Friday, 18 February 2011

How Much is Enough?

When I was chatting with another agented writer last night, she cited the example of a self-published non-fiction author she'd met, who'd sold 300 copies and was overjoyed at that achievement. She left a meaningful pause and I replied: "Except neither of us would be happy with selling 300 copies of a book." She nodded, slightly embarrassed and said: "But why couldn't I be happy with that?"

Why indeed?

I think it's understandable that when authors are very early in their careers, they imagine that everything they write will become a bestseller. Through all the editing and submission and rejection, that vision of success is a powerful beacon, a reason to strive. Many writers fail or withdraw from that process, and never know whether they would have become the next big thing - some will continue to harbour resentment towards agents and publishers for denying them their chance. Others - a tiny percentage - fight their way through the obstacles and get a book on the shelves. The vast majority of those won't become bestsellers either.

Ok, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But with the odds stacked against us like this, why do we keep doing it? It's not enough to say we enjoy writing, because so much of the author's journey isn't about writing at all. Why not self-publish? What is it about a mass audience that makes it so much more attractive than a small group of adoring fans?

Studies have shown that working towards a goal is more rewarding than achieving it, and perhaps this is what spurs us on to bigger and better things. I like to define the process in terms of frustration and contentment:
  • Frustration - This is a feeling of dissatisfaction with our present level of achievement and a desire to better ourselves.
  • Contentment - This is an ability to celebrate our achievements, to see our work with an uncritical eye and take pleasure in it.
Both of these things strike me as being vital to a successful and satisfying career in pretty much anything. But they are also mutually exclusive. I asked other writers on Facebook about how they might balance the two, and got a lot of "hmmm"s in reply. Oliver Burkeman writing in the Guardian suggests that perhaps the way forward is to have many goals and switch between them, not expecting that any one thing will make you happy.

The writer I was talking to likened her own experience of writing to mountaineering, a process that is pleasurable by virtue of its extreme difficulty. And of course, there is that moment when you finally finish a book and stand in the fresh alpine air, looking down at what you've achieved.

The problem with mountains is that there's almost always a higher one left to climb.



  1. Am guessing this is a niche book - the self-published non-fiction - my non-fiction, 'Hoo's Who'is a very niche title and has sold about 500 copies and is still selling (thanks to the wonders of p.o.d.) - and I am quite happy with that - it's totally sold to it's market and has done as well as I could hope - for my fiction, of course , it wouldn't be enough, because we seek an endless enthused audience. Yes I write for love of writing but I also write because I want to be read - that's my goal, I hope I'll be content with it.

  2. This is very interesting, Nick. I think the 'have many goals' point is crucial. Though 'several' goals will do me! When I feel full of doubt about my writing, I can go to work feeling happy and confident in my abilities in the day job. 'Oh well, if I can't do that well, at least I know I can do this well.' It definitely helps keep me sane and on an even keel. It's part of the reason I'd be cautious about becoming a full-time writer. All of my self-esteem would become invested in my writing and ability to find a commission. Would that make me more or less happy?

    And repeatedly through life I've found that finally achieving what I was striving for came with an odd sense of anti-climax.

    Funny, huh?

  3. Totally agree with Karen's comment about self-esteem. It's important to keep a sense of perspective. Having multiple goals and interests not only improves my writing, but it also means that I can switch my focus if one area's going through a bad patch.

  4. Well ... personally I see no shame in self-publishing. It's the ultimate act of commitment because you do it all - the marketing, the distribution, the design, everything, the editing - no one to blame but yourself. Being published in the traditional sense has a certain cache because you are conferred with approval by highly regarded sources. But who's to say that approval is well founded? Ultimately, every act of publishing is a risk - and getting published by a traditional publisher, you spread the risk, publishing your work yourself, well - there's no one else to blame is there? The balance of guts and glory is a tenuous thing.

  5. 'All of my self-esteem would become invested in my writing and ability to find a commission. Would that make me more or less happy?'

    A good point, Keren. It makes me happy - but also it's very precarious in terms of finance as well as self-esteem. I think you still have several goals, because you end up writing several books at once if you are full-time. But it's not the same as spreading your risk over different types of work. Doing something else as well is probably good for your writing, too.

    As for sales - a bestseller makes me feel smug, but generally the books that sell best are not my best books! I don't think I am better satisfied by high sales than by considering I've written a good book. It's an interesting question. Also... what counts as good sales? 300 is a lot of copies for a niche book (ask any academic publisher); 100,000 copies represent good sales for a mass-market title.

  6. Trying to get the balance of self-criticism and self-congratulation right is hard. The number of sales could be seen as external validation - but then there are so many variables we can do nothing about.
    A good post to get us thinking - thanks Nick

  7. There's also an uneasy relationship between income and achievement, I think, which is why we can get hung up on how many books we sell. I know, I really do, that success is doing something you love doing and doing it well. But there's a little demon on my shoulder saying, ah but if you were REALLY successful you'd be earning decent money. This little demon gives me a prod every time someone tells me my books are good!

  8. Claudia, it's an interesting point you make, because I already get paid very well in my day job, so from that point of view it wouldn't seem like I have much incentive to become a bestselling writer. But I got very hung up on "making it" as a writer and getting a big deal, which was a totally skewed perspective that said more about my lack of self-worth than anything to do with money.