How Much Does Random Chance Account for a Writer’s Success?

800px-WeirdTalesv36n1pg045_Casino_SuicideI read a lot posts about marketing and selling books. For the most part, they say the same thing. To succeed, a writer (indie or otherwise) needs to:

  • Blog
  • Have a website or “landing page” for his/her book
  • Use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.)
  • Develop a “platform”
  • Build connections with a community of readers
  • Develop an email list/newsletter
  • Have an amazing book, a professional cover, and a catchy blurb
  • Make smart use of sales tactics like price points and free Kindle days
  • Never, never, never, never give up

I’ve been wondering, though, if one more thing shouldn’t be added to the list: To succeed, a writer needs to be really lucky.

I can hear the howls now: Luck has nothing to do with it! It’s all about talent and perseverance and building a community of readers…

True. It’s hard to imagine success without those things, but I still think a measure of luck has something to do with it, at least in some cases.

And let me add right away that I’m not blaming my shortcomings as a writer on my lack of luck. And I’m not bitching about other people being luckier than me. I place most of the blame for my shortcomings on the fact that I’m a novice marketer, trying to learn the ropes as I go after having spent the last thirty-plus years learning my craft and living with the illusion that I’d eventually land a deal with a publisher who’d do all that marketing for me.

For the most part, I’ve been trying to do all those things in the bullet points above, some better than others. Success hasn’t exactly been forthcoming, but it depends on how one measures success. To keep from failing at that last bullet point, I measure success in terms of just having books that are out there and having had some readers find them through my efforts (directly or indirectly) and be entertained by my storytelling. If I measured success in the hundreds of dollars or in averaging one sale per day in an average month, then the measurement would fall short. I’m not there yet. But I can live with it.

I’m just finishing a week of free promos for my books after having launched the second in my Ace Stubble series, Unfinished Business. I noticed that on the days when Take Back Tomorrow was free, there were a lot of downloads (68) through the German arm of Amazon. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search and found that a German free-book-promo site had picked up the listing for my book and featured it; so there are 68 English-speaking German readers with my book in their Kindles, and a handful of them are likely to read it.Screen shot 2013-03-31 at 6.19.57 PM

Those are 68 (potential) readers I hooked up with strictly by chance. Yes, the people who say you make your own luck will argue that I put myself out there and thought positively and created the opportunity by making the book free in the first place. But so did several thousand other indie writers on the same day. The people who run that German site picked my book out of thousands and featured it without any other input from me. Maybe they liked the cover, or the selections from book reviews I included in my blog post about the free day. And maybe if I’d listed the book on a different day, the site administrators would have been in a different mood or had their eye caught by a different book. And so it goes.

On other free days, I’ve had other promo sites feature my books, resulting in thousands of free downloads. And on still other days those same books (with the same covers and blurbs and the same outreach on my part to the promo sites) have gone unnoticed, resulting in a couple hundred downloads instead.

It strikes me as rather random. As do other aspects of success.

I was reading another indie writer’s blog where he was analyzing the wild but temporary success he had on Amazon after his novel was featured in an Amazon-generated list of recommended books; his was the only indie book on the list, and he suddenly found himself with sales comparable to the pros his book was rubbing elbows with. Upon investigating, the writer discovered that his book had been included in the list because it looked so good, so professionally put together, that the Amazon editors had assumed this self-published book had come from a small press. While the author did a fantastic job of designing and marketing his book, the fact that it got noticed by these Amazon editors and recommended on a list of professionally designed books was, really, just a matter of luck–something the author was quick to acknowledge.1926WhyBeUnlucky

Why that book and not one of the other thousands of solidly designed indies, or even other professionally published books? Random chance maybe? The editors in a particular mood on a particular day and having some indefinable thing catch their eye that on another day would have slipped right past?

I don’t know the answer, but it does seem to me that random chance has something to do with the reason some writers shoulder ahead of others who are equally good, and oftentimes even better. And those better books never get noticed.

The same probably holds true in traditional publishing where one skilled writer gets picked up by an agent or editor on a given day while an equally skilled writer gets rejected–partly because the first one was in the right place at the right time.

Imagine the previously unpublished author of a teen vampire romance whose query comes up in an agent’s queue the same week that the first Twilight book shoots into the literary stratosphere. The agent snaps the book up and is pitching it to publishers in a heartbeat while the other queries in the queue–all by equally unknown writers, some with more talent and some with less than the author of the Twilight clone–get rejections because the agent can take on only so many new clients.

Surely there are books that deserve rejection, but there are others that, in a different week, would have outshone the book that got signed. Does being lucky guarantee this hypothetical author success? Not at all. But it gives that writer a hell of a better shot at it than the others who go back to the slush pile.

I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.

And in some cases, more.

No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.


263 thoughts on “How Much Does Random Chance Account for a Writer’s Success?

  1. Well said! I’m glad I stumbled upon your post. I’m graduated journalist who only wants to write. But unlike you, I don’t have the guts to begin and I have no idea where to start from. I thought I’d give it a try by blogging, but I noticed that people prefer the photos instead of reading text, too. As if everybody was 5 year-old. Anyway, I felt like saying that. Good luck on your career! Best wishes from Romania 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading. The best advice I can offer is for you to go ahead and write, write, write. Some people plan and others let it happen without knowing where it’s going, but the most important thing you can do is just get the words down for now. Blogging can be good for practice but the best thing you can do is write for yourself at first and then find some people to offer critiques. You might want to check out the Writer’s Discussion Group in the Communities section at Google+. That’s a great resource for support and information.

  2. Well, Richard – I’m glad someone finally admitted this. Though I am a published YA writer, I’ve found that I a big part of my success must come from the ability to market, market, market. As I am a writer and not a publicist, I find that I need a lot of luck to break into the very competitive publishing world, even with a published book.

    1. Thanks for reading. I’ve gotten the feeling from a lot of these comments that a great many struggling writers found it a relief to see someone saying this publicly. I didn’t realize I was speaking for the masses.

  3. Thank you for a brilliant blog post. I am just about to self publish my first novel in the next couple of weeks and am avidly reading anything and everything that I can in the hope of giving it the best chance. I have come across all of the points that you mention at the top of the post and am trying to implement them all to the best of my ability but I do firmly believe that you are right in that luck plays a part. As you point out, there are books out there that are brilliant and never make it over the first hurdle and sometimes the only way that can be explained away is by ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Here’s hoping I’m in roughly the right place at roughly the right time when it comes to publication day!

  4. I must say, I wonder often about the energy that I am putting into the platform for my current novel. It’s hard to manage the unwritten expectations of a writers life. Like you, I believe so much falls into the hands of fate and therefore I keep crossing my fingers that I get lucky at some point! All the best in your journey!

    1. Thanks for reading, and all the best to you, too. I agree that marketing can take as much time as actually writing–if not more. It’s frustrating when there’s not much return on one’s investment of time. There doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative, though. Keep trying and make yourself ready for the luck when it strikes.

      1. I have a lot of thoughts on this publishing adventure. Check out my blog I would love to keep this conversation flowing. Not many of my blog followers are writers and I think my readers will appreciate your voice. My book comes out in a week and there will be a lot of activity to weigh in on.

  5. Thanks for this post! I’m 21 years old, a soon-to-be university graduate and an aspiring writer so this post really hits home for me. The more I look at journalism job listings and the more posts I read about the state of the publishing industry, the more I realise that opportunities are often out of reach unless you’re already established or benefit from dumb luck. It’s scary that the industry is so competitive but I hope that if I continue to write and grow, I’ll be able to get to where I want to be. Good luck with your writing 🙂

    1. Good luck to you, too. That seems kind of funny to say, given the subject we’re talking about. Congrats on your degree. I think you have the right attitude, or at least the best attitude one can have considering the circumstances. There’s a ton of competition out there and not many opportunities. Keep working to position yourself should that lucky break happen.

  6. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, always under the assumption that one day, when I finally produce something “good enough”, I’ll send it off to various publishers and perhaps get lucky. I never even considered self-marketing! Now I’m blogging (and being paid to do so, which seems ridiculous,) a whole new world of possibilities has opened up. It’s rather overwhelming, actually.

    1. Congratulations on being paid to blog. You’re right–things have changed in the publishing industry with a lot of opportunities for people who are ready and able to take advantage of the situation.

  7. i def think there is a “chance” in all success of writers. the magnitude, likelihood and lasting effect of this “chance: varies however.

    They writer can have there moment in the sun but what they do with it, if they have the talent to move forward with it and the personal strength to deal with fame is for the writer to roll with the “chance”.

    I think of actors and singers too regarding chance, talent and recognition. How many “stars” lack the talent of their peers but have “star power”, making them shine brighter under the sun light of stardom, stay longer beneath the rays. Here chance also plays a huge role.

    So many actors when receiveing awards talk about being “discovered”.; as if they are an artifact. They were always there. Their talent was always there, it just needed to be dug up! That takes chance (and hard work, perseverance and it doesn;t hurt if you got a face like Brad Pitt or a body like Heidi Klum)

  8. Well said. As someone who is learning the marketing ropes and who has some guerrilla tactics still up her sleeves, I am constantly amazed by the realization that in publishing/selling books as in many other fields it is all in who you know. Networking and in many cases sucking up will get you everywhere. Is it fair? Definitely not, but then whoever said life was fair.

    I will continue to slog through the morass of the Indie publishing world, determined that at least one person (who is not my mother) will read my story.

  9. I think I might have to agree with you, but modify the statement a little. A writer’s success has the most to do with the audience they are writing for. Take 50 Shades of Grey, pretty mediocre writing but a HUGE success. That is mostly about the readers. That kind of book would never have had that type of success even 10 years ago. Thanks!

    1. True, things have changed in the last few years to allow all sorts of different audiences have emerged to give more and more writers new opportunities. I do think the 50 Shades thing also comes down partly to luck, partly to something else.

  10. Reblogged this on L. V. Lewis and commented:
    I have another bullet point I could add to this author’s list of things one needs to do to become a successful writer: Create a conglomerate/sorority/fraternity/clique of writers who pool their resources and promote one another to success. Come on indies, let’s really band together!

  11. Chance? or maybe a little bit of search engine marketing? You need to be seen on the net, being ranked >10,000,000 for alexa traffic rank, doesn’t help to advertise a really good blog!

  12. Don’t we all need some luck from time to time? After all, writing is not the most cost-effective kind of activity. The famous Japanese writer Murakami once said, “Nobody in the right mind would become a writer.”

    1. Good point. Writing certainly isn’t the fast track to fame and fortune. But that’s not what I’m in it for. Still, it would be nice to have more readers and not have to feel like I’m moving mountains to get each one. Thanks for reading.

  13. This is such a good point and something I’ve thought about loads myself, and it really is depressing that luck is such a substantial part of getting your story heard…but then again, isn’t that true for everything in life?

    1. Yes. It can also be frustrating that other people seem to get all the luck. Still, one needs to consider how one defines success, and then maybe we can also come to see how lucky we already are. Thanks for reading!

  14. Great post! There are two authors who I’ve heard speak about random chance being a large factor, those are Ruth Anne Nordin and Mark Coker the founder of Smashwords. They both agree, as do I, that random chance can play a big role! The main thing I guess is to stick at it long enough and do everything you can personally, to increase your chances of one of those
    big spikes or breakouts occurring 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, very thoughtful post!


  15. Richard, I enjoyed this and what has always struck me in this game is that luck only comes when you have put the hard work in, making sure that you’ve covered all your bases. Only this morning did I have a great conversation with an agent who was happy to talk to me after a series of random/fortuitous acts had brought me to her attention. I think that luck works in a similar way to probability, and the more effort you can put in, the more you raise your stakes of coming out a winner. Good luck with your work!

    1. I like this viewpoint, thanks Gabriel. Luck only comes when you’ve put in the hard work. I can believe this, and it gives me a logical destination. Great post, Richard, and wonderful feedback. You were “lucky” to hit a nerve with all of us emerging hopefuls!

  16. Thank you for your post. I’m a soon to be graduate who is trying to get out there in the writing world–wherever there might be.Your post was informative and also a great eye opener. I understand how you feel about not wanting to move mountains to get one to read your work. I write because it is what I love to do. At times I think that writing is the only thing that I’m good at doing. I am not under the delusion that I will make loads of money off of my work, but regardless, I want the opportunity to reach others through what I write.

    1. Thanks for reading. I agree that if one plans on making a lot of money at writing, one should make new plans. Still, it’s frustrating when the few people who read your work keep commenting on how it’s better than the things that are popular. Makes you wonder what others have that you don’t. Luck may be it. Best of “luck” with your post-grad plans.

  17. I think self-publishing is evolving to the point that authors know their work has to be every bit as good as a traditionally published book (story, formatting, cover, etc.). Without that, you have little chance of getting on the success train. I agree with most of what you list – especially the last point! Chris Robely of BookBaby did a recent blog on David Mamet who is now going to self-publish and said “So, the moral of the story is: if you’re handling most of your book marketing yourself — don’t despair; you’re in the same boat as Pulitzer Prize-winners!” I think this is something to remember when you get down on yourself for lack of success in getting a publisher-

    1. Thanks for the input. I hope I wasn’t sending the message that I’m “down” about not landing a publisher. From what I’ve come to understand, most first-time authors are expected to do their own marketing, and luck plays a huge part there, too. Without quick success, most are left twisting in the wind, their books remaindered and their advances never met.

      1. I think we are still in a strange stage with self-publishing. Authors who have previously been published traditionally and burned are turning to SP, while I bet most SP first time authors still dream about that publishing deal. It still has the ability to give credibility and opens many doors. One of our authors just recently signed a deal and, although she has been successful as a SP author, she said the up front money was just too good to turn down. She can now quit her day job and write full time. Let’s face it, a bestselling author- Sp or published thru one of the big houses- can pick and choose, the rest of us have to plod along and hope we find that elusive audience that will bring us success!

  18. Wow. The lucky indie author you’re talking about could almost have been me, with the exception that I didn’t find out anything about a list ‘Apprentice Swordceror’ was on. The mysterious success, the blog post with theories, it’s uncanny.
    Something I have discovered in my continued search for those same answers, is even though my title is presently Kindle only, much of my support is through personal offline connections. It proliferates across the nation and the world through the web, but most of the spikes in my sales numbers happened after local events. Focus on your own back yard, the rest of the world will take care of itself.
    Something else I’ve noticed is the power of incremental improvement. Instead of trying to master a new social media or marketing avenue, tighten up or update the profiles or ads you already have, link them more effectively, a step at a time. You’ll almost always notice a small difference, and you won’t have to spread yourself any thinner.
    Good luck!

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