Success. For some, it’s a fact. For others, it’s a dream. For still others, it’s a stick used to beat people with. But what exactly does it mean?
The idea behind this month’s post has been swilling around in my mind for a while now. While I was doing some research, I googled ‘self-published authors' success’. Not surprisingly, some of the top results were '10 Best Selling Self-Published Authors’, ‘Bestseller Success Stories that Started Out as Self-Published Books’, and ‘Writers Who Rocked Self-Publishing’. Hardly surprising, either: these are all genuine success stories, which give the lie to the idea, still occasionally aired, that self-publishing is the last resort of talentless amateur scribblers.
The problem is that it’s easy to crudely equate success with sales. I've done it myself. I've beaten myself up because my book didn't sell x number of copies in such-and-such a month. I've gazed with wistful envy at the authors climbing up the charts and wondered how they did it. Let me stress here that I’m not being sniffy or high-minded about this, either: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing for the market, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling books. But is this the only measure of success?
The truth, I suspect, is much more complex. There are probably as many definitions of ‘success’ as there are people in the world. What does success mean to you?
For some traditionally-published writers, dipping their toe into the self-publishing world, success means being able to publish the books that publishers wouldn't, often because they weren't considered commercial enough. For these authors, the most important thing seems to be not whether the book in question will sell, but just that it should be out there, in the public arena, where anyone who’s interested can get hold of it. For other writers, it’s being able to publish at all; publication was a dream they’d despaired of ever being able to achieve, until advances in digital technology made self-publishing a viable option. For some authors – and I’m one of them – every single sale is a triumph, even if they’re relatively few in number. After all, someone was willing to pay hard-earned cash for your book, specifically, in a world that’s full of books, and to invest their precious time in reading it. Isn't that really quite something, when you think about it?
To my mind, the greatest success I've experienced thus far was receiving an email from a complete stranger who said she loved my book and wanted to thank me just for writing it. That felt better than any galloping sales figures or any amount of cash in the bank. Reading that email, I was reminded of why I started writing in the first place: I wanted to take the things in my head and get them out there, into the world, to see if other people understood. I wanted to take the stories that were circulating inside my mind, put them down on paper, and craft them, make them tidier and better, and then – when they were ready – share them with other people. I wondered if the words I’d written might be able to entertain people, to make them think or feel, or just to give them an hour or so of relaxation after a hard day. In that original dream, money didn't really figure. In my original, rather childish, impression, writers did indeed starve in garrets.
I think many of us probably harbour dreams of making money, fleeing to a remote Caribbean paradise, sailing off into the sunset, and so on. I certainly have a very lively fantasy life when it comes to the idea of being able to give up my day job, preferably in a highly dramatic manner, like this fellow...
But is this the only criterion for success? How do you define success, and what does it mean to you?
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.