Lucky? Lucky?! As If!

The interior of the Barnes & Noble located at ...
How badly do you want to join this crowd? Really? Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a recent post by Kristen Lamb, who blogs about writers and social media, asking if successful writers are “just lucky”:

It is estimated that over ¾ of Americans say that they would one day like to write a book. That’s a LOT of people. Ah, but how many do? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step?

Statistically? 5%

So only 5% of the millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the hundreds of thousands. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH a book? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to lay boundaries for friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?

Statistically? 5%

I’m a little dubious about this “statistic” that so many Americans want to write a book. Did Gallup take a poll?

But the larger point is true — many people I’ve met over the decades sigh, wistfully, or say, with tremendous conviction, they, too will soon publish their own book.

Do they? Apparently not.

I think “writing a book” is actually proxy for an unexamined stew of more complicated desires — many of which have very little to do with the talent + endless slog it takes to actually publish a book:

— public validation

— media attention aka “fame”

— showing everyone you really are creative

— proving to your high school English teacher/skeptical spouse/Mom you can do it

— seeing your book at Barnes & Noble

— hitting the (cough) best-seller list

— being able to say you’re an author


Luck is about .000006 percent of what it takes to become a published author.

The definition of “successful” also varies widely:

Did you (as some of my colleagues have done) get on the “Today” show?

Did you hit the best-seller list?

Did you sell more than 500 copies? 100? 10?

Was your advance $150,000? $750,000? (Or, more typically, $25,000 or less?)

Was it made into a movie or television series (preferably starring Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt, maybe both)?

Having (so far) published two non-fiction works with two major New York publishers, I’ve been bloodied.

Some of what it took to achieve this:

— Each book was rejected by 25 publishers before selling

— I’ve been through six agents, (i.e. finding them and working with them along the way)

— I’ve been a journalist, i.e. writing for demanding editors for a living, since 1976

— I attend conferences, network almost daily with other accomplished writers, have read a dozen books on how to market and promote my work

— I spend thousands of dollars every year to create and update my writing-related websites

— I’ve paid attorneys to review my contracts and paid $1,500 for liability insurance on “Malled”

And this is still a tiny fraction of the time, energy and skill I– like many other “successful” writers — brought to the party.


I wish!

13 thoughts on “Lucky? Lucky?! As If!

  1. Lisa Wields Words

    I do think there is a fraction of luck involved in the sense of getting the right person at that right moment who reads your book and says, “hey, this is perfect, we’ll take it” but you are right there is much more work than luck involved. A few weeks back I was browsing the book store looking for something to help me get a little more organized with my own attempt at pursuing my creative/writing dreams, and I saw your book sitting there on the shelf. A little thrill shot through me, “I’ve communicated with this person, how cool.” While I couldn’t buy it then, it is on my wish list. It inspires me to know that hard work plus a lot of blood. sweat. and tears, can indeed lead to success even if you don’t become a best seller. (To me success is achieving my goals, not necessarily achieving fame).

    1. How fun you saw my book! 🙂 I hope you waved…
      It’s also available as an e-book (cheaper) and many libraries have bought it as well, so you can probably get your hands on it that way.

      The challenge with getting a book commercially published is that it’s more like safe-cracking…all the tumblers must fall into place at once, and they sometimes do not for a LONG time!

      How did I meet my current (best by far) agent? I spoke on a panel in March 2009 in NYC (becs I am active in a writers’ group; willing to do stuff like that for free) and in the audience was a scout of hers who approached me afterward and suggested I write a memoir (very few agents do this. She’s smart!) Then I emailed the next day — and heard not a word for month,,,?! Her mother had died the day my email arrived…and she was VERY interested in meeting me.

      Had I not had the self-confidence to say “oh, well, being ignored is normal”…I might have given up, or freaked out or…who knows? It’s not just being able to write. I think it’s much more about hanging on tightly to your self-confidence even when things are lousy and frustrating, as they so often are! That’s why so desperately wanting it (alone) can be toxic.

      1. Lisa Wields Words

        I did more than just wave. I picked it up. I read the cover material. I read your bio, and I debated with myself whether or not to just suck it up and buy it. 🙂 Sorry, practicality won.

        I love the image of safe cracking. Thanks, also, for the reminder about self-confidence. I think that is my biggest failure, as I only take rejection so many times before I throw my hands in air and yell “I surrender!” I am working on that, and taking steps toward building my own self-confidence daily, but it is nice to be reminded that just wanting something is not enough.

  2. Of course I wish you’ll buy it…but I am a frugal person so more admire your decision not to!

    I think I need to a blog post on this safe-cracking idea…one of my clients actually does it for a living.

    Here’s the difficult bit…if you’re constantly (?) being rejected, you have to really take stock (not fun) and figure out why (if that’s really true.) 1) your technical skills are weak (or weaker than those of your competitors); 2) you’re not staying up to date and in the know about current issues/trends/etc. in your field (so you feel a little dusty); 3) your interpersonal skills need work; 4) you’re aiming too high (for now.)

    I suspect you are not being constantly rejected BUT it feels that way. You need some more wins! That will (re) build your confidence.

    I hate to admit it, but number 3 has always been my toughest issue. I can be brusque, abrasive, abrupt, demanding. I know it. It’s a disaster. This year (the book, getting married, finally writing off my miserable mother), has changed my life — and (why?) things are now so good they leave me stunned. This, in turn, has made me MUCH more willing to ask for things (help, mentors, grants, jobs, clients, more money) — and actually get them. I know my confidence is way up, and I have no doubt this vibe is influencing how I’m (finally!) able to relate (better) to the people I meet, face to face and on-line.

    I was sitting here all morning trying not to panic about $$$….as my bank balance is dwindling very fast to zero. Then I got an email asking me to speak, for a fee that left my mouth open. Thank heaven.

  3. My husband is a VERY accomplished musician and he gets this same thing all the time! “You are so lucky to have such a gift!” “I wish I was born with that kind of talent!” Please. If they worked 10hrs a day in their youth and devoted thousands of hours to study and practice, recording and performance, they might have such a “gift” too. I also know first hand the price you pay to be an artist (I’m still paying for my music degree and am by no means successful at it), and I admire your work and tenacity. I suppose I am one of the 75% that claim to want to write a book one day. Hopefully I will become on of the 5% who actually do. That is why I have started my blog and forced myself to consistently write 2-3 times a week. It is a first step for me.

  4. You know this all too well! My husband is a photographer/photo editor…who’s been doing it (well) since high school.

    I am in awe of musicians. I won’t say they/you are lucky to be successful, but I envy that specific aptitude.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Hi – what a great post, spot on! I particularly agree with your assessment of what motivates a lot of people to ‘want to’ write a book, without their actually managing to put pen to paper. I’ve met a few myself (they slaunch into publishers’ parties pelvis-first, flick their scarf over one shoulder, and declare their status as a ‘wraiter’).

    I do think that luck does play some part, though, even for established writers who’ve done the hard yards. As I commented on Kristen’s post, my own career typifies the point. There is an entry hurdle – the one that says ‘you cannot publish a book until you have a record of published books’. I got my ‘entree’ in part by having the right stuff available at the right time for the right publisher. Once I was ‘in’, the rest followed; I got told not to change my writing style, it was spot on, and here’s a multi-book contract (unheard of for New Zealand!). So began a lot of hard slogging. But without that first lucky break – and, indeed, a few other breaks prior – I wouldn’t have got there. Even now, I think luck plays a part. I’ve had books that both I and the publisher thought would work – I’m thinking of a particular science fiction history book I wrote for Penguin – which just tanked. Why? In part because somebody else wrote one first and managed to capture most of the promotional media interest. My bad luck.

    But I otherwise agree entirely with what you say – and you’re spot on about the costs and the hard yards. That’s my experience too. Especially the hard yards. And the risks – not just of possible lawsuits, but of having your work not return anything on time.

    All the best.

    Matthew Wright

    1. Here, you can publish a book without a book…but you are required to prove you have a “platform” – either proven expertise in your subject and/or a huge following of readers eager to read your take on X subject. My first book was about guns (and 30 per cent of American homes have one!) and the second was about retail, the nation’s third-largest industry. So, even if I wasn’t A Big Name, the subjects guaranteed a very large potential audience. My topics are also “evergreens” — material of interest now or 10 years from now — which should (and has for the gun book) help sales continue.

      There is a lot more strategy than some people understand.

  6. I am an aspiring writer and the farthest I have been to is getting my name published in a University’s literature folio because I won in the contest sponsored by the same publication. I just had to say that because until now I have been contemplating why I want to write a novel and your blog post has hit right through the mark.

    Every time I read contemporary novels with the same plot, or classic ones that have thousands of words in one paragraph, I wonder how they have been published. How come that they have been published? For classic writers of course they have (had) their excuses, for contemporary ones, seriously?

    I cannot bring myself to like contemporary novels that have the same plot glazed by different characters and coated by adjectives and whatnot. Every time I come across such a novel, I tend to say one word which is the first word you have as the title of this post-LUCK.

    Yes, probably these writers have gone through a lot in order to have their works published and I should give them credit. However, I can’t help but think that they have just written something in order for them to be famous, to have money in their pockets and they are just lucky because they get what they want.

    For me, writing in itself is an accomplishment. Seeing my name printed on a piece of paper is a reward. If this is how I value writing, then I must write something that is new, and unique.

    Point is, thanks for giving us an idea of the real world behind publications. Now I have other things to keep in mind than just being original which in itself is already difficult. And I’ll think of this blog post when I go to bookstores and see contemporary novels.

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