Getting Lucky

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.

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    I generally put it this way: Writing success is 50-60 percent persistence/hard work/craft (however you want to formulate it), 10-20 percent talent, and 30-40 percent luck.

    Hard work is the overwhelmingly dominant factor, but it’s clearly not the only one.

    I include talent because not everyone starts in the same place and I know people who genuinely can’t write (fortunately none of them want to be writer and they are genuinely successful in other fields) I’ve had long conversation with several of them about their attempts to write various thing and really not being wired for it.

    I include luck because I know good writers who work far harder than I do who have yet to catch the right break and I also know writers who caught a lucky break first thing out of the gate.

    Nobody gets there and stay there without working their assess off, but quite clearly hard work isn’t always enough.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    I would go along with Kelly’s percentages. The writers I know who have made have all been talented and have worked hard, but they also acknowledge that luck played some part in their success. Luck won’t help without persistence and some basic level of talent, but when thousands of talented, persistent, hard-working people are all trying to push through the same narrow door, an element of luck is bound to be part of the equation.

  3. 3. J M McDermott

    I’ve mentioned this before and I’ve said it before and I’ve written it before.

    The solution to career hiccups (even this one) is to keep writing new stuff, and keep sending it out, and keep expanding our audience.

    It is, after all, the only part of the writing equation we can actually control.

    One of my local writer friends had to change her name twice because of the proverbial death spiral, but she’s doing just fine now, with many excellent books in print and a writer lifestyle I envy.

  4. 4. Jessica De Milo

    Good post!

    Bad luck: you write a novella specifically for an anthology, only to have the publisher respond to your querry six months later saying they never received your submissions packet, which you mailed a solid two weeks before the deadline.

    Good luck: they also say that they’re publishing a second volume on the same topic, so please send it (electronically this time) directly to a contact who now at least knows your name from jane doe’s. And this time they received it.

    We’ll see how it all pans out.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Kelly’s numbers look good to me, too. But your odds go up with every book you write. Your pay per hour goes down, though, much as it does if you hit the slots jackpot on the 500th pull as opposed to the first.

  6. 6. Laramie Sasseville

    If publishing is a lottery, it’s not a straight lottery that anyone can enter by paying a dollar. It’s the kind that requires a qualifying entry demanding a degree of talent, and of literacy, and of effort.

    And then the luck then comes into play: in matching the right story to the right agent, to the right editor, and the right cover, and the right period for the right market trends, and making it to the right distributor with the right data entry clerks to make sure the thing hits the stores, and possibly reaches the right readers who will appreciate it and tell their friends.

  7. 7. Steve Buchheit

    I think the luck is like the Muse. It sure helps to have one, but luck only works if show up and the Muse only really works when you’re butt in chair and typing. Having just had a small break recently, it is very good luck. It was good luck I went to a certain conference, did my homework on the panelists, broke with my natural tendencies and went up to a complete stranger and struck up a conversation, and kept in touch. And all of that previous luck helped with this recent opportunity.

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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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