How Do You Measure Success?

by Steve Laube


A few years ago while talking to some editors they described an author who was never satisfied (not revealing the name of course). If this author’s latest book had sold 50,000 copies the author wondered why the publisher didn’t sell 60,000. And if it sold 60,000 why didn’t it sell 75,000? The author was constantly pushing for “more” and was incapable of celebrating any measure of success.

Recently there has been much ink spilled on whether Indie authors are better off than traditionally published counterparts. Pundits have laid claim to their own definition of successful book sales using numbers, charts, and revealed earnings. Following this dialogue can be rather exhausting.

I understand the desire to have some objective standard by which we can measure whether or not our efforts are successful. It is a natural instinct. If it is any indication, one of our most popular blog posts of all time has been “What are Average Book Sales?” with thousands of readers.

In one way this is a wise question to ask so that your expectations can be realistic.

In another way it is unwise because the cliff called “Comparison” is a precipitous one. I’ve talked to depressed authors who are wounded by numbers. I’ve talked to angry authors who are incensed by a perceived lack of effort by their publisher. I’ve talked to highly frustrated authors who wonder if it is worth it all.

Ultimately the quest to know such information is simply an attempt to define success for the individual author. If you can measure it you can define it. As long as we know what “it” is.

I think success in book publishing has at least two definitions. One is yours. The one you define for yourself and your circumstances. Another is the definition determined by others when looking at your book, either by reading it (an evaluation of content quality), looking at it (an evaluation of production quality), or by evaluating data (sales numbers or market penetration).

The general market tends to define success based on how much money the author or the book earns.

The Christian market tends to define success based on the impact of the material on someone’s life.

I’m aware that generalization is awfully simplistic and almost naive but one cannot deny the sentiment.

At the very least the Christian author would like to have both. They want their book to both contribute to their financial well-being while also being a book that changes lives.

The challenge I see is that one person’s financial well-being is different from the next. I’ve known authors who can’t make their rent payment because a royalty check is late. I’ve also known authors who forget to deposit their royalty and advance checks because they aren’t concerned about their earnings from writing. Not everyone is driven by the same financial motivation.

And yet, when it comes to “impact” and “changed lives” I suspect every Christian author’s motivations are very much in line. Any discussion of sales numbers becomes secondary to reading letters from readers who chose life over suicide, or life over abortion, or marriage over divorce, or reconciliation over stubbornness…because of a book they read.

Your Turn:

Therefore, not to put you on the spot, but how do you measure (not define) success?


7 Responses to How Do You Measure Success?

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton February 17, 2014 at 4:25 am #

    Thanks for sharing, Steve. I dream of my stories helping readers to draw closer to God. What an honor it must be for those authors who to discover a reader chose life over suicide or abortion. Imagine how awesome it must be to know a reader gave their marriage another try.

    You’ve inspired me to go deeper today as a writer. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Avatar
    Ron Estrada February 17, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Well that’s the question, isn’t it? At this stage, success would be to sign with an agent. Once that’s done, publication. My long rage measure of success, though, would be doing what I love and generating enough of an income to finance my bad habits during retirement. I’ve matured since I started this thing over ten years ago, when I fantasized of receiving some prestigious award and being introduced by my good friend, Stephen King. Now I write for the joy of writing. I’m published in magazines and even make a decent side income writing corporate marketing material. But it’s hard to define success because I’m having so much fun on the journey. I hope I never lose that joy, published or not.

  3. Avatar
    Terrance Austin February 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Interesting question Steve. I measure success of a christian author based on the impact their stories have on a person(s) life. To me, my success is eventually helping someone to overcome their trial or hardship and coming closer to Jesus Christ. Christian Fiction success will measure up to the science fiction, romance, and fantasy when it becomes more than watered down stories of chubby angels playing harps as someone falls in love. Just as Hollywood seems to finally get the picture making more bible bases movies, eventually christian stories of tragedy, triumph, and redemption will someday become a phenomenon.

  4. Avatar
    Linda Chontos February 17, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    I am new to all of this. For years writing a book was just a dream. Now that I’ve actually completed a first draft, success looks like a published book. I try hard not to make comparisons, but I’m afraid I fall victim to it rather often. It only brings discouragement. I’ve truly prayed about what success should look like and have decided it will look like whatever the Lord’s plan and my very best efforts make it.

  5. Avatar
    Kathy N. February 18, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    I want my measurement to be the reader who told me she never felt she had permission to pray because she didn’t belong to organized religion. After reading my novel, she now has a prayer life. Those comments are deeply satisfying.

    But, alas, I find myself watching the mailbox because I can’t escape the thought of earnings as validation. It is a constant struggle for balance.

  6. Avatar
    J.D. Maloy February 19, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    I’ve spent the past 2 days thinking about this post. Steve, you gave me much to process, which is great! Thank you for keeping it real, like always, it’s respected, needed in this industry and good to challenge your blog followers.

  7. Avatar
    Chris Morris March 21, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    How do I measure success? Tough question, but I think you touch on the two main pieces for me. I write to inspire others to hang on tightly to God when life is falling apart. I focus a lot on chronic illnesses, though not exclusively. Just today, I got a text from a friend I haven’t talked to literally in years. It simply said, “Thanks for your blog post today. I needed to hear exactly this.” For me, this means my time spent writing that post was well spent.

    At the same time, I do want to learn how to make at least a part-time income from the writing I do. I have a book proposal in the hands of an agent I hope will pick it up, because I hope he will be able to find a publisher, so that I can make some money on the book. This is secondary to me right now, because I believe so heartily in the message. Of course, I am also employed as a CPA for my “day job,” so it’s easier for me to say that right now.

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