how-to-tell-if-your-book-is-a-success

How to Tell if Your Book Is a Success

We all write for our own reasons, but most of those reasons boil down to two things:

1) We love it.

2) We want to be successful.

But that last is a bit of a stinker, mostly because it’s ridiculously difficult to achieve. And, if you do achieve it, how do you know you’ve achieved it? This is an important question for any writer to consider, if only because feelings of failure tend to dog most us, no matter how much or little we’ve achieved on a quantifiable scale.

Writers often struggle with feelings of failure

A while back I received a negative review from a reader. Ouch. But no big deal, right? It’s just one opinion. Shrug it off and move on. I am adamant about allowing readers the right to their opinions. If I have the right to dislike certain books I read, certainly my readers have the right to just as arbitrarily dislike anything I write, for any reason they choose. The logical side of my brain believes this wholeheartedly. But, emotionally, a bad review is always a sock in the gut.

It doesn’t make sense, really. Who cares if a few strangers don’t like what I write? Particularly since it would seem more strangers than not actually do like it. And yet I—and thousands of other authors—still fight feelings of (you guessed it!) failure every time someone doesn’t think our books are the best thing since Gutenberg.

Are these feelings justifiable? Should we pay attention to what others think? Should we let bad reviews outweigh good reviews in our own estimation of our success? In short, how to tell if your book is a success?

How to tell if your book is a success

  • Are you a success if you sell millions of copies, get multiple movie deals, and become a household name?
  • Are you a success if you get all of the above, but your average rating on Amazon is barely three stars and hundreds of readers say your writing stinks?
  • Are you a success if you sell only a couple hundred copies, but everyone who reads it says they love it?
  • Are you a success if you make enough money to write for a living?
  • What about if you never make enough to quit your day job?
  • What if you never make a dime?
  • Are you a success if your rating on Amazon is 4.5 stars?
  • Are you a failure if it’s 2.5?
  • Are you a success if your book never garners commercial success, but your family and friends genuinely love it?
  • Are you a success if a thousand readers love the book and a thousand hate it?
  • Are you a failure if the writing isn’t perfect, but readers still enjoy it?
  • Are you a success if the writing is brilliant and readers hate it?
  • Are you a success if you’re a commercial failure during your lifetime, but your books become bestselling classics after your death?
  • What if you wrote the world’s most brilliant book but no one ever read it? Success—or failure?

Ultimately, there is no “right” answer to any of these questions. Most of us would agree that the standard estimation of writing “success” is popular acclaim and lots of money. But that definition leaves a lot of writers out in the cold. Are we really failing to measure up if we don’t hit the big time? Or what if we do hit the big time by that definition, only to have our writing largely dissed (think: Stephanie Myers)?

What is your definition of writing success?

As you can see, “success” is a pretty wobbly notion. And so is failure when it comes right down to it. Their definitions aren’t going to be the same for every writer. Maybe I’m satisfied with that technically brilliant book that no one is going to read. Maybe you’re satisfied with the knowledge that only a couple hundred readers loved what you wrote.

And I say, Why shouldn’t we be?

If an author is brilliant enough to write a technically perfect book, that’s awesome. And the awesomeness of it is hardly going to change based on what happens to the book after it’s written.

If an author writes something that never makes him any money, but which brings a few hours of joy to a couple hundred (or a couple dozen!) readers, that’s pretty darn awesome too.

If we’re ever going to find happiness as writers, we have to understand what success means to each of us as individuals.

1. Figure out why you’re writing.

2. Figure out what you’re trying to achieve.

3. And if you reach that point, don’t let anyone (and certainly not one little ol’ negative review) tell you you’re less than what you should be.

Not everyone is going to think you’re a success no matter how much you accomplish. If you try to gain the love and respect of every reader out there, you are going to fail. What matters is meeting your goals, loving your own stories, and appreciating every milestone along the way. There is no greater success than that, no matter where you are in your writing journey.

Tell me your opinion: How do you define success as a writer?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. If a (singular) reader puts down my book and takes a second, even moderately-critical, look at their assumption(s) about life because of my stories, I will have succeeded.

  2. I’m a very simple person. The why – I have a story I want to tell. The achieve – for readers to have a moment in which they enjoyed a few hours of escape.

  3. @Daniel: Absolutely a valid claim to success. If one person changes another person’s life for the better, that’s not just one life affected, but the beginning of a chain reaction. And I’ll venture that the majority of books fit that bill.

    @Ransom: Simple reasons are best, I find. They’re easy to keep hold of and hard to mess up.

  4. success to me will be good reviews, the ability to quit my horrible awful day job, combined with the knowledge that I’ve written the best book I can. But even if I don’t reach the first two, I will continue to strive for the last to the end.

  5. I am going to be honest. I will be a success if I can give up my day job and write full time because my writing is earning me enough money to write full time. I enjoy writing and I love people reading my work and I love writing a really good sentence or description or page or short story but in my eyes none of this is success. We all define our own parameters of success based on our self confidence, our experience and our hopes and ideals so everyone is going to have a different idea of success. But don’t you just cringe when an actor or a singer says I’m only in it for the art…?

  6. @mshatch: In the end, the last is the only one we truly have control over. If we can base our sense of success and happiness in that, we’ll be much more content, no matter what else happens.

    @Christopher: My cringing starts when they start throwing tantrums over their low salaries. ;)

  7. Great article. The thing with success is no matter how much or little we get, it’s never enough. I wanted a contract with a good publishing house, got it. My wants switched to writing a good book, which I think I did. Then to selling well (I hit bestseller), then to good reviews, mostly rave, then on to the next book. The most satisfying moment as a writer is when I get a letter from a reader who tells me my books got them to consider their world in a new way. That’s the only time I truly feel successful. Feelings are fleeting. I’m writing full time now–not rich, not on food stamps but “arriving” will never happen this side of heaven for me. I like that a mixture of contentedness no matter what happens in my career and yet a constant desire to achieve more.

  8. Right now, my idea of success is getting an agent interested in reading more. To me, that means I have some potential. Once I land an agent, my next idea of success will be to get a reasonable publishing contract. I honestly believe in success at different levels and what qualifies as success for me right now may not be what will qualify for success in two years–or for someone else, either.

  9. “Feelings are fleeting” – so true. It’s good to stay hungry, to never be quite satisfied, to always be wanting to be just a little bit (or a lotta bit) better. But there’s also a give and take between that and being able to sit back and count the blessings we’ve already been given. Contentment and drive are sometimes a difficult balance.

  10. @Liberty: I like the idea of different levels of success. Obviously, an author who has just barely finished a first draft is going to have a long row to hoe before they can even legitimately think about gaining an agent, much less selling copies of the book. Success is a ladder, and so long as we’re moving upward, that’s really the only thing that matters.

  11. Knowing that what I write is good is to me success. If hundreds or thousands read my novel someday in the future, then that’s a big success. At least to me.

    I have been published in the nonfiction arena (as a ghost writer, mainly) and have worked professionally as a writer.

    I have never published any fiction. But I have a novel in the works I have developed over the years off and on. After each of the previous rewrite, I knew it wasn’t good enough to be published, so I would put it away. But through the years I kept getting better. And now as I approach the final major rewrite, I think I am at or close to publishable quality. That’s exciting. (I do plan on hiring an editor at some point.)

    To write and not quit to me is a success, though probably not in many people’s eyes. To be better today than I was last year or two or three years back, that too is success. And to be able to write a piece, any piece, and sit back and say honestly, that’s really good, is a measure of success too if only in my own little world.

    Regards–thoughtful post.

  12. I like the differentiation between “success” and “big success.” There are certainly different levels. And we can certainly succeed at one thing and fail (at least, temporarily) at something else.

  13. Right now, I’ll consider myself a success if I can traditionally publish my novel, either through an agent or by an indie publishing house. I don’t just want my family and friends and fellow writers to like it; I want validation that someone else likes it enough to take the risk of publishing it.

  14. I’m a success if I could manage to complete a project.

  15. To me it’s not about the money or movie deals or critical acclaim. To me, success is when readers suggest my books to their friends because they love it. Or my characters end up in those blog contests (like the YA ones about their biggest book crushes). Basically, for me success is when my readers love my books and my worlds and my characters as much as I do – or at least, as close as can be. :-)

  16. I had an unexpected success today. I wrote a fan fiction (those were the days!) around ten years ago that was a novel-length epic retelling of the Star Wars saga, and it has been collecting dust on fanfiction.net. I wrote a blog article about it a while ago, where I unearthed it and decided to rewrite a scene utilising what I had learned of the craft over the past decade. I cringe at much of the prose now, though the story elements were quite solid even then, and at the time of writing it developed something of an eager following on a Star Wars forum. I was even accused of literature.

    Anyway, it’s been years since I’ve even thought about it, aside from the brief article where I explained what a difference a little polishing and editing can make to the quality of what amounts to the same piece. I was surprised today to find a little something fluttering into my inbox to say that somebody had followed my story, then favourited it a short time later, then added me as a favourite author and finally written a positive review. This was something I wrote over ten years ago in the hour or two between school and dinner every evening, something that was basically my bedroom hobby in the year 2000, and in 2012 it is still around to give someone a few hours of enjoyment and they even felt like letting me know it.

    To me, that’s a success, even if it’s not getting me talk-show bookings or paying for the beer I have in hand right now. And it came at a good time, since I’m trying to get representation for a transgressive novel, which naturally comes with its fair share of rejection letters. A little thumbs up on the Internet can make somebody’s day after a half dozen agents say “thanks, but no thanks”, just as much as a harsh review can wash away the sweet taste of twenty 5* ones.

  17. Your questions made me really think (as I guess they were supposed to). At a superficial level, I’d associated success with the Nobel Prize for Literature, lots of readers and appreciative reviews, enough money to not have to work at anything else except writing… But now, when I think about it more deeply, I realise that success for me is writing a book that I can be proud of, and that some readers will like, those readers whose opinion I value highly (some fellow authors, critics, friends etc.
    Of course I suspect my thin skin will feel battered and stung raw by every single negative review, but your wise words about finding your own definition of ‘awesomeness’ and ‘success’ holds true.

  18. I agree with JustSarah. I consider myself a success if my project is finished every step of the way, and I’ve done my share of marketing the best I can. As my one friend told me, don’t worry how many copies you’re going to sell. Those who need to read your book, will read it.

  19. My journal received a hefty entry from this prompt. Thank you for the morning boost. I think I needed to go back to that very question for some outlining fuel.
    I’ve known since the story “came” that I’d be haunted by it until I put it out, as completely as I can, into the world. And it has. Characters talk to me day and night, images pop into my head, and themes surface and morph faster than I can scribble. I’m a vessel for this story: when it is out, and I’ve done it justice as best as I can, I’ll be a success. It’s up to me to improve my writing so that I can give the story worthy pages to call home.
    Thanks K.M.

  20. I write for a niche audience so it seems impossible to achieve success other than seeing the majority of people in my niche that find my books like them. But the necessary goal of achieving profitability seems to be far off and remote at the moment. An author writing to a niche is like two needles in a haystack trying to find each other.

  21. @ED: Much as we might sometimes fight it or hate it, validation is important. We need that final word from an objective expert telling us we really are as good as we hope we are.

    @Sarah: Baby steps will get us anywhere!

    @Vicki: I’ve never been on the receiving end of any of those movie deals, but I have this sneaking feeling that, ultimately, the joy of readers (and viewers) is the most important thing even then.

    @Mike: How fun. I used to read Stars Wars fic like nuts when I was a kid. Until you mentioned this, I’d forgotten all about the fact that my ambition back then was to write and publish one of the Extended Universe stories. Congrats on your good reviews!

    @Marina: Writing as a profession is unique from many other careers, simply because we’re opening ourselves up to be bludgeoned by anybody with an opinion (and that’s everybody). It can seem unfair sometimes, but it just comes with territory. Fortunately, thin skin callouses over time!

    @Donna: Fabulous reminder!

    @Jennie: Great perspective. The only person who can wreck that notion of success is yourself – and that’s a good power to wield.

  22. @Rusty: In many ways, the smallness of niche writing can actually make it easier to connect with the right audience. The trick is finding them!

  23. Very encouraging post. Reminded me to press on with my writing.

  24. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you were encouraged!

  25. Personally, I’d like to be able to earn a living from it – even if it’s only a minimum-wage living. Then I’d be able to write full time and still justify y existence to my family!

    But one thing I like about this writing process and the journey we are all going through (and I guess this is true of anything long-term) is the way your mindset changes. Who knows how I’ll be defining success when I finally get to that point!

  26. I’ll be successful when I can write full-time and afford to have a housekeeper (preferably once a week!)

  27. @Matty: Rigidity tends to lead to stagnation – and there’s no room for that in an artistic lifestyle. Makes every day a new adventure!

    @Keri: Hey, I’ll second the housekeeper – and maybe a personal chef, while we’re at it.

  28. I don’t really feel success per say of when a book is published, so much as adding an extra layer of character of depth makes me feel that way. Character interviews in your mind really are helpful. I just found out my YA protagonist is religious, specifically Catholic. A strongly felt character is a lot easier to pants than a less strongly felt character.

  29. I really like this post. And I believe it doesn’t only apply to writing. Success in any area of our lives should not have to be what the world would call success but what we, personnally (knowing how far we’ve come) see as success. If God would use a published story of mine to touch and turn around one life or to help and encourage someone, that would be sucess in my eyes. To me, writing is a HUGE responsibility because we can either impact people for the better through the story, leave them indifferent or even impact them for the worst. Doing the last one is certainly not my goal. So to me if someone were to write a book thats sells big time and is known all over the world but their book doesn’t have a positive impact on the readers, that would be a big fail.

  30. @Sarah: I love character interviews. I find them to be one of the most helpful tools in the pre-first draft process.

    @FunTo: Totally agree. I like to say I write for an audience of one and One. If what I’m writing is pleasing both of those, anything good beyond that is just gravy.

  31. CourtneyC says:

    Success to me means doing the best I can with what I have. As I learn and grow as a writer, I have better tools and produce better work. If I’m doing the best I can, I’m successful. And that brings its own feeling of accomplishment and achievement.
    Then, I turn the work loose. It should not matter what the world chooses to do with it, but I should give joyfully what I can, regardless of how it is received. That is something to strive for, but it is hard to not let ego get in the way.
    It’s all a journey, after all. And we should enjoy the here and now to its fullest. There is no “getting there” with regard to success – that very notion is a moving target.

  32. It *is* hard to keep the ego out of the way. It’s a mammoth, pushy thing that thinks it’s making our lives better, when really it’s only making us miserable. Humility, paired with bravery, is a crucial quality for any writer.

  33. This is a great post! I have a teacher that says – set goals to measure your success, which is a better way to measure than having no concrete standards at all, but even if we set goals and fail, are we really failures? How many points do we get for effort? LOL Thanks for this!

  34. I’ve always hated that saying “A for effort.” It’s code for “close, but no cigar.” I prefer Yoda’s immortal words, “Do or do not. There is no try.” But the great thing about failure is that it doesn’t have to stay failure. I love Samuel Beckett’s quote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  35. Hi K.M.

    This is an absolutely brilliant post and it’s very thought provoking too. As you say there is no ‘right’ answer to this question but my definition of success is the same as yours. Would I say I’m a successful writer? Yes I would indeed. I am a success because I have written and published my first two books. Both are selling and now I have a regular income from my writing. Granted it’s not yet enough to live on but I remember I only have two books out there at the moment. I have people writing fan mail to me from America even though I have got two bad reviews – people still tell me they love my writing. This encourages me to keep writing and I have already completed chapter one of my third book.

  36. You go! Claiming our success (however large or small) and appreciating it even in the face of inevitable negativity is important if we’re going to find peace and happiness as authors.

  37. This author goes a bit too far in analyzing what makes a book a success. To a writer success is when you finally finish the final draft and you feel satisfied with what you’ve written. You might have to reread the book again for some reason six months later. If you do and can smile while reading passages or when you’ve finished the book, then you’ve succeeded. What others think of your book pales in significance unless you feel the need for validation for others. I’ve said this often, but it bears repeaitng. I write novels on topics that interest me and love creating characters that live with me long after I’ve finished my novel. Publishers, for the most part, today want the next big thing or a blockbuster hit. They may love a book but many will reject it if they don’t think it will sell (hell, their job may be on the line if a book doesn’t sell. Reviewers bring their own prejudices and agendas to a book they are going to review so I don’t really care what they think. One reviewer will praise a book to death while the next may pan it. If you take either too seriously you’ll probably soon be in tears or give up writing. Self-satisfaction is the most important element in the success of a book.

  38. Some authors are lucky enough to possess an inherently thick skin. But most of us suffer, to one extent or another, by allowing the opinions of others to get to us. Understanding – as you do – what our own definition of success may be provides an important foundation for handling criticism.

  39. This is a really great article; you’ve done a marvellous job of pointing out the incredibly slippery nature of success. I remember once looking at a list of the best-selling novels for each year of the twentieth century and only five or six of the authors were known to me. The rest of these highly successful writers had faded into oblivion.

    This article has made me think very carefully about what success means for me. I guess it has to be about feeling proud that I’ve achieved the sort of writing which I set out to do, that the characters are real, their experiences are interesting and their development plausible and enlightening. I also love it when they surprise me.

    As for the writing I am over the moon when a sentence sings, when a scene makes my heart race or tears come into my eyes.

    Good reviews are part of the mix, comments from friends are as well and sales of course. But the best thing for me is this.

    I pick up one of my books after not reading it for a year or so and get engrossed in it once again. I put it down at the end thinking that the comparative stranger who wrote it those long months before had actually done a pretty good job of it.

    Martin Lake

  40. I think you’ve nailed it. *Loving* our own writing – especially through the lens of time passed – is magnificent. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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