On Facebook last week, I saw someone asking the question: how do you define success as a writer? It came on the back of a Twitter update, from someone attending a writing seminar, where UWA Press publisher Terri-Ann White said that the average sales of a book in Australia were just 800 copies per year. Does that then mean if you sell 800 copies in one year you’re a success? 800 copies might earn an author just over $2,000—for something that’s taken about 5 years of their life to write.
Maybe for some that is success. For others, perhaps not. How then do you define success as a writer? And do you need to?
Success Before I Was Published
Before my first book was published, success meant, to me, being published. By a reputable publisher. That was my goal. That was all. I had no particular monetary figure in mind, no wish for an award or overseas sales or fame and fortune. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I had a wish or a hope that it would earn me some money. But that was about as specific as I got.
The book, What is Left Over, After, actually won the TAG Hungerford Award. It didn’t sell into any overseas markets. It didn’t bring me fame and fortune. Nor did it really earn me any money—the Hungerford prize earned me more money than royalties. Lucky I’d set my benchmarks low.
Success After My First Book
I wanted more for my second book, If I Should Lose You. Bigger sales. More money. That was what I considered success would be. Overseas markets were still not really on my radar, nor awards or anything else.
How did I do? Well, If I Should Lose You sold less than my first book. Yes, less. Not more. So my dreams of success were far from realised.
Changing Genres and Success
I had a good, long, hard look at myself after that. It was ridiculous to imagine that I had any hope of providing meaningful financial support for my three kids on the back of the level of sales I’d achieved for my first two books. Perhaps they weren’t very good books and didn’t deserve to sell more—I obviously can’t judge that as they were my books and I loved them and they were the best books I could write at the time. What the lack of success of those books had shown me was that I really did want to earn a reasonable sort of financial reward for the time spent on the writing.
Which was part of the reason I changed genres, from contemporary/literary fiction to historical. It was also because an idea and a character grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. So I redefined success this time as, for this book—A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald— getting a new agent, signing with a new, bigger publisher, and securing a decent advance. I was so happy to tick all three boxes.
Overseas (Lack of) Success
Then, of course—and I think this is the crux of the problem with defining success—the goalposts shifted. I’d ticked those boxes so I needed to create some new boxes. Overseas sales were discussed. Right, new measure of success created—signing contracts to sell into some overseas markets. I wanted America. Big time.
I didn’t get it. Nor any other overseas market. Of course now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s very easy to look back and say to myself—but you never wanted any of that to begin with. So it’s not a failure. It felt like it at the time though.
Her Mother’s Secret and Success
In the months before Her Mother’s Secret came out, I was terrified. The reviews of A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald had all been so overwhelmingly good. I’d set the bar too high for myself, I thought. I never had any idea that people would like A Kiss so much. Looking on Goodreads for my first two books was enough to show me that while some people might like the book, many other people wouldn’t. But that didn’t happen with A Kiss. People actually loved it.
So I was terrified of disappointing people. Which meant that, all I wanted, when Her Mother’s Secret came out, was for people not to compare the two books. Because you can’t write the same book. It’s not challenging as an author and it’s boring for the reader.
But I also wanted to sell even more than I had with A Kiss. I was competing with myself, not with any other author, wanting to reach more readers. And then I received a message from a reader which reminded me of what success actually is, for me.
A Message From a Reader
The message said that the reader had loved Her Mother’s Secret. That the book had come to her at just the right moment in her life. That she was inspired by Leo, the main character. That she’d stayed up and gorged on the book, then started reading it all over again from page 1. That she couldn’t wait for me to write something else. That I had truly swept her away and into my story for a few days.
I remembered back to when I was a kid. Every time I read a book that swept me away, I would think to myself: imagine being able to do that. Imagine being able to write a story that makes the reader forget, for a time, that the world exists. A story that is completely real for duration of reading. Every time I thought that, I would say to myself: that’s what I want to do. I want to write stories that make other people feel the way I do when I read.
What Success Means to Me
So that’s how I define success now. That was the goal I created when I was a child and it has never changed, just forgotten underneath the clatter of money and markets and everything else. Which is not to say that I think money isn’t important; I’m definitely not the kind of writer who is happy to write one book every few years and earn very little money and seek only critical acclaim. It’s just that money isn’t necessarily success.
Our ideas of success shift and change every time we have some. So it’s impossible to chase after success; it’s always a step ahead of us. If we can look back and see that we have learned more, failed better, tried something new, grown and changed then we’ve been better writers. It’s so important to remember that, to remember that you’re now 10,000 words on from where you were last year, or you’ve completed a first draft, or you’ve attended that course you wanted to go to. Those things are actual, solid achievements.
So now I have a list of things I’d like to achieve. But I don’t use them as a measure of my success. Instead, I have a measure of success that doesn’t shift and change, that I can hold fast to no matter what, that will always be true regardless of how far I come or how far I fall. My childhood wish: if I can write stories that make other people feel the way I do when I read a great book, then I’ve achieved success as a writer.