Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Defining Success: Authors Weigh In by Caroline Starr Rose

Do shiny stickers mean success?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I personally measure success.

When I first was published, I figured if I could reupholster the couch and pay for my boys’ glasses and eventual braces, that was success. These markers sound goofy now, but at the time they represented visible ways my work contributed to my family. They were tangible. Evident.

I recovered the couch when my first book sold. I've been able to keep my boys in glasses and contacts, and earlier this year paid off the second set of braces (thank you, May B., for still selling strong, and thanks, Mom and Dad, for helping out along the way).

By that early definition, I've arrived.

But over the years my definition of success has morphed and changed. If a book of mine stayed in print, that was success (so far, so good). And the ultimate success was earning out — when a book makes back its advance and an author is paid royalties. (Never mind the fact that only 15-25% of all books published actually do this -- and as of this date, only one of my titles has.)

Is meeting readers a way to define success?

When Blue Birds published, my measure shifted: if I was pleased with my work and my editor was pleased with it, that was success. This feels more reasonable, more attainable through hard work, but in the end, is it enough? Perhaps for my own level of satisfaction, but the honest truth is if I want to sell more books, my prospects are much more likely if I've had earlier titles that have done well in the marketplace.

What's difficult -- and maybe even unrealistic -- about using publishing markers as signs of success is they're out of my control. That's where the tension comes in. Because, honestly, how can success be legitimate if sales aren't strong? But how is such a mindset sustainable throughout a (hopefully) long, probably varied career? Is it ridiculous to hope every project will be successful? Is success more of a general, over the course of a lifetime thing?

Is the day to day work the truest measure of success?

I asked some friends, from the newly to the broadly published, how they defined success (anonymously, so they could be candid). There is so much wisdom here.

  • Success is being comfortable with the reality that not everyone who reads your book will like it. In fact, some readers will hate it, despite how much others LOVE it. Realize and embrace that certainty early.
  • At first, I just wanted to get an agent. I felt that I wouldn't be successful unless I achieved that. But when I got an agent, my success meter moved. I just wanted to be published. Then when I got published, I just wanted to be published AGAIN. I have to remind myself not to forget where I've come from. Now, I like to imagine I feel success when I've protected my writing time and had fun getting some words down in a day. To me, that's the measure of success.
  • Success for me means feeling that I have put forth my best effort to tell a meaningful story. That effort may, and probably does, involve many rewrites before it's printed on pages for the public to read. And the stories that don't make it to press are still successful, in my eyes, if I've put forth my best effort.
  • For me, writing is what I want to do as my job, and I need to make a living. So success means making enough money from writing or writing-related activities (teaching, critiquing) to support myself. That often means seeing myself as an employee who has to do what the boss wants, even though I'm a freelancer. But I encourage other people to remember that making money, or even being published, does not have to be their goal. If you want to write for the joy of writing, that's fantastic. Just remember what your goal is, and don't get distracted by other people's definitions of success.
  • Success is meeting the little goals you set for yourself and feeling good about it whether or not anyone else ever notices what you have done.
  • I'd like to be noble and say success as a writer is simply about doing what you love and loving what you do, with no outside factors taken into account. Critics? Meh. Sales numbers? Who cares? This is art, by golly. It's unquantifiable. But if I'm being honest with myself, I do to some degree base my success on what other people think of my work and how well it sells. This is my career. I want to do well and I didn't write my books just for myself. Writing is about communicating and connecting to someone other than yourself, so outside opinion does matter to some extent. So I strive to create the very best for both myself and my audience and I feel successful when I've pleased both. I also really like it when my work can pay the bills.
This last is perhaps my favorite.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. It’s a hard one for me, mostly because it changes from day to day, and for all those years when I hadn’t sold a second book, I had some seriously disarranged notions on the subject. Mostly I think those years taught me that a certain powerful flavor of success is maintaining that particular brand of faith that kept me writing in those years before I had a contract at all. It’s easy to feel successful when you have a book coming out. It’s a lot harder when you feel like nothing is happening and you have to keep creating every day when nothing might come of it. That’s how success looks to me today. When you can find it in yourself to keep blowing that little ember deep down inside you, the one that keeps you putting words on the page when there’s no earthly reason but the making of them. Success is making something beautiful when there’s no one to see it but you.
How do you define success? Please share in the comments below!


  1. I have been really thinking about this as I make so little money from writing, but for me I don't have to and it isn't my motivation. I have achieved success because I have produced books that I am proud of and that children love. I have readers waiting for my next book and asking me when it will be out - surely that is a successful children's author isn't it?

  2. As respondent #2 mentioned, the success meter often moves. Achieve one success, and your definition moves up! For me, it has become more internal about the work I do and how I experience my writing and career than external. I can't control how the world receives what I do.

    1. Yes. It's so good to be able to recognize and articulate this. Otherwise, it's very easy to live in a state of constant unease and dissatisfaction. We can do what we can do and look for satisfaction there.

  3. Great article, thanks. Just recently I realized I want to keep writing seriously and develop professionally (forever!); create beautiful things - but still maintain my relationships and integrity and struggle not to have this work that I love take over my life in an unhealthy way.

    1. I had a conversation with my critique partner a few years back, telling her I want writing to enhance my life, not be my life. It can be a challenge when you're working for something and have such hopes it will work out. The fact you're aware of this is a huge first step.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!