What is Success? by Mari Biella

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.


Wendy H. Jones said…
This is a really interesting and motivating post. Thank you. I consider success to be the fact readers like my book. So reader enjoyment would be my first criteria
Lee said…
Success, for me, is quite simple -- and yet impossibly difficult: writing the book I'll be proud to have written. I'll let you know if I ever get there.
Dennis Hamley said…
That's a wonderful and heartfelt post, Mari. I recognise every word of it. Yes, wouldn't I like to make money from my writing. Well, once, I did, not fortunes and in the end not enough to stay in the lists, but sometimes quite substantial and amazingly, a few dregs keep coming. Only yesterday I had a royalty statement from a publisher saying a book I thought had disappeared years ago has just earned me £26.80. I bet Rowling would be envious. I think I define success now as having the books available and therefore potentially read and, when they are reissued, rewriting them so they become, in effect, new books. If people don't read them, that's their fault.And then there's the prospect of seeing them one day as 'real' books. We'll see if the much-delayed Blank Page Press can alter that. And then there's the joy of seeing nee books coming up to republishable standard. The relief at not having to write on spec any more is amazing. Meanwhile, what has given me unalloyed pleasure is to see, hold and even smell the short run, signed and numbered high quality hardback which Spirit of the Place is now. To me, a joy and reward in itself. And a memorable launch as well. 100 copies and so far I've sold thirty, which doesn't seem that bad to me. (So roll up for this snip at £15.99. You never know: it could be your pension!)
Dennis Hamley said…
Sorry again. The NEW books coming up to PUBLISHABLE standards. You can't republish new books.

Another example of the wisdom I can pass on to the young ones.
Bill Kirton said…
Seems as if you've articulated what lots of us think, Mari. Money would be nice but the real drive is the magical feeling that complete strangers in far-flung places are reading our books and, in doing so, recreating worlds that grew from our imagination. Alchemy.
Andrew Crofts said…
Success is earning enough not to have to get a proper job. :)
Nick Green said…
If commercial success is the measure of success, then William Blake, Mozart and Van Gogh (to name just three) were all failures.

Blake reportedly spent his last penny on a pencil so that he could carry on working on his deathbed.
Lydia Bennet said…
that's right Nick. Van G didn't sell a single painting in his lifetime - the fact that they now go for millions to collectors as investments probably wouldn't thrill him but the fact that so many people like looking at his work more likely would, going by how he lived his life. Success means different things not only to each of us but to ourselves as time goes on - I find that when i've achieved a long-held goal, I move the goalposts... Very enjoyable post Mari.
Nick Green said…
Of course the bitter flip-side is that not everyone who fails to sell their work is a Van Gogh.

An even more bitter thought is: how many of those people who bid on Van Goghs actually like his art, and how many are just looking for a good investment? We'll never know.

(The Sunflowers leave me cold, personally, though I do rather like the Starry Night).
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone. Nick: this is an argument I’m keeping in reserve, should I ever cross swords with someone who maintains that success = sales. And yes, Valerie – our definitions of success can change substantially over time.
Andrew Crofts said…
The question is can a person be successful if they are not alive to acknowledge it? Personally, I am not sure that public or critical acclaim amount to much in the long run, whereas being able to earn enough to support a family could be deemed a success.
Jenny Alexander said…
I recently blogged about this! My sales have been predictably low - the book is certainly niche - but I've sold several articles to national magazines on the back of it and received more requests for workshops than I can handle, so the associated income from the book is pretty good so far. Still, the big achievement for me is that I wrote it and published it, because it was outside my comfort zone and I was doing OK with my normal kind of book.
Fascinating debate - but on the whole, I find myself agreeing with Andrew here. I suppose it depends very much what your definition of 'success' is. Money doesn't buy happiness but it's easier to be unhappy in a comfortable house than sleeping under a bridge. And I think too many writers and artists still see financial success and business acumen as demeaning rather than - as Mari says - only one of the many criteria for success. But it's an important one and we neglect it at our peril. I write for love but I do my best to publish for money. It wasn't always this way. I used to think it was all about the joy of writing a book that somebody would like. The work still gives me a kick - I love it, love doing it. The odd contact from a reader is nice too. The day I don't enjoy what I do is the day I'll stop. But I do think that writers and artists leave themselves wide open to exploitation by convincing themselves that money doesn't matter. In what other line of work would somebody devoting time and effort to a commercial project be routinely told 'there's no money in the budget to pay the writer' and accept that statement not just as fair, but as some kind of norm? And I'm not talking about charity work here or ventures where nobody is being paid or people are sharing any profits. We all do those. I'm talking about projects where everyone else is being paid something - except for the creatives. And still, so many of us accept the 'no money in the budget' argument without stopping to ask why. Might it not be because the people setting the budget know that the printer will have to be paid. But the writers - well, they'll do it for love, won't they?
glitter noir said…
Terrific post, Mari. The question is one we all nee d to be clear on if we're to keep on keeping on. More money would, and will, be nice--and I do solemnly swear before you all to not spend each dollar wisely. But I'm still driven by the glow of doing difficult projects entertainingly and beautifully.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Meddling Lemons by Susan Price