What does “commercial success” mean to you?

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?

Francine Prose Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Francine Prose Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson (from the NY TIMES)

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.

 Mohsin Hamid Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Mohsin Hamid Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson (from the NY TIMES)

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?

13 responses to “What does “commercial success” mean to you?

  1. That’s a very good question. I think my definition of success has been changing (is it the good sentence ?) during many years. Younger, I wanted to become famous but now, I write my stories principally for myself. I am not so exited of letting my family read what I write anymore. I would like to do something good but I am never satisfied. I thought that a good writer was someone able to create a story in a minute or two but today, writing appears to be a hobby of reflection. I think the biggest success for me is to understand what’s a good writer and to become one. I would like to feel a magic on my page. If I could be sure of that, I think I would be the happiest girl of the world ! This would be the biggest success of my life. However, I think I wouldn’t be truly satisfied if nobody could feel the magic too. If I were a good writer, readers would like what I write…

    About Perceval ! I told to friends about it and they said they were interested. I will ask them if they did something or not. But it would be far more efficent if I had read it, of course. Just let me take my exams and I go on reading. (smile) And, would I annoy you if I would ask just a few questions ? Usually, I think a lot on my readings, you would be the best to answer ! All the best, Ladybellule

    • Hi, Julie! Thanks for your comment. I’d be happy to answer your questions about Perceval’s Secret. Maybe we could even make it a post here! I’d love that. Thank you for your support. I hope your exams go well.

  2. Success to me is reading some of my old work and going, wow, I wrote that? Nice. That’s my personal goal for success– of course i do send out stories for publication and will do the same with my novel once it is ready– but I do that because it is the norm for writing and writers to find readers. I won’t be too upset if I don’t find too many. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Damyanti! We do need to find readers for our writing. I wasn’t sure I’d like hearing from them once people started buying and reading my novel. Happily, I’m enjoying the experience so far. It actually began with my editor, who surprised me a lot by totally comprehending what I was doing in the novel. That was wonderful!

  3. I remember when my book was published and read by a few (in the beginning). A girlfriend ordered it and took it away with her on holiday. She phoned me early one morning – quite tearful – I was worried. What is it Lyndy? I asked. She said it was my book – it was for her very powerful. I was amazed and obviously hugely pleased. She is a scientist and non psychologically minded. This was for me ‘success’. I always said that if one person enjoyed it that would have made it more than worth while. Yes of course it is nice to make money especially if ‘needed’ and I really hope that you do. Know that it will happen – tap into the universe and the field of potential and possibilities. Good luck! And thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Susan! I think much the same way. Last evening, I had the experience of talking with a small group that I’m a member of — a German conversation group — about all the work that goes into e-publication, self-publication, marketing, and staying sane while working. It moved me how excited they were for me. That’s also a lovely experience.

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  6. My definition of success is based on my own personal happiness and my happiness comes from my success with my business. I have found that my success in the business world is due to the fact that I follow the careers of those who are more successful than myself. I have been following the career of Mark Hurd for the last few years now, since he has taken over at Oracle. I have also been impressed with his leadership and ability to turn a company around. I have closely following his statements at OpenWorld 2016 and I am excited for what he has in store and I am looking forward to the direction that Oracle is heading in the next few years.

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  9. I must confess I’ve never really thought about it much – nah, I’m kidding, I think about it a lot. To me, as a writer, commercial success means a steady income flow from my writing, and year-on-year increases in royalties. I’m not wildly successful yet, but my income from writing has been increasing steadily since I began doing it full time after my retirement from government service in 2012.

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