When I get into a conversation about the frustrations of trying to get a book published (nearly every conversation I have these days), inevitably someone says, “It’s mostly luck.” I know they mean this to be encouraging; thing is, I wouldn’t find it the least bit encouraging even if I believed it to be true. Yet clearly a lot of people believe in luck. We like to think of J.K. Rowling toiling away in that Scottish cafe until plucked from obscurity and made a gazillionaire. That’s lovely, except that Rowling applied for and received a Scottish national artistic grant. Anyone who can get free money has business savvy, which puts her ahead of the vast majority of writers. Interestingly, both detractors and fans of Rowling, or any other wildly successful author, believe in luck. Detractors sneer, “Plenty of people write better than she does. Obviously she got lucky.” As for fans, I suspect they enjoy picturing their favorite authors as ordinary people, especially since many are writers themselves. If a single mom from nowhere special can make it big, perhaps they can too.
I had a small argument with a fellow writer about how the Fifty Shades books became best sellers. I noted that E.L. James was not some poverty-line housewife but rather a television executive, which would suggest she has media connections. My friend asserted that James had no direct connections to book publishing and was “discovered” on a fan fiction website for Twilight, among countless teenage girls with “Bella & Edward 4eva” tattoos. I pointed out that finding writers is only a small part of publishing; it isn’t as though every book sells like Big Macs. Many writers have been “discovered” only to see their work remaindered within a month of printing.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theorizes how social phenomena go viral, one factor being the presence of people who are more influential than others and, because of this, get trends started. TV executives are influential people who know about trends, and thus I’d attribute the Fifty Shadessuccess to the author’s media savvy and likely wide circle of similarly influential people rather than luck. No, James was not in book publishing, but I’ll bet she knows a lot more people than I do, and those people know still more people, and given the importance of word-of-mouth (or word of Tweet), knowing people is key. Interestingly, on one point my friend and I were in complete agreement: the books suck. We just had radically different explanations for the success of sucky books that anyone with a passing interest in S&M (everyone?) could have written.
Saying “it’s mostly luck” rationalizes failure while giving hope for success. If success depends on luck, we don’t have our own inadequacies to blame, just the whims of fate. What’s more, randomness is a concept people cannot get their brains around. When odds are calculated at one in whatever, we don’t identify with the whatever. We identify with the one. Luck also assumes a level playing field, which is enormously attractive. There isn’t some secret club we don’t belong to, no secret handshake we don’t know about, we aren’t toiling away in futility oblivious that the deck was stacked against us from the start. Even when the odds are insanely bad, we still think we have a chance, which is significantly better than no chance. And so we keep writing, longing for the day when we can say “it’s mostly luck” to an interview question about how we became so wildly successful.
Letitia L. Moffitt has run a marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland. She also reads, writes, and teaches fiction. Her blog can be found here. Between writing this piece and its publication, her first book, Sidewalk Dancing, found a home with Atticus Books. It will be published in 2013.
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