Measuring success, or even progress, is difficult in writing. This month is Nanowrimo (Or National Novel Writing Month) and a lot of people are posting about their word counts. Which is probably a decent enough metric for progress, since it shows how far you’re getting in your current story, but it gives no indication of quality.
Something I’ve noticed in some authors’ books is that they leave in unnecessary fluff in order to hit a word count. I’ve heard authors say that they want it to be ten thousand words, or sixty thousand words, or one hundred thousand words. However, I really don’t think those should be goals for a finished story.
A decade ago, traditional publishers decided what would get published and they would have a fixed amount of words for that book. For instance, science-fiction books can be shorter than historical dramas. There are probably excellent marketing reasons for this, but they don’t hold true anymore.
I believe a reader would rather have a forty thousand word book than a sixty thousand word one, if that’s what the story calls for. The tag “novel” is meant to apply to anything over fifty thousand words, but just trying to achieve a tag isn’t a reason to bore readers.
So, while word count might be the best measure we have for a story in progress, it shouldn’t be even mentioned after a story is published other than a vague classification: short story, novelette, novella or novel. Just to give people an idea of what length they should expect.
What can we use as a metric of a successful story, then?
Of course sales are one possible metric. As I talked about before, the top selling authors tend to be at least above average writers:
But that can’t be the only metric. After all, plenty of people were financially unsuccessful in their lifetimes and wrote books that are considered classics today.
The thing that they tend to have in common is resonance. They are books that speak to people, directly to their core and stick with them long after they’re finished reading them. But surely that’s difficult to measure.
So how about this? We can measure success by how many people would list a book in their top ten favourite books of all time. Gathering that data is a matter of tapping into Facebook, Goodreads or some other source, but it is possible to find out. It needs to be mitigated by the amount of people who have read the book, of course so if:
X = Total Number of Top Ten Listings
Y = Total Sales
Z = Average Book Price
Then the success in terms of impact of a book should be = X * Z / Y
And the success of a book in terms of finances is Y / W
So therefore the total success of a book is = (X * Z / Y) + (Y / W)
The only unknown there is W: how important monetary sales are versus emotional impact, which is a totally subjective number depending on the goals of the person asking. Some people only want to sell books. Some people only want to resonate.
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