Friday, June 8, 2012

It’s All Just Luck

Luck is what determines the success or failure of a novel.

I’ve heard this statement a great deal lately, and not only do I disagree with the logic (or apparent lack thereof), I find it a bit insulting to anyone who has ever accomplished any measure of success in any field.

I personally don’t accept that luck even exists, especially with respect to how people often perceive it.

As defined by Websters: A force that brings good fortune or adversity
As per Wikipedia: …good fortune which occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention, or desired result.

Websters appears to indicate luck is a form of energy that might be measurable. In this sense, which I suspect is prevalent in the mainstream consciousness, luck is a myth, a form of superstition.

In the Wikipedia version, the word luck appears to be a way of giving a name to almost any event that the witness is incapable of understanding. Luck is then another word for magic. Lightning was believed to be magic too, until it was understood.

My take is to argue that luck is nothing more than mathematical probability. Yet because the numbers and variables are so vast and varied, most people can’t calculate a definite  probability for success, so it’s easier to believe the results to be magic, or the more socially acceptable term: luck.

To clarify just a bit, I think luck is actually the mathematical probability of a random event occurring. If you subscribe to the concept that luck is what determines if a novel becomes a success then you should also understand that this same rule applies to everything (because it would be silly to think luck only applies to novels.) Your chance of graduating college, getting cancer, or winning gold at the Olympic games is all a matter of luck.

Consider what the chances are of a person getting a novel on the bestseller’s list if they never wrote a book, sought out a publisher, had any dealings with agents or other literary types, and isn’t famous? I’m guessing most people are thinking zero. However if luck is the only factor in publishing success, then this person who never wrote a book, or had interest in doing so, would stand an equal chance of hitting that coveted list as someone who spent years perfecting their craft, submitted novels to traditional publishers, and even tried self publishing.

At this point I hope it’s obvious that it isn’t JUST luck.

On the other hand, those who guessed the person in the above paragraph has a zero chance, would be wrong. Everyone stands at least a one percent chance. (Even a person who doesn’t play the lottery might find a winning ticket among dead leaves along a curb.) I know this is true because I met a man at Balticon who is being pursued by major publishers and literary agents even though he knows nothing about writing, isn’t famous, and has no interest in writing books. He merely stumbled on something they think will sell, blogged about it, and now it has gone viral. He will likely—through no effort or intention on his part—have a bestseller on his hands. Does this prove luck exists? No, it proves everyone has a base chance of one.

If you play the lottery and buy two tickets instead of one, you’ve doubled your odds. Can buying two tickets make you twice as lucky? Or is it just doubling your mathematical probability? If you buy all the tickets you’ve improved your odds to a sure thing. When you win, will it still be luck? If you write a great book and promote it well, do you think you will stand a better or worse chance of getting lucky than if you write an awful book and never promote it?

Does that mean a person with a great book and great marketing will be a bestseller? No. Just as a person who doesn’t try can sometimes win, so too can a person who does everything right still fail, but the odds of this happening are just as small as a person winning the lottery with just one ticket.

So baring the small possibility that you will hit that one percent of “bad luck” then you can significantly increase your probability by writing and promoting well. The corollary of that then says if your sales are low the fault lies with either the quality of your book, and/or the effectiveness of your marketing. Authors don’t like to hear this. One person recently accused me of being cruel to aspiring authors for stating such. (Not that I deny having been cruel to aspiring authors, just ask anyone in my critique group.) I simply feel that being polite doesn’t help an author make a bad book better. Lying to them, or remaining silent will only leave them floundering in the dark and condemned to an endless prison of failure. Explaining the problem—as unpleasant as it is to hear—grants writers the chance to fix their problems.

The real issue comes up when authors who think they are good don’t know the meaning of that word when it applies to selling novels. There are those who spend significant time and money perfecting their craft and yet get nowhere. These are often people with masters and PhDs in writing and literature who declare success must not be about skill, but rather based on sheer luck—because if it was all about skill, they would be successful. What they fail to understand is that good prose, originality, and wonderful sub-text doesn’t necessarily translate into sales success. Even critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily generate significant sales. Don’t believe me, look up the list of the bestselling novels of all time then compare that to the list of Pulitzer Prize winners.

But not all popular books are good!

I’m not talking about the subjective judgment of good verses bad writing here, (if you want that see my previous post on objectively badbooks,) I’m speaking of successful books. And while an argument could be made that one person’s definition of success is not equal to another’s, I’m willing to go out on a limb and state that the majority of authors see financial independence as the primary indicator of success. An award is nice, but the ability to buy your mother a house in cash, never have money concerns again, and being able to write full-time is priceless. Whenever I speak to writers and ask what their big dream is, the answer always comes back: “A #1 book on the NYT Bestseller’s List.” People would choose this over the wish of eating all they want while magically remaining at their ideal weight. Some may covet critical success over millions of readers, I just haven’t met any yet. I’ve never once heard anyone saying their goal is winning a Pulitzer, Man Booker, Noble, or Nebula. That sort of desire for acclaim might come after financial success is achieved, but by then the writer is already considered successful. So if you concede that the reason a writer publishes a book is for number of readers and money, a good book—in this discussion—is then by definition, a book that sells a high number of copies at a price-point that provides a substantial financial reward to the author. And books that sell a high number of copies are those that strike a chord in readers, not necessarily those containing the best prose or the most original ideas.

Isn’t hitting that chord luck?

No more so than winning the lottery. It’s still probability. You improve your odds by writing what the majority of people will appreciate. Some people know how to do this better than others. Many authors have narrow tastes, and write to that target audience alienating the majority of potential readers, but greatly satisfying a niche of fans. Those who sell big are the authors who can reach a vast audience and touch them on a fundamental level. I suspect they can do this because they are their audience. They write what they want to read, and are not constrained by what they think they ought to write. Neil Gaiman, in his commencement speech in Arizona, (see previous post), mentioned that people often achieve their dreams because they didn’t know they couldn’t. That those who know better, don’t try. If Stephanie Meyers knew the idiocy of writing a cliché ridden vampire romance novel, she likely would not have. If I had known that writing a traditional heroic fantasy filled with exhausted tropes such as elves and dwarves was a roll-your-eyes awful idea, I might have passed too. I suspect a great deal of successful ventures are successful because the creators never knew what they were supposed to do and just did what they wanted to do. Ironically they ended up satisfying themselves and thousands of others. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. For those who constantly manage it, this is a talent despite how much people want to believe it’s mere luck.

So to succeed in publishing you need to know how to write what people want to read, and be able to write it in the way those same people want to read it. Then you need to present it well and advertise it effectively. Then, baring that one percent of failure, your odds of producing a bestseller are similar to your purchasing almost all the tickets being sold for a lottery. The problem is that doing all those things correctly is impossibly hard, and it is made harder when the prevailing wisdom insists success is determined either by conforming to the traditions laid out by unsuccessful writers or by sheer luck.

So you can believe that success has nothing to do with talent, skill, tenacity, or ambition—that it’s all just luck—but if that is indeed true…why even try? The results will be the same no matter what you do or don’t do.


  1. Just for the record, there is nothing I would want more than "eating all they (I) want while magically remaining at their (my) ideal weight." I may love writing, but I love eating more. :)

  2. " I’ve never once heard anyone saying their goal is winning a Pulitzer, Man Booker, Noble, or Nebula."

    You've clearly never asked me about my literary goals :) Although, I'm more interested in the Orange Prize (no longer sponsored by Orange) and the Natl Book Award.

  3. I was actually surprised by that one too Libby.

    1. Did you not see me tear up a cheeseburger the other night?

  4. I view writing the same way as most jobs. Hard work and skill is a baseline for any amount of success. My belief is luck is really summed up in two quotes: "Luck favors the prepared." and "Collect opportunities." Sometimes random chance will deliver rare opportunity and you need to be able to recognize it and capitalize on it. Both of which are predicated on the hard work and skill component.

    Ultimately, I think people feel that publishing is luck oriented because it is rare to find anyone who is good at all phases of the publishing game. So, when your stuck at the phase your not good at, a random encounter ends up being your 'lucky break'. But ultimately, people make their own luck. Hard work and a good product speaks for itself.

  5. The problem I have with this notion of luck isn't that I believe it, but that others do. Whenever I mention my writing ambitions to a fellow co-worker, family member or even my wife, they always bring up the fact that, "Well, you have to get lucky . . ." as if my goal in life is the same as winning the lottery, which is quite insulting to all the hard work that I put in. Trying to convince people that what I want to do as a profession isn't a fairy dream but a realistic goal can be aggravating. Of course, we all take very different paths toward success---I agree that I have mostly had to unlearn what I learned in college, since, quite frankly, nobody wants to read "The Great Gatsby" (at least not me). Not knowing, or caring, whether elves are cliche is a wonderful asset. But no matter where you come from, the most important rule is that writers write. Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Outliers" postulated that it takes 10,000 hours for a person to master a craft. And I do believe that, if one were to master the craft of writing, the chance that someone will pay to read it is nearly 100%.

    BTW, Michael, during our interview I found you to be very polite and anything but cruel.

  6. Fortune favors the bold. Meaning that luck isn't necessarily on your side, if such a force even exists. It just means that if you're brave enough to put yourself out there chances are you will succeed. More so than if you didn't, anyway. "You miss 100% of the shots you never take." Blah blah.

  7. If anyone, in whatever they do, is not open to constructive criticism then no amount of Lady Luck is going to make their dreams come true. Once, fleetingly maybe, and then?

    I think one of the hardest things facing writers, especially the big sellers is that their next work has to be better than their last. I recently overheard a group of people talking about a regular NYT best-seller, they devoured and hailed her first three publications but strongly derided her last. Could be a change of style, tired of churning out the same stuff, or a book she always wanted to get out. My point here is, that even when you are up there, you're not and even if you got there with a little luck, luck alone will not remain with you forever.

    Great thought provoking Blog as always Michael.

  8. Seems to me there is a great deal of space between "it's just luck" and "it's all on you." I have a background in stand-up comedy, and there I was taught never, ever to blame the audience for a bad night. At first I bought that, until I performed for a really nasty audience who endured my set with stony silence and mercilessly heckled the headliner. (The headliner in question was a comedian who, the next night at the very same venue, had the audience in stitches.) It was then I realized that what I had been taught was a good general rule, but that specifics matter. A lot.

    To take this back to publishing, I think that success is a blend of talent, hard work, and, yes, a great deal of good fortune. No matter how much talent an author possesses, how much time he/she puts into the work, and how hard he/she promotes it, sometimes books just don't catch on. And nobody - not editors, agents, or authors - knows which will sell and which will sink. If we did, every book would be a bestseller. Good books sometimes tank and bad books sometimes triumph, and in the space between lies what I think most people would call luck. Not luck in the mathematical or physical sense, but in the sense that it's an influence that can't be manufactured, induced, or even really explained.

    That, of course, is no excuse for not writing the best book one can manage, but it keeps me from trying to control that which simply cannot be controlled. I write, I edit, I polish, I promote...and then I walk away.

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