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March 28, 2011
By Kevin Weiss
More and more authors are choosing to sidestep agents and big houses to bring their books to the reading public.

Publishing continues to evolve and change as digital readers and digital formats rule the day. Interactive, media-rich apps are changing the very definition of book. And online retail outlets like Amazon have forced bricks-and-mortar booksellers to rethink their business models, and in the case of Borders, to contract.

Self-publishing, led by print-on-demand providers, has served as one of the key catalysts to the changes. More and more authors are choosing to sidestep agents and big houses to bring their books to the reading public. From full-service self-publishing operations with myriad services to free online e-book conversion portals that allow writers to produce digital books in minutes, opportunities for authors and choices for readers have never been greater.

What hasn't evolved as quickly is the measurement of success. Historically, that yardstick has been hitting the New York Times bestsellers list, which is still a worthy accomplishment. Yet even that respected source does not take into account the changes that have taken place in the industry.

The metric used in determining bestsellers are not comprehensive. The New York Times bestsellers list doesn't include every single vender of books. Amazon's rankings are based solely on Amazon sales and are updated hourly, but actual figures are not released, for competitive reasons. Nielsen BookScan bases its figures on retail sales from about 75% of retailers. And none of these takes into account direct sales or complete book club sales, which may be a more significant portion of book sales as authors and publishers have gone directly to readers.

Perhaps even more important is that, for many authors, book sales alone are not the only measure of success.

Author Solutions Inc. worked with more than 20,000 authors last year to help them bring their works to readers. I've spoken with many of these authors, and I can tell you firsthand that their reasons for publishing—and ultimately their definitions of success—are as unique as the books they submit to our companies for publication.

Yes, a large subset of authors publish their works with the hopes of rising to the top of bestseller lists, as Brunonia Berry or Lisa Genova did. But many write to influence readers, to bolster a cause they believe in, to support a consulting career, or for the fun of it.

Reg Green is one of the world's foremost advocates of organ donation. He wrote The Gift That Heals to raise funds in support of his cause and sells thousands a year at the dozens of speeches he gives around the world. Reg never defined his book's success on sales alone. His goal is to reach people through his words—to affect behavior. By any measure, Reg—who's raised the profile of this cause—and his book have been a greater success than most bestsellers.

C.S. Marks has created Alterra, a parallel world of heroic elves. Marks decided to free these characters from her imagination onto the pages of her books. Her books' covers feature original illustrations, oil paintings that make her characters even more vivid. Marks is also a master marketer—one of the reasons she chose to self-publish—and she's created quite a following. In January 2011 alone, her four-title series sold a combined 2,700 e-books. At book signings in Los Angeles and New York, hundreds of miles from her Indiana home, fans lined up early to meet her and secure autographed copies of the series' flagship title, Elfhunter.

Don Failla has been teaching network marketing for decades. His book, The 45-Second Presentation That Will Change Your Life, is a concise training manual for readers who want to establish network marketing businesses that depend on the cooperation of independent distributors. He's sold tens of thousands of copies of his self-published book, averaging about 500 copies a month through channels tracked by Nielsen BookScan. He has had even more success selling direct to consumers at speaking and consulting events.

Historically, publishers have measured success by number of print books sold. Authors have measured success by the size of their advance. But the industry has changed dramatically. How we account for sales and what is considered a success should continue to evolve with the other changes taking place in the industry.