This was initially a fiery comment on an article titled “Connections and luck do matter”: The Blunt Instrument on MFAs, Networking, and Ornamental Style, published in Electric Literature‘s Blunt Instrument column. I rarely take the time to vent on the Interwebs, but the statement made in this otherwise excellent piece — that luck is only a small part of the equation, and that literary success relies entirely on how hard one works toward it — struck me as so myopic that I felt the need to set the record straight: you, me, them, we all work hard, and yes, in the end, luck is what will make a difference in the great lottery of publishing. Don’t let it bust your spirits; take it, instead, as an affirmation that whether or not you find a golden ticket wrapped with your chocolate bar, your efforts are worthy of praise, and in completing a literary work, you have accomplished something many people only dream of.
“Published writers may be luckier than you, but they’re probably also working harder.”
As a full-time, traditionally and self-published writer who does work hard — and sometimes not so much — and who was spectacularly lucky in landing her first publishing contract four years ago, I’d like to take a moment to state that this particular line in the article made me bristle, not just because it’s a blunt — indeed — whack on the collective head of legions of aspiring writers, but also because, in my own experience, this statement is entirely untrue.
Place and time play a role. Connections play a role. Class and race privilege play a role. And, ultimately, once these ingredients have not only been properly combined for you regurgitate a half-decent manuscript, but also carried you right at the threshold of a future literary career, luck opens the door. Or not.
I’m the living proof that no matter how hard you work, luck will play a tremendous role in your pursuing a paying literary career. I do write and work every day, but never in my wildest dreams, never even if I was drunk of my ass, high on a gallon of sizzup — or my own farts, to reference South Park — would I dare telling another aspiring writer that my success came not because of luck, but because I work harder than them.
My success is 10% hard work, 10% money I invested in producing and promoting four self-published titles after two traditionally published ones — $35k worth of class privilege, if you will — and… 80% luck.
20% me, 80% luck. The reason why I more or less manage to stay grounded is that I never forget this equation.
I scored my first two-books deal with a five figures advance in less than three months, after querying six agents — and I lived in France at the time; I wasn’t even in the US. Two years later, when my publisher dropped me mid-series after a difficult year, I was granted all my rights back to my first two books — I did fight for those, but even authors who fight hard don’t get rewarded that way. To quote a seasoned author regarding the issue: “Even Courtney Millan didn’t get her rights back.” Many factors came into play, but ultimately, I was mostly… lucky. Six months later, I promoted that first book whose rights had been returned to me, and received a random Bookbub, which, combined with a new release at the time, helped me reach the mid-to-high four figures I’ve consistently been making each month for the past eighteen months. Finally, last summer, I signed with my second agent, whom I met because she happened to be one of my the readers. I didn’t even query!
And do I need to retell E.L. James’s damn-near ridiculous fanfiction success story to hammer my point home?
It was all a random combination of multiple parameters which smoothly fitted into one another to produce a favorable outcome. Luck. Publishing is one giant lottery where talent makes a book happen and can sometimes spark a conversation if a number of temporal and cultural conditions are met, but a book deal and a commercial success remain essentially products of luck and/or connections. Deal with it.
Here’s a sneak peek at how the up and downs of luck can shape a professional writing career:
This year, I was contacted by an audiobook company wanting to buy the audio rights to my new series when I wasn’t even looking to sell them. I didn’t shop the rights at all: I was, in fact, preparing to have that book recorded in April by my usual narrator. And this huge player in the audiobook field came out of nowhere — I gather they heard about me, but even that is kind of random, because I’m not that famous — and offered me a four-books deal with a decent advance. I decided to only sign for two, to which they agreed: all I can say is that’s just awesome luck. I’m not a New York Times or USA Today bestseller. I live in my PJs. I don’t think I did anything special to deserve it.
At the same time, I decided to submit a different project down the traditional route. All publishers so far rejected the book, after months of waiting for their reply. They saw nothing wrong with it; they just didn’t feel it — or forgot the manuscript entirely, in one case. We’re still waiting for the reply of one house my agent expects to take over four months to reply, and the way things are going, I see a good chance that the book won’t be sold and I’ll end up having wasted a year before self-publishing as usual. That’s crap luck. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not that I didn’t work hard enough: It’s probably my best book, and even paid nearly $4k worth of edits for that draft because this is such an important project for me. I worked my ass off all summer, did all I could for this project to succeed, gave it time even when I itched to self-publish it, but this time I wasn’t lucky: Insert another coin and play again!
So yep, work, write, create, put yourself out there, and be proud of what you achieve no matter what. But never tell yourself that you failed because you didn’t get published, or because you’re not making a living off your books: that’s just luck, and sometimes you’ll get lucky, sometimes you won’t.