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?
Carole Estby Dagg says
Oh, Caroline…so wise and true as always. I don’t know if it’s a measure of success, but the things that make me happiest about my writing are the writing friends I’ve met and the occasional letter or email from a reader who connected with an event or character in one of my books.
Yes. Happiness. Perhaps that should be the measure.
Valerie Geary says
I’ve been thinking a lot about this too lately. So I’m looking forward to reading more of what you have to share!
I’ve really, really enjoyed the insight other writers have sent in.
Gorgeous pictures!!! The pink/violet hues made me catch my breath.
And you have wise words, Caroline.
It’s funny how our definition of success changes as we grow as writers. It will always be about connection for me. The friends, the readers. I still remember when a set of books paid for the wall-to-wall bookshelves. And prize money helped with the extras — sports and holidays. That felt like tangible success. I was finally helping out with the family finances. But after 15 years, it’s back to the original — to touch hearts. And if it pays for the material needs and wants, then all the better.
I like Pushkin’s motto: Write for pleasure, publish for money.
It is interesting, how it changes. Pushkin’s motto just about sums it up!
The evolution of personal perception is a lovely thing. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
Thanks, Lois. Things always seem to be shifting in my mind as this writing thing (hopefully!) becomes a career.
Arjay Clark says
A very thoughtful and reflective post as always Caroline. Your website is a true gem and wonderful resource for authors, librarians, schoolteachers, readers and anyone vested in quality children’s literature.
Success is the little boy I knew who loves nature and animals and announced Into The Wetlands was his favorite book. The youngsters who followed the adventures in May B, Blue Birds and Jasper. And of course the aspiring young poets who crave and devour poetry like air, they breathe.
On a personal note as an American Indian and a children’s librarian…. I can attest that children of all backgrounds enjoyed Blue Birds. However, with so few depictions of Native people in kidlit and YA; I was immensely delighted the way Native children embraced the adventures of Kimi and her friend Alis in your wonderfully researched and accurate historical novel,
How do you measure success? The absolute joy children get when reading your works have made you a true artist, writer, creator of worlds and a remarkable success.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Arjay. These are words to hold to!