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Indie Authors, How Do You Define Self-Publishing Success?

Indie Authors, How Do You Define Self-Publishing Success?

Linda Gillard, author of A Lifetime Burning

Linda Gillard, indie author of A Lifetime Burning and other popular novels

I was impressed by Dan Holloway's recent interview with Debbie Young in which he talked about what success means to him. “I’d like to change the world and win artistic prizes… There’s a £40,000 prize for the Folio Prize and as a broke writer, it would be a godsend, but I don’t think I could ever equate success with money.”

Dan made me think we should examine what “success” means (or could or should mean) to indie authors.

I think there's an assumption – especially among rookies – that we should just emulate trade  publishing, except we cut out the middle man. In other words, our goals are the same (£££ + fame + awards). Only the means are different.

I think indies can have different goals as well as different means. After all, setting profit as the main goal is why trade publishing is now in a parlous state, held to ransom by retailers (who also set profit as their goal.)

As indies, we too are in danger of being driven by commerical rather than artistic concerns. One of the reasons we might be tempted down that road is that practically the only way you can get taken seriously as a writer is by earning shedloads of cash or winning a big prizeThere's almost an artistic imperative to be financially successful so that the world (or at least the media) will hear your message and appreciate your talent

Well, even though I have a lot of them, I'm trying to work out for myself if an indie author actually needs readers to be “successful”. Success for me is saying what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it, then putting it out there in a format that's accessible even to those with a low income.

To be sure, I love the regular income indie ebooks have generated for me but by my own definition I was “successful” the minute I uploaded the novel no one would publish — the one my own editor said was “unmarketable” and “in dire need of a re-write”.

Success for me equals creative freedom. I know plenty of allegedly successful  authors who don't have that.

Poor things.

Author: Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She’s the author of seven novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and HOUSE OF SILENCE, selected by Amazon UK as one of thier Top Ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category. Her author website is at www.lindagillard.co.uk and you can keep up with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LindaGillardAuthor.


This Post Has 33 Comments
  1. Success for me is not fame. I can’t think of anything worse than being recognised in public. Success is also not winning an award because it is subjective and there are many brilliant and successful books that have not won awards.

    Success for me is to make a living as a novel writer. So, yes, shock horror, it involves that dirty word money. I thoroughly enjoy sitting down alone and writing for hours each weekend. I enjoy being a member of a writers’ circle. I enjoy going to writers’ weekends like the Winchester event and I enjoyed attending an Arvon course and getting an MA in creative writing from Winchester University. I enjoy being an anonymous member of the writing community.

    But I would rather do all of this as a full time writer and not after working hard all week. So I am not ashamed to admit that success for me is to earn enough money to be able to give up my full time job as an Engineering Trainer. If I can achieve this then maybe my definition of success will change.

  2. Let me start by lamenting I was not a member when this was posted 10 months ago. It is republished on 16th Feb ’14.

    I have been recently engaged with others on Goodreads who are struggling with this question. Above all the thing that emerges form these talks, is a sense of being swamped and submerged by the vast outpouring of material published in the digital revolution of this past ten years.

    I began at the dawn of self publishing and made all the classic mistakes of that time. But I was empowered by that. I learned that I did not need to keep reading the agents remarks saying: ‘Promising but not mainstream, not the right genre, too literary.’ One actually said “Dumb it down.”
    For me success came when I stopped beating at the gatekeepers doors and taught myself how to self publish properly. I found an editor and designer and I clawed my way to getting the books right. I began to build a platform and I learned a few hard lessons about what not to do. I learned about tit-for-tat review nastiness on Goodreads. I learned that Facebook and Twitter are not as easy to master or as productive as people would have me believe.
    I did all this at the same time as producing thirteen works I am can be proud of and that the very few people who have discovered them, have reviewed well. Real readers mind, no paid reviewers or family.
    I joined ALLi after ten months watching and seeing how the people here think and work. Since then my learning curve has taken a great surge upwards as I see how much more I need to do become visible.

    So how do I measure success?
    Artistic freedom – I’ve got that and I can write as I need to, mark that, need to, not want to.
    I have avoided the temptation to go to commercially successful genres that sell but that are of no interest to me.
    Financial success? Yes I want that but I know it will be slow to come because I’m not prepared to give my all to screaming into the void and chasing every avenue open to me on social media.
    I simply can’t do that in the way the sage advisors say I must.
    The admiration of my peers and critics? That would be nice but until the utopian freedom ALLi is working towards is won and we are judged on equal terms with trade published authors; then that admiration and critical acclaim is not available to me. So I do not seek it.

    I consider I have been successful artistically and I’m proud of the work I’ve produced but that success is tainted by the feeling that until I break out of the lower reaches of obscurity I occupy on Amazon and Smashwords et al, then my success will always be incomplete, lacking the final thing that removes self-doubt. Because meaningful sales numbers do count – if only as a measure of discovery.

    I wonder as I write this will anyone respond to this republished post?

    1. David, thank you for this long and thoughtful reply. Comments on older posts obviously have a much lower profile than those left on recent articles, but I’d love to raise the profile of your comments by turning it into a post in its own right for the Monday “Opinion” strand. Although the post you commented on is nearly a year old, the issue it addresses is always with us, so ongoing discussion is always relevant and welcome! I’ll email you separately in case you don’t see my reply here. Best wishes, Debbie Young (ALLi blog editor)

  3. For me success is having thousands of readers enjoying my books. Having written for small publishers, with a 400 print run, selling 10000 copies fo an e-book over six months is success beyond anything I ever dreamed off ten years ago.
    Finally earning enough to live on is a major satisfaction and makes me proud to be a professional writer. I know few of us write for the money – we write because it’s what we are, what we do, we would do it even if earned nothing – but gettting a decent living from our work makes the whole thing so much better.
    I love the fact that my e-books could go on selling long after I’m gone and my children and grandchildren could benefit. Becoming an indie-publisher on Amazon has given me this success and for that I’ll always be grateful.
    I’m so fortunate to be able to spend my days doing something I love and getting well paid for it.

  4. I think self publishing success is when you’re writing, and people out there in the world are reading your work. I have a note on the end of my bio that I love to hear from readers. Strangers see that and email me to tell me they loved one of my books. That’s everything, right there in a nutshell. It’s what I dreamed about as a little girl.

  5. I’ve defined distinct goals as my success criteria –

    Writing two books – check
    Enjoying the experience – check
    Bringing the Sean Yeager ideas to life – check
    Building a website – check
    Attracting readers and interest – a work in progress – partial check
    Holding a quality product in my hands – double check
    Entertaining people with my books – a work in progress – partial check
    Meeting some great people – check
    Creating the world of Sean Yeager – a work in progress, film rights some way off

    I would like to succeed financially and I would like to reach a mass market. However,
    those goals do not in any way detract from the other criteria for me.

    Incidentally I am neither for nor against making money through writing.
    I see it as a practicality. I’ll have more scope to write if my books sell. If they sell
    slowly I’ll have less time for writing.


    aka Sean Yeager Adventures


  6. Success for me means having the time and freedom to write, together with knowing that my work is ‘out’ there, read and enjoyed (not by vast numbers) but enough to make me happy. I’d written stories since I was child, but after spending a big chunk of my working life teaching in further education, I’d lost any creative drive or energy. The decision to do an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa revived that. Now, by supplementing my income teaching creative writing, I’ve got the time and energy to write. It feels like a huge privilege.

  7. I agree that the most important thing is defining what success means to you as an author – and then changing that definition over time, as we all change as writers and as people.

    Since I gave up my full-time job as an IT contractor to be an author-entrepreneur, one big definition of success for me is to be able to continue doing this by ensuring a steady and decent income. When I left IT, my husband agreed to 6 months and then we would review the financial plan – it’s now been nearly 18 months so I guess that is some measure of success.
    I think if you pay the bills with writing, that HAS to be part of the definition.

    You can’t ignore the commercial aspect unless you have other means of income – and I also don’t think there is anything wrong in wanting to please a large number of readers – which is essentially what happens with commercial success. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to make more than a decent living from being an author. That study that keeps being bandied around about the average income of a writer being under $10,000 annoys the hell out of me!

    But on the artistic side, I also feel that part of my definition is my own development and how much I can express some of the deeper issues that resonate. I certainly haven’t got there yet – but that is as much to do with maturity as a writer which takes time – and more writing.
    Better get back to it then 🙂

  8. The miracle of self-publishing for me is that it allows us to feel successful each small step along the way. The creative process — make, evaluate, modify, make better — is not blocked by the inhuman “submission” process. (Viv… I’ll never see that word the same way again!) Each tentative step, from the first words on the blank page, to the reaching out to a reader online, is part of an unimpeded flow of positive creative energy. It has made all the difference in the world to me to be freed in this way.

    1. Orna, sorry. I spent a lot of time chasing that path and later a lot of time wondering why I had done so when they treat us so shabbily. It landed me in hospital with a life-threatening brain bleed, through stress, and more than one or two days staring at suicide methods too (yes, I did take it that seriously). I even landed an agent, but that proved to be a Dead Sea Fruit. So, submission is not a process I am willing to consider ever again, as it denied my very soul. I’d rather now be dominant!

  9. You’re right. It is important that we consider this.
    Success for me has different levels.

    The first success is finishing and publishing a book that shares my vision with the world. Authors know what an immense amount of work and commitment it takes just to do that.

    However, that isn’t actually enough success for me. I want the second kind of success as well.

    The second success is producing a good quality product. So when I get reviews that indicate that the book is well written, I feel that I have been successful, even if few people read it.. My BRAG Medallion and AIA Seal of Approval to me equal success. This success doesn’t depend on sales at all. It’s enough to know that I did a good job.

    The third level of success is earning enough income so that I don’t have to sell my home. Now that I have the second success, I’m confident that the third will come eventually – hopefully before I’m forced to sell. The alternative for me really is starving.

    I don’t write to make money, ( what a naive idea that would be) I write because I have a vision that insists on being shared, but we are running a business and, unless you’ve plenty of money to throw away, a business can’t keep running unless it makes a profit. Luckily, once the books are there, they’re there for the long haul.

    The bottom line for me isn’t how many people read my book, or how much money I earn, its when my writing connects with people, when it touches them somehow.

    I feel successful every time someone writes a 5 star review.

    1. I agree, Tahlia – one review that shows you’ve connected can signify success.

      I even cherish a 1-star Amazon review that signifies success for me. Reviewing A LIFETIME BURNING someone headed her 1-star review “Disturbing”, then wrote, “I have read a few of Gillard’s and quite like the fact that the characters have mental/emotional issues, but I just found this book quite disturbing with the very intricate & incestuous relationships. Was left just disturbed by it all!”

      Three “disturbeds” in one review? Wow. “Disturb” is what I set out to do with that novel, so thank you, 1-star Amazon reviewer. You made my day. 🙂

  10. For me, self-publishing success means being able to bring my book back into the light: The Chase was traditionally published, had its brief moment and I was helpless to prevent it sinking back into the shadows once the publisher’s brief spotlight on it had been switched off. So it’s a joy to know it’s out there once more, whether five, fifty or five thousand people buy it. Self-publishing success is about control, about choosing your own blurb, your own images, your own path (with support from the Alliance!). Self-publishing success is also about realising if you’ve done it once, you can do it again! Thank you Linda for starting me off on this path and encouraging me to take control.

  11. I think that our definitions of success can change, as our expectations change. With a manuscript that had had a disappointing history of acceptance, rejection, acceptance, bankruptcy( of the small press that had agreed to publish it), my initial goal was just to get it published and find some moderate success. Moderate success meant that someone besides my immediate circle of family and friends would buy it and say they liked it.

    Once this happened and I discovered that I could actually have some control over who would find the book (using categories correctly, promotional efforts, etc) and that the more people saw the book, the more sales I made, my definition of success changed to getting and keeping my work visible.

    Then I made enough money from sales to retire completely and write full-time (including marketing), and my definition of success expanded to include continuing to make enough income to replace the money I lost by ending my teaching career.

    Then my definition of success expanded again to include writing a second book that was better than the first, so I didn’t feel like a “one-hit-wonder.”

    Now my definition of success includes figuring out a way to sustain my writing career, which means not just continuing to market the book, work on my writing, but also how to do it and have a balanced life so that I don’t burn out and decide that retirement should actually mean retirement, not a career that is busier than my full-time teaching career was!

    M. Louisa

  12. An excellent question. Thanks for your insightful answer, Linda.

    As an old warhorse in the biz, I try not to be jaded, but it seems to me that the majority of authors define “success” as whatever they don’t have. An author I know who started out indie thought success was getting an agent – until she got one who promptly landed her a huge book deal. But the book isn’t bestseller, so now that’s the definition of success, and she is no happier than she was as a much jilted querier.

    The gut-deep yearning that fuels the effort it takes to succeed in this business is the very thing that keeps moving the meaning of success one step ahead of us. Sisyphus is our patron saint.

    The reality is this: You. Will never. Succeed. Herman Melville did not succeed with MOBY DICK. JK effing Rowling did not succeed with THE CASUAL VACANCY. Keats didn’t succeed at getting to thirty! Whatever yardstick you apply to “success” — there’s always something you didn’t get, because the thrilling truth of art is that it is limitless. There is no *enough* in art — or in love — or (for most of us) in money.

    Maybe the more productive question is: How do you define happiness? How do you find peace in your spirit while stoking that fire in your belly? Is it possible to enjoy all the small gifts and victories inherent in the artistic life — and the artistic living — knowing that they will never add up to everything? We will never finish creating, we will never conquer the cultural sea monsters, and we will never — never — be financially secure, because security of any kind is an illusion.

    Is it possible to be a joyfully doomed striver? I believe it is, because I have my moments. And I keep striving. I can’t pretend I’ve succeeded at it, but for the most part, I’m happy.

    1. This is fascinating, Joni. Is this yearning an inherent part of the creative process or is it what arises when we step out of the inner creative moment, back into the worldly world? Security is an illusion, undoubtedly, but I know that when I let go of the outer, worldly definitions of success and become present for the moment-by-moment process of making something — be it a book, a blog post or whatever — I feel totally secure and safe. And yes, successful. Maybe success in self-publishing, in writing, in art is defined by what you’re prepared to let go?

      1. When I was raising my kids I used to teach them to strive to do their best and that would be enough because how could anyone do more? But as an exhausted stressed-out working mother, I took comfort from the maxim, “Good enough is good enough” (which allowed me to neglect housework, serve fish fingers and write a novel instead.)

        I think when it comes to my writing, good enough is definitely *not* good enough. I have to deliver my best and I have to strive constantly to improve. (Repeating is cheating.) But when it comes to sales & marketing – hell, good enough is good enough.

        1. I too remember when the “good enough” mothering came along (Donald Winnicott was the psychologist, as far as I remember, and his theory was a riposte to those post-Freudians who are forever proposing that a mother’s place is in the wrong.) I remember the relief it engendered in mothers everywhere and ever since, it’s been my maxim at home and at work. So I’m even easier on myself than you, Linda, and accept good enough for now in my writing too. Knowing I partly succeed and partly fail each time, and accepting that… while always trying to, in Beckett’s phrase, fail better next time. Sometimes that means forcing myself to focus on the success part (writer’s radar seems to zoom in on the failure by default) and truly accepting that it’s all good enough for now, because we never know how somebody else is going to receive what we do anyway.

    2. I love this analysis, Joni, and I think you’re probably spot on. I certainly think there’s something that makes me want to strive for the impossible because it’s impossible. I also think many of us share a terror of accomplishing something and not knowing “where now”

    3. You are so right, Joni, an excellent analysis. Human beings a wired to always want more, otherwise we’d give up on life as soon as we are old enough to realise we probably will never have everything we want….ok enough Scandi moroseness for now.

  13. To me, I think success means: Not to Have the Conduit to Other Minds Blocked

    Kathleen Jones made a brilliant observation on Authors Electric last year, in a comment, not a post, when she said (to paraphrase), that the commercial censorship of many voices in the West had been as invidious and destructive to many lives, as the political censorship of voices in the East had been, in countries such as the former Soviet Union, or those other countries which excelled in that form of censorship in the 20th century…and the 21st.

    To have a Voice at all in a society…let alone a voice which has a Conduit which can reach thousands…is a privilege.
    But to have a Voice for work such as books/ebooks?
    That would seem a Golden Privilege.

    I had worked alone on 7 books for 22 years…I had certainly assumed my Silencing in the UK to be permanent…and then suddenly, in December 2011…the Door opened and I had a Conduit to tens of thousands of readers around the world for my work.

    It still seems like a miracle to me.

    That was why I ended my part of the talk at London Book Fair in 2012, for the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors, a year ago now, by trying to mention the cases of John Kennedy Toole, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, and Mikhail Bulgakov…

    Later, I wrote a blog for Authors Electric about them, called Fending Off the Next Dark Age.

    They were censored and silenced in their lifetimes, for the perceived commercial reasons of publishers/editors, only for their books to be published with soaring success (of all kinds) long after their deaths.

    This is why the word “published” is as interesting to me as the word “successful”.

    Powerful forces have tried, and still try, to control and distort its meaning.

    I press “submit content” on this post and the thoughts are successfully published and enter the reader’s mind.

    I press “upload” on Amazon Kindle and so long as someone on the other side hits “download” then the “deal”/”transaction” is successfully done.

    The Conduit of Publication has successfully returned to its simple roots, from voice to ear, from soul to soul.


    After all, the P word wasn’t invented or TM-ed by Random House/Curtis Brown; no, like all words, it has its simple, organic roots:

    (To Publish: “to make public”
    1300–50; Middle English publisshen < Anglo-French *publiss-, long stem of *publir, for Middle French publier < Latin pūblicāre to make public)

    1. Excellent points, John.
      I also think it’s quite telling that the process for offering work to a publisher for publication is called *submission*. I guess that says more now than it ever did.

      1. Yes, exactly Viv.
        As Dan has said before, the language is often corralling and herding us down “conduits” we sometimes aren’t conscious of until much later.
        (And now I will confound things further by hitting “SUBMIT Comment”)(!)

  14. Thanks for the though provoking post. I love writing, and being able to do it is wonderful, but I don’t consider myself an “artist” in that I’m willing to starve doing it. Fortunately we aren’t living on my writing income, but to me this is a business, and the business needs to make a profit. A huge profit? No. (I wouldn’t turn it down, though!) But my income needs to excede the expenses of producing the books and marketing them. Otherwise, I can do everything myself, print off a half dozen copies for family, and call it a day!

  15. This is such a good question to ask oneself as a writer: what is success for me?
    I think in the last two years I’ve realised it’s not money (though that is nice, especially after one of my two day jobs went by the wayside) but about sharing the stories that meant so much to me I had to write them, and finding they resonate enough with readers that they sometimes email or message me to tell me so. Some of those messages have arrived just at that point in my week/month when it all feels utterly futile. Sometimes it makes me cry with gratitude that something I carried in my heart till I wove it into a story has helped someone I may never meet to cope with life events that threatened to overwhelm them.
    That’s what makes it worthwhile. Not literary prizes or acclaim.
    Thank you for sharing this post. Much appreciated.

  16. Very thought-provoking. I’ve been asked several times what’s the one piece of advice I’d give to anyone setting out self-publishing, and I think what I’ve always said has been the same – be absolutely clear what you’re doing this for and then if you want to stay happy doing it, don’t get sidetracked, however bright the lights might appear.

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