This is a question I've been asking myself recently, as the initial print-run of my first book dwindles away.
Before we go too deeply into the subject, let me establish up-front that I'm not an expert when it comes to self-publishing. (It could also be argued I'm not knowledgeable about success either, but let's not spoil things!) What follows are purely my own observations and thoughts. But first, a brief bit of background...
In January this year my first self-published book came out. Previously, back in the 1980s, I'd published one self-help handbook for new drivers - a sort of companion to the New Zealand Road Code - and had co-authored a short guide to personal security, both books commissioned and published by what was then the Government Printing Office. In both cases I accepted a flat fee for the writing, and regarded the books as 'successful' from the point of view that I'd been reasonably compensated for the work I'd put in. What more can an author ask?
Well, a lot more, if you want to aspire to be as successful as J K Rowling, but most of us I suspect have more modest goals. Which brings us back to the question, how, as a self-publisher, do you measure success? Let me count the ways...
1. Your book is published despite - and maybe because of - all the rejections you've had
It's entirely possible that you've been able to wallpaper your study with rejection slips from mainstream publishers, all of whom thanked you for submitting your manuscript, pointed out the intense competition in the world of authorship today, and wished you well in your endeavours. The scum.
And so instead you grudgingly and reluctantly decided to go down the self-publishing track. You forked out X thousands of pounds or dollars or Baht to get your book printed and bound, and there it is, lovingly placed on your bookshelf next to all the best-sellers that inspired you.
So: success! You did it. You're a published author. In that context, the book on the shelf with your name on it is the measure of achievement. It's now available to the general public and has the potential to sell, maybe even sell well. Nobody can say you've not written a book or that it's not been published.
You can thumb your nose at the mainstream publishers. But you had to pay for it yourself, and so you might not see the book as a success at all. Instead you see it as a compromise, which may not be enough.
2. Your book is published and that's all you need, because that's all you wanted
In this scenario, the simple existence of the book is all the success you need. Typically this might be a book that captures the memoirs of your elderly mother or father, war stories from your granddad, or which documents stories from your family tree. Or it might be your autobiography, something to pass on to your children.
The audience for this book is your immediate or extended family, who have an inherent interest in the book's characters and stories. The print run will likely be very limited, and sales are not the benchmark of success because you didn't write it to be on Waterstones' best-seller shelf.
In the context of this particular tome, it is a success purely because it exists, no more no less.
3. Your book sells out
This sounds great; it must be successful if it's sold out, right? I mean, wow! Well yes, maybe. It depends how many you got printed.
This is the scenario in which I find myself. My modest initial print run has 'sold out' and I'm now having to get a reprint. But let's look at some of the figures... My travel book, Against The Current, appeared in paperback with an initial print run of 300, and a recommended retail price of £9.99. It's also available as an eBook for £4.99.
For promotional purposes – for reviewers, competition prizes, freebies, and as thank-you copies for people who helped with the book – I gave away almost 50 of the 300 copies. Of the remaining 250, I personally sold around 125, with the remainder garnering royalties (a relative pittance). Around 90 eBooks have been sold to date, again returning modest royalties.
In principle it's been a success, but in practice it hasn't covered the cost of publication or made me any money, so it could be argued it's a failure. It has also failed to get any mainstream reviews, even though reader feedback and the paltry four professional publication reviews I've had have all been favourable.
But I don't see it as a failure at all, because a) it was never turned down by a mainstream publisher (because I didn't go to any), and b) everyone I know who has read it says they’ve liked it, so I have satisfied my audience. And yet, personally I am holding out for that mainstream review from a respected reviewer, who says it's the funniest thing they've read in a long time.
But maybe I'm being greedy. Either way, in a splurge of optimism I’ve ordered a further 200. Success will be mine, I tell you!
4. Your book sells thousands!
And makes you thousands, and pays for itself a number of times over. Maybe to the point where you can give up your day job and write 'Author' on your tax form. It gets rave reviews. You're invited to speak at literary festivals. TV and radio chase you. Your website fails because your fans crash the server. You have to go ex-directory for privacy purposes, and engage a PR company to manage your affairs. An agent books you as a celebrity speaker at £10,000 a pop. That is definitely successful.
5. A mainstream publisher comes knocking on your door
In a glorious reversal of scenario number 1) above, it is now you who is in the wonderful position of accepting or rejecting an offer, from a publisher. And who could blame you if you said, 'No, sod off,' after having been turned away by them initially. But can you afford to?
(I've always wanted to be known in the media as someone who doesn't give interviews, but first I need the media to hound me...)
So you strike a deal with a major publisher. That definitely makes you successful, except they change the title of your book. And the cover. And they take over your social life, wanting you here, there and everywhere for promotional interviews and appearances.
You may find you've signed away so many of your rights that the wonderful sense of ownership and pride you so enjoyed with your book after you'd self-published disappears, leaving you with a hollow feeling as you also watch the publisher rake in the majority of the profit, with you waiting meekly for your quarterly royalty payment.
Success in this case could be bitter-sweet. You may decide your next book will be self-published again, because you like being in control.
6. You sell the film rights to your book
Yay! One million pounds in the bank. Deffo success. But of course you have signed away the rights, which means the film – if in fact it’s ever made – might be absolutely nothing like your original work, and you probably won’t have any say in its production.
It may in fact be the box-office bomb of the year, or go straight to DVD. But yay, one million quid in the bank! Success (at least financially)!
7. Your book wins the Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature Definitely a success. No further discussion needed.
8. Your book has a positive influence
Your self-published work might not become a best-seller, or be taken up by a mainstream publisher. It might not sell many copies or be made into a film, and you might still have 400 of the 500 copies you had published sitting in boxes in your spare room. And yet it is definitely successful, because it changed the life of someone who read it.
This could have happened in a number of ways depending on the subject and aim of your book; it could have transformed a person’s thinking, inspired them to do something fantastic, it might even have saved their life if they followed a piece of advice you gave. It could have helped them gain a qualification or job, spurred them on to see life in a different way, or become a fan of science, or science fiction. It could have saved their marriage. They could maybe have learned to fly, metaphorically or physically.
Maybe it motivated them to write, to follow a career as an author, perhaps in the same style as you because they admired your writing so much.
Perhaps it even inspired them to self-publish. Now that would be a success, wouldn’t it?
© Mike Bodnar 2016
Mike Bodnar is the author of Against the Current, a humorous book about casting off from corporate life to live on and travel the inland waterways of France.