Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Is A Successful Author?

The names that come to mind tend to be famous authors whose books have been published by a traditional publisher, been favorably reviewed by major publications, won prestigious awards, and sold millions of books. A small minority of all the published authors out there. But is this the best or only definition of success for an author?

Success is tricky to define. We seem to have some agreed-upon criteria in our society, mostly involving the acquisition of power and material wealth. But not everyone accepts these definitions. Some people actively reject such worldly notions of success, preferring more personal bench marks.

I became very aware of the difficulty in defining success several years ago when, as part of my day job at Boulder County Aging Services, I conducted a major literature search on factors associated with successful aging. This turned up a major controversy as to what constitutes "successful aging." One popular model used objective criteria, defining successful aging as the avoidance of disease and disability, maintenance of high cognitive and physical function, and active engagement with life.

But others challenged the use of an objective definition of successful aging, pointing out that it omits older persons’ own views of what aging successfully means. To explore this, another group of researchers asked hundreds of older people to classify themselves as either aging successfully or not. Then they compared people's own beliefs about whether they were aging successfully to the objective standards of the popular measure.

The researchers found that lots of older people who didn’t measure up to the popular definition of successful aging thought they were aging successfully—50% of them believed they were aging successfully, but only 18% met the objective criteria for successful aging. And more than a third of those who the popular measure judged as aging successfully disagreed with their rating. They didn’t rate themselves as aging successfully.

Furthermore, nearly half (47%) of those the popular measure classified as not aging successfully disagreed with that rating. They rated themselves as aging successfully.I concluded that the concept of success is multidimensional, and I have come to believe that people’s success is best measured by whether or not they achieve their goals. This view of success is the same one I use in my work as an evaluator of the outcomes of social programs. Start with the program’s goals, then assess whether or not they have been achieved.

Similarly, it is far too simplistic to decide whether or not an author is successful by applying objective criteria like numbers of books sold, awards, numbers of positive reviews by prestigious reviewers, or whether their book has been published by a traditional publisher. If these benchmarks are the author’s goals, then achieving or not achieving them is a measure of that author’s success. But for authors who have other goals, and who are satisfied with their progress, it is presumptuous to tell them that they are not successful based on the number of books they’ve sold, and/or the profit they’ve made on their books.

Authors who self publish often have goals other than profit and fame. Some of these include:

  • Getting the satisfaction of having their book printed and bound for themselves, and perhaps friends and family.

  • Testing the waters to see whether there are buyers for a book. It’s hard to do that when all you have is a manuscript that you’re spending your time sending out to agents and publishers.

  • Making specialized or technical information available to a small niche market.

  • Speaking out on a controversial topic.

  • Learning about publishing and marketing a book by actually doing it.

My view is that it’s up to me as an author to decide whether or not I’m successful. Outside evaluators may judge me by their own criteria such as how many books I’ve sold. But I don’t have to accept their judgement.


  1. Once again, you've hit the nail right on the head. If more authors would take a look at what's realistic and not realistic to accomplish for themselves (not someone else), many more would be satisfied with the outcome of their publishing ventures.

  2. Once again, you've hit the nail right on the head.If more authors would take a look at what is and is not realistic to accomplish for themselves (not someone else), there would be more satisfaction with the outcome of their publishing adventures.The key to doing this is listening to your heart, as well as the right people, and making educated, personalized choices from beginning to end.Cheryl