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S.M.A.R.T. Goals for Self-Published Authors

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


I have to confess that I struggle constantly with the concept of goals. Yes, I’ve worked with coaches. I’ve read extensive business and leadership literature on the topic. Tried all the tips and tricks. Yet, I just find myself consistently resisting officially setting goals.

One of the often suggested panaceas for people like me is S.M.A.R.T. goals. While the structure is sound theoretically, it often has its flaws in practice. Let’s see how self-published authors get goals wrong.

What Are S.M.A.R.T. Goals?

The first known use of the S.M.A.R.T. goal concept was a paper published in the November 1981 Management Review. The author of the paper, George T. Doran, used the S.M.A.R.T. acronym for effective, objective-based goals that were Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. The theory goes that if a goal does not meet one or more of the criteria of a S.M.A.R.T. goal, it is less likely to be achieved.

The elements that make up the acronym have varied over the years. The Assignable element has now been more commonly replaced with Achievable, and Realistic has been replaced with Relevant. We’ll use these changed elements in our discussion.


“I wanna be a best-selling author.” “I wanna have my book sold in bookstores.” While these sound specific, they are really quite general. What do you mean by “best selling” or “sold in bookstores?” On the New York Times Best Seller List? Have your book available in Barnes & Noble?

Those might be blatant examples. I also see errors in specificity occurring in definition of market and genre. “I wanna write a children’s book.” That could describe hundreds of different types of books.


In contrast, self-published authors can be very specific about the measurable results they want to achieve. I’ll see authors who post that they want to sell 1,000 books in their first year. Or 100 books in the first month. Either goal is ambitious.

Then to fuel their sky-high dreams, they’ll see some other author post that “I sold 1,000 books in my first month.” Really? I always wonder if these are plants for some nonsense self-publishing success program. The real “success” story can be an anomaly or one achieved with an astronomical amount of advertising.

Other ways that self-published authors measure their “success” can be the number of books written or published. Neither one is a determinant of financial goal achievement but may be simply a personal goal. Nothing wrong with that. But as we’ll discuss later, your goal must be relevant to you.

A subset of the measurable goal is monitoring. When people set a specific number of anything for a goal, they’re likely to keep monitoring where they are on that path. Have a regular monitoring plan in place to check progress. For self-publishing, it should be at least monthly.


One of the problems with the achievability of goals is knowing what’s achievable. For new authors, it can be a total guessing game if they don’t already have an author platform or fan base. I’ve talked about how to size up your existing author platform before. I also do a deep dive into evaluating your platform in my Udemy course, How to Sell Your Self Published Book on Amazon.

As I've discussed in other places, your total follower count on social media doesn’t give you a realistic picture of how many engaged fans you have. Once you actually do have an idea of what numbers you’re working with, it will be easier to figure out what is an achievable goal in terms of book unit sales.

Other achievable issues revolve around your budget. Maybe you do want more sales than what your current author platform can deliver. Quickly expanding that platform footprint can be very expensive if it includes advertising. What’s achievable in terms of the financial resources you have for your self-publishing marketing? Do not go into debt, jeopardizing your family’s wellbeing and your future. Set a self-publishing investment limit, and always keep your ROI and net profit at the top of mind.


Goal relevance is the reason why I don’t currently drive a BMW, and may never do so.

Years ago, when I was younger and more driven, I was reading or listening to almost anything I could get my hands on relating to goal setting, achievement, and excellence. Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy (actually went to see him in person and met him a couple times), and others from the pantheon of success gurus.

So I thought, “Hmm, could I apply this visualization stuff to manifest a beautiful new vehicle.” I always thought Beamers were cool. So a BMW was my target. Vision boards, writing down the specific goal, set a deadline… everything we’re talking about here. My husband thought I was a nut and still teases me about it.

Now, ask me if I drive, or ever did drive, a BMW. The answer is no. Why? I could not care less about what I drive. What’s important to me is convenient, comfortable, reliable, cost efficient transportation that enables my freedom. Do I have that now with the way less expensive car I have? Yes. Owning a luxury vehicle is so not relevant to me. Having status symbols is even less relevant.

Sorry for that detour. But I think it illustrates a really important point. As authors, we may think that having a best selling novel, making lots of book sales, and other markers of publishing success are relevant and important. But it may not be. In my 2018 Self Publishing Survey, the top motivators for authors were loving to write, self expression and creativity, and fulfilling a lifelong dream. Making money ranked fourth.

This has been at the heart of my goal setting resistance over the years. If I feel like I’m forcing myself to achieve something, I’ll resist working on it. And if the goals are externally motivated, the goal is empty and exhausting.

On a related note that is rarely in the S.M.A.R.T. goal discussion is loving the process. If you cannot stand the process of achieving a goal, any progress will not have personal relevance for you.

Don’t set a personal goal for something that doesn’t mean anything to you.


Setting timelines and deadlines for aspects of your self-publishing journey can help you evaluate where you are on the path and identify areas that need attention.

Where authors stumble with this S.M.A.R.T. goal element is in setting achievable deadlines. They often have no idea of just how long it takes to write, publish, and market a book.

What authors also don’t realize is how long it takes to build an audience for your work and the time it takes to start making sales. Both are long, never-ending efforts. Speeding up the process can often be expensive since that could entail advertising, lots of advertising.

Why S.M.A.R.T.R.R. Goals Are Smarter

While I agree with the S.M.A.R.T. goal theory in concept, I don’t totally rely on this methodology in my self-publishing or anything else for that matter. It’s because I am so statistically focused. I realize that the odds of achieving any set goal are controlled by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of factors, most of which are beyond my control.

Here’s what I’d add to the S.M.A.R.T. Framework to make it smarter, and a more useful tool for achievement. I’d add two Rs at the end of the acronym for Revisit and Revise.

Where I think authors falter with goals is that they don’t revisit their goals to see if they are still relevant and make sense. Along the way, the world keeps changing. People keep changing. Some goals will need revising for new realities or in response to results. Others should just be abandoned. Yet some authors just keep plowing ahead on goals that don't mean anything to them anymore or don't add value to the world.

Setting goals is a good thing. Resetting them when needed is even smarter.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne