Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Luck and Success

I was reading the comments over at J.A. Konrath's Newbie Guide to Publishing blog. If you don't read this blog on a regular basis, I highly suggest you take a look. Joe is doing the indie book community a great service. His views are pretty opinionated, but so are mine so I can't really call that kettle black.

Joe got me thinking today when he mentioned how luck is responsible for publishing success. I'd have to say that in some cases this could be true but since we can't control something as random as luck I think we should examine those things that we can control.

When I think about what it takes to be successful, in publishing or anything my formula includes:

  • Skill
  • Talent
  • Persistence
  • Marketing
  • Timing

Skill and Talent are closely related but not precisely the same. Skill is something that can be taught. Think of it is as the mechanics of writing. You have the ability to increase your skill. Take classes, read books, write more...all of these will make you a more skillful writer.
Talent is, IMO not something you can learn or teach. It is the ability to create something from nothingness. It is the artistic component to writing. In short it is the ability to conceive of a good story and memorable characters. To me it is the art of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is not one of the things you have control over.

Persistence is definitely something that you have full control over. You guarantee 100% failure if you give up. But persistence isn't hitting your head against the wall with he same results. Sometimes you need to adjust. If your first book isn't making it then persistence may mean writing a second or a third. Michael actually gave up writing for 10 years and if he hadn't picked it back up he would not be as successful as he is now.

Marketing does not mean spending thousands of dollars to introduce your book to the world. It is the acorns from which might oaks grow. You (or someone on your behalf) must do marketing because even the best book in the world won't be read if no one knows it exists. The good news about marketing is you just need to get the ball rolling. Once enough people discover your book and you have skill and talent, then they will spread the word for you.

You would think that timing is not something you have control over, and in many respects that is true, but when related to persistence you actually do have some control. The timing for a book may not be right at a certain moment in time, but times change and if you are persistent your chances of hitting the right book at the right time goes up substantially.

If you hit on all 5 of these cylinders you'll be successful. I believe that firmly. It's not a matter of luck. But what if you don't have all of the above? Are you doomed?
Not really...your job is just a lot harder. The more of each of these components you have in your arsenal the better off you are. I myself weight them as follows (especially when I'm looking for a new author for Ridan).

1 - Talent - since this is the biggest factor that will contribute to words of mouth sales which is the ONLY way to be successful in the book business.

2 - Marketing - you have to prime the pump and once you reach a following you can coast a bit on this.

3 - Persistence because there will be so many times along the way when you feel "it’s not worth it" and want to give up. The only thing that guarantees failure is running out of persistence.

4 - Skill - doesn't concern me too much because it is easily dealt with by others (copy editors etc.) Someone less skillful just makes my job editing tougher but it’s not a total deterrent. Besides, if the story is good, people are willing to overlook a misplaced comma here or there.

5 - Timing - I don't try to follow trends in the industry as they are too hard to predict. Instead, I believe that a good story is timeless. After all Casablanca is as good to watch today as it was when it first came out.

Anyway, that's my thought for the day. I'm interested in your take on the subject.


V. Furnas said...

I read Joe's post too. I saw all those comments on luck and wondered. I am a first time novelist. My goal is to have my book ready to publish this summer as an e-book. This post was inspiring. Thank you for clearing up the true definition of "luck." You have another follower.

Anonymous said...

I think you make great points, but I'd disagree a little on talent. I think with practice talent can be improved. For sure, the nuts and bolts of writing get better over time, but I've seen several authors with early work I didn't enjoy finally hit upon a genre or voice that was finally a good fit for them.

azarimba said...

Sometimes timing, in particular, looks like luck. They say you can't time the market--but there will always be some lucky sod who cashes out at precisely the right moment, and just happens to manage billions. That's luck. In the world of books, those who jumped early onto the vampire bandwagon would seem to have timed the market.

I'd like to agree with you about the timelessness quality, Robin. But I just don't know that I can. I'd like to think Ms. Hocking would have ended up just as successful, and raked in just as much money, if she'd timed her entry into the ebook market for next September, rather than sometime in 2009.

In some regards, I agree with Konrath. I think those miraculous, incredible, awe inspiring successes often are a combination of at least three of your other four success factors--I'd agree it's possible to compensate in the lack of skill department--plus a huge smacking dollop of luck.

However, the average Joe [ 0:-) ] had better rely on the timelessness of his/her story, plus those other four critical factors for success. So perhaps the extent to which I agree with your formula depends on how broadly--or narrowly--you expect me to define success.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

I think you make some very valid points. I will definitely check out Mr. Konrath's blog.

Tara Maya said...

I agree with you, Robin. I think if you have some these factors, you will succeed. If you are weak in some areas you can make up for it with strengths in others, but you can't be completely lacking.

Robin Sullivan said...

@wrenemerson - I do think that skill is the aspect of writing that improves the most with effort but yes you can become more talented with experience as well. But the increase there is incremental.

I'm fortunate to have been born with a pretty high IQ. This has provided me the ability to be successful in a number of endevors and I can increase my IQ points a bit here and there by learning more but it will always be most influenced by my original innate ability.

That being said...I'm not a storyteller. To create something from nothing is very difficult for me and even with hard work I'll never be successful at this.

But I can take a story that someone else has written and improve on it...like BASF I can't make the "x" I make the "x" better. I can see plot holes, point out missed opportunities, know when the pacing needs adjusting. A valuable set of skills to have but no amount of work will give me the ability to do what so many of you do which is to start with a blank page and bring something to life.

Robin Sullivan said...

@azarimba - you are very right about timing looking like luck. And if you put it in terms of someone who just was in the right place at the right time - then yes we can say that person was lucky. So I guess I'll ammend my comments that "some" get success by "luck"...but...since you can't control that then work on the things you can control...how you respond to outside influences both good and bad. Does a 'bad break' cause you you to quit...or does it encourage you to try harder?

Christopher Wills said...

I've always attributed success to 3 things; luck, talent and hard work. I imagine them as overlapping circles (a Venn diagram). You make yourself lucky by hard work (marketing, blogging, tweeting, etc)and you improve your talent by hard work (reading, writing, doing courses, getting feedback, etc).
I agree there is a difference between talent and skill. Talent is the potential to reach a level of ability, but it doesn't mean somebody is going to get there; sports fields are littered with talented people who never quite made it. Skill is a noun that refers to a learned attribute. I can learn the skill of how to punctuate or the skill of how to plot or how to write in a particular point of view.
I think where the dividing line comes is that a low talent person could easily learn how to write and become a bestseller (no names) but it takes a talented person to learn to write and become a literary giant or an award winning writer like Alcott, Salinger, Hemingway, Tolkein, Walker, Golding etc.
Love your blog; lots of very interesting posts on it.

Mark said...

I disagree on the talent part of your post. Here's a good vid. regarding why:


Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary lays it out with scientific study backing. He also makes a "high 5 digit" (I interpret this as +70k per year) living off his work.

Genre writing is full of authors and few writers. There is no denying that marketing can produce results and sometimes that's the only thing driving a product. I do think writing well can be developed and any inherit "talent" probably has more to do with a way in which a person views the world around rather than an ability to arrange words on a page. Writing is a skill that can be learned over time. Of course, good writing is also a very subjective thing. Also, don't forget the power of GREAT EDITORS, something that many aspiring writers and authors deny at their own peril.

Kate said...

I don't know if I believe in luck for writing. I've done a lot of reading -Amanda Hocking, Joe's Blog, etc. When I read them, I don't see luck. I see a lot of hard work. Amanda Hocking worked her butt off and her success has a lot to do with that.
I do agree with Joe that having more than one title on the "shelf" ups your success, but only if you are actually a good writer.
So in all, I agree with all of your points, because I don't see the word "luck" in them. :)

Lois D. Brown said...

I like to tell myself that while I don't really have control over if I get published, I do have control over how much I write, if my writing is getting better, and if I'm doing all I can to sell myself.

Anonymous said...

Robin, I completely agree with you. And the thing about luck is that if you aren't prepared--you aren't writing and putting the work out there--even the *best* luck won't make any difference. I don't believe in luck at all, honestly. I'm kind of surprised that a guy as hard-working as Joe would say it makes a significant difference....

Anyway, if you're interested, I blogged a rather rambling response to both of you on my blog today... Just my 2 cents... :)



Stephen T. Harper said...

Robin, I agree with the way you've laid it out. "Luck" is a tricky word. "Making your own luck" is also a strange phrase. It means working hard and being persistent, and actually has nothing to do with luck. It means increasing your odds. But that's not luck, it's just math.

Below I've pasted some of what I said on Joe's board that I think is relevant to your post.

Cream rises. That's a metaphor that uses a scientific fact. In a pail of fresh milk from a real cow, cream rises.

While that statement is true, the metaphor is not an exact match with publishing or any other business. Of course luck is involved, and of course people can make their own luck. The more talented, skillful and hard working you are, and the longer you maintain maximum effort, the more accurate the "cream rises" metaphor becomes to a situation beyond that pail of milk.

If you have the ability to write "cream," then you have the huge advantage of your work naturally pushing against the obstacles, naturally seeking out cracks in the ceiling, etc... That's not luck. And insomuch as luck is involved, that's an edge.

Joe mentioned Blackjack. And Mark makes a good gambling analogy as well in talking about the edge in each game.

To me, there is only one game in a casino that is not a sucker's game. it's the one game where you aren't playing against the house. I think the most sound gambling analogy to success in business is poker.

Professional poker players are consistently successful because their talent, skill, and sustained effort overcomes luck with time. They see poker as a long game. They don't win every hand, and sometimes they lose their stake. But more often, even if only slightly more often, they win.

And over time, they pile up a lot of money. Poker is a game of chance that can be consistently beaten with skill, talent and perseverance.

The best players don't even think about luck. They know the wrong card can fall at anytime, but over the long haul, they win. In that way, cream rises.

Ask any professional player who just lost his stake to Phil Ivey, again, if he thinks Phil is lucky.

Stephen T. Harper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tara Maya said...

I think the problem with "luck" or even "talent" is that while these undoubtedly play a role, it's not something we control, by definition, so what's the point of focusing on it? It's funny to me to see Joe defend luck so much, because his blog is all about what you need to do that has nothing to do with luck.

I can't think of a better example of "luck" than Michael being lucky enough to marry you. ;) Just as storytelling is a talent, you clearly have a talent that can't be taught. But that's the factor that's not reproducable, so the rest of u just have to copy the hard work you've done instead.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate

Robin Sullivan said...

@ modicumoftalent.com

Read your blog - its a good one. As to the phone call you made that landed you a big client - this is exactly what I'm talking about. If you didn't make the call you wouldn't have hit that.

But the more calls you make ... the better chance you have of hitting "someone" that needs your service.

This is a case of you taking control of your situation and making a success.

Call it God...Call it karma...bottom line is you "make things happen" through actions - just "sitting around" won't do anything.

I'm glad you stopped by and also that it gave you something to blog about today as well.

Robin Sullivan said...

@Stephen T. Harper

Very well said. And yes I'm a texas holdem player - and darn good at it too. I think your analogy is spot on.

Robin Sullivan said...

@Tara - wow you brought a smile to my face...there is no question that both Michael snd I feel we have something special...to quote Princess Bride..."This is true love do you think it happens every day?"

I do consider myself talented in a number of things - but to be quite frank - my success is 95% rooted in a "never give up...never surrender" attitude. I thik this above all else can push you over the top and it is CERTAINLY something we all have control over.

Stephen T. Harper said...

"And yes I'm a texas holdem player - and darn good at it too."

That doesn't surprise me. :)

I'd say let's play, but I just lost all my poker money.

Bad luck, of course.

E.J. Wesley said...

Extremely well-stated. Not to get too cliche, but I'm a believer that if you don't necessarily create your own luck, then you surely set yourself up for it.

While you cannot control factors such as consumer appetite and global relevance, you can certainly study them and try to stay in tune to what's working.

You can't write in a vacuum and expect success to find you. The world isn't going to a) know or, b) give a damn about how great your story/talent is if you don't give them a chance and/or excuse to read it.

New follower,


Jennifer said...

Robin, your #5 is something so important. Trend-writing can be so dangerous, but as you said, a great story will be timeless.

One thing J.A. Konrath said long ago that always resonates with me is his philosophy on luck. Such a huge percentage of success is often based around luck and timing.

I've decided I'm making my own luck.