The Measure of Success

What does success look like for an author? Is it literary acclaim, millions of books sold, awards won, name recognition? If you have some or all of that going for you, how much does it matter that people like your writing?

I wonder if it still would feel like success if people bought but did not read your book. Do you care if readers give up on it partway through? According to Goodreads, the most frequently abandoned classics of literature are:

1. Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

2. Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

3. Ulysses, by James Joyce

4. Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville

5. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

I am not too proud to admit I have personally given up on each and every one of these classics. I am not a fan of literary fiction on the whole. I find it pretentious, angst-ridden, and unnecessarily prosy. I don’t really consider Catch 22 to be literary fiction. I did think it was boring though. I felt the same way about Cujo. There is a long list of books I wanted to like and tried to read, but ultimately quit, never returning to them.

Goodreads provides the results of their survey without discussing any of the survey methodology, so I don’t know the survey population, sample size, or anything about how they analyzed the data.

Among their findings, 15.8% of the respondents reported giving up on a book within the first 50 pages if they don’t find the book interesting enough. That would be the cohort I’d belong to. If I give an author fifty pages of my time to captivate me and they fail to do so, I walk. I subscribe to the school of thought that holds life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy.

Interestingly, 38.1% of the respondents answered that they never give up on a book. They finish, no matter what. I think there is something to be said for that approach. These are probably people who use reading as a way to discipline their minds. I think that is the hidden purpose of English Lit – to prepare people for a lifetime of reading stuff they’d never pick up if they thought they had a choice about it. Let’s face it, nobody wants to read a TPS report. Of course, there is always some chance the people who feel they have to finish a book are simply obsessive-compulsive.

I suspect the numbers might be different among the general reading population than among authors. I would think writers might tend to be less patient with books than the populace at large. Many of us read analytically, dissecting and judging each passage, even pausing to think, I wouldn’t have written it that way. That may make it harder for another author to pull us in. It becomes something like one magician watching another magician’s act.

But I digress. I think most of us write with the hope our stories will captivate readers. If that happens, people will talk about the book, recommend it, sales will increase, and fame and fortune and accolades will follow. BUT – it all starts with somebody enjoying the read. That is what underlies the stratagem of giving books away. We hope to start an avalanche of success.

At least insofar as general fiction is concerned, I think that is true. There are authors who have different intentions. Some write to appeal only to certain elements of the population. They don’t want everyone to like their books. For these few, it matters more that the right people like their books.

In the end, success is individually defined. We set the bar ourselves. We alone can choose what matters to us. If your book accomplishes what you intended, you will count it a success if only 100 copies were ever bought. If you sold a million, but failed to get the kind of recognition you wanted, you’ll still consider the effort a failure.

Not to be mercenary, but I’ll take the kind of failure that allows me to wallow in luxury. What about you? Here is the question:

If you wrote a million-selling book, would it matter to you if everyone hated it? If your book is held up as an example of the pitiful state of the popular culture, a sign of the decline of civilization, will you cry your way to the bank? Ultimately, do you write hoping people will admire your writing, or buy your writing? Don’t say BOTH. For this exercise, force yourself to choose one.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “The Measure of Success”

  1. I learned about my motivation just a short while ago when I discovered that, while a friend of mine had purchased all of my books, she hadn’t read them.
    I was horrified. But. But, you don’t know what happened to …? You don’t know about so and so or the thing they find in chapter three?

    I don’t write to make money or to be admired. I write because: I want people to know what happened!

    It’s all about sharing a story. I’d love it if they sold, I’m not going to lie. I’d love it if people thought the writing rocked. But I choose secret option C. 🙂

    I want people to know what happens in the story.

    It’s the exact same reason I share a book by someone else. You HAVE to read this. And also why I force feed my favorite movies to anyone I can make sit down and pay attention.

    I want them to experience it.

    But to play by the rules: I’d rather not sell at all than be known as the writer who wrote those horrid, poorly written stories.

    1. Frances,

      I assume when you say you want people to know what happens in the story, you mean you want them to enjoy the story, or the movie, or whatever as you did. They don’t always.

      1. Exactly! Nothing worse than finally getting them to sit down to a movie I think is brilliant and then they talk through the bloody thing. 😉

  2. Buy my writing. Because if people are buying it, they like it.

    People complain all the time that they don’t like the writing in books like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight, yet those are still bought by millions. Millions of people don’t buy books they don’t like.

    So, if people bought my writing, I’d feel quite content that I had connected with many readers, even if some “critics” thought it was drivel.

  3. All those statements about doing something you love as a career are true, and this is how creative writing feels to me, however; for the purposes of your question my answer has to be B. Buy my writing.

    ‘B-cause,’ …

    Employment is obviously meant to be lucrative, and it’s much better to earn one’s living without working at a lesser job that supports the thing one loves to do. I often wonder why so many writers act as if admitting wanting to be paid is somehow less legitimate than a lawyer, a plumber or a hairdresser.

    Writing is a passion; publishing an indie is a business.

  4. I’m with RJ. How much do people REALLY hate if if they keep buying it? Besides, if you know it’s good, what does it matter if people CLAIM to hate it? And frankly, if it’s viewed practically as a choice between starving in obscurity or having a roof over my head in infamy, I’d have to take the money. Living under an overpass is not my idea of a good time.

  5. Oh I wouldn’t say for a minute that I don’t want to be paid. This is the best job ever, but it’s still a job. 🙂
    I only meant, if I had to choose…well, it was illustrated to me pretty clearly when my friend admitted she was too busy to read them.
    I really wanted her to share the story.

    But as a career author, as a professional, I want people to buy the books. I just really, really want them to read them too!

  6. I want readers to admire my writing and enjoy it. I like money, too, but I’m retired with sufficient income to survive, so making money isn’t a big consideration.
    What’s a TPS report, Stephen?

    1. A TPS report is just a general term for a useless, meaningless form that has to be filled out as some part of a useless, meaningless process. Reference: the movie, Office Space.

  7. I’m in the “want to be read” camp. As much as I’d like to quit the soul-suckin’ day job — and I do — I’d be devastated if people bought my work only to trash it.

    I mean, I’d take the money. Don’t get me wrong. But I want to be respected, too.

  8. Looks almost unanimous. I want to be read and enjoyed, whether they actually pay for the book or get it free somehow – like borrowed or from a library. .If I waited for payment I’d have to stop writing as that seems to be a pipe dream at this stage.

    BTW I have only read Lord of the Rings – to the end. I used to always finish a book. Now I’m in the ‘grab me before page 50 or I’m outa here’ group. My time is too valuable.

  9. I’m among the few who write to please only certainly elements of the population. Of course I’d be happy if everybody liked my books, but everybody won’t — people looking for light reading with a lot of fast action find them too slow and often boring. That’s why I can’t hope to be published by a major publisher in today’s market (although I was in the past in an era when YA books for “special” readers were being bought by libraries). But the people who do like my novels tend to like them very much. Let’s face it, tastes among readers vary by more than genre preference. Some look for fast action, some for character development, some for thought-provoking ideas. A writer can’t please everyone. If you happen to have tastes that match the majority’s, you can hope to make a lot of money; if you don’t, there’s no point in writing at all unless you get satisfaction simply from having your books enjoyed by a minority. To be sure, it is very difficult to get a book discovered by members of that minority because publicity depends on mass appeal. I wish more of the people who would enjoy my books knew about them. But I wouldn’t want to write for other people instead of those who share my tastes, even if I were capable of it — which I’m not. The only way to produce a successful book (by any definition) is to write the kind of book you yourself enjoy reading.

    1. This is so well said, Sylvia. I want to reach the people who will love my stories. If there are hundreds of them, great. If there are hundreds of thousands even better. But if there are fifty readers who would really love them. Then those are the people I want. Those are the people I write for.
      I want to make a living, sure, and I’m in a place where I’m not the primary breadwinner and so not dependent on writing income, so I totally understand the flip side, I believe authors should be paid, but if I could pick whatever I wanted for my books, it would be that they find that segment, however big it is. That they land in the right spot.
      (when I’m daydreaming that spot is smack in the middle of hollywood though. 😀

      I want action figures. lol

  10. Great question, Stephen.

    I write first to please myself–I’m the first reader of my stories, after all. After that, folks can buy my stories and dislike them. At least I’ve stirred a reaction in them. As long as they don’t actually throw tomatoes at me, I’m fine.

  11. If I had a best-selling bomb, and i knew it sucked, well, the good part about being Indie is we can go back and re-write that book- taking into account feedback from reviews and critiques. Yes, I’d happily enjoy the bankroll, but I think I’d go back and take the time to fix things that were wrong.

  12. I gave up on all of that list except Atlas Shrugged, which is my favorite book of all time. I hope I would never publish a book that I thought was crappy just because I knew it would sell. But that said, if I put out a book I was proud of and it was roundly trashed by the critics but sold a million copies anyway, I’d take that over obscurity. Because at least people would be reading it.

  13. Stephen, very thought-provoking post. Hmmm. I have to agree with Yvonne; I’d rather have my books be enjoyed. I don’t write for the money anyway (have a day job) and would write whether I sold anything or not. Although I realize that not everyone will love my books, having someone say a book touched them is worth way more than a ding on the cash register. I am with you on Cujo, tho; that’s where SK lost me completely. Christine frayed the thread badly, but Cujo cut it completely. I’ve never read one of his since.

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