Yesterday, in my weekly preview of the New York Times Book Review, I spotted a Bookends article that intrigued me — “What are the Draws and Drawbacks of Success for Writers?” Hmmmm…here we go again. How were they defining success? Ah, commercial success, i.e. number of sales and the money made from them, plus the attention and time that success demands of the writer. Francine Prose and Mohsin Hamid commented on an essay Lionel Shriver wrote in The New Republic about dealing with commercial success, and missing the time when she wasn’t successful and writing was totally her own. I read Prose’s and Hamid’s responses with great interest. Prose made me laugh, but not Hamid. How is it that men refuse to see that economic inequality for women exists now as it did in Virginia Woolf’s time and not for men?
As I have been immersed in work on marketing Perceval’s Secret the last few weeks, one thought has recurred fairly frequently: “I hope this works. I really need the money.” Prose’s conclusion about solvency through moderate commercial success really rang true for me. But that’s only one reason I desire commercial success. I’m also well aware that first novels don’t always sell that well, so it’s important to go into it with a goal of building readership. That happens slowly, over time. I chose to self-publish because I knew from research that traditional publishers, pressured by corporate parents, rarely if ever give writers now a chance to build readership. They look for books that will sell upwards of 100,000 copies in the first month, i.e. the next big blockbuster. Most fail miserably at predicting it because no one can truly know what the public wants. Not even the public knows until they see it.
Hamid would rather that writers earn their livings at day jobs and approach writing rather like a religion. He doesn’t want “commercial” in the success of a writer at all. I think he’s right about cultural definitions of success (in America, it’s ALWAYS about the money), and have also run into questions about whether or not I’m published, and then how many books I’ve sold. A wise friend once urged me to establish my own, personal definition of success, separate from a societal one. I’ll always have to deal with the societal definition, but my personal one is far more important to me, and it has nothing to do with money, but instead, what I actually do and accomplish. I’ve already achieved one goal in my definition of personal success, i.e. for at least one person to truly understand Perceval’s Secret. I hope more understand it, think about it, and encourage others to read it. But I’ve reached one goal and that means success to me, success in conveying Evan’s story for readers.
Commercial success would be helpful to me right now from a financial standpoint. What I wouldn’t welcome is the “fame” aspect, i.e. the demands on my time for personal appearances, interviews, etc. I don’t enjoy public speaking but I can do it, in spite of some health restrictions which make travel impossible. I enjoy learning about writers whose work I love, and I’m happy to share with my readers, up to a point. I do need privacy to write. I enjoy my current anonymity. I love solitude. Even now, with the marketing work dominating my time, I can’t wait to return to my regular writing schedule. The second and third novels in the Perceval series are calling to me…..
What does success mean to you? How do you define it? Are you a writer who only cares about commercial success? Do you have other goals you want to achieve that have nothing to do with money and that would define success for you?