Luck, Continued


Back in April, I posted a reference to J.A. Konrath’s description of how luck plays a role in what you get paid for your work. That can be a difficult lesson to learn. But luck not only influences your income as a writer. It also frequently helps or hinders the very act of getting published.

I’m not talking about Hollywood film versions of luck where an absent minded agent drops your manuscript under his chair on the subway and it’s picked up by a homeless person who intends to use it as kindling but he drops it on the front stoop of a dentist’s office and the receptionist thinks its been lost by a patient and she brings it and and sets in the waiting room and then Ms. Uber Agent of the World reads it while awaiting her six-month cleaning. Instead, I’m talking about a much more subtle, mundane form of luck/coincidence/randomness.

First, let me tell a couple of stories about luck in non-publishing instances.

What’s In a Name?

A friend was writing an article for The New York Times and he had to select one of two possible startup companies to profile. He’s a hard-working, ethical journalist. He believes in old-timey values of providing the best journalism possible. And he was really struggling.

“You gotta tell me which one of these companies to use,” he begged me in an instant message. “They’re exactly the same. Similar strengths and weaknesses, similar market positions, similar offerings. I can’t figure out which one should go in the article. I’m beating my head against the wall here.”

“Use them both,” I replied. “It could be interesting to talk about how these two companies have turned out to be mirror images of each other.”

“I can’t. The editor said I have to select just one, but he wouldn’t make the decision. If you don’t have an opinion, I’m going to flip a coin.”

“Go with Company X,” I said.

“Why them?” he asked. 

“I like their name better.”

Done. Company X gets featured in The New York Times and Company Y gets squat. All because of an instant message conversation between the reporter and his shithead friend. Both organizations were young and up-and-coming. The possible eyeballs that the Times provides could make or break these firms. But one got it and the other was left out. Because of a thirty second chat and someone’s opinion of their name.

[For more on the randomness of media coverage, check out Chuck Klosterman’s explanation of what a thirst for Dr. Pepper can do to a newspaper reporter.]

Overheard Snippets of Someone Else’s Conversation

Random acts and coincidental influences from outside can be life-altering when tens of thousands of submissions are vying for attention. A friend is a reviewer for a major media outlet. His approval can increase market share tenfold. He’s dedicated to breaking new, uh, we’ll say “widgets” since I have to protect his anonymity and can’t reveal the type of reviewing he does. He’s a workaholic, spending all hours of the day constantly scanning for a worthy innovation. If anyone in the industry is going to give a newbie a fair shot, it’s this guy. But in some weeks, he receives as many as 75 widgets and struggles mightily to seriously evaluate each one.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “It’s just not humanly possible to give every one of those widgets a legitimate chance.”

But he has experienced rare moments of serendipity, or coincidence, or just plain luck, when he initially discarded a widget but overheard a couple raving about it while he stood in line at the grocery store. Those snippets of someone else’s conversation prompted him to give the widget another chance and he ended up covering it in his media outlets. If he had been ten minutes late, he would have stood in another line, never heard that convincing conversation, and the widget maker would have missed all that publicity.

Luck in Publishing Choices

I have never discussed this with a publishing editor or agent. But they’re only human and I have to believe that luck influences at least a small percentage of their decisions in a similar manner.

Now, let’s get the disclaimers out of the way just to be painfully clear and explicit.

  • Yes, editors and agents toil under difficult circumstances for low wages. 
  • No, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of the publishing industry (and lord knows I’ve written my fair share of those).
  • Yes, talent does make the difference the majority of the time.
  • No, this doesn’t mean that building a successful writing career is out of your hands and left up to some nebulous fate ideal.

But if you’re writing in a crowded genre and you’re among the large number of writers who are talented, dedicated, and hard-working but not a celebrity or genius, then you need to accept how luck can sway your chances with editors and agents.

Look at the trend of books about inanimate objects or lower forms of the animal kingdom. Books like Salt: A World History or The Secret Life of Lobsters or Coffee: A Dark History. Let’s say you’ve submitted a proposal about the history of the chain saw. It lands on the editor’s desk the same day as competing proposals about dishrags, deodorant, mufflers, wallpaper paste, and cathode ray tubes. Let’s say all of the proposals are well-written by promising writers with fairly equal qualifications. It’s Friday and Mr. Editor stuffs the proposals into his bag to read at home over the weekend.

On the train, Mr. Editor starts to feel a tickle in his throat. By Saturday morning, it’s a full-blown bout with the flue. He spends the weekend in bed, flipping the channels and dozing in and out of Nyquil induced coma. He stumbles across a marathon of the History Channel’s show Ax Men. He hasn’t thought about lumberjacks since he read Paul Bunyon to his kids years ago. But after watching five hours of the television show in between coughing fits, he’s fascinated.

So when Mr. Editor returns to work on Monday morning, which proposal is he likely to gravitate towards? On Friday, he could care less about chain saws. On Monday, he knows the difference between the different models and he’s inrigued by the stories of the men who use them. So lucky you, he’s gonna select your book about chain saws. If he hadn’t been ill, maybe he would have tackled that chore of taking down the 1970’s avocado green wallpaper in the dining room, cursed the invulnerable goop they applied it with, and been curious about what exactly makes up wallpaper paste.

Editors and agents will claim that every single book they publish is chosen for very specific reasons. It’s so high quality or engaging or revealing or whatever. But at least some of those other books about deodorant and cathode ray tubes were probably just as engaging. Luck/fate/coincidence played a role in your proposal capturing their attention.

We All Do This

None of this is meant as a criticism of editors or agents. They’re just normal people trying to do a job, just like you and me. You and I go through mini-fascinations, mini-obsessions all the time. We take a vacation in Hawaii and come back with a koi fish tattoo. We get backstage at a Broadway show and suddenly we’re reading biographies of dancers and showgirls. We catch an interesting episode of Orange County Choppers and damned if we don’t yearn for a big hog of our own. It would be unrealistic to think editors are immune to such influences.

So next time you find yourself reading the deal news and grumbling, just remember the effect that luck can play in the whole process. It’s not good, it’s not bad. It’s just the way it is. 

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