My Self-Publishing Journey — Measuring Success

Measuring Success is a completely personal thing – or should be. The world can say it’s one thing, your BFF another. It doesn’t matter what they say.  Ultimately there is only one opinion that counts. You can make a million dollars, sell a million books, but if that’s not how you measure success it won’t mean a thing.

But since this series is about self-publishing, let’s put aside the big philosophical questions for a moment and talk about a smaller issue: How do you measure success in self-publishing?

Back when we were all thinking only about traditional publishing, measuring success was a little easier. Did you have an agent? A book contract? A multi-book deal? Did you make the New York Times list? Did you get a six figure advance?

Self-publishing is still so new and growing, how do we measure our success? It depends, of course on why you’re doing it. Someone who is publishing their memoirs or Grandma’s recipes for the family is going to measure success by a different yardstick than someone hoping to support herself on her publishing income. Why is measuring our progress important?  So we can know if what we’re doing is getting us closer to where we want to go, wherever that is, and make adjustments. For this article let’s assume you intend to treat self-publishing as a business and make some money with it.

One of the ways we measure success is by comparing our results against the average. So far, I haven’t seen any statistics about what kind of sales or income to expect from self-publishing that doesn’t lump every kind of book, with every level of self-promotion, together. The last time I looked (which was a while ago, I admit) I found bits of info that said the average self-publisher only sold 70 copies of her book, with no information about over what period of time, what level of production values, or amount of self-promotion. That leaves the serious self-publisher with no usuable information. Alternatively, there are stories about the outliers like Amanda Hocking and John Locke who sell millions. But there’s no reliable info on what the rest of us can expect given a certain amount of effort.

If we can’t trust the statistics, where can we get some idea of what to expect? There are lots of groups online where authors who have been there, and done that are sharing their expertise. (On Facebook check out Indie Writers Unite, and Indie Romance Ink on Yahoo)

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1.    Sales in the first few months can be very slow.  Don’t be discouraged.
2.    Production values DO matter. The quality of the cover communicates the quality of the content, as does professional editing and formatting.
3.    The best promotion is a second and third and fourth book. Each book builds the sales of the ones before.
4.    The second best promotion is having a presence online, either with a blog, guest-blogging, Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.
5.    Don’t let promotion get in the way of writing. See # 3 above.
6.    Price doesn’t matter.

Okay, I heard you exclaim, “What!” on that last one.  Here’s what I mean by that:

Some authors have had success with the 99 cent price point for digital books. Others have had success with the $2.99 price point. Still others have had success with $4.99.  I haven’t seen anything that suggests that success is assured by any particular price point. Experiment. But my point of view is that you shouldn’t sell yourself too cheaply. I think we teach people how to value our work just as we teach people how to treat us in life.

Okay, great, but how do we measure success?

I think there is no one big success, it’s a series of milestones.

  •  First, it’s a success just to get our work out there, where readers can buy it.
  •  Second, look at units sold, but only after a reasonable time, say, six months, then a year. Reevaluate a couple of months after each new release. You’ll have to decide for yourself what milestones are meaningful to you. For me, the first milestone will be hitting the break-even point when I recover my production costs, then every thousand copies sold after that.
  • What percentage of positive reviews do you have? Count just the 4 and 5 star reviews.
  • Are you having fun?

This last is important, because if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.

Learn from everyone, but remember that self-publishing is so new, and changing so rapidly, that you can’t take what ANYONE says as gospel (not even my advice).

I like this quote from Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

15 Comments

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15 responses to “My Self-Publishing Journey — Measuring Success

  1. Interesting to think of success in specifics. In my opinion, my idea of success is continually evolving as I reach certain milestones. Sometimes the milestones are ones I think about beforehand, like when I wanted to hit 10,000. When I did, I announced it to my friends and my self-publishing yahoo group and enjoyed receiving the congrats, especially because I knew they understood. A few days after I reached 10,000 sales, my boyfriend asked me when we should celebrate with a dinner party. I told him 25,000.

    When I received my first fan letter, that was a completely unexpected feeling of joy and success.

    I think it’s fun to have goals and enjoy the tangible and intangible rewards of self-publishing.

  2. Very well said. Great post.

  3. Great post! And an important thing to think about- how will I measure success- I’m not sure yet. But now I’m thinking about it.

    • That’s great, Alica. There’s an old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?” We can’t plan everything in life, and sometimes it’s the surprises that bring the most joy, but I do think that having some idea of what we want will both help us achieve it, AND let us know when it’s time to CELEBRATE! I don’t know about you, but I often forget to do that and head off to the next goal without pausing. That’s not a good plan. Celebration is motivation dressed up to party. You can quote me on that! 🙂

  4. I like that quote by Steve Jobs. I’ve always lived the life others have told me to. Until now. Unfortunately I feel really old now and regret so much time lost. But better late than never, right?

    • But better late than never, right?

      Absolutely, Diana! I know exactly what you mean about regretting time lost, but at least now, with self-publishing, we have opportunities that didn’t exist before. This is an exciting time to be a writer! The funny thing is, now that I’m moving forward with self-publishing, I feel more confident in other areas of my life too.

  5. Wow, Frankie, I’ve just been catching up on the past month’s worth of posts — and BOY do you have some great material here! I like all the links, the thoughtful & balanced way you lay out various concerns, and it’s intriguing to watch your writer’s journey.

    Laurie, who’ll start sending people over here for really useful information

  6. Wow! So much to think about Frankie. Thank you for that. The Steve Jobs quote is going to stick with me!

  7. For me, measuring success includes the immeasurable things–the fan letters, the fan requests, the unsolicited blog requests, the thrill of seeing that fans are adding my books to Shelfari and other sites way before they are even published–or written!

    Yet for me, it’s also the idea that I can earn a living at it. That I can quit the day job. I don’t have to earn millions, though that would be nice, but I do need to make enough to live on.

    I started this venture in March to offer different reads and more books to fans, and hopefully garner new readers for both these books and my traditionally published ones. Four and a half months after I began uploading stories, I had reached the 10,000 sales mark. I don’t count book sales normally. I watch to see if the income from sales will support me on a monthly basis. But one of my traditional published book editors asked me about my sales. So I added them up. And was shocked!!! I couldn’t believe I’d sold that many books in that short time.

    I’ve read where your books will continue to sell at an increasing rate. I don’t believe so. Like everything, there are highs and lows and in May I sold 3,000 books just on B&N. That month, across the board, I made 4 times what I do on the day job. But since then, sales have leveled off. I continue to write books and have new releases, which help to push sales.

    For me, each and every single book sale means success.

    • Terry, congratulations on reaching the 10,000 mark! I take that as an indication that you write good books that appeal to a wide audience — and that you did a good job of letting people know they were available. I don’t think sales will always go up. I recently read that most authors are experiencing a slump in June and July. The sell-off at Borders is going to gobble up some book dollars too. I do hope that what I’ve read proves true for me: that each book released gives the last a little bump. For now, all I’ve got to go on is the experience of others. — Thanks for sharing yours!

      I agree, the intangibles are an important part of success. Even money is a symbol — a very useful symbol — of success.

  8. Frances, that Steve Jobs quote is something we all need to hear…especially in the publishing world. I love it!

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