Why doesn’t Phil Ivey get to the final table every year in the World Series of Poker? In fact, why hasn’t he ever won the main event? Every observer of the game puts Ivey at the top of the charts in terms of all-around poker skill. He wins a lot of tournaments, but never the big one.
It’s because poker isn’t only about skill. You’ve got to get the cards. You can go all in with pocket aces only to see your opponent from Hoboken draw that third eight on the river.
So yeah, it’s a mixture of skill and luck. Which pretty much defines any endeavor in life.
Of course, stronger skills increase your odds of success. As one wag put it, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
In the writing world, especially now, you’ll hear a lot about luck and the “harsh reality” of publishing. Whether you’re self-pubbing, going with a traditional house (large, small or in between), or doing a mixture of both, the truth is it’s hard to break through to big numbers.
A few weeks ago the highly successful, and most generous indie author, Hugh Howey, wrote the following in regard to a post on Joe Konrath’s blog.
I think Joe comes as close as anyone to sorting it all out. Like me, he includes luck in his secret recipe, and he qualifies that with the hard work that magnifies luck. Let’s say luck, as an ingredient, accounts for 30% of the Breakout-Sauce. That’s enough to explain how some authors go nuts with a single book, or expensive books, or books with crappy cover art (like mine), or books with technical faults. It would also explain how someone with a dozen excellent titles isn’t taking off. How someone who does everything “right” doesn’t have success.
If that’s the reality of it, then what’s the answer? The same answer you’d give anyone starting a business. Do you really want to do this? Are you willing to pay the price? Can you live with risk and uncertainty? Can you look reality in the eye and make adjustments? Is this business enough of a passion that you’d do it even if you barely clear your bottom line (e.g., run an independent bookstore)?
Yes? You will keep writing? Even if things are not taking off? Okay. Then:
1. Keep your expectations low
The great world religions, and various schools of philosophy, teach that unhappiness comes primarily through expectations unfulfilled. Expectations can form images in your mind, such as seeing your ebook hit the Kindle Top 100 list, or some such. When it doesn’t happen, your brain orders a secretion of chemicals that make you feel like pig slop.
Set goals and have dreams, yes. But temper them with your mind telling you not to be dependent on them for your happiness or productivity. “If you can dream, and not make dreams your master . . .” Kipling wrote.
2. Keep your work ethic high
I believe I said this best in my post called “How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction.” Especially the part about constantly learning the craft. Get feedback. Read books and articles on writing. Keep learning. Try new things. Experiment with short form. Maybe you’ll find a new genre you like, and that readers like, too. At the very least, you’ll be exercising your skills. Dean Koontz was a middling writer for the first ten years of his career. But he was crazily prolific. And all along the way he taught himself about the craft. When he intentionally took a leap into deeper characterization (with Whispers) he shot up another level. And he’s had several leaps like that since.
3. Keep your joy hot
I also wrote about joy in your writing being a key to success. You see, it’s always a combination of things that betters your odds. Knowing how to free your voice is one of those things. It’s also more fun to write this way. You might as well have fun at this thing.
4. Keep your grumbling cool
I used to say that if you got a rejection from a publisher or agent, let it hurt for half an hour, then get back to your keyboard. Same if you self-publish. Your latest release mired in mud? Okay, grouse to somebody about it, or bay at the moon, but then get back to work on your next project.
5. Keep on writing for the rest of your life
If you love to write, why would you ever stop? If writing doesn’t make a living for you, do it because you love it, and do what you can of it. Keep your day job but find your “quota sweet spot” and stick to it.
Persistence plus production plus quality improvements all along the way. That’s been the formula for business success ever since Eli Whitney (did you know the cotton gin didn’t make him rich, but muskets did, years later? Well, now you do).
Let Hugh Howey, from the same comment I linked to above, have the last word:
Which leads to my point of this long-winded nonsense: Time has to be an ingredient. An important one. This revolution has barely gotten started. Good luck and bad luck require time to even them out. If you’ve done everything right, your works might take off in ten years. Who knows? We haven’t been at this long enough. I think it’s too early for any of us to say something isn’t working or that it won’t work. I just have to remember back to writing seven novels over three years and watching them sit between #335,204 and #1,302,490 in the Amazon store. I didn’t care. I just kept writing. I read about Amanda Hocking, and I thought: “Hellz yeah!” And I kept writing. I gave myself until I was 40 and I had twenty titles published before I worried about whether I sold enough to pay a bill. And even if that never happened, it was an excuse to publish twenty titles. I could always say that. No one could take it away from me. And anyway, I’d sold a handful of books and heard from people that they loved them. I remembered when that was just an idle dream.
So how is the reality of writing treating you? What do you intend to do about it?