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 in the last few weeks have 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 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.)
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?
It’s very tricky.
My mind is back on my own definition of success because of a few things that happened around the same time. This new book of mine published (I hope you’ve heard of it by now). I had an email conversation with the lovely Augusta Scattergood (whose first book launched a week before May B.) about this very topic. I listened to a Publishing Crawl podcast episode called Publishing 101: Sales and Success and read the book Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living.
Next Monday I’ll share Cheryl Strayed’s definition from the book. In the days following I’ll post words of wisdom from my writing friends — how they define personal success in the midst of their writing lives. I asked them to share so that I might pass their words on to you. But I’m not going to lie. Their words are for my benefit, too. Oh my goodness, they are wise and true.
I haven’t yet hit on my new definition of success. Perhaps that’s the point, that it’s not mine to measure?