I once wrote a book that was an instant New York Times bestseller, and remained on the list for several weeks. It continues to sell rather nicely. Because of this, sometimes aspiring authors ask me whether I think their book idea might get them on the list, too.
I don’t think this is the right way to think about success, though. I say this not in spite of having been a bestseller, but because of it. I would love to tell you that I was a bestseller because of some inherent quality or talent I have, or because of some key component of the book that I have now isolated and figured out how to replicate.
But I would be lying. We can make educated guesses about what works, and we can try our best, and there’s nothing wrong with ambition. But it is folly to pin your hopes of a book being “successful” on it making that list.
How should we talk about success then? That is going to depend on you, the author, and your goals for the project. Having these goals clear in your mind now will help to motivate you when you want to give up and will help you make better decisions throughout the writing process.
Here are some ways success has ended up looking for me:
1. I finished a book that I’m proud of.
2. Someone paid me to write a book.
3. I wrote a book that was acceptable enough to the world of publishing that someone paid me to write another book after it.
4. I got to learn more about writing a book by writing a book.
5. I got some nice reviews that indicated the reviewers genuinely understood what I was trying to do.
6. One reviewer said, simply, “Ms. Armstrong knows how to write.” I grab that lifeline when I’m feeling very much like I don’t.
7. Readers contacted me to tell me my book meant something to them.
8. A book became a New York Times bestseller. (This is, after all, one very valid form of “success.”)
10. People from media outlets wanted to talk to me about my book.
11. I got to interview people I admired, some of whom became friends of mine afterward.
12. People I admire said nice things about my book.
13. I had fun writing a book.
14. I got to tell important stories that wouldn’t have otherwise been told in a book.
15. I got to write about my passions as my job.
16. I got to work at home while writing books for a living.
This is a great deal of good fortune. I worked hard, but a lot of this was luck that can’t necessarily be replicated, by me or by others. It’s wild to see your book on the New York Times list because you basically know the first line of your obituary has now been written, unless you top it later. But once you make it on the list, everyone thinks your next book will make it, too. When it doesn’t, it feels like a failure, even though you worked just as hard on this one, and maybe even did a better job on this one.
So I recommend choosing some yardsticks for success that are closer to within your own control. Finishing a book you’re proud of. Sharing your hard-earned wisdom with others. Telling an important story well. Having fun.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to earn money, or even a decent living, by writing books. And certainly you should be aware of those goals as you choose projects. If I didn’t have to worry about making my living this way, I would choose very different topics. Given that this is my main source of income, I have to consider salability. Factor your earning goals into your choices, but then drop them when it comes to the actual process of writing a book.
This has been adapted from a section of my e-booklet, Write That Nonfiction Book Already: A Practical Guide to Writing a Successful Book, from Conception to Publication.