I recently saw a piece of “writing advice” going around (and you know how I feel about writing advice) that stated that people who get [traditionally] published aren’t “lucky”, they just never gave up, they kept at it, they worked hard, they kept revising and kept submitting, despite all the rejections, and eventually they found their yes.
I mean, look, I’m all for keeping it up, that’s what this whole blog is about. And I myself have promised readers that they will find their yes if they just keep going. But if we’re talking about traditionally published authors… frankly, I call BS.
They are lucky.
They are extremely lucky.
This is one of the things that drives me crazy about success stories. These people think it’s because they worked hard and survived all those rejections. And yes, hard work and resilience against rejections are absolutely necessary parts of the equation. This blog wouldn’t exist if that weren’t true.
But there are many, many people who have worked just as hard, or much harder, and survived much more rejection, and still never managed to land that agent (hi) or traditional publisher.
And the difference between those of us who’ve succeeded and those of us who haven’t is not hard work. It’s luck.
When my post “But What If I Actually Suck?” was making the rounds again recently, faithful reader and Rejection Survivor Jenny Milchman commented with a question about the role of luck in finding success in publishing. This post grew out of our discussion.
The Stars that Must Align
Here are just a few of the many stars that need to align just right for you to “make it big” in the traditional publishing industry:
1) You happen to write what sells: Just like the fashion industry, the publishing industry has trends. One glance at the #MSWL (“manuscript wish list”) hashtag on Twitter will tell you all you need to know about this. People read a book they love and want to read more books like it. The industry knows this and seeks books that are similar to ones that have sold well recently. If you happen to be drawn to writing those kinds of books–you’re lucky. The rest of us are drawn to write about topics that aren’t hot, or in genres that aren’t popular. We could decide to invest our energies in staying on top of market trends and trying to write what’s popular, but personally, I balk at this idea. Regardless, even if you do this, you’ll still find yourself among the stampeding hordes vying for attention in that genre. Nothing can guarantee that yours will be chosen over the thousands of other, similar manuscripts.
2) You happen to get discovered by the right agent and/or editor: Obviously, the harder you work at this the more likely you are to find an agent, but the odds are still stacked against you to an incredible degree–and in an industry so subjective, you just never know what could be influencing your success or lack thereof. The agent (or assistant, or intern) reading your manuscript may be reacting positively or negatively to your manuscript based on totally arbitrary things. Maybe she had a bad day or they were out of milk at the office the morning she gets to your query and she hates drinking her coffee black. Maybe he has a good friend who shares the name of your protagonist and this softens him while he’s reading your pages. It could be anything. I’ve heard multiple stories where an author was rejected by an agent or literary magazine, then submitted the exact same piece months later without changing anything, and got accepted. It’s so, so subjective.
3) You happen to land a publisher that wants to invest in your book: Here’s a dirty little industry secret: publishers don’t actually invest in all their books equally. When they feel they have something that has a chance at becoming a major bestseller, they invest their resources in plugging that book, and it can certainly come at the expense of other (no less worthy) books. Even when you publish with a Big 5 publisher, you have to accept that you will have to shoulder a lot of the marketing responsibility.
4) Your audience happens to respond well: You may be able to influence how wide an audience you reach with skilled marketing (though Jenny wisely points out that there’s no such thing as “skilled marketing” these days and it’s largely hit-or-miss), but how people react to your book is beyond your control. There are stories about authors whose book releases coincided with world events or sudden trends that negatively influenced sales. Or, just like with agents and editors, you can never really predict what subjective factors contribute to people’s responses. I know I definitely feel differently about books I read depending on my stage in life or particular mindset at the time.
So If It’s All a Matter of Luck… What’s the Point?
There is something kind of depressing about the idea that so little of this is under your control… but there is something kind of freeing about it, too. If it’s not your responsibility, it’s also not necessarily your fault. If you’re not succeeding in a traditional sense, it’s not necessarily because you’re doing something wrong.
One of the core concepts of the Rejection Survival Guide is that in order to be happy as a creative person, success (or at least the commonly accepted idea of success) can’t be our ultimate goal, because we just don’t have enough control over it. We have to have a different motive for doing what we’re doing. We need to create an almost self-contained system where the work we do serves as its own reward. That releases us from dependency on factors beyond our control. Hence the first line of the Creative Resilience Manifesto: I create because creation is an act of love. It’s not that we shouldn’t have other motives and goals, but to stay resilient, the main thing driving us to keep working needs to be the work itself.
We need to have the flexibility to define what success means to us. This means letting go of the traditional definition of success–fame, riches, and glory, or perhaps an agent and/or major book deal–and finding what is truly meaningful to us about this work we are doing. (More about defining what success means for you in this related post, Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up.)
I believe that when we orient ourselves that way, we will find our path, we will find our audience, and we will find satisfaction in our work.
Sometimes–if we’re lucky–we’ll find the more commonly recognized kind of success, too.