Ambition and the Meanings of Success
The course I've been teaching is intensifying my late-life introspection. Plus book sales revealed.
Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his “Gibson Girl,” reproduced in The Power of Glamour.
Since August, I’ve been teaching a first-year seminar at Chapman University titled “Ambition and the Meanings of Success.” (As a separate post I’ll send out a copy of the syllabus.) Our students are, generally speaking, not an ambitious lot. They believe in the “balanced life,” and few express sympathy for ambitious characters in works like The Song of the Lark and Minari. They tend to judge their sacrifices as character flaws and their triumphs as not worth the pain.
Whether this lack of ambition reflects a generational norm or the comfortably affluent backgrounds of most Chapman students, I don’t know. I suspect it’s a mixture of both. This poster for a candidate for student government captures the dominant ethos. (I don’t know how successful the candidate was.)
For the ambitious professors—my co-teacher Sean Crockett is not just a successful economist but a serious wildlife photographer—the course offers ample opportunity for introspection. “I am Thea,” I said to Sean about the protagonist of The Song of the Lark. I’ve always been intensely ambitious: academically, professionally, and intellectually.
When I was applying to college, the most substantive interview I had was at Davidson. There, among other probing questions, the admissions officer asked me what my goals were in life. I was unprepared for the question and amazed at the quickness with which I could answer it off the top of my head. I knew:
To love and be loved
To create something lasting
To never stop learning
So I can measure my success against my 18-year-old self’s goals in life. Mission accomplished.1
I’m also at the stage in my life where I long ago confronted my disappointments and limitations. Substack is full of insightful punditry from people who think and write much more quickly—or at least in a more disciplined fashion—than I do nowadays. And I’m no longer interested in writing of-the-moment commentary. The more things matter, the less a columnist can affect them. Columns are ephemeral. Dropping out of the columnist game is supposed free me for more ambitious writing—no more finding “easy” (they never really are) topics to feed the beast. But the danger is that it also frees me to fritter away my time.
“Virginia is like a bee, going from flower to flower,” my undergraduate thesis adviser once said to Steve. It was a reference to Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier: “Just as in the summer fields the bees wing their way among the plants from one flower to the next, so the courtier must acquire this grace [sprezzatura] from those who appear to possess it and take from each one the quality that seems most commendable.”
It’s an apt description, for two reasons. One is that I’m eternally restless, “always roaming with a hungry heart,” as Tennyson’s Ulysses describes himself. The other is that for me, success is as much about what I learn as what I make or do. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is I also care about making a mark—production as well as consumption. I want to share what I learn, whether it’s something I get from others (as in The Fabric of Civilization) or figure out myself (as in The Power of Glamour).
“Bee and flowers in style of Ghirlandaio” by Stable Diffusion
So how should I spend my time? What are my current ambitions? How do I keep my many ideas from spinning around so much that I do nothing substantial? It helps to have some commitments.
It’s not an answer to the biggest questions, but I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed on as a Contributing Editor to Works in Progress, the London-based publication for whom I wrote this article on the evolution of polyester. Through 2023, I’ll be writing several features, editing a special issue, and spearheading the programming at a special event. Details to follow.
What makes a book “a success”?
Someone recently asked me how I evaluated the success of my books. It’s not an easy question. One answer is the substance of the books. I believe that each has added something new and significant to the world of ideas and done so in a way that is pleasurable to read. I learned a lot from the research and thinking it took to write them, and I’m proud of the results. A more objective measure of success is that they’ve all stayed in print, continuing to sell after the initial attention died down. People still discover and share them. They are still part of the relevant conversations.
Then there are the actual numbers. Back in September, you may have read the claim that “50% of books published sell fewer than 12 books,” a number derived from discovery in an antitrust case challenging the proposed merger of two major publishing houses, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster (publisher of two of my books). This claim is not true, as explained in this excellent post and a couple of knowledgeable comments.
Book sales are complicated, especially in aggregate. Do you lump together sales of adult coloring books, self-published family histories, wonky think tank volumes, and the latest Stephen King novel? If so, do the numbers mean anything significant? Further complicating the question, as my latest royalty statements demonstrate, is that what the author and reader think of as the same book can be several different ones statistically. Each different format—hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook—counts as a separate item.
But it’s safe to say that even from major presses most books sell relatively few copies. Like moviemaking, publishing is what economist Art DeVany calls “a business of the extraordinary.” It loses money on most of its products and makes it up with a few big, often surprising, hits. “Roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over [their first] 52 weeks,” writes Kristen McLean, who crunched the numbers for NPD BookScan after the questionable “12 books” stat started making the rounds. (For details, see her comments here.) In the scheme of things, therefore, I qualify as a successful author. My books aren’t best-sellers, but they’re pretty far out in the upper tail.
What does that mean in numbers?
It’s royalty statement season, when I get semi-annual statements on my book sales and payments for those that have “earned out” their advances. A publishing contract specifies the royalties an author gets for each book sold. The money the publisher pays the author to write the book is an “advance against royalties.” It’s usually divvied up in installments of, say, a third on signing the contract, a third on approval of the submitted manuscript, and a third on publication. As long as the manuscript meets with the publisher's approval, the author keeps the full advance. The publisher is therefore taking a calculated risk on the book, guessing how well it might sell while also providing financing for writing it.2 As the book sells, the royalties specified in the contract are counted against the advance. If the total reaches the amount of the advance, the author begins to get royalty checks.
Not surprisingly, my books that generate royalty checks are the two for which I got the smallest advances: The Future and Its Enemies (I recently deposited a royalty check for ~$85) and The Fabric of Civilization. Although it has sold the most copies, The Substance of Style will never earn out its generous advance, which was my little slice of turn-of-the-century “irrational exuberance.”
The Power of Glamour has never taken off like my other books. Disregarding good advice about pitching articles to advertising trade publications in favor of organizing fun parties, I did a terrible job marketing it. I also think the title sets up the wrong expectations. (I wanted Decoding Glamour or Glamour Decoded.) Although it’s a beautiful object and written in an accessible way, it’s the book that does the heaviest intellectual lifting, constructing an original theory of glamour as a form of visual persuasion. If you’re expecting fun fluff, you’ll be disappointed. And if you want rhetorical theory you may not pick it up because you think “glamour” means “fashion.” Yet even that book’s disappointing numbers put it in the upper tail of book sales.
As of June 30, here are the totals, excluding translations:
The Fabric of Civilization (2020) 27,110 (not including the audiobook, for which I don’t know numbers)
The Power of Glamour (2013) 8,112
The Substance of Style (2003) 43,486
The Future and Its Enemies (1998) 34,716
Buy the books from Amazon by using the links!
Just for Fun
A few years later, I acquired the more specific ambition of becoming editor of Reason magazine. Through a remarkable set of coincidences, I managed to achieve that goal as well—although I fell short of my ambitions for the role.
Whether that financing is sufficient depends on the amount and the book. My advance for The Fabric of Civilization did not cover the costs, but I fortunately got a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics.