It is a strange thing to think about success, and what it means. In this blog I will attempt to explain a little about how I’ve come to think about the concept and what it really means to me now, at the end of my debut year. This is long, introspective, and full of pop-psychology.
There are numerous ways in which one can view success, and the most obvious and immediate are generally illusionary.
I try not to make it a secret that during the last year and a half I’ve suffered from depression. I’ve had a hard year, though of course, ‘hard’ is a relative concept. I wasn’t starving, but I got divorced and gave up my home, and I’ve been permanently on edge worrying about what having a writing career means and how to handle it. One of the worst things about depression, for me, is that it saps the joy from everything. Little is enjoyable. Little is fun. You try to make yourself go out and do things because you hope that maybe you won’t feel so bad, and you know that sitting around being entirely in your own head is the worst thing that you can do.
What I did know in that time was that I wanted to be a successful writer. But as time went by, more and more I found myself questioning what that meant and how, or even if, it was going to be possible to achieve it.
So what is the criteria for success?
- Selling a lot of books?
- Making a lot of money?
- Obtaining a large fanbase?
- Reviews in the paper?
These are, without doubt, the way that most people view success, and they are the way that industry views success. I’m sure fellow writers will be familiar with how often acquaintances are interested in how many copies you’ve sold, how much money you made and so on – always the first questions, not “what’s the book about?” The problem with these metrics is that you don’t actually have any real control over them. And they both lead into a difficult question:
There are books that you didn’t enjoy (which is fine, because not everything is for everyone), but you know that there is not a cat in hell’s chance that your books will ever be as successful from a money/readership perspective.
I find that music is a great analogy for writing. I love the music of a little known guy called Franz Nicolay. His lyrics are clever, insightful, touching and heartfelt. His music lifts me emotionally. But I also know that if I compare him to mass produced pop, which not even the producers who are making it respect, he will never sell anything like as many records. He’ll be outsold by hundreds of thousands of records. Even the losing comedy acts on X-Factor will outsell him by tens of thousands of songs.
So who is more successful? Franz Nicolay, making incredible music that few will hear, or X-Factor Winner no.23, who will make the sales but will be forgotten in a year? And then there are the musical acts that you may think are of seemingly no quality but who go on to have grand careers, and those that are musical greats and have just as long careers. Total Sales are not a satisfactory metric by which quality can be judged.
Part of the problem that I had that contributed to my depression has been a lack of purpose. To have a book traditionally published was the only real ambition that I ever had, and it was done. The book was written, it was out there, and was well received. But what, then, was the new goal? I was adrift. Purpose was gone.
Money is a strange goal to have. Once you hit a certain threshold of income, additional money doesn’t make you a happier person. This is well documented in academic psychological studies, and we all know there are rich people who can’t find happiness in life. So it needs to be discounted also, since it generally won’t achieve the end goal of contentment. This of course will vary from person to person and yes, of course, making money is generally a good thing, but assuming that like most writers you’re going to keep up a day job for most of your life, it’s probably not the defining factor.
In fact, if you want to make money, then aiming for a career as a writer is generally going to be a thankless task. You’d be better off going back to university, getting a job in economics, working in the city and retiring at 50 with a few million in the bank. That is more likely, with higher guarantees of success, than making a full time living writing.
So then, is it sales and readership that make people happy? It’s certainly amazing to think “Wow! X thousands have read my words!” But the happiness is inevitably short-lived. As these grow is that you reset the goalposts. When you know 200 people have read your book, you want 500 readers. When you hit 500, you want 5,000, and so on and so on. It’s wonderful to know that people are enjoying a book that you wrote – it really is an amazing feeling – but it is human nature to want to advance on previous goals.
I’ve spend quite a lot of time thinking about what meaning can be found in life over the last year. And this is what I considered:
If I could choose to have written a book that I didn’t enjoy but that sold a million copies in its first year, would I have chosen to write that over The Raven’s Mark books? And the answer that lies deep inside me, immediately, is No. This was an important realisation because it put the concept of ‘success’ into a new light for me.
The thing that I believe makes people content is working hard towards long-term goals. It is not the achievement of the goal that gives contentment, because it can only ever be brief and fleeting. It is not the publishing of the book, therefore, that makes you happy; it is working on the book, putting it together, thinking it through, and trying to make it the best that you can in order to give other people – not yourself – a brilliant experience. And it’s easy to forget that when you start getting caught up in sales data, considering whether you can be a full-time writer, whether you’ll get that next publishing deal and so on. The original target gets lost in the haze.
So, all that considered and said, the goal that I have now is, ironically, is to write for myself again. The goal is to produce the absolute best book that I possibly can, in the hope that it will give pleasure to others. How many others? Obviously I’d love it if I could give a great experience to many people, but provided that like Franz Nicolay, I’m happy with the end result of my art, then that has to be enough. You can’t control sales, you can’t control readership. People will like it or not. While for many it might be a good option, for me, trying to intentionally write with a mass-market approach just isn’t going to make me content. So it’s back to the good old adage that you write the story that you want to write, and maybe just don’t worry about ‘success’ at all. If there is any measure of success worth having, it’s that you created something that you’re personally proud of.
I’ll finish off by quoting Mary Schmich:
Sometimes you’re ahead. Sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.