Featured·Self Publishing

What is Success for a Self-Publisher?

8 minute read

Defining success for a self-published author can be a nebulous task.

dylan-suckcess

Does it mean having finished your book, regardless of what sales may come? Does it mean your book effectively prints absurd amounts of money for you every month? Does it mean you’re content with the work you’ve done and proud to publish it for the world to read?

Yes.

It can mean any and all of these goals, but I find it an important question to consider before starting your self-published book. Defining success for your book upfront can help you actually finish your work and serve to temper your higher—and sometimes unrealistic—aspirations.

Success is Having Written

For instance, when I began writing The Gospel According to Breaking Bad in early 2013, my first definition of success was to simply finish writing it. Having never written anything longer than 20 pages or so, completing a book seemed a daunting task. During that stage, my goal was what Dorothy Parker famously said:

[Tweet “”I hate writing. I love having written.” — Dorothy Parker”]

Sales goals and critical reception never entered into my thoughts as I wrote the book. I wanted to finish writing it to prove to myself I could write a full-length book. About halfway through, I began to believe that it wasn’t that bad. Knowing that the momentum I’d attained would carry me through to the finish line, my definition of success changed as I neared the completion of my book.

Success is Breaking Even

Now I wanted to sell the book, but defining success on that level was modest. I just wanted to break even.

In other words, within a year of the book’s release, I wanted to sell as many books as it would take so I could earn back the $800 I spent on self-publishing it. Considering this report that half of self-published authors make less than $500 per year, my modest goal appeared lofty to me.

I’m glad to report (and my wife may be even happier to report) that I managed to break even after the first five months of sales. Surprisingly, half of the proceeds came from robust December sales of the print edition, which still baffles me, but for which I’m incredibly thankful—and fully believe it’s because of the stellar chapter illustrations of Wes Molebash.

But I digress.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

Success is Making a Profit

Now that I’d finished the book and managed to break even, marketing suddenly became more important and more interesting.

  • I offered my book for free for a day and amassed 1000+ downloads. Here’s the writeup on that experiment, an experiment I’d now call a complete bust sales-wise, but one I’m glad to have done in order to see the book dispersed to more readers.
  • I opted out of KDP Select. Now my book is on sale for Kobo and Nook devices.
  • The audiobook edition is set to release in the next few weeks, recorded by stellar actor and narrator Alex Hyde-White with Punch Audio. The first time I heard Alex read my book’s title, I got chills.

I’ll be blunt: all of these efforts were made in order to make a profit. Earning passive income becomes addictive. If I can spend 20 hours or so on getting an audiobook onto the market and then make money off of that product for the rest of my life, I’d say that’s a pretty good investment of my time. While making exorbitant amounts of money off that product isn’t very likely, a steady trickle over a long time can result in meaningful cash flow.

This is one of the reasons why many self-publishers know that the best thing they can do after writing their first book is to immediately get started on the second, or to discover more places to release the first book. The more products you have in the marketplace, the more likely your trickle can turn into a torrent.

Success is Doing What You Love

What keeps a self-publisher, or any author for that matter, committed to such a challenging artistic endeavor is that they love writing. Having readers and getting paid are just bonuses. Authors the world over tell aspiring authors to forget about the money and just write. Do it for the love of the craft. This is keen advice.

More than making money (which is nice), I’ve been a successful self-publisher because I love writing. It’s a strange definition of success, but it’s one that’s wholly dependent on me. No outside forces can attack that.

[Tweet “”Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” — Maya Angelou”]

Success is a Moving Target

Your definition of success can change over time. As you read above, my definition of success transformed as I ventured further down the pathway of self-publishing. At such milestones, it’s a smart move to take a step back from your book and consider, “What is success for me now?”

Don’t do this too often, as it can detract from your writing, but pondering this question every few months may be able to help clarify where you need to focus your efforts.

  • If success is having written, then maybe you need to develop more discipline in your writing and learn to set daily word count goals. (Scrivener has an awesome word count goal tracker.)
  • If success is breaking even, then maybe you need to read more about book launch strategies, find great endorsements, and figure out exactly what you’re willing to spend on your book before launching it.
  • If success is making money, maybe you need to listen to The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast and learn what other indie authors are doing to promote their works.
  • If success is doing what you love, maybe you need to write from your soul and not for the market.

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” ? Bob Dylan

Now it’s your turn.

In self-publishing, success is _______________.

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13 Replies

  1. I’m still trying to define success for myself, and it seems to change the more I learn about self-publishing. Yes, it includes monetary goals, but it also includes that feeling that I ran the race the best that I could. It’s also making a promise to myself that I will not just listen to others like yourself but follow through to the application of those lessons in my own work. For now, my marker of success will be to have a nice looking, professional work available on the virtual shelves of Amazon, Kobo, and B&N. This book will not only be my first self-published work but also my first work of fiction. Some days anything that moves me forward feels like success. 😉

  2. So well-put Stephanie. There’s so much out there about self-publishing that it can definitely be overwhelming. Like you said, I try to act on at least one thing I hear or read that seems like it can help move the proverbial needle. Love your closing line too: “Anything that moves me forward feels like success.” Preach it!

    Self-pubbing is just like writing a book, a slow and steady, day-by-day process that eventually builds to something much greater than the sum of its parts. Anything that inches you toward that goal can definitely be defined as success.

  3. Excellent post. So glad you wrote it.
    It helps me as I define success in my endeavor. I’m very fortunate. I have had my poetry in stores for years. So that’s success. I’ve also had 42 Bible studies and over 25 articles published with CT so I’ve had exposure. The business aspect has been lagging behind because basically it’s not my strength. My first book I went the KDP route and over 3200 people downloaded it free. Then when i should have picked up the ball and ran with it life happened. Or more precisely death happened. My 52 year old brother had a massive heart attack and died. That was last year. When I wrote my second book which is the book I was supposed to write, it took a lot out of me. So I am determined not to ride a roller coaster ride with this.

    I do feel good that I wrote this book. It was difficult and emotionally I was spent. But I felt strongly I was to write it and so I did. Thank you for a great post and thank you for responding to my question.

  4. Really great post Blake 🙂 For myself I don’t think I’ve fully defined what success is for me as an indie writer. However, since the New Year I’ve had consistent word count goals…which for me makes me feel successful. Although with my 1st novel, I didn’t break even… so that’s something I want to learn to do better with this next book ;( I love The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast ~ it really has helped me learn what other indie authors are doing and how they’re doing it successfully. Thanks so much for so many great thoughts!

  5. Great post, Blake. At this point in my writing life, success will be when I complete my current manuscript. I like your idea of success being defined as steps. Very encouraging.

  6. My condolences for your loss Anne.

    I don’t think many writers would call business their strength, and it’s definitely not where we want to focus our time, but it is a necessary evil. As you probably already know, the great thing about self-publishing is the fact that you can experiment as much as you want. Even though I talk about that fairly often, I still haven’t done as much experimenting as I’d like because I’d rather be writing than changing prices and tracking sales.

    Love your line about “the book I was supposed to write.” I think the fact that you wrote that kind of book, one where it probably hurt more often than not, is a superb definition of success.

  7. Thanks Blake. I like the last thing you wrote there. And you’re right, not everyone would write this kind of book. But so many people could benefit. Writing the scary stuff—being vulnerable is important because it frees others up to know they are not alone.

  8. I do use Scrivener Blake ~ even picked up the Scrivener Coach’s tutorials…I just haven’t gone through them all yet:) Thanks for the helpful link ~ I’m bookmarking that! i go between RSP podcast, to the SPP Podcast and The Creative Penn podcast .. I always learn something from all 3 🙂 Thanks again!

  9. Blake, you really hit the ball out of the park with this article! Success usually shows up on multiple levels. It’s like going from the known to the unknown. Once the unknown becomes known, there is another shadow of greater success on the horizon that pulls us along the path.

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