A couple of weeks ago, I received a flattering invitation to do a guest post for a new blog from Dog Ear Publishing, who handles the POD edition of my very first book. According to the invitation, my book, Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, was a "Dog Ear Success Story!"
It's nice to be told that you're a success. It's even nicer to actually be one. The question is, how does one determine if one is -- or is not? More precisely, how does one determine if a particular project -- a book, a play, a poem -- is a success?
According to Dog Ear, my book qualified as a "self-publishing success story" because... wait for it... it sold more than 600 copies in 2012! Wow! In self-publishing terms, this isn't just a success, it's a huge success. While Dog Ear didn't provide any statistics on how many of their authors have achieved this distinction, I can guess from other research that the answer is probably "darn few." Authors like me make publishers like Dog Ear blissfully happy: If I make money, they make money, and they'd love to have me come back.
If, however, my book had been published by a traditional, commercial publisher, and had sold a grand total of 600 copies in 2012, it would be regarded not as a success, but as a colossal failure. Far from making money for my publisher, I'd have cost them a bundle, and if I were to come back with another proposal, I'd find the door slammed in my face faster than you can say "rejection slip."
So what does this mean? Am I a success, or a failure? Does it depend simply on the definition one chooses? It would be nice to get touchy-feely at this point and declare that "traditional definitions of success" or "other people's definitions of success" don't matter, and it's up to us to determine our own measures of success and satisfaction. And to some extent that's true: We can waste a lot of time jumping for marks on the wall that have been drawn by someone else. At the same time, it's (nearly) impossible, in such a media-driven, celebrity-conscious society, to attempt to form a personal concept of success that hasn't been influenced to at least some extent by our social perceptions of what makes one "successful."
Consequently, I get numerous e-mails from would-be writers who are convinced, for example, that their book will be the next "J.K. Rowling" (or, in some unfortunate cases, "the next hary poter"). A few years ago, it would have been "the next Stephen King." And who amongst us, as an author, wouldn't like to have at least a fraction of Rowling's success? (I don't say "who wouldn't want to be Rowling," because whenever I see her in a public appearance, her "deer in the headlights" expression leads me to believe that some aspects of success may not be as pleasant as the media would have us believe.)
At the other end of the scale is the author who is willing to say, "I wrote the book I wanted to write, I self-published it at great personal expense, three people have read it (one even finished it), and at least one person besides my mother thinks its brilliant, so I'm content." It's nice to imagine we might achieve this degree of zen-ness with the universe, but... well, frankly, if that were enough for you, you wouldn't even be reading a newsletter that aims to help you become more successful, now, would you?
So how can one define success?
First, let's be clear about something: I'm talking about the success of a project. There's a profound difference (often ignored by new writers to their emotional peril) between assessing the success of a particular work, and asking the question, "Am I a success?"
The e-mail from Dog Ear caused me to take a step back and look at this particular project again. Never mind whether Dog Ear considers it a "success story" -- do I? If so, why? I was pleased to discover that, in fact, I did consider the book to be a success. I could spend quite a few words telling you the reasons why. But what came to me was one not-so-obvious factor that, to me, sums up whether a project is "successful" beyond all other measures of things like readership and reviews and revenues and so forth.
My book is successful because it doesn't need me anymore.
As writers, we're bombarded with advice about how we need to do this, that and the other to promote our work, get noticed, build a platform, and do just about everything short of sacrificing a live blog to make a project a "success." So it seems to me that one very real way to measure whether a project is a success is when we don't need to do that anymore. My Dog Ear book is successful because of the work I've already invested -- and since this book was first published more than 25 years ago, I have indeed put a lot into it. But today, it maintains a level of readership and revenue that I'm happy with, without requiring my constant attention.
And that, I think, can sum up quite a lot of success stories. Think about it -- J.K. Rowling isn't wasting a lot of time today flogging Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. She doesn't have to. It sells itself. Stephen King isn't setting up a Facebook page for The Stand. Agatha Christie died without ever having heard of Facebook, yet her books may well be in print for the next millennium (if Dr. Who is to be believed).
The day may come when my book is no longer selling 600+ copies a year. When that happens, I'll need to decide whether it "needs me" once again -- or whether its time has come and gone. That's another thing about success: It isn't guaranteed to last forever. For a writer, the best form of success is often not perpetual, but serial. Success isn't just about making one work into a hit. It's also about being able to move on -- because that's the only way to achieve the next success. However you define it!