Like many people, I tend to judge myself against those who have more than me. This practice – unfortunately but inevitably – means that I constantly feel like a failure, no matter how I am doing.

A portrait of Clausewitz

Clausewitz: victory depends on having “limited aims” – otherwise you exhaust yourself

When I decided to self-publish, I tried to avoid this trap by defining some milestones in advance. I decided it would be too difficult to define success, but that I could try to define stages of non-failure. At a point when no one had bought the book, I tried to imagine having sold various numbers of copies, and thought about whether I’d class each as success or failure.

The point at which I found it difficult to imagine being able to tell myself that the whole thing had been a failure came at 750 copies.

That was the magic number (or perhaps the not un-magic number would be more accurate), but there were some way-stations before that. I calculated that I wouldn’t sell fewer than 12 copies unless my mother and close friends turned against me. Thirty seemed the point at which sales purely out of politeness would stop. A hundred was an important marker because of the two zeros in it. Then I overheard a couple of authors at the London Library talking about a friend whose commercially published book had sold only 312 copies in a year, so overtaking that was important. Then there was my official break-even number of 476 (an underestimate), and then a long gap.

Finally, a week or so ago, I reached 750. I can report that, having set the number in advance, I feel less like a failure now. Of course I still slip sometimes. I know a few writers who have achieved out-and-out success, with award nominations, big advances from publishers and tens or hundreds of thousands of sales. But it is now a bit easier to let that go.

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