Am I A Success?

Here in the UK, the end of March signals the termination of a financial year, and that’s a signal to me — being a self-employed writer — to make sure my accounts are up to date and ready for a tax return later in the year. It’s not that difficult a task for me, as the frequency of my income and expenditure payments is not very often. Nonetheless, I have to make entries in my spreadsheet and make sure all the figures add up.

It’s also an opportunity to see how much I’ve made, and to reflect on whether things are moving forward in a financial sense. Well, I can state confidently that sales from my written books (both digital and print,) together with audio book sales, mean that I have made less of a loss than in the previous two years. Now that sounds a bit like a recent inspection of our local council, which said that it had improved by pulling itself up by the bootstraps from ‘failing’ to ‘inadequate.’

This was no surprise. It means that for the third year running, I won’t be paying any tax. I’m kinda disappointed in that. I know, this is something that’s weird about me — I don’t mind paying tax, and if my profits had been sufficient to put me over the threshold, it would be almost like a badge of honour to wear: ‘I made enough money to pay tax!’ It’s also disappointing in one other respect; I’d hoped I might break even. That’s going to have to be my goal for next year.

So, I’m not a financial success. In fact, most of the money I take in comes from audio books — the largest proportion of which comes from novels I’ve narrated for other authors. So, I could beat myself up about this state of affairs. Yet, I’m drawn back to why I keep returning to the writing desk. I want to grow an audience. It might be small, but I’d like to think it was dedicated enough to want to buy the next book, that there were stories I’d written which transported them to another world, made them consider their life from a different perspective, that touched their emotions, or that simply resonated in some way. The writing gurus say we should have a picture of who a ‘target’ reader is. Unfortunately, mine’s not a profile that exists as a wide demographic. I guess the person I’m writing for may have the following attributes (it’s not an exhaustive list):

  • They’re not confined to one genre
  • They’re happy to give a story time to develop.
  • They’re willing to explore new avenues of thinking and perspective.
  • They’re into the weird, the dark, the taboo.
  • They don’t just read mainstream, successful authors.
  • They’re not too put off if I use ‘long words.’
  • They don’t judge a book by its cover (unless it’s so obviously produced in a lacklustre manner.)

There you go. Do any of those describe you? I’m curious to know.

I read a testimony on a writer’s forum the other day. The guy was explaining how he’d had his first month where he made a five figure income. This came after striving for many years, changing genre, re-writing entire books, switching covers multiple times and spending large amounts on advertising. Now, I’m not knocking him. In fact, it was an encouraging story in many ways, and I picked up quite a few tips. However — and this is a big ‘but’ — in order to achieve this, he had to move away from what he personally liked to write, choose a best-selling genre and adopt covers and styles that large audiences on Amazon liked. Now, I believe there’s a comparison here with the music industry, and manufactured bands that feature on shows such as the X-Factor and America’s Got Talent. Once again, there’s no denying these acts are talented, often sell records in large amounts and make a lot of money for their sponsors. However, there is a cost: narrow range of content, sameness, lack of originality and the ultimate squeezing out of equally talented artists who dare to be original or to think outside of the box. I sometimes wonder if the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, or Deep Purple would have been recognised by today’s modern record labels.

So, am I saying that I belong to this original, highly talented and unrecognised cache of individuals? Probably not, but I like to think there is ‘worth’ in my stories. I’ve had enough positive reviews of the books from complete strangers to believe this is true. So, I’m going to continue. Carry on writing, self-publishing, trying to grow my audience by discovering those readers that might be a vague fit to my hastily constructed list above. In monetary terms, it would be nice to reach a stage where the income from one book is sufficient to finance the next. But even if this doesn’t happen, I’ll continue to write and audio narrate — because it’s all I can do. I couldn’t stop expressing my ideas any more than I could stop my nails growing. It’s likely my head would explode too!

Am I just making excuses for myself? Perhaps if I took marketing more seriously and invested more money in advertising, I could improve sales. I have noticed that when I actively seek reviews, pay for promotions with outfits like Freebooksy and Bookbub, I shift more titles. So, there is that, but I don’t want grasping after better sales to compromise the ‘blank canvas’ freedom I currently enjoy. I’d hate to be trapped writing in a style and genre I couldn’t escape from because I’d risk reduced sales. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is the end, not the means to the end.

Ursula K. Le Guin (to whom I dedicated my last story — The Easy Way Out) was once asked what the meaning of success was. She replied, “Your question makes me realise that ‘success’ is a word I don’t use. I’m not certain what it means, or maybe the problem with it is that it means such different things to different people.

To me, as a writer, a ‘successful novel’ is a novel that does what I wanted it to do, or is what I hoped it would be, while I was planning and writing it.”

Once again, thanks for reading this far. If my musings provoke a stirring in your heart, or even a disagreement, please feel free to comment.

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