How Do I Measure Success?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other, it’s this: “How do I measure success?”

I’ve heard the strangest theories of what constitutes success. For instance, this from an old Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006: “Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies.  Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.  Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies.  The average book in America sells about 500 copies.”

This statistic is totally meaningless. That would mean that if 501 copies of your book sold you could say you have better than average sales. I’m guessing that statistic encompasses the avalanche of self-published books, poetry chapbooks run off on mimeograph machines, photo memory books made to commemorate your trip to Tuscany, family genealogies and who knows what else.

I know writers wish we could simply give a definitive answer like: 1 to 4,999 books sold = poor. 5,000 to 9,999 books sold = fair. 10,000 to 19,999 books sold = good. 20,000 and up = success. Wouldn’t that make it easy? Every writer could then spin his standing with confidence, “I’m more than halfway to success.” Or “I sold 9,890 books. If my publisher had just pushed a little harder I could have risen above mediocrity, but. . .” Believe me, if we had a simple yardstick by which to measure success it would just create new questions, new problems.

Here’s why it depends:

  • The number is different for every publisher. A small publisher may be delighted with sales of 4,000 books the first year where a bigger publisher will be disappointed with sales of 20,000 books.
  • The time frame needs to be defined when talking about book sales. When writers talk about book sales they are often sloppy about defining the time frame. When they brag about the number of books sold are they talking about a year’s sales or the life of the book? When editors and agents talk about books sold, we are generally talking about the first twelve months unless we specify otherwise.
  • There’s a difference between “Books in Print” and “Books Sold.” There can be a huge difference in these two figures, especially with mass market books. When an agent talks about a client’s statistics, we always talk about the actual number of books sold.
  • There are often mitigating circumstances. Some books— like reference books, textbooks, commemorative books and other special projects– may sell in very small numbers but they still meet or exceed the expectations of the publisher. I imagine when the first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America was published with 400+ double elephant folio plates, no one planned on a huge printing. And yet, what a success– a tour de force.

So how can I know if the sales of my book are healthy? Let me give you a quick-and-dirty rule of thumb. If you earn back your advance before the end of twelve months you’ve exceeded expectations.

When your publisher offers an advance it’s rarely a number pulled out of a hat. They don’t get together in a meeting and say, “Let’s give him $20,000.00 because this is such a good book.” The editor or the team prepares a pro forma profit and loss analysis on your book. He estimates how many copies they can reasonably sell in the first twelve months. He looks at the royalty rate and estimates what your royalty income would be for that twelve-month period. That becomes the advance-against-royalties that you will be offered. There are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes a publisher pays more for a book than they can reasonably hope to recoup in the first year because of a bidding war or an auction. Or perhaps they pay more to woo an author away from another house. Or maybe the book is one that fills a hole in their line. But for the most part, this rule of thumb will work.

If you want to set a definitive goal for successful book sales, here’s how to do it: Figure out roughly how much royalty you make per book. For our example let’s say your book’s cover price is $15.00. If you are paid on the net (the normal way it is accounted in CBA*) the store will probably buy the book for $9.00 (60% of cover price). Let’s say your royalty rate is 18%. You’ll make $1.62 on each book. If you were paid on cover price (the norm in ABA**) you’d figure $15.00 x 9% royalty (the royalty rate is different because it reflects cover price instead of net) and you’d come up with a per book royalty amount of about $1.35 per book. (In the real world, not all books will sell for full price but for for the sake of simplicity, we won’t complicate this.) So the formula would be: [Advance paid] divided by [royalty amount per book] equals [number of books needed to be sold to earn out].

Any questions? Does it answer the question, how good is good? Do you see why an agent who’s trying to help you build a long career will sometimes be conservative about pushing for a too-large advance? Did you understand the two different ways of accounting– cover price or net price?

And one other question. This addressed success in terms of business– profit & loss. How about success in spiritual terms? What kind of success would you love to see in that arena?

  • *Christian Booksellers Association (Christian market)
  • **American Booksellers Association (general market)

30 Responses

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  1. If just one person said, “your book transformed the way I relate to God,” I’d dance around my living room shouting, “SUCCESS!”

  2. CJ Myerly says:

    This really cleared up so much for me. I would like to connect to readers with relatable characters and situations. Those are the books that reach me deeper. If ny readers felt that they really connected and grew in their relationship with the Lord I would call that success.

  3. Directly to your closing question, Wendy, years ago I delivered a graduation address at a university in Louisiana, and spoke specifically on spiritual success. This has since become one of keynote addresses. To boil down a 45 minute address to one of two sentences, success as a Christ-follower has nothing to do with my “accomplishments” at all, but rather, success in that context is defined by how I handle failure, particularly moral failure. What do I do when I fail. How do I respond to that failure?
    The entire address comes from John 16 where Jesus tells us flat out that we WILL fail, and the successful Christ-follower will be the one who turns to Jesus and trusts him in that moment because HE is the one who overcame the world. “In the world you have trouble, but take heart, I have [already] overcome the world.”

    • So Damon, maybe you were the unknown radio preacher who transformed one of the messiest seasons of my life with this message: “God doesn’t call us to suceed. God calls us to obey.”
      * Changed my life, it did.

      • No, that wasn’t me, but its a flattering suggestion. 😉
        That sounds very much like the premise of the book “Sacred Marriage” by local author Gary Thomas. The subtitle is something along the lines of, “What if God designed marriage not to make us happy, but to make us holy?”
        That is a profound and sobering question!

      • >> * Changed my life, it did.

        And just so you know 😉 when I read that line, it came through with the full Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle accent – “I’m a good girl, I am!”

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Great words, Damon.

  4. Thank you for this informative and cogent analysis, Wendy.
    * I would venture that a case can be made that, in addition to the balance-sheet definition of success, some publishers (serving a niche) may also have to take ‘quality of service to core mission’ into account.
    – An example of this is England’s now-defunct Airlife, which published quality books (some reprints) in the field of aviation history. Many enthusiasts would consider Airlife a go-to house for reading material, and as such the house had that additional burden of performance. I can’t imagine many readers will look specifically for what Random Penguin is putting out this month.
    * For the writer, I’d guess that success can best be measured by the answer to the question, “Was writing the book worthwhile?” For me, writing “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” was worthwhile because it helped people with PTSD deal with their personal demons. Writing “The Last Indian War” was also a good thing to have done, even though you’ll probably never have the chance to read it (too religious for ABA, too Catholic and Navajo for CBA, and I don’t have the energy to SP the thing). I enjoyed researching and writing it; that was enough. The three people who have read it said they loved it; icing on the cake.
    * It’s tempting to throw in a financial definition for success, but I’m cautioned by the tale of Richard Bach and ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’. It brought him fame and fortune, which in turn cost him his family and perhaps something of his soul; he later wrote that he had become “a frilly playboy.”
    – It also pigeonholed his as a leader of the New Age, and made his writing – and him – servant to a readership that did not understand nor care about his basic paradigm, the spiritual revelations to be found in flight. He became a guru for folks that thought talking birds were cool, and wore that sari with obvious discomfort.
    * I’d definitely agree with Shirlee and Damon that bringing just one person to Christ would be success beyond my wildest dreams, but recent events have given me given me cause to include a simpler definition:
    “If after reading my words you find yourself sincerely smiling through tears, I’ve succeeded.”

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    I guess I’m on the way to “commercial success” because I’ve earned back half of what I spent on cover and interior design and editorial expenses in the first 6 months and the rate of sales this month are almost 5 times higher than three months ago, but that’s irrelevant since we’re giving the royalties to mission. (Science career = good salary and ample retirement, so that’s been the plan from the beginning, even if I’d gone traditional instead of indie. Indie just lets me do it sooner and in ways that aren’t related to royalty income since we kept all rights.)
    *The only real “success” I’m seeking is to have my novels encourage and strengthen someone who believes in Jesus and lead someone who doesn’t to consider whether they might want to. I haven’t received that treasured email that says, “Your novel transformed my life because I met Jesus through it.” That would be the pinnacle of success. A single one of those would make every minute and dollar spent getting a book to market worthwhile. It does feel good that most of the reviews of the first novel mention the spiritual message of Jesus giving us the ability to forgive. Some mention how that can transform both the forgiving and the forgiven. I pray for each sale as I see it come in that the book will strengthen the reader’s walk with God.
    *No traditional publisher would be delighted with my numbers because it won’t hit 4000 the first year unless the sales rate goes up another 3x (possible, but I don’t expect it), but I couldn’t be happier with how the message of God’s love and the power of forgiveness is getting through. That’s true success in my eyes.

  6. Thank you, Wendy, for explaining how success in sales looks in various scenarios.
    Spiritual success is the target that most matters to me because I’ve experienced the joy of having someone say a blog post of mine has encouraged them to make their quiet time with God a priority.
    Inspiring others to pursue a deeper intimacy with Christ is my passion. A large advance would be a big burden; a letter of thanks from a reader would be a huge blessing. As far as I know, you still can’t take your piggy bank with you when you die.
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  7. David Todd says:

    24 items published, with a total of 494 sales over six years, and two more promised if I ever meet up with someone. Clearly, success in terms of sales is eluding me. That’s my best measure that can truly be measured.
    Since I write primarily for the general market (with a couple of CBA-type offerings), I’m unlikely to have that person come say how a book of mine changed their life. The best I can hope for is the unknown success, where someone is nudged a little closer to the kingdom of God by the worldview underpinning my secular writing, though I’ll likely never know it.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      When you’re writing from your Christian worldview, whether the book has a specific faith arc or not, it can still point people toward the Truth.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this post all morning, Wendy. First of all, I appreciate the numbers aspect of success in this industry. Your sharing what kinds of “numbers” to look for is very helpful. Your perspective on the variables makes a lot of sense.
    *As for spiritual success, I pray that the blogs I post will speak to readers’ hearts. That the words and pictures will be an encouragement, will give hope, and will challenge people to draw closer to the Lord. I pray that same thing for my stories. I guess one indicator of that kind of success would be to receive a reader’s letter sharing how “my” books spoke to them. But, I believe another marker for success is to determine if I am continuing to seek after Jesus in the process of the writing, and if I love Him more at the end of the process than I did at the beginning. I will be the only one who can really make that measurement. But, thinking about this is a reminder that I don’t write alone. I hope I’m writing with God and not just on my own, if that makes sense.

  9. My children’s books are with small publishers (one is hybrid) and haven’t sold well. but I learned one of them made a major difference in the life of a kid who read it. And some of my articles have changed lives as well. I’ll probably never get rich or even make a living with my writing, but I consider myself successful because things I’ve written have made a positive difference in the lives of readers.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And when we stand before the throne I’m guessing the Judge won’t be going over our royalty reports.

  10. Thank you, Wendy. I saved this … I know I’ll read this through several times. One thing I’ve wondered … what constitutes a New York Times Best Seller? I’ve tried to research it a little, but it’s kind of confusing.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s even more complicated. It means a top seller that month. It depends on the category and what other books come out in that month. It’s an ever moving target.

  11. I’ve thought about this all day.
    The kind of success I would like to see would be a diminishing dislike of the name of Jesus amongst Native Americans whose ancestors were force-fed Christianity.
    Some Native people have a healthy relationship with Christianity, but most do not.
    The wise advice to “lead them to the healer” changed how I view my mission. I am but a messenger, and all I want is for my readers to meet the healer.

  12. A few years into my writing career, I decided to think through how I would define “success.” Here’s what I came up with: I often remind myself that success in light of eternity has nothing to do with books sold. Success in light of eternity means obedience to the Audience of One. In a hundred million years it will not matter if I was published, if my name appeared on any best seller lists, if I received any writing awards. In a hundred million years, what will matter is my obedience to my Lord. If He says ‘well done,’ then whatever happened here below was good, and I achieved success in the truest sense of that word.” Years later, I still believe that definition of success. But it’s a daily challenge to keep it at the forefront of a writing career in these crazy times when things are changing with the speed of light.