What is Success for a Self-Publisher?

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