July 24th 2008
I’ve always been a firm believer in the “We make our own luck” approach to life, and to writing in general. Likewise, I believe in skill over talent, and that the most important part of making it as a writer is to work your backside off to learn and improve.
And then I read this post by Elizabeth Bear, novelist extraordinaire. Bear has mucho books with several major publishers, not to mention a nice shiny Campbell award. In other words, she’s doing pretty good for herself these days. Yet it sounds like one of her series may soon disappear, for reasons that have nothing to do with skill or hard work or anything else within her control. Nope, the problem is that someone made a data entry error, and as a result the latest book in that series* all but vanished from a major distributor’s database.
This reminded me of a cousin of a friend who sold his first book to a major publisher. When the book came out, the cover art was … well, I wouldn’t have bought the thing. The book didn’t sell, the publisher wouldn’t buy a second, and the general consensus was that the cover had killed a significant portion of his potential sales**. As a first-timer in the big leagues, you generally have zero control over cover art, so this was basically a big ol’ smackdown with the bad luck stick.
So maybe skill and hard work aren’t the end all and be all. Maybe luck really is a bigger factor in who makes it. I’ve said before that calling publishing a lottery is an insult to everyone working their asses off to make it, but maybe I was wrong.
On the other hand, there’s a widely accepted statistical law dealing with random factors of probability which states, “Shit happens.” It happens to all of us, and I’ve yet to meet a working writer who hasn’t been smacked down by one bad break or another. (Ask me sometime how I lost my first major book deal, and might even have ended up blacklisted by one of the bigger editors in the field.)
Luck is like the weather. You get your gorgeous spring days, and you get your rainstorms. Some people enjoy nicer weather than others. But if you think your success requires only 72 degree temperatures and clear blue skies, you’re probably not going to make it***.
Reading Elizabeth Bear’s blog, I’m amazed at the time and effort she puts into her writing, but as a result, even if this book slumps, she still has several other series going, and about a hundred books contracted to various publishers. It bites the wax tadpole to see your sales fall because of a stupid computer mistake, but you keep writing.
I could babble on, but your eyes are probably glazing over already. So let’s open this up. What breaks have you had, both good and bad, and how did you get through them?
*Bear’s bad-luck book is Ink & Steel. Go. Buy. Read.
**It’s possible he just wrote a crappy book, too. But the point remains that there are good covers and bad, and for a first timer, you’re basically rolling the dice and praying for something shiny.
***Especially for those of us who live in Michigan.
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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