Set your expectations

As we said in the previous chapter, there are lots more options for publication in the 21st century and getting your work out to a wider audience has never been easier. However, this doesn't necessarily translate into being a successful author and it certainly doesn't mean that it is easy to make a living from writing and publishing books.

If anything, with a widening of the publication pool it has actually made it more difficult for authors to be 'successful' in traditional terms - although, of course, all success is relative. It's therefore critical to know what you are aiming to achieve, before you embark on this journey.

First, some context.

What does 'success' mean in the book industry?

In the traditional publishing world, how 'successful' a book is considered to be is dependent on a number of factors. Firstly, the type of book that you've published. A crime fiction novel will likely sell more copies than a biography of an unknown historical figure or a short story collection; genre fiction can often be an easier sell than literary fiction. A successful short story collection by an established writer might sell 5,000 copies in a year - a novel by the same author would want to be selling ten times that to be considered successful. A Top Ten Sunday Times Bestseller will be shifting in excess of 5,000 copies per week (as a minimum, as this figure is relative compared to other sales figures) .

However, success isn't just measured against the number of books sold. It's also dependent on the amount of money a publisher has invested in an author - a payment known as an 'advance', which the author receives prior to publication (more on this in the traditional publishing chapter). In simple terms: small advance + mid-to-large sales = successful book.

It's also worth noting that the book charts tend to have one or two titles or authors which really dominate. In 2018, for example, almost 30% of fiction books sold were Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and David Walliams dominated the children's fiction charts - selling over 1.9 million copies of his books. Having one or two books or authors with such inflated sales figures makes it all the harder for other books and authors to enjoy comparative success.

We use the traditional publishing world as our marker for success, because it is easily monitored. Nielsen BookScan is the industry's tracking tool which monitors every single book which is sold in bookshops up and down the country, so we have a pretty accurate record of the number of physical copies of books which have changed hands. However, BookScan isn't perfect: it doesn't record e-book sales or downloads; it doesn't record library loans; it doesn't record direct-from-publisher purchases; and it doesn't record audio-book sales.

So what about self-publishing?

The relatively recent maturation of self-publishing has forced a re-assessment of what 'success' means for many authors. The financial models in the self-publishing world are significantly different to traditional publishing, which tends to mean that authors receive a larger cut of the revenue on book sales. This is, of course, offset by the need to do a lot more of the work yourself.

It can be every bit as hard to be noticed by readers as a self-publisher as it is if you are traditionally published. However, due to these different margins, modest sales of a self-published book have the potential to yield comparable financial rewards to much larger sales of a traditionally published book. In other words, given identical sales figures, at the end of the day the self-published author is likely to take home more of the money.

Remember, though, that earning money does not need to be your primary motivator as a writer. Perhaps you simply seek readers, or you aspire to win literary awards, or you'd be more than content with a limited print run you can distribute to your friends and family. There are options for everyone and we'll be covering as many of them as we can in this course.

What does 'success' mean to you?

With this in mind, it's time to consider what success means to you and what you want from publication, rather than setting your goals by the variable measures of the wider industry. We'll do some of this thinking in the next chapter.