The other day, I was watching a movie and a character referred to himself as a “failed author.” In the context of the film, it was clear that he meant that his book hadn’t sold well. But it got me thinking about what “success” means as an author. After all, my book isn’t exactly topping the best seller lists. Does that make me a “failed author”? Considering the fact that when I published Beautiful, I expected to sell about three copies total, I’d say no. I don’t know what the character in the movie was expecting or hoping when he published his book: it was never made clear. But when I decided to publish Beautiful I was very clear about what “success” would mean to me with this book: if people (any number of people) read the book and got some enjoyment out of it, I would consider it successful. I’ve gotten some really nice feedback on the book. More than I expected! It’s encouraged me to move forward with publishing a follow up and building a career. So in that sense, I absolutely consider myself a successful author.
But let’s rewind a moment: before I published Beautiful, I had seen writers in books and films say similar things about their books quite frequently. Even then I would roll my eyes a bit at it. These people had not only had the stamina and dedication to sit down and write a book (and presumably edit and revise and rewrite it) but they had the confidence and perseverance to publish it. That in itself is a win! A lot of people say they want to write. Of those very few make it through the first draft. At each stage a lot of people give up. I would say that people who have the perseverance to write a book, and the courage and confidence to publish it, are successful regardless of whether it sells a single copy!
In fact, book sales are a fairly arbitrary indicator of success. Yes, having money is nice, I certainly don’t deny that! But how many brilliant writers throughout history sold very few copies of their work during their lifetime? Even my own criteria for success don’t hold up under that lens: many great authors were mocked and derided initially by readers and critics and only appreciated by posterity.
Given the fact that popularity and monetary rewards aren’t always indicative of success as a writer, the only way that a writer can be assured of a chance of greatness some day is to finish that book, and publish it so that people can read it. Maybe it’ll sell a million copies when if first comes out, be made into a forgettable movie and make the writer financially comfortable for the rest of his or her life. That’s certainly a kind of success. Maybe it’ll sell a few copies but be loved by readers and inspire future work. That’s a kind of success too. Maybe it’ll be enjoyed by those who read it and then forgotten as they move on with life. I’d argue that’s success too. It might be helping those people as they struggle with something. It may take them away from their trouble for a few hours. To me, that’s success regardless of whether or not its remembered later.
I would argue that the only way to fail as an author is to not write and to not let people read what you’ve written. That’s the only way that it has no chance to make an impact. But if you write, and you share your writing, then you’re successful, whether or not you recognize it.