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The Psychology Of Success For Authors: Do You Secretly Think Self-Publishing Is Second Best?

The Psychology of Success For Authors: Do You Secretly Think Self-Publishing is Second Best?

Is there a psychology of success for authors? Orna Ross, founder and director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, thinks having a growth mindset is the single biggest predictor of success for an author.

Is there a psychology of success for authors?  I found myself recently, as I often do, at a writers’ conference, and it left me pondering this question.

It was a mixed event, with authors who market their books exclusively through trade-publishers (or want to) and authors who hire their own teams to produce their own books and sell their own rights(or want to).

Two Sides of the Room

Anyone who regularly attends author events tells the same story about how such rooms tend to divide. At the trade-published side of the room, aspirants share their concern, or sometimes despair, about their chances of ever being “published.” They’ll report that the conference's agent-in-residence liked their work but wasn’t going to make an offer to represent it, for this reason or that. Those who already have a publisher often complain about what they, or their agents, have failed to do for them.

At the author-published end of the room the talk is more animated, discussing the merits of this editor or that designer, this tool or that technique, this recommendation or that warning. The animation is creative and commercial, as the published authors swap tips and tools, ideas and insights, and pass on advice to the aspirants. Their talk is about work, not dreams.

At least, that’s how I see it. I believe every author should self-publish (at least once) to see for themselves. There is so much myth and misinformation about self-publishing the only way to know if it's for you is to try it and see. That, it seems to me, is what any open-minded, success-oriented author would do.

And therein lies a divide that seems to me to be far more significant than the trade-published versus self-published divide that gets so much attention in the publishing community: the divide between those authors who have what psychologists call a “growth mindset” and those who do not.

The Psychology of Success for Authors: Do You Think Self-Publishing is Second Best?

There really is a psychology of success for authors, and many indie authors I know have it, but some have not yet developed it.

A growth mindset is the belief that with sincere creative intention, and enough creative attention, we can develop the abilities, skills, and resources we need to attain our goals.

Would it surprise you to know that it’s not just trade-published authors who think self-publishing is second best? Some of those who call themselves indie authors do too. Unsurprisingly, they rarely do well because they haven't developed that key attitude for indie success.

Why might an author think self-publishing is second-best? Let's leave aside the people who have believed the misinformation–that indies can't get into bookstores, licence rights, sell poetry or literary fiction, win prizes, and so on, all untrue.

  • They might see self-publishing the last resort of the repeatedly rejected and resent having to do it.
  • They might think self-publishing associates them with the second-rate work that will always be part of an unregulated, un-curated literary marketplace.
  • They might want to be able to tell their family and friends that somebody else is investing in their work, i.e. thinks they are “good enough” to be “published”.

Then there are those who feel the very concept of author business is brash, who seem almost shamed to talk about making money by writing. And those who are resigned to the idea that they'll never succeed with their books…without ever having properly tried.

It seems to me that all of these authors suffer from the same condition which is brilliantly described by Dr Carol S. Dweck in her book, “Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.”

Dweck describes the fixed mindset as making you concerned with how you'll be judged by others. The growth mindset makes you concerned with improving yourself.

The Psychology of Success For Authors: Growth Mindset

Dweck and her team have examined the brainwaves of people with both mindsets in her lab at Columbia University. Those with a fixed mindset had most significant neurological activity when feedback reflected on their ability. When they were presented with information that could help them learn, there was little sign of interest.

Those with a growth mindset were most interested in information that would increase their knowledge. Their priority was learning to do better next time.

As Dweck's team and other psychologists have built on their initial findings, it seems ever more clear that growth mindset is a predictor of success, especially in creative environments. Why? Because this simple idea fosters the resilience that is essential to creative success

You don't get a growth mindset “by proclamation,” says Dweck. “You move toward it by taking a journey.”

You prove yourself to yourself.

  • You get rid of conditions that make you feel your abilities are fixed. (I'm a good writer, I'm a bad publisher), that make you harshly judgmental (I'm too stupid, I can't do tech) rather than constructively self-critical (I don't know how, I need to learn).
  • You foster conditions that make you believe in yourself enough to stay on track, to keep on improving and learning and growing in the three areas you need to excel at to be a successful indie author: writing, publishing, author business.

The Psychology of Success For Indie Authors: Creative and Commercial Control

The stigma that once surrounded self-publishing is dissolving, as more indie authors adopt a growth mindset and experience commercial and creative success. It’s all part of a growing movement towards author empowerment, which ALLi is proud to foster and encourage.

In our definition of an indie author from the FAQ page of our website we say you know you are an indie author (and not just somebody who has self-published) when:

  • You recognize that you are central to a revolutionary shift in publishing which is moving from seeing the author as resource (in the new parlance ‘content provider') to respecting the author as creative director.
  • You are proud of your indie status, which you carry into all your ventures, negotiations and collaborations for your own benefit and to the benefit of all writers.

From observing members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, I think having a growth mindset is the single biggest predictor of success for an author, whatever path to publication you're choosing, wherever you are in your author business.

It's not just our abilities and talents and resources that bring us success but, most crucially, the mindset we adopt towards the abilities and talents and resources we have. And of all the skills that will help us to succeed as an indie author, being open to the possibility that we can develop all our other skills is by far the most important.


What do you think? Do you secretly think self-publishing is second best? If so, why? Are you more interested in validation or growth? Let us know in the comment box below.


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. Fear of change and fear of the unknown is at play – plus the fact that this is all still new – for me and many others like me it has come at the right time – I was just beginning to think about writing for a living as the Internet was becoming common – I had already done the standard English courses around and they were interesting enough but they weren’t me and I knew I hadn’t a chance in Hell of getting in with the right crowd to get in with another right crowd – the minute we got Broad Band over Dial-up and I was online – I still have intermittent BB conection and low speed – but I just knew I could do this, However in the online writing group I was with at the time they seemed oblivious to it – and still are not interested – and that is their choice and I left because this is mine and I don’t have the baggage they carry and I will get there and control what I do – aside from the writing side of it the figures simply don’t work for me of the trad’ route at all. There are no days I wake up and want to hand my work to anyone – other than an Editor I chose and pay etc – there are days I feel I will run out of time and days when I feel I can’t learn fast enough – but the way the experiences of those ahead of me trickle back is fantastic and those – like Orna – who bring the skills they had before and have seized this are lighting the way – and I for one am following as fast as I can -:) I am never ashamed of being an Indie and I feel sorry for anyone who seriously thinks the figures work in traditional ways – but then as my mother never tires of telling me – I was born independently ?_?

  2. Knew I was going to love this article before I even started reading it…and you didn’t disappoint, Orna!

    This line especially stuck out to me: “Their talk is about work, not dreams.” (referring to the trad vs. indie authors). I see this sort of “what must I do to prove myself?” mindset from so many writers in classes that I teach or basically anywhere writers congregate and it makes me nuts. It’s like some sort of unhealthy, one-sided romantic relationship where you’re just dying to make the other person love you…no matter what.

    I do see value in traditional publishing. I’d love to have a free editor and cover designer! There are days I want to pull out my hair over formatting or launch issues. But overall, I’m very happy to be an indie author. Like you, Orna, I also encourage other authors to at least try self-publishing at least once. It’s not for everyone. But you’ll never know if it’s right for “you” until you give it a shot.

  3. Excellent article, and so true!
    I recently read Dweck’s book and found it inspiring. I also thought that there was a lot in it that applied to indies.
    This is where, for me, the difference between indie and self-published lies. Self-publishing isn’t hard, but developing the right mindset (of constant improvement, the ability to take and act on feedback, and developing a business) is essential if you’re going to be successful.
    I’m so glad your article didn’t suggest that indies think what we are doing is second best, as that’s what I feared when I read the title. I’ve been trad published and indie and much prefer being an indie.

    1. Just chiming in to say that I took, love what I’ve read of Dweck’s work. I recently taught a growth mindset class and could definitely see the parallels in the indie author mindset like you’ve noted, Rachel. 🙂

  4. This was an excellent article, and every Indie writer should read this! I have spent years within this issue, and as a hybrid author, with forty novels to my credit—twelve of them Indie published—I can attest to the “bigotry” within the traditional publishing world , which is shared by too many readers as well.
    -As a member of many writer’s organizations, that bias goes even deeper with their authors. But, I do believe with the proper mindset, and by being professional, Indie writers will not only be successful, but can turn the heads of the traditionally published authors into understanding just how much work we really do to publish a book, so, yes, I also believe that EVERY writer should Indie publish at least one book, and follow it from inception into publication and do the amount of marketing we do.
    -I also believe the term “self-Published” should be used less, and the term “Indie published” used more!

  5. Thanks for this insightful article! I have to say that I have been mixed in my mindset… and this has helped me switch! Growth mindset it is!

  6. I’ve Indie published 3 titles to date, and I’m working to release two new titles this fall. This post could not come at a better time. The clarification of fixed mindset v.s. growth mindset is so well stated, that, although I fall into the fixed mindset in many areas, I feel uplifted. Reading today, I realized how much I’ve learned since I began in 2015. AND how many wonderful people have been there to teach and support me in the process. As an Indie author, I get to not only improve my writing in my weekly critique group, but also experience that brilliant moment when the illustrator and I both sigh, because we’ve finally created what we’ve dreamed of for so many hours/weeks/months, and, yes, even years. I now need to work on adapting growth mindset to marketing, and learn some new tools. I want to give my books the support and visibility they deserve. Thanks to each of you for your honesty and your solidarity in facing Indie challenges.

  7. Wow! This article struck a chord with me today, making me realize I’ve been completely stuck in a fixed mindset (I’m a good writer but lousy at marketing, can’t do social media, and waste far too much time obsessing over reviews). I seriously need to change my mindset if I’m going to succeed as an indie author. Thanks so much for waking me up. Maybe I can learn how to do social media after all!

  8. I have always been agented and traditionally published, but a lot of my work is now out of print, some of which my husband re-published as ebooks. These aren’t selling well, as I’ve given up publicising them – too much work, and too depressing when it doesn’t pay off. Just completed a re-write and re-structuring of a previously published children’s novel, but I know my agent won’t send it out as it’s already been published (albeit a long time ago.) No new agent will take me on as I am ancient, so what to do? And if the current one doesn’t like something, it doesn’t get pitched.

  9. I am an ex-fighter pilot and ex-intelligence officer. My books are in the aviation/adventure genre. What? That’s not a genre? The third bestselling book of all time, The Little Prince, is an aviation/adventure novel. I haven’t had the success that Saint-Ex enjoyed as a self-published author. That’s me, not Saint-Ex. Professionally, I am used to succeeding, or occasionally failing, due to my efforts alone. I like the idea that my books succeed without the interference of some suit in New York. I like having total creative control which I can delegate to editors, book and cover designers. Marketing the books is a hoot as well. I really like not sharing proceeds with an agent. To me, agents are like the person in the drive-thru window at a fast-food joint. They don’t make the burgers. They don’t sell the burgers. They just pass burgers one way and money in the other direction. Only agents take a 15% bite out of the burger before they hand it to you. Keeping the profits is also a good thing for Indie authors. As the song says, “He did it for love but he wasn’t above keeping the money.” Keep Writing and Check Six.

  10. A Traditional Publisher makes his $$$$$ off of established authors, who have a name that is recognized when a customer sees one of his or her books. They spend a great deal of money (Investment) to market that book and author.

    1 in 1,000 unknown authors are accepted by a traditional publisher because they think the book is awesome and are willing to take that monetary risk (Investment).

    That means 999 self-published author is going to be rejected.

    As for me, I just self-published my 32nd western frontier eBook on Amazon called, A Woman Doctor Came To Town.

    In 2011, I wrote my first eBook called Was It Fate Or Destiny? Had I gone the gauntlet route of publishers, by the time I read my 20th rejection letter I would have set down my pen and all of the other books would never have been written.

    Plus, publishers know a self-published author is desperate to get his book published, (His foot in the door) so to speak so they have np reason to offer him or her a good advance and royalty amount. They know he or she will take what is offered because they have been turned down by every other publisher.

    This means, for all of an authors work, he or she will receive pennies on the dollar.

    No thank you.

    I will take the pennies on a dollar from Amazon, not a traditional publisher.

    Believe in yourself, in what you write and you will be happy.

  11. Traditional authors mostly have to learn how to write and how to find an agent. That’s the mindset.

    There is quite a different learning curve for indie authors, between beginning as a writer all the way to publishing other people in worldwide markets, running a business, and earning a living. I’m sure that all of us find it daunting when looked at as a whole, and indeed we need to understand that we need a different mindset. We’re building businesses, not just manuscripts.

    What I find helpful is deciding on “what I’m going to figure out how to do right now” vs “I’ll wait until later to deal with that”. That’s partly an issue of prioritization, but it’s also the important recognition that there is a psychological resistance to trying to tackle too much of the problem all at once. It’s good to understand at a high level all the components of where you want to get, but critical not to get bogged down in the details of the processes you don’t absolutely need yet. (Write books first ,and polish them; then figure out distribution; then figure out marketing; then repeat, with improvements.)

    Other than the natural expansion of your capabilities over time, you can help this along by actively jumping on opportunities that come your way to do something that you more or less understand but haven’t tackled yet. This could be doing your first hardcover for someone else instead of yourself, or reaching a new POD provider when someone else needs it and you don’t. In other words, when opportunities come along to get paid for a bit of the learning curve you haven’t been forced into yet, think hard about using that to do the work of learning and advance your skills. Getting paid for consulting work is a definite plus particularly when it takes you into a new area you haven’t yet fully mastered.

    I had no clear idea that helping an old underserved traditionally published friend get published (by me) last fall would lead to useful knowledge about imprints, reporting on royalties, wholesale sales to specialist dealers, and (as the friend spreads the word about how happy he is to his niche genre colleagues) more literate authors seeking alternatives to their useless and indifferent trad publishers for their trunk and current work, which will force me to deal with new-to-me things like screenplays, photo rights, and god knows what.

    There’s a huge underserved market out there in some genres that trad publishers have stopped looking for. As indies with low-cost infrastructure, we don’t need every book we publish to be a bestseller, so why not publish proven authors who don’t have the will or skill to go full indie themselves who have good work that is being ignored? Maybe we can’t afford to run ads for them, on our royalty share, but we can market to specialist book dealers, provide catalogues, etc., where their pre-existing fame is useful.

    I took the first step because I thought it was a good idea to diversify beyond just my own works, and I had a friend in need who is an excellent writer. It’s bearing all sorts of fruit, and all the skills I’m picking up are useful to know. If I’d had blinders on and refused to step up, I’d be the poorer for it.

    So, yes, cultivate the mindset of being open to new things as much as you can.

  12. I decided to go Indie mainly because I discerned that my novel might be ‘hard to p lace’ into a genre or shelf or category – kind of literary but kind of deceptively an easier read. I love having it my choice of designer, layout, covers, etc by being Indie. The co-operation with a designer is great. So far I am not good at marketing, and haven’t yet really got the hang of it there. Lots of good reviews, but sales very low – they love it when they do buy – so that’s a problem. I feel a bit ‘old to learn’ and less energetic than I wish I was to get that marketing done. But it sounds so sad when writers who look up to Trade Publishing as Better talk about ‘getting published’ – which is of course a ‘passive voice’. They are writers in waiting, and sound so powerless.

  13. I don’t think self-publishing is second best when done well. But as a book mentor, I do find that many people do it badly! The great thing about self-publishing is that the control remains with the author, so when you write the right book and start with the end in mind, then it can really help achieve success. One more thing, most indie authors will put more into marketing their book because the buck stops with them!

  14. I’ve just walked away from a bad publishing deal because I (finally) realised I could do better – and that my work is worth so much more than what they were prepared to pay me (8% royalties, once a year, no advance). It’s like a light switch went on in my head. I can do it! I have self published before but didn’t really believe in myself or in the process. This time I have no doubt and I have bookmarked some time to learn all I can to prepare for success. I have always had a head for business and a need to control my creative process, so it was a given really. Not sure why I took so long to get there! Thank you for a wonderful – and timely – article!

  15. I am not attracted by trad publishing partly because of the dissatisfaction I come across among trad published authors but also because, having worked for 25 years as a freelance journalist, I have a resistance to other people’s deadlines (and other requirements) being imposed on me. So I am self-published. But, I am aware of certain requirements of my own. Yes, I agree about the growth mindset but, in my own case, it encourages me to be a better writer, not a better business owner. This is a problem for the self-published. There are periods when I forget about marketing etc completely and, when I remember, realise that, by ignoring marketing, I am letting my books down. But the impulse to focus on writing is very strong. And I need a mentor to help me balance this with my entrepreneurial activities. Otherwise, I see a problem arising!

  16. I decided on self-publishing months before my novel was finished and I have not only not regretted, I am delighted. Almost every day brings another proof that I did the right thing, whether it comes in form of me being able to change anything whenever I feel like it or another blog post from an author who got scr– cheated out of their money by their publisher, agent, or both.

    Maybe I’m a control freak, but I love having almost full control – almost, because ultimately the Zon is dark and full of terrors, so tomorrow I could be up for a nasty surprise… but that one can also affect trad pubbed authors, even if indirectly.

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