Before you get into the details of writing, publishing, and book marketing, it’s important to take a step back, as your answers to the following questions will frame the decisions you make later.
Consider these questions.
- Why are you writing?
- Why do you want your book published and out in the world for others to read?
Try to explore beyond your initial answers to the deeper reasons beneath and take some time to really understand why you want to pursue this.
Writers strive for different things, for different reasons, at different times — and identifying your definition of success will help you make choices about what you write, how you publish and market, and what you’re willing to do for your author career.
Back in 2006, when I was miserable in my consulting day job implementing accounts payable systems, my definition of success was to leave my job and (somehow) make a living as an author.
It took five years of writing in the early mornings, building my website and podcast, and learning a lot of different skills to make it out of the job. I kept building step by step, year by year, and eventually we downsized so I could leave in 2011.
But that was just the start!
My next definition of success was getting back up to the income I had earned in consulting. That took a couple more years, but by 2015, I was earning more than the old day job, and then I far surpassed it.
My definition of success now is to keep making a living as an author entrepreneur, with multiple streams of income, so I can continue to live a creative life, write the books I want to write, and travel for book research.
What about you?
- What is your definition of success — for the particular book you’re writing now, and for your longer-term writing career?
- How will you track and measure that success?
- What are the bigger reasons behind your writing?
- What will keep you going when things are difficult?
Your answers will change over time, as your definition of success will also change based on the progression of your writing career.
Here are some of the more common definitions and potential options for measuring them that may help you shape yours.
All of them are valid — and possible. The important thing is to decide what you’re aiming for and then make decisions that will help you get there.
(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 where we all start — with the desire to finish a project and create something tangible in the world.
The book of our hearts. The story we’re driven to tell. The message we just have to deliver.
The focus of success here is on the completion of a project, which is a totally brilliant reason to write a book! Creativity is its own reward.
(2) I want to get an agent and a publishing deal and see my books in a (physical) bookstore
If you want to get a publishing deal, you need to research what agents and publishers are looking for, which changes over time as trends shift. You will need to learn about the business of traditional publishing and book marketing, as well as the writing craft.
Make sure that the goals of an agent or publisher match what you want to achieve, as publishing the book is usually just the first step in a longer career.
(3) I want to reach readers with my words and change the world one reader at a time
It’s great to focus on serving readers, but this definition of success is too intangible. If you only want to ‘reach readers,’ then you could put your book out for free on every platform in the world.
But that’s not usually what people mean!
Be more specific with this type of definition. How could you measure it?
For example, is it achieved when you have fifty five-star reviews on Amazon, or you receive a fan email from a reader you’ve never met?
Or, if you realize you want to measure success by book sales and/or income, keep reading for examples of specific goals.
(4) I want to sell 10,000 (or whatever number) books in the next three years
This definition of success is measurable, and you will know when you get there.
But the number of books sold depends on many things. Firstly, the genre you write, as a children’s picture book will usually sell far fewer copies than a commercial romance novel, and a narrative non-fiction memoir will generally sell less than a commercial thriller.
It’s also dependent on how many books you have, as you will more easily reach higher sales figures with more books, especially if they are in a series.
It will also depend on the level of marketing you or your publisher do for your work.
So choose your number carefully, based on realistic targets suited to your work, and then consider how you will get there.
(5) I want to receive critical acclaim and win a literary prize
Certain types of books win certain types of prizes, so if you have this definition of success, research the areas you want to excel in and work out what those authors did to position themselves for success.
Excellence in craft is only one aspect, as certain publishers might be the right route, and building your network is also important.
The type of book that appeals to literary critics and award judges is not usually the same type of book that has mass appeal to readers, so this definition may be incompatible with making a full-time living as an author.
(6) I want to make a full-time living with my writing
The definition of ‘full-time living’ differs by country, even by region. The income needs for a family with kids are different from those of a professional couple or a solo writer.
Be specific about the figure you’re aiming for. Perhaps initially that will be your current salary; then consider how that may grow over time based on how much you’re writing, publishing, and marketing.
This was always my definition of success, so I made the choice to self-publish and build a creative business from the beginning. I could see that it would be the fastest and most sustainable way to make a full-time living for the long-term rather than the traditional route, especially since I had already been running my own businesses in other areas. (I ran my own freelance IT consulting business for many years, as well as a small scuba diving charter, and a property investment company.)
I go into a lot more detail in my book, How to Make a Living with your Writing.
The full-time writing life is certainly not for everyone, as you need more skills than just the craft. But if you love learning, and you’re ready to experiment, then it might just be for you.
(7) I want to create a body of work over my lifetime that I’m proud of
I am an author. I measure my life by what I create.
This is my job, but I also write for the love of creating, and I want to be proud of every book I publish — now, and until my metaphorical pen runs dry.
I intend to write for the rest of my life, hopefully for at least another forty years. I’m in this for the long haul.
The creative journey is the point, and there is no end game. As Stephen King says in On Writing:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”