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: Stephenie Meyer)?

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. 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!

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

  3. @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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. @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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.”

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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!

  17. Good answers in return of this issue with
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  18. I think it is more healthier for an artist to remain unsatisfied. It keeps the drive of creativity.

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