What Does Success Look Like?

In the years since I first decided to write a novel, my idea of “success” in writing has changed. When I started writing that first novel as a teenager in 9th grade, “success” meant finishing a complete, novel-length first draft. I achieved that the following year when I reached the end of that story. Knowing I could do it once, “success” then became finishing another one so I would know the first wasn't a fluke. I achieved that measure of success in 12th grade. Along the way, and well into the next books I would write after high school, “success” started looking more like having readers; not just any readers, but complete strangers, readers outside my circle of family and friends. That, too, is something I have accomplished.

My shifting definition of “success” advanced in 2010 when I had, for the first time, one of my books available on Amazon and available (at least through special order) in brick-and-mortar bookstores. My long-term “success” picture always included some vague and dreamy ideas about earning royalties, but that became concrete when I reached the point of my publishing career when I had a book with an ISBN, works registered with the US Copyright Office, and slowly-increasing royalties from sales to people I don't know. What does “success” look like to me now? Read on and I'll share some thoughts on that!

Before talking about what I now consider “success,” I think it is appropriate to make it clear that I really am happy with what has happened so far. I wrote a book! And another! (And another, and another....) I have readers, and not just friends and family. As of this writing, I have half a dozen titles available for purchase. People I've never met and never will meet have parted with their hard-earned money, and used up some of their finite supply of minutes in life, to give my writing a chance.

I've even had “fan mail” from someone I've never met, never talked to, and know nothing about other than that they connected with Lesson One: Revolution! enough to want to contact me about it. I've earned enough money from my books to pay a few bills. It isn't much, but if you'd told me when I was graduating from high school how much my books would earn, I might have said “in my dreams, maybe.” So, really, I'm living in a dream—at least a dream I might have had as a teenager.

A basic facet of human history is that people have kept pushing forward. Some are content to stay in place, but the expansion of humans from their earliest hunter/gatherer existence to a planet-encompassing, technology-enabled species has been the result of people shifting the goalposts, moving outward, seeking new horizons and frontiers, and redefining success. Despite being able to see that I've accomplished much that I wanted to achieve in terms of writing, I also keep pushing the goalposts out. Success now looks like not just paying a few bills, but paying all of my bills. Without delving into a detailed analysis of my basic living expenses (would you care that my monthly water bill is approximately $20?), we can run some basic numbers using readily-determined facts.

For example, let's say that by “pay all of my bills” I mean covering my cost of living at or above the poverty level. Instead of looking at my family size, I can look at this as just “my bills as an individual writer” (since my family doesn't do any of my writing). Using the US federal poverty guidelines for the 48 contiguous states for 2014, that means I should bring in approximately $12,000 per year. Overall I use “$2 per copy” as my guide for how much I earn per sale, but really it varies from 35 cents up to a few dollars, depending on which book sells and in which format.

To “pay all of my bills” (just above poverty level for a single person) from my 99-cent e-book collection of science fiction short stories (Journey to Yandol, and other stories), at 35 cents per copy for the Kindle platform, I would need to sell 34,286 copies per year. That's over 90 copies a day. In case you're wondering, I haven't sold 90 copies of it the entire time it's been on the market. But if I was trying to earn that living from only selling print copies of Two Boys, Two Planets, I “only” need to sell 5,798 copies per year, or “only” about 16 copies per day. I'm nowhere near that, but at least I've sold more than 16 copies in the four years since the book was published.

Of course, I don't have to sell just one title, I have several that can sell. The numbers above only look at sales through Amazon, and I'm not limited in that way either. It's not quite as hopeless as the prior paragraph might imply. Leaving out Take Five! for Better Photos (I wrote it for my company, so I don't get any royalties directly), if I sold one copy of each book in each format in the US, I would currently bring in around $12.35, so I'd “only” have to do that 971 times per year, or “only” 3 times a day. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Well... yeah. It looks out of reach right now, given that I'm not consistently making even one sale a day. Plus, this is just to barely exceed the poverty level and pay all of my bills with my writing, not to live a life of luxury, however one might define that.

The more books I produce, and the better my books are, the more my royalties will approach the point of “paying my bills.” Even if it is at the poverty level, accomplishing that much with my books would be success from my current perspective. If that ever happens, I assume I'll move the target again. After all, covering immediate necessities is good, but it doesn't prepare for the future, and it doesn't allow for any fun.

Fully supporting myself and my family with my writings, including investing for the future and allowing some discretionary spending, looks more like a dream than a rational goal right now. I don't think my “pay the bills” goal is too unreasonable, but looking beyond that does seem unwise at this point. For now that's a “dream.” Maybe later it can become an actual goal, a new “success” target.

Photo credit: pippalou via morgueFile.com

About the Author
Stuart J. Whitmore is an author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a photographer, technology developer, and more. If you enjoy reading his blog posts, you might also enjoy reading his books. Take a look at the books by Stuart J. Whitmore today, and download your copy of one that looks interesting to you!