’m having a blast doing what I love to do?

    I prefer to see it the second way.

    (Besides, my ultimate goal is to earn enough that I can retire from cooking dinner every night. Pizza money is a good start to that :D although at the moment all my earnings are going into my cover art fund.)

  7. When people try to sell their books in a competitive market, it’s reasonable to judge success by how much they sell in that market. If that’s vulgar, then so is offering the book for sale.

    Look at what someone is trying to do, and measure success by how well they do it.

  8. Success for me is publishing a manuscript that’s been festering on my hard drive for twelve years and then having people email me to tell me they loved it.

    From a business point of view, it’s hitting the targets I set for myself. Last year was to average a sale a day (just made it …), this year it is to average over 100/month across the year and so far so good. Next year, who knows …

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