Art and Money: How Do You Judge Success?

Writing for Money

If you ask any group of writers about finances, you'll get all sorts of discouraging information about what the "average" writer makes. You'll also get some good information about how you can, usually by self-publishing and a lot of work, make a living off of it, but it's never an overnight thing. . .

And generally someone midway pops in with, "If you're doing it for the money, just get out now. There are much better, easier ways to make money. Writers need to be in it for the art!"

In someways it is true. There are literally thousands of careers that are guaranteed to get you more money than you'll probably ever see from writing. The few writers that are able to buy their own castles and whatnot are the exceptions, not the rules, and there are far more writers who slave over potentially awesome books but never see a dime, no matter how much passion and talent they have, just because they can't get their book in front of the right agent/publisher. I wouldn't encourage anyone to be a writer as a get rich quick scheme. I wouldn't encourage anyone to quit their job and start writing expecting to be able to pay off all their bills with one book on Amazon. 

However, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get paid, and if you are putting time (and in the case of self-publishing, money) into something, you want to see an eventual return on your investment. That's not greedy. It's just common sense. 

I don't think most writers mean to discourage people with the "don't do it for the money" and "don't expect a big pay off" mantras. It's more about  managing expectations, because if you go into this with an idea that sales will be validation for your writing being "good" or that if you don't make a living off one book it's because you failed, you're going to get discouraged and wash out pretty quickly. The percentage of authors who see overnight success or even over several years success is very small. It's a long hard path. I'm about a year and a half in. I'm happy with my income, but I couldn't live off of it. If it weren't for my husband's income/health insurance/etc, I'd have to be working a "real" job as well as my writing . . .
In fairness, I was exclusively a stay-at-home-mom prior to trying this writing thing and my hours put into writing are still "part time" around toddler wrangling and mom stuff. Other than an hour in the morning where I check email and schedule promo posts, I don't actually start writing until 3pm when my  younger daughter takes her nap and then I only have until 5pm when she wakes up and I have to make dinner . . . and then a few hours after both girls go to bed at night. . .so I'm putting in part time hours and making part time money. That's fair to me. 
But anyway, the point to this ramble: 
I still run into people who think money and fame is how you measure success in this business. And why wouldn't they? The authors in the news have these things and these are the authors they see the most. 
I remember trying to explain my income as a self-pubber to a person in a writers' group (at the time it was $200-400 a month. . .it's now steadily over $500 a month and once as high as $1000 but dang the ups and downs give me a headache.). He said he wanted to keep trying for trade pub because he hoped his book was worth a "six figure payout." I'm like, okay, you try that. Good luck. 
I've had other aspiring writers say things like "sales are what counts. You can't judge art, but you can quantify sales." 
The problem with that attitude is even with a good book, even a great book (artfully speaking, well written, well crafted, well plotted) on average you aren't going to sell that many books, and if that's the only way you have to measure success you're going to assume you're a big fat failure. 
I went into this from the opposite end. I consider myself an optimist, but my value system is really oddly skewed, and I really only wanted some people to read my books. I initially wanted to put my first book out for free, but I wanted it available on Amazon for convenience, so I went with 99 cents. . . and so for me, this IS success. If anyone tries to tell me otherwise, I'm kind of rolling my eyes at them in my head. 
I feel like the craft fair vendor who is making her little knit hats and mittens with love and enjoying a modest profit and the looks on her buyer's faces when their heads and hands are warm and someone comes up and says, "You know if you invested in machinery or took production to  China, you could probably turn this into a real business." 
That isn't the point here. 
My points are my promises to myself when I got into this.
A. I'm going to write things I'm proud of and would personally enjoy reading and find other people who will like them.
B. I'm not going to go into debt doing this. I'm setting budgets for what I can spend on things like advertising and production, and I won't dip into my family's limited funds to keep this afloat. If it starts to go consistently in the red, I'll back up. 
C. I'm going to keep working and invest the time and money I get out of it back into it and just keep pushing it bigger and better but I'm going to do it MY WAY.
So for me, self-pubbing was really the only option. 
So if you want to be a writer, my advice is that you have to find your value in it. Do you want accolades? Do you want to reach a specific group with a specific message? What is the most important thing about this for you? What would you consider success? 
Once you know the answers to those questions, it is a lot easier to chart your path. And yeah, with hard work and consistent writing, there is a financial reward. Just don't get discouraged if it isn't immediate.

Oh, and Dragon's Rival will be free from the 19th through the 23rd. Dragon's Rival (The Dragon and the Scholar Book 3)