Thursday, October 25, 2012

The definition of success

While watching the local newscast, I heard a reporter introduce a prominent doctor as a successful surgeon, before proceeding to recite a long list of his achievements.  I turned to my husband and asked sarcastically, “So if another surgeon doesn’t accomplish all that he has, does that make him an unsuccessful surgeon?” 

 My husband shrugged nonchalantly and responded, “I guess it depends on how you define success.”

I smiled.

When I first decided to publish my stories, my idea of success was getting a traditional publisher to publish my story.  At that time, I was not thinking about self-publishing and (now shamefacedly) like many authors a few years back, I didn’t think of self-publishing as being successful.  But now that I have gotten my work published, and spent three years without another in print, my idea of success has changed.

What makes a successful author?  Is a successful author a prolific author?  I can think of one Pulitzer Prize winning author who only published one book.  Harper Lee is by any measure a successful author.  Not only did she win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, but her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, is considered an American classic and is assigned reading for English Literature in most middle and/or high school classes.  Yet Harper Lee is not prolific.

Is a successful author a rich author?  Well in that case the successful authors are few and far between.

Is a successful author on the NY Times bestseller list?  That is one measure of success.  But does that mean any author who is not on the NY Times bestseller list is unsuccessful?

Is a successful author published by a traditional big publishing house?  I’ve seen many successful authors who have self-published, even some producing bestsellers.  I’ve seen huge publishing houses publish books that tank.

What I’ve concluded is that what defines a successful author is dependent on the definition of success.  And that definition is not only subjective, but is also dynamic.  The definition of success as a writer is constantly changing for me.

What do you define as success for an author?


Charles Gramlich said...

at the present, I'm defining it as continuing to grow my audience. So far it has been very hard.

William Doonan said...

Ditto what Charles said up there. I'd like to think success might one day mean that my novels are translated into dozens of languages, including those that aren't even spoken anymore, on the off-chance that they will one day be revived. But that's a long way off. For now, a growing audience, and writing books I like, is success enough.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

This is a really important question to bear in mind. What is success, in an industry that is changing by the minute? Is it better to have the commercial success of some, or much fewer sales and perhaps literary recognition?
I think it is essential to be flexible, to understand the industry, as well as sticking to core beliefs and that old learning curve. Not easy, and a daily struggle!

Jewel Amethyst said...

" the present..." My sentiment exact, Charles. The definition is always changing, not just in the industry but in the individual and even with the readers' expectations. Success is hard to define and for some, it's just making a writing deadline.

Jewel Amethyst said...

"[success] mean that my novels are translated into dozens of languages, including those that aren't even spoken anymore, on the off-chance that they will one day be revived..."

William with a definition of success like that, you are looking at being considered successful only after several centuries or millenia. I guess that means your legacy will remain almost permanently.

But thinking about it, if that was Socrates or Plato's definition of success, they would now be successful authors. They just never lived to see it come to fruition.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Divorced Lady, I couldn't have said it better. With the rapidly changing industry and the rapidly changing definition of "writers" the yardstick for measuring success is constantly changing. There are books that are considered literary masterpieces with really low commercial value. At the same time there are bestsellers that the literary community consider garbage.

I guess the important thing is for each author to set attainable goals for him/herself and define success as achieving that goal. Once they've achieved that level of success they can go for a higher more lofty goal.

Liane Spicer said...

I measure my success incrementally. Acquiring an agent was a big one. Getting the publishing deal was another. Holding the first book in my hands, having people from places I barely knew existed contact me to let me know they enjoyed my work, Phyllis sending me a photo of the book in a Little Rock, Arkansas Barnes and Noble... Reviews...

Those are my successes. Add to that the freedom and excitement I'm finding right now writing in different genres under different pen names and indie publishing, and I'll say I'm happy doing what I do.

G. B. Miller said...

I echo Liane's sentiments.

Success for me was incremental as well.

Goal number one was getting a short story published ('09).

Goal number two was getting another short stoy published ('11).

Goal number three was getting a novel published (target date November '12).

Next goal will be doing number three all over again.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I know for you the Indie publishing was a big change in definition, so indeed the definition of success is ever changing. The fact that you are happy in what you do means you have found a definition of success that works. Many people are still suffering disappointment because they have failed to alter their lofty ideals of success such that success becomes unattainable.

I think both you and G.B.have found the key to success: marking it in increments.

Lynn Emery said...

I like a saying I read once and can't remember the source: "If your dream doesn't come true, get a new one." My definition has changed, and it's opened up more happiness. Some people get stuck on one dream, for example "I'm only a successful author: if I get an agent, get published, make a bestseller list..." Then when that doesn't come true they wallow in misery, maybe become bitter and in some cases (many cases) blame a long list of people. I know writers who have stopped writing. I know writers clinging to the idea that self-publishing equals failure. I've given up explaining indie publishing. Just have to move on with my new definition of success and new dreams.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Well said Lynn.