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.”