Monday, August 29, 2005

What Is Success?

Recently I consulted with a new author whose first novel came out last year. She confessed that she felt as though she was a failure--this despite that the book :
(1) got good reviews in major media;
(2) sold around 15,000 copies in hardcover;
(3) had just been picked up by a major national retailer.

The author wasn't whining, either; she genuinely felt as though she was going nowhere. I told her that selling 15K of a first novel in hardcover is fantastic, and that many authors would kill to be in her shoes.

This led me to think, What is success? How do we know when we've achieved it? And where do we go from there?

It seems that no matter what we do, the bar for "success" keeps getting raised. We think, "Oh, if I could just finish writing this book, I'll really be happy." Then the book is finished, and we think, "Oh, if I could just get an agent, I'll be OK." Then, "If I can get a publishing contract, I'll really be happy." Then the book is published and we think, "If it gets good reviews, I'll really, REALLY be happy." Then the reviews come in and we worry about sales. Then we worry about maintaining sales, and then we worry about the paperback publication, and paperback sales. And then we start worrying about the next book: Will I finish it? Will it be any good? Will anyone publish it? Will anyone buy it? And there we go again...

How to stop the madness? I don't have any hard and fast answers, but here are two writers with the right attitude.

From "The Perils of Literary Success" by Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the bestseller Prep)in the summer fiction issue of The Atlantic:

...[the NY Times review] forced me to realize that I had to be the one who decided whether my novel was a success or a failure; if I believed that only a publication or another person could legitimize my work in a way that felt permanent and satisfying, I'd be waiting a long, long time.
From a current discussion on "Writerville: A Coffee Break" on

Basically, I realized just how incredibly fortunate I am to have had a book published, to be working on another one that (God willing) will be published too. And I thought it was small of me to be obsessed with how the book is selling, and what the next thing is. I need to give myself permission to feel good about what I've accomplished, to feel as though I've actually done something worthwhile.

1 comment:

Mark Schannon said...

Seems that there are two issues here. Was/is my book a success, for which, as you note, there are at least some objective standards.

The second is, "am I a success," which is linked but not defined by being a successful writer.

Your friend said, "she felt like a failure." That's old tapes and "oughts" and "shoulds" that get in the way of our enjoying and celebrating what we have.