Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?


There’s been a lot of blogosphere chatter about writing success being like a lottery. Something about that metaphor has always bothered me. For in a true lottery you can’t really affect your odds (except by buying more tickets, of course). But is that true for writers?
I don’t think it is. Just putting more books out there (“buying more tickets”) won’t help your chances if the books don’t generate reader interest and loyalty. Productivity and prolificacy are certainly virtues, but to them must be added value.
Hugh Howey had some interesting thoughts recently on timing and luck. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Howey highlighted a fascinating factoid:
A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding.
From this Howey explains how he benefitted greatly from being in the right place at the right time, Kindle-wise. He had started writing in earnest in 2009, just as the neo-self-publishing movement was taking off. He did some things right, like early adoption of KDP Select and serialization. Look at him now.
But there is one thing he says I disagree with: “I know I’m not that good.”
Wrong. He is good. Very good. Woolwould not be what it is without the quality. Which Howey has worked hard to achieve.
Reminds me of the old adage, “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” I believe that wholeheartedly.
I went to school with a kid named Robin Yount. He was a natural athlete and an incredible Little League baseball player. In fact, my greatest athletic moment was the day Robin Yount intentionally walked me. Because Yount is now a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t just his natural giftedness that made him what he was. He happened to have an older brother named Larry, who made it to the big show as a pitcher. I remember riding my bike down to the Little League field one day and seeing Larry pitching ball after ball to his little brother. Robin Yount was lucky in the body and brother he was given. But he still had to work hard. Because he did,he was ready when, at age 18, he got the call from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hard work meeting opportunity.
So I wouldn’t call the publishing biz a lottery system. What metaphor would I use? It hit me the other day: writing success is more like my favorite game, backgammon.
Backgammon, which has been around for 5,000 years, is brilliantly conceived. Dice are involved, so there’s always an

element of chance. Someone who is way behind still might win if the dice give him a roll he needs at a crucial moment.

On the other hand, someone who knows how to think strategically, can calculate odds, and takes risks at the right time, will win more often than the average player who depends mostly on the rolling bones.
Early on I studied the game by reading books. I memorized the best opening moves for each roll. I learned how to think about what’s called the “back game,” what the best “points” are to cover, and when it might pay off to leave a “blot.”
And I played a lot of games with friends and, later, on a computer. I discovered a couple of killer, though risky, opening moves. I use them because they can pay off big time, though when they don’t I find myself behind. But I’m willing to take these early chances because they are not foolhardy and I’m confident enough in my skills that I can still come back.
This, it seems to me, is more analogous to the writing life than a lottery. Yes, there is chance involved. I sold my first novel because I happened to be at a convention with an author I had met on the plane. This new acquaintance showed me around the floor, introduced me to people. One of them was a publisher he knew. That publisher just happened to be starting a new publishing house and was looking for material. I pitched him my book and he bought it a few weeks later.
But I was also ready for that moment. I had been studying the craft diligently for several years and was committed to a weekly quota of words. I’d written several screenplays and at least one messy novel before completing the project I had with me at the convention.
Thus, as in backgammon, the greater your skill, the better your chances. The harder you work, the more skill you acquire. Sure, there are different talent levels, and that’s not something we have any control over.
But biology is not destiny, as they say. Unrewarded genius is almost a cliché. Someone with less talent who works hard often outperforms the gifted.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll always win big in any one game. If the dice are not your friends, things might not turn out as planned. That book you thought was a sure winner might sink. Or even stink.
But that doesn’t mean you have to stop playing.
Don’t ever worry about the dice. You cannot control them, not even if you shake them hard and shout, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” The vagaries of the book market are out of your hands. You can, however, control your work ethic and awareness of opportunity.
Writing success is therefore not a lottery. It’s a game.
Play intelligently, play a lot and try to have some fun, too.

So what about you? Do you believe in pure luck? Or do you believe there is something you can do to goose it?

42 thoughts on “Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?

  1. My agent always says, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” So I agree with you. It’s not a lottery. No one’s going to crown me queen. If I write the best book I can and work hard to promote it, then I have a better chance of it selling.

  2. Thank you for your insight. I think people who say it’s all luck either don’t want to do the work required, or are not aware of how to go about doing said work. (I fall into the latter category but I am learning!)

    • Indeed, Charity, the “luck” claim can be subtle excuse to grouse and perhaps even give up. Or salve a fragile ego. Better to just get back to work!

  3. Thanks for a great post, and for the first use of Backgammon as a great metaphor for life (and writing). I’ve always loved the game for the balance of luck and skill, and the great satisfaction that comes from knowing that, after a lot of study and practice, you’ll know what to do no matter what luck throws your way.
    Much, much better description of the writing business than the lottery!

  4. Another great name in baseball, Branch Rickey, said it very well: “Luck is the residue of design.” In other words, plan well, prepare yourself, and you will find yourself luckier than the unplanned, unprepared participant. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. The game. It’s a useful theory on this whole writing gig. At least the business side of the process. Who do you take a chance on? Who do you trust? Can you get lucky with a decision or will you chalk that one up to lesson learned? Yes, I am at a decision point, can you tell?

    • There will be many decision points along the way. Make one, give it your best shot, and then you’ll be ready to make more. I could say “Good luck” but that would be redundant by now. Oh heck: Good luck.

  6. I like this backgammon metaphor! I know a lot of authors who moan and groan about the luck lottery, so they hardly play. But I’ve been watching indies over on Kboards, and the lucky ones have 10 or more books out, often written to market.

    • Yes, written with commercial viability in mind, but added to that a well honed craft (most of the time. There’s a 50 Shades something that provides the exception that proves the rule!)

  7. I like this metaphor, too. You only improve your odds a little by buying a lottery ticket (from 0.0 to 0.00000259 as listed on MegaMillions). Study and plan, but mostly, as you say: write, write, and then write some more.

  8. Great analogy.

    We’re here because we do “believe there is something we can do to goose it.” We may not be as “lucky in the body,” as talented as someone else. We may not even have a big brother, Larry, to pitch to us. But we can search out a big brother to learn from. That’s why we’re here.

    Keep pitching those pearls, Jim. We’ll keep practicing as long as you keep throwing them. Maybe someday we’ll be able to see the curve ball, the slider, the fast ball, coming. We’ll be ready. We’ll be “lucky” enough to hit it out of the park.

    PS – Thanks for the subject of your blog on Wednesday. Wow, what a list of future reading material. And literally, on top of my stack of books sits my autographed copy of PLOT AND STRUCTURE.

  9. I’m curious about who in their right mind could even begin to equate publishing success with the lottery. Who is that dumb or delusional? Yeah, luck is involved in publishing but perseverance and craft are what matter. And the willingness to try, fail and get up again.

    As long as we’re talking sports, here’s a quote from a guy who knows a little something about working hard and staying in the game:

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

    That’s Michael Jordan talking.

  10. Great post. As I am languishing in the query period, but today’s email brought another full request.

    I get the lottery analogy. I did some figgering and determined that the number of people picked up by agents every year is roughly the same as those admitted to the ivy league law schools.

    Once you get to the absolute final cut, there is some luck involved. Right place right time right creds. However, even with all of that, at the last gate, there could still be an admissions agent who says, “Damn it, I filled my quote for kazoo-playing high-jumpers who were class president yesterday. Form reject.”

    I’ve made some very good, some would call lucky, connections. But I made them by being somewhat shameless. Not stalkerish, but by being willing to throw out a hand and introduce myself. And once you’re nice to me, I’m hard to get rid of.

    Number one is to be ready when the call comes. To know what that fortuitous roll of the dice means and how to use it to your advantage. I could roll great all day long if we played backgammon, but would have no clue what to do with it.

    And yes on the missing 100% of the shots you don’t take. A second part of that (I heard it for baseball) is “and if you hit .300 they put you in the Hall of Fame.”

    So, one last flip through my full to make sure nothing has gone wrong with formatting and *send* (Momma needs new shoes!)


  11. I don’t believe in luck. That said, a very small number do seem to attract the largest sales. In a smiliar vein to your lottery analogy, a friend said to me once, that you have to give God a chance – buy a ticket.
    So in the same way I’ll make an effort to do as much work on my selling as I spend on writing in future, instead of my usual 90-10 split while hoping they’ll flock to my banner.

  12. I don’t believe in luck like that, but there is an element involved that we can’t predict, like how Harry Potter made it big. JK Rowling had no way of knowing that the world NEEDED a story about a boy who lived. You can’t plan that.

    But you can plan on doing your best every time, so when the lightening strikes, you’re prepared to put your best foot forward.

    The lottery example is apt in the sense of looking at the long term. How many lottery winners weren’t prepared to win? How many of them spent all their money within a year of winning, only to be bankrupt and worse off than before?

    They had an amazing thing happen to them, but they weren’t able to react to it, and plan accordingly.

    Writing the best book you can puts you in the best position to succeed. Either you’ll develop a loyal following over time, or you’ll hit it “big” and hit the NYT bestseller’s list. Either way, the best position to be in is having a great book.

  13. I’ll add my two cents to the group. I believe it’s both hard work and timing. Few people make it without both. We can work hard and produce the most beautiful writing ever, but if our timing is off, it probably won’t see the light of day.

    That makes me sad. Because I realize how much good stuff is out there that never gets published. Then again, there’s a lot of not so good stuff out there that does get published. So, go figure.

    Tiger Woods is a great example of hard work and talent. Regardless of what you think about his personal morals, he is the most talented golfer we’ve ever seen. Yet, he works harder than anyone.

    I believe that says it all. Thanks for the post

    • Yes, every now and then there’s a Tiger Woods. Or a Stephen King. Talent and work and deserved success.

      Another axiom: “All you can do is all you can do.” And rest in that.

  14. While I’ve always believed that you generally have to be good and to work hard to be lucky, there’s definitely a whole lot of luck involved along the way to publishing a successful book. The biggest IF is whether or not your work, regardless of how good it is, will strike a chord in the book-buying public.

    I see so many writers with big dreams about the potential popularity of their projects when the reality is that often no one knows, even the major publishers, and that even more often, their projects will have limited appeal, no matter how well written.

    It takes a tremendous amount of work to produce a decent novel – and a tremendous amount of passion for the novel to keep on slugging away until it’s something you can be proud of. Ya gotta love the process because there’s no accounting for what might happen in the marketplace, despite great marketing.

  15. Anyone commenting on this post will do so on the basis of personal experience. Mine inclines me to weight luck and timing more heavily than others might. There’s no point in talking about those who don’t “work hard,” although a fair number of books that don’t reflect much work do manage to succeed. But the old saw about hard work making all the difference is, I’m afraid, a chimera. It comforts those who cling to puritan myths of virtue rewarded. In my view, though, the facts reveal something much less tidy or simple..

  16. Ya wanna play, ya gotta get in the game. Buy a ticket. Pull a handle. Buy a pad of paper and a pen. And another baseball metaphore: No matter what they’re throwing at you, you want a homer, sooner or later ya gotta take a swing. And if Luck call, hopefully you will answer the phone.

  17. “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” James, I love that sentiment. It’s something I’ve tried to teach my teen son, who plays football. He’s not as big as some of the guys, and many of his skills do not come naturally. They’re a result of hard work.

  18. Wonderful words from everyone! I also believe you have to be brave. I believe you have to stretch out of your comfort zone and take a chance. If you have an opportunity before you, be courageous and walk to it.

  19. Great post, great metaphor. I agree, hard work and luck go hand in hand. Craft, storytelling, a sense of mystery, networking and timing all combine to make a great novel a success.

  20. A few years ago I asked Richard E. Burke, founder of United Healthcare, about the key to his success. He said, “Luck.” A little while later, I asked him, “Why did you retire?” He answered instantly, “I got tired of the 100 hour work weeks.”


    Peace, Seeley

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