Can you buy success?

Over the past few months, a few things have prompted me to consider to what extent money plays a role in success. We often think of money as a result of success, but could it be a prerequisite? That is: might you need money in order to obtain success?

Of course, to answer this question we first need to consider what we mean by ‘success‘. A common definition is ‘the favourable outcome of something attempted’. But the second definition given in a lot of dictionaries specifically relates to money. ‘The attainment of wealth, fame etc.’

Phrases like ‘rich and famous‘ demonstrate how intimately entwined wealth and fame, as a measure of success, are thought to be. But which comes first?

Have you ever thought the following?

‘I’ll write a bestseller, and then I’ll be rich!’

‘I just need X number of followers on [insert social media here]. Then I’ll be rolling in it!’

Let’s consider what it takes to be a successful author. A well-written book would probably be at the top of most people’s lists.

But I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading. As someone who enjoys writing (and reading), I am constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my writing. Recently, I came across a fascinating article on reading level analysis.

Buying your way to the bestseller list

In the article, Shane Snow, surprised to find his own writing comes out at an 8th grade level, examines the ‘reading level’ of a variety of books, with surprising results.

Contrary to what you might first think, writing for a higher grade level does not make you a better writer. Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winner, for example, wrote prose most people can read. His book The Old Man and the Sea comes in at a 4th grade level.

A 4th grade reading level may sound terribly low. But as Snow points out, only around 80% of American adults can actually read at this level. Something written at an 8th grade level is only comprehensible to around half of the population. That’s the level my own writing comes out at until I work to improve it.

Let me reiterate: complicated and convoluted does not mean the writer is more intelligent. As someone who frequently writes way more than I should, I can tell you it’s usually because I haven’t gotten my ideas clear in my own head yet.

When Snow graphed his findings, an important pattern emerged. Bestselling fiction books tended to be written at a lower reading level, followed by bestselling non-fiction books. Last were reference works like academic papers and the healthcare act. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising.

But there were a couple of outliers – bestselling books that ranked as difficult to read as the academic and leagalese papers. As often happens, examining the bits of data that deviate from the rule is hugely important.

Those books that were difficult to read and yet made it into the bestseller list in any case were written by authors, Snow says, who bought their way into the bestseller list.

How, and why, would anyone want to do this?

From what I understand, authors simply buy enough copies of their own work so it gets onto the bestseller list.

But I don’t think they do it just to get onto the list. That would be a pretty hollow victory. Rather, I think they do it so that, being on the list, people see and buy their book. That is, they view it as a form of advertising.

Every year, there is a huge number of books published. About 2.2 million titles. And of course, they’re competing against all the other books ever published beforehand. As a result, it’s really difficult for any to reach huge success (or simply break even).

To get a spot on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, you need to sell about 3,000 books in your first week. For the NYT, it’s about 9,000.

So theoretically, if you were to go and buy 3,000 of your own books, at say $10 each, that’s an ‘investment’ of $30,000. And boom – you’re on the WSJ bestseller list (at least, hopefully – it could be a massive waste if other books that week have sold far more!).

Now $30,000 probably sounds like a lot of money. But by comparison, it would cost a minimum of $45,000 to take out an advertisement in the WSJ. And people are of course going to pay more attention to a bestseller list than they are to an advertisement, because they won’t realise that it’s not a ‘true’ bestseller.

The hope is this boost results in lots of sales, so the author can recoup their losses on the ‘advertising’ (cough, artificial inflation of sales) costs, and then have a real bestseller on their hands.

So what’s the downside?

As Snow’s article points out though, even if you can buy your way onto the bestseller list, it doesn’t buy you a good book. If your writing is convoluted, messy, and inelegant before you’re on the list, it will still be after. And you’ll probably have disappointed readers.

In my experience, I’m never more angry as a customer than when I buy a book or a movie ticket to something really hyped that is an enormous let down.

Buying your way into the rankings might work for a first book. But it doesn’t sound like a recipe for lasting success.

Financing your own following

The same is true of social media, which users increasingly expect to gain not only self esteem, but money from. (Although I would question whether the term ‘social’ fits platforms like Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, which have ‘followers’ rather than ‘friends’). ‘Anti-social’ may be a more accurate description, if one of the users quoted by SBS is anything to go by:

“My friends don’t actually want to eat with me anymore at cafes because the time it takes for me to set up the photo I want to take, it’s probably a good 15-20 minutes… Some people will order the same thing and I’ll be like, can you order something different because it’s going to clash in the photo.'”

If you use Instagram, Twitter, or the likes, chances are, you’ve been approached by an account offering to sell you followers. Even my search ‘How much of Instagram fame is to do with quality of content?’ resulted mainly in websites offering to sell likes, comments and followers, rather than answering the question. But once again, purchasing followers will not change the quality of the content you post. Very few people make money from social media, as the article Famous and Broke relates. And it’s generally not great for your self esteem either.

Focus on the primary definition of success

Ultimately, we need to focus more on the primary, and less on the secondary definition of success.  Finishing a book, and editing it until you are happy with it is indeed a favourable outcome of something attempted. That’s a success. Posting a photo that shares with your friends something that made you happy is a favourable outcome.

Being so obsessed with numbers – dollars or likes – that you’ll pay money to artificially inflate your popularity in order to make more money? That’s not how I choose to define success for me.

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Today’s featured image is of a book (one by Aristophanes, who clearly isn’t going around keeping his work well-read through artificial inflation!) and an example of the kind of account I refer to above on social media – alongside a beautiful plant from our apartment in Tallinn, Estonia. I prefer the organic growth, don’t you?

How do you define success? Let me know in the comments!

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