The Publishing Lottery

One of the things guaranteed to annoy me is watching unpublished writers complain about how getting published is all a matter of connections and luck and timing.  None of those things hurt, but I prefer to believe it’s mostly a matter of writing really good stories.

This leads to a related debate about how certain people just don’t have the talent to be writers.  As though writing is an inborn gift you’re born with, rather than a skill you’ve worked at for ten years or more.

You can probably tell where my beliefs lie.  I’ll put skill and work and a good story over luck and talent every day.  Of course, I have to believe that.  My poor ego would be crushed if I thought I was succeeding through dumb luck or some inherent gift rather than my own hard work.

I believe talent is a starting point.  Some people get a head start — a gift for characterization or plotting or smart-ass dialogue between a goblin and his spider.  Incredibly few people start off with the whole package.  (I’ve never met anyone who did, but as a fantasy writer, I’m not going to completely disavow that magical possibility.)  What counts in the case of every successful writer I’ve met is doing the work to learn and master the skills.

I remember once being told that you can tell the talented writers from the untalented, because their stories have something more.  You know it when you read it.  That talent is what makes the difference between the author who breaks into Realms of Fantasy and sells his or her books to a major publisher, and the one who never makes it.

So … um … does that mean I’m talented now, but I wasn’t for all of those years I was collecting 20+ blue forms of death from Realms?  Weird.  I would have chalked it up to practice and learning to write better stories, but maybe the talent fairy paid me a visit one night instead.

I’ll admit that luck can help a career, as can connections and good timing.  I’ll even admit that some writers seem to have a gift for certain aspects of the craft, and it’s possible some of those gifts were inborn rather than honed over many years of practice.  And of course, some people are better able to learn than others, and their skills might improve faster than yours.  But please remember that when you brush off publishing success as nothing more than a lottery, you’re tossing out a pretty huge insult to every published author who worked his or her ass off, usually for years, to get to that point.

This has been your Saturday rant.  Thanks for reading.

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  1. 1. Chaz Brenchley

    Whoo, yeah. How many times have I been told – mostly by wannabes – that I don’t appreciate my luck? On the contrary: I know intimately that I have never been lucky. What I have been is hard-working, for thirty-some years.

    I’m not entirely sure about the inborn-vs-learned thing; something made me understand at the age of five that a writer was what I wanted to be, when I had barely learned that it was a job and you were allowed to do it. I’m averse to the notion of inborn gifts, but some kind of tendency was clearly there, towards storytelling-on-paper. I have no idea where that comes from.

  2. 2. Greg

    One thing I suspect contributes to the Urban Legend of connections and luck is the mysterious belief that editors don’t ever say “No.” The misassumption that if you can corner an editor in a stairwell and correctly answer his three riddles and pick the hand with the bean in it instead of the leaf, that from there whatever you’ve written is greenlit to go.
    The whims of fate and chaos can sometimes help you out, but at the end of the day if you can’t write and conduct yourself professionally, you won’t get work as a writer.

  3. 3. Jim C. Hines

    Yes! Luck and connections might put you in a better position to get your work noticed, but it’s still the work itself that has to make or break the deal. (And I’ve noticed that the “luck” that leads to such opportunities also seems to have a lot more with actively networking and joining writing groups and organizations and working to create your own opportunities, as opposed to Lady Fortune dumping you in an elevator with your favorite editor.)

    Chaz – I’ve softened a little on the idea of talent … but you know, even if it’s there, so what? It’s not something we have any control over, and it doesn’t change the fact that you still have to do a lot of work.

  4. 4. Dave Robinson

    To start with, I’m not yet published, but I don’t like the idea of a lottery myself. I’ve seen some work out there that’s nothing less than utter crap, and I would hate to think that my work had an equal chance of getting accepted as pure crap does.

    I’m much happier with the idea that you just have to learn how to write something that’s good enough and then you can get published.

    That puts it back in MY power, not the capricious hand of fate.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    The flip side of this is that long, long period of time spent chasing publishers & agents. If they’re all saying no, and it’s not all about luck, does that mean the unsuccessful writer is untalented?

    No, of course not. However, to get published you have to write a novel which is ‘better’ than 95% of the others in the slush pile, and THEN you need a bit of luck. The right editor, or the right agent, at the right time.

    I put ‘better’ in quotes because it’s a charged word. Grammar, spelling, plotting, pacing, character, dialogue … definining ‘better’ is beyond a simple blog comment. As agents and editors are fond of saying, they know ‘better’ when they see it.

    But one thing’s for sure – if your manuscript isn’t in the top five percent all the luck in the world isn’t going to help.

    There’s a blog post out there (search for ‘slushkiller’) which goes into all this in more detail. Worth a read.

  6. 6. Adam Heine

    I’m totally with you, Jim. I’m still unpublished, and have only been seriously working at the craft for about 5 years, but I’ve learned enough to know that it’s much more about putting in the work and learning than anything else.

    When I was a kid, I thought that talent was everything: you were good at some things and not good at others, and that’s they way it would be for the rest of your life. It took me like 25 years to figure out that I can do anything I want if I’m willing to work at it.

  7. 7. Kent Pollard

    I think there really is a lottery involved, but it is only a portion of the process. We have to bee good writers, literate, intelligent, and determined. But at the end of the day, there is the same lottery aspect that would-be actors face as they travel from audition to audition.

    Success is dependent on getting our product in front of the right editor, at the time when they are receptive to what we have to offer. The best novel about giants in the world isn’t going to sell to an editor who is having a bad day and has it stuck in his head that he needs a story with lilliputians in it. Editors have to make personal choices constantly and anything that involves a human making a decision is, to some extent, a bit of a lottery.

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Yes Jim, you’re a hack. But the nice thing is, you’re in good company. So was Dickens, so what Shakespeare . . . . Hee!

    Seriously though, what’s that saying? Success is when luck meets preparation? Something like that? Yeah, there’s a certain amount of luck–that your book hits the right editor at the right time. But the rest is all perspiration. That you’ve written a good book and that you understand the publishing process enough to submit it professionally.

    I’m checking in from Miscon, so must slink off before my connection dies again and before the next panel. Happy weekend!

    Di

  9. 9. Steve Buchheit

    Oh jeeze, I hope it’s not about talent. I’m screwed then.

    So when I was in high school, I played guitar. I wasn’t the best, or the most natural. Several other kids were really good. And I beat out every single one to play in the Stage Band. I worked hard to do it, practiced until my fingers were numb. And now when I go to concerts for local bands, the one thing I notice or talk about is how those people playing never felt they had talent either. They all had to work hard at it. All the guitar players who had talent dropped out long ago when it became hard work.

  10. 10. mpe

    > All the guitar players who had talent dropped out long ago when it became hard work.

    I think there’s a lot of truth in this. If you’re talented, you probably play (or write) because you enjoy it and it comes out pretty well. Why put yourself through a long boring slog just to get a little bit “better” (i.e. more marketable) and make a risible amount of money?

    For the slog to be worthwhile, there has to be some kind of reward. If you started out good, you won’t improve in proportion to the work you’re putting in, and you’ve already had plenty of validation. So why do it?

    There can be reasons, of course. Pride, stubbornness, a sense of challenge. But I think it’s harder to stay motivated this way.

  11. 11. Kate Elliott

    Di,yeah, if only I could be a hack like Dickens and Shakespeare! Heh.

    Talent and inborn desire (or inclination) are, I think, slightly different things. I tend to tell my kids to find the thing they love to do so much they are willing to work really hard at it.

  12. 12. S.L. Farrell

    Jim — I have a ‘formula for success” essay which touches on this idea (because I’ve had a lot of students over the years who seemed to believe that a) publishing was a lottery, and b) it was all about Capital-T Talent. The essay’s at http://www.farrellworlds.com/formula.html

  13. 13. Greg

    “I’ve softened a little on the idea of talent … but you know, even if it’s there, so what?”

    Talent counts, but only so far. I was talking with someone once about a certain actor who we agreed wasn’t very good, but kept getting work. Having a background in film, I pointed out in comparison another actor who was most certainly talented, but rarely turns up in films these days.

    The explanation I gave was that Actor A, although not even Golden Globe worthy even, probably showed up on time for the shoot every day, was easy to work with, and essentially conducted themselves professionally. Actor B on the other hand, I know for a fact was habitually late, if not straight up absent, extremely frustrating to work with, and hampered the production in such a way as to prevent other people from doing their jobs.

    Actor A gets more work than Actor B simply because they can shoot with him without having to spend three hours talking him out of his trailer. Same principal with professional writing applies.

  14. 14. OtterB

    One of my favorite quotes is from Louis Pasteur, on the subject of luck in scientific discovery: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

  15. 15. cindy

    having just landed a book deal on my debut novel,
    i have to say i *do* feel lucky in a way. i think
    with all things, as you said, some people do
    have a certain knack or talent for. i think with
    writing, it comes a bit more natural to me. but
    like with all things in life, i believe it takes a combo
    of talent, luck, hard work, determination, and
    timing to succeed.

    there will be people who work hard all their
    lives on something and never shine at it.
    (for me, this would be computer science.
    i took pascal back in high school due to mom’s
    hopes of my becoming a computer science
    major, and i told her afterward, i’m just not
    good at it. but i tried.)

    and publishing is a crazy business.
    it’s very subjective–everyone has a diff
    opinion. but if you are passionate about
    what you write, i’d say, keep trying.

    and to be a successful published author
    with many books is definitely due to hard
    work and good writing. to sell a debut novel?
    eh, some luck is involved. and i would hope
    some good writing, too. =)

  16. 16. Robert Walker

    What a great thread. Stumbled on it a bit late, but thought I’d say “Hi!” anyway.

    As with many things in life, the elusive answer to this slippery issue lies somewhere in the middle, as many have pointed out in their comments. For MOST people, it will always be a combination of talent AND hard work. And here’s the thing: what’s wrong with that? Those of us who understand the “hard work” side should also understand that those who cry “it’s all luck!” are simply jealous, right? Envy–it ain’t just a mobile phone.

    And it’s the same with those who say there’s nothing to this “talent” malarky. They’re jealous of those with “natural talent.” And yes, there is such thing as natural talent. Let’s see, Marlon Brando, Pavarotti, Prince, Mozart, etc. If anyone thinks that these people were not born with “something,” then that little head rearing its ugly head is: insecurity. At the same time, to say that any of those people mentioned didn’t work hard to get where they did is crazy.

    Then again, how about Scott Lynch? Who’s going to argue that he didn’t, almost literally, win the lottery? But, then was his book good? Maybe it wasn’t worth all the hype, but I thought it was well-written…

    Lastly, look at Daniel Day-Lewis. There’s no way this guy wasn’t born with a natural ability. But, and this can be confirmed by reading anything about him, he probably works harder at each of his roles than anyone else in Hollywood. So, there.

Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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