This blog was featured on 07/27/2016
What Makes A Book A Success?
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
October 2014
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
October 2014

A year after my first book came out, a then-friend said to me, over dinner at an Italian restaurant on a cold winter night: "Your book was a failure." My friend didn't say it harshly--though perhaps it's no surprise that we are not friends anymore. He said it matter-of-factly, as in, the things you hoped for when your book came out, like selling hundreds of thousands of copies, or establishing yourself as a cultural critic with a seat at the National Important People Conversation Table, didn't happen. He was right. My book didn't even sell through its modest first print run, and I never earned a cent beyond my advance. I appeared on national television and NPR but my message never caught anybody's attention beyond those book-related interviews. I only got to call myself a "bestselling author" because when I went to LA on "tour" (the tour I paid for myself), I sold a lot of copies at independent bookstores the week I was there, and the LA Times weighs local indie sales heavily on its weekly bestseller list. (For exactly one week, I was 15th out of 15!) Having this reality stated so bluntly stung me deeply. I remember fighting hard to swallow back the humiliation and sadness it triggered. Moments later, however, I was filled with a strong, clear feeling.


My book was not a failure. For one, I was enormously proud of it, not just of the book but of myself for finishing it. For another, while I had not turned into an overnight punditry sensation, I had crossed a meaningful threshold professionally. As a published author, I now had a platform to build on for the next book, and the credibility to teach writing to others--not to mention to found She Writes. Perhaps most important, I had reached an audience, if not in the numbers I had hoped. Women had written to me from all over the country to tell me what my book meant to them, and readers cared about it enough to engage in lively debates about it on blogs and on my Amazon book page. I had also learned, from talking with many other published writers, that while all writers want their books to sell, almost no writers sell enough books to make a living.  

I wrote a book I'm proud of, I thought. And that means my book was a success. That moment of certainty was the moment I transitioned from being a first-time author with a head full of fantasies to being a more seasoned writer, with a deeper understanding of herself, why she wrote, and what she could expect from it. 

Last Friday, at lunch with twelve New York-based She Writes Press authors (see gorgeous photo above), I listened to their publishing journeys and found myself reflecting back on that pivotal moment for me. Each woman at the table considered her publication with SWP a success, but I believe this was because each of them had wisely defined success on her own terms. Several of the experts told me that having a book out had allowed them to speak, teach and proselytize for the causes they cared about in ways that had been transformative. Several of the memoirists said that the process of working with seasoned editors to convert their life stories from memory into narrative, and then publishing those stories to be read by those who needed to hear them--whether that was hundreds of people or thousands--was a healing gift and a life-changing accomplishment. Some of our more experienced authors, with agents and previous books at major publishing houses, shared that publishing with SWP had meant that a book the traditional houses rejected had had a chance at a life in the marketplace, and that their hard work in promoting it could result in a profit (if a modest one). From several of the novelists, I heard stories of projects years in the making, of books that had to come out of them no matter what, and of how proud they were now that they had. Several of the women had won awards; one of them had just had her book optioned for TV. None of them had sold hundreds of thousands of copies or become world-famous. (At least not yet!) All of them had defined success differently from that. The common thread? They were proud of their books, and happy with the SWP team that had helped to produce them well.

With my first novel coming out this spring, nine years after the publication of my first book, I have had plenty of occasion to ask myself how I will define success this time around. I have some ideas: enough sales to recoup my investment in publishing it, positive reviews (if I can get them), broader attention for She Writes Press. But then I remember. I wrote a novel, something I've never done before. I revised it and revised it, first on my own and then with the help of talented SWP editors, until I had a manuscript I felt completely, utterly proud of. I gave that manuscript to writers I respect, and they told me it was good. I got to be part of choosing its cover and had input into the look and feel of its beautiful printed pages. I wrote a novel! And when the box of galleys arrived at my apartment two weeks ago, I took out a copy and held it in my hands.

And then I know. This book can't be a failure. Because in the ways that matter most--and in the only ways I can truly control--it's a success already. 

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Kamy...I was you 32 years ago and the stories I could (and have) tell (told). The journey is just beginning for you and I would tell you that it isn't one book. It never is. I have 24 books behind me and a lifetime (45 years) of experiences I never could have imagined when I sent that first manuscript off to a publisher in 1972. I, also, thought I'd get a book published and -poof!- be rich and famous like Stephen King. Ha, ha. But it doesn't always happen that way. I never made much money for most of those years but now, after a lifetime of writing, I am and I can proudly say "I'm a writer and I have the scars to prove it and the books". It's a calling and it is hard; takes work and years and commitment.'s my life. I'm never happier than when I'm working on a book. Money is nice, but it isn't everything. 

  • Patti Clark

    I love this Kamy! And it comes at a perfect time. I have been a 'published author' for 6 months now. And a lot of the 'brand new' excitement has worn off.  For the most part, the first question people ask me is "So how many books have you sold? Translated to "So how much money have you made so far?" Then they watch me squirm. Because I haven't sold out of my first print run yet either.  I have been having fun on the book tours, but like you, I'm paying for it myself. I was on New Zealand's national TV Breakfast show, and it was a blast! However if Amazon is to be believed, it didn't translate to many sales.

    So I fall back to my dear friend Tam's question: "What is your rubric for success?" Is it book sales and money? Well of course that would be lovely, needless to say! But I have to agree with you, Kamy, my success is - Hey I did it! I finished my book, it is published and I have achieved a dream!  I also include in my rubric of success that I have positively impacted several women who have read my book. I have received emails and phone calls from women who have thanked me for writing the book.  

    So Yeah - ok I admit it, my book has not sold a million copies yet, I haven't even made back initial costs yet.  But on my own private rubric - I'm a helluva success!

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Thank you for this!! That's the way I feel about my most recent book, a book that was reviewed well but has sold poorly, probably partly because I'm not good at marketing. It's about two solo women who visited Korea a century apart. Comparing their adventures and tribulations offers historical insight into that mysterious Asian peninsula that might be the tinderbox for WWIII. Wish I had published through SWP!

  • Betsy Teutsch

    does anyone call it Parternship Publishing?  Having been through the team process, that is totally how it feels to me.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I love that Nancy--and I believe in it with all my heart, which is why I feel so strongly and passionately about what we are doing with SWP. There needs to be a way for books to be in the world that isn't self-publishing but doesn't leave selling a book to a traditional house, where they are increasingly narrowing the field in terms of the kinds of books they want to publish, as the only alternative. If you need to write a book and you are willing to do the work to make it the best book it can possibly be, it must be written and deserves to be in the world.

  • Nancy G. Shapiro

    Thank you for this post Kamy. As I write bit by bit toward the day I can publish my book with SWP, words such as yours confirms the spirit that fuels the writing...I have something valuable to say (confirmed by friends and strangers alike), and I'm proud of what is flowing from my fingers to the page. And I can't not write matter how slowly it goes. As one girlfriend wrote in encouragement: "...the prospect of pouring oneself into another (or one's first) book feels a bit like the prospect of another pregnancy. And one only does that a few times in life, for obvious reasons. In the case of a book, it would be busy in one's psychic space during the writing, like an incarnating, gestating soul hovers around the mother...if there's a book in you it's already hovering around, so might as well get on with giving it voice, life. Is there a choice?"

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    So glad this can serve as inspiration--I'm going to have to re-read it myself when my novel comes out and I will be in need of a reminder of this perspective.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for sharing your story, Kamy, and the perspective of fellow indie authors.

    As I work to write the novel that has been brewing inside and I have written many notes about, I will think of this.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    Hi Kamy...I appreciate this. As I blogged here

  • emma cortese

    Thank you Kamy so much…for your reframing the definition of success toward the more positive self-affirmation, for believing in the transformative power of writing, for the unyielding certainty that a community of vibrant, dedicated women can support each other by the sharing of process: working through the resistance, challenging the    (inner/outer) critics, and the joy that comes from persevering to attain dreams.  

    And thank you for organizing the Keurig event. I waivered about attending, as my own publication efforts have hit a bit of a snag, but I was so glad to have gone. The comradery, and sheer enthusiasm for writing/publishing in the SheWrites way that permeates this web community was present in person on Broadway - and it was grand!!  Exactly the glue to help keep me connected to my work despite the headwinds.  

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thank you for that, Lorraine. I am so glad you are back here! And S. Ramos, thank you for the good wishes, too. This post obviously struck a nerve and this point needs to be made again and again. 

  • Lorraine Currelley

    This article hit me where I live. It's a message all writers and aspiring writers need to read. Writing requires work and study. It is not easy. My satisfaction comes with the joy of writing. The joy of having someone appreciate my work, but firstly my appreciating, respecting and loving what I do. To have one person read and appreciate your work is a blessing unto itself. 

    Thanks Kamy, for sharing this affirming and empowering article. Here are key resonating points. 1. Define success on your own terms. 2. Being published is life changing and transformative. 3. Publishing your work can be healing. 4. Have pride in your work. I'd like to add rid yourself of toxic people, dream killers. Embrace those who genuinely support you, the encouragers. 

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    You're coming from the right place, Kamy. I wish you the best in this new venture.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    That's right Kathryn -- the book is the thing. Thank you so much for all these comments and for being so open and brave about sharing your own struggles with the pressure of "success" and the journey to define it for yourself.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    So well said Martine...a book and the magic it weaves lives forever.

  • Martine Fournier

    Thank you for such a beautifully written piece! It's true in this day and age we tend to think of success in commercial terms, forgetting so many other possible definitions. What gives me chills about sending a book out into the world is that we ourselves will never know its complete journey. A book can still be discovered long after we have died, or mean something special to people who happen to read it, people we'll never meet. Our success lies in putting the book out there and letting it follow the course of its own life.

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Wonderful post, Kamy, and I too was sorry to have missed the NY gig.  As to expectations for this first book, I have written elsewhere that Even in Darkness is not just my first novel.  It is a story of my heart and the finest tribute I can craft to two remarkable people.  I am proud of that, and will try to keep this knowledge at my center during the upcoming whirlwind. Having like-minded She Writers in this community makes a world of difference to me as a newbie!

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Sorry I had to miss the SWP / Keurig event last week! While you were there, I was at the NJ Romance Writers Conference. What success means to me? An example happened there: a NYT Best-selling author purchased a copy of my book at the Literacy Book Fair :-) Good luck with your novel :-)

  • Lizzie Eldridge

    I loved reading this post and thanks so much for writing so honestly and so proudly! You've got an absolute right to be proud. It was beautiful and timely for me to read this so thank you very much and best of luck with all your success now and in the future. Well done to you :)

  • Pamela Olson

    LOL, Nina -- here's how hard I tried to get on The Daily Show. Still hoping, some day... fingers crossed for you as well!

  • Jean P. Moore

    Kamy, I knew I would "like" this, and I did--on FB and I tweeted it, but (from Portugal) I've only now been able to read the whole post carefully, and I am so moved by what you have written. Even though you have indeed already succeeded, I wish you success many times over. Thank you for writing for all of us such good, wise words.

  • Nina Angela McKissock

    So...I should dampen my dream of being interviewed by John Stewart of The Daily Show?

    (Gonna go cry)

    Kidding aside, I am quite proud of myself for completing this little gift to the world. It just may serve someone when the one they love is at the end of life. Cheers to all of you who completed your book!

  • Pamela Olson

    Awesome post, Kamy. And it's funny... the novel I'm working on now is about this very subject (to which I can fully relate!) It's about a travel writer whose first book sold quickly to a major publisher, but sales were disappointing, and her much better second book was rejected out of hand. She had poured ten years into these books -- all of her twenties and the start of her thirties -- and given up a lot to create them, and as the book opens, she feels like a total failure and is on the verge of giving up.

    Then vaguely paranormal things start to happen that force her out of her paralysis and into taking action to figure out what she really values, and what "success" really means. Writing it has cheered me up enormously after my own first book wasn't the spectacular success I hoped it would be. Defining success for yourself is such an important key to happiness. You're the only you -- why should you let anyone else define what your happiness and worthiness should look like?

    Easy to say, of course... It can be much harder to actually embody that wisdom in a time when every marketer and employer and professor and sometimes family member has their own idea of what you "should" be. Shaking that off has been a tough climb since prehistoric times, when some guy wanted to paint caves instead of join the hunt.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thank you so much everyone, I love all these comments and feel so good when we center our conversation here, and our community, on what really matters: honoring the hard work, and enormously satisfying outcome, of finishing what we set out write.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    and only TIME will tell. I have republished 15 of my old books in the last five years and though some of them never did well 25-30 years ago...they're doing much better now. Some even are selling lots and lots of eBooks and getting raving reviews (my Dinosaur Lake books and my Scraps of Paper series). So...a good book never dies and can live forever and gain new readers and accolades long after the first printing. A writer isn't one book, she's a lifetime of books. Go Kamy!