There has often been discussion about the fact that publishing is not a true meritocracy. Plenty of good manuscripts fail to land an agent or publishing deal. Some do get published but don’t find an audience.
On the other hand, most of us can point to published books that are qualitatively bad. Especially works by celebrities and public figures (and more recently, influencers) that get published due to expected sales rather than manuscript quality. With so many examples, we can all reasonably agree that other factors influence whether or not a book gets published. Today I want to talk about luck, skill, talent, and perseverance.
As usual, I should offer the caveat of perspective: My thoughts naturally reflect my personal experience and shared experiences of friends and peers in the industry. I started writing fiction in the mid-to-late “oughts” and got serious (sent my first query) about a decade ago. Since then I’ve had eight books published, including three last year.
On Luck in Publishing
Luck — in both good and bad forms — plays a role in many aspects of publishing. Random chance pervades every aspect of life from the molecular level on up. There are at least two pivotal moments in my publishing career when luck was a factor. Back in 2015, when I was agented and my first book was on sub, we somewhat quickly had interest from two publishers. One came in the form of an R&R. Although I’ve made my feelings concerning R&Rs quite clear, I was working on it when a second publisher made an offer.
That publisher was Harper Voyager. However, the offer was for Harper Voyager’s relatively new Impulse imprint. It was digital-first publication, and though mass market paperbacks would become available six weeks after publication, e-books were the focus. They were priced in the $2-4 range (presumably to compete with the exploding digital self-pub industry). HV did not pay advances or produce audiobooks for Impulse titles. The editorial was good, but there was very little marketing support. This meant it was inexpensive to acquire and publish books through Impulse. At its peak, the imprint was publishing 1-2 books per week.
Shortly after The Rogue Retrieval was published in 2016, I parted ways with my literary agent. However, I had a relationship with my editor and an option clause allowing me to submit my next book, which I’d written in the interim. Plus, I’d put together an outline for a third that would make it a trilogy. My editor wanted both. That offer helped me land a new literary agent at a larger agency who’d just started building a client list (stroke of luck #2). My foot in the door with Impulse also gave me credibility and priceless experience in the book world. All because I wrote a good book that found an editor when he was able to acquire a lot of books.
The Rogue Retrieval has sold more than 3,000 copies.* For an Impulse title, that’s pretty good. But consider this: about a year after my deal, Harper Voyager acquired a book by my Pitch Wars mentee, Michael Mammay. However, he got a more traditional offer (with advance) for the Voyager imprint. As Mike recently shared in his recent essay about luck in publishing, his book Planetside has sold more than 60,000 copies.
It’s a strange feeling when someone who was (briefly) your protégé outsells you 20-fold. Maybe it’s the universe’s way of keeping me humble. There are numerous factors involved as Mike outlined in his essay. First and foremost, it’s a really good book (I don’t tell him this. I tell him he got really luck). Also, by publishing through Voyager he got an audiobook with a fantastic narrator and a real print run with distribution to brick-and-mortar bookstores. In contrast, when I asked my local B&N about stocking my Impulse (print on demand) paperbacks, they told that was a no-go: the book was classified as being from an “independent or small publisher.” True story.
The Impulse imprint was shuttered a couple years ago. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision going with them (even though another option wasn’t offered). Most of the time, I look at the doors it opened for me and the people I met — in particular, a wonderful group of supportive Impulse authors — and count myself better for the experience.
Talent versus Skill in Publishing
I should point out that luck is not the only factor. Baseline writing talent (inherent ability) and writing skill (acquired ability) matter, too.
Writing Talent: Inherent Ability
Not everyone is born with the same level of writing ability. For a useful analogy, look at professional sports. Anyone can play a sport. Anyone can work to become better at that sport. However, most people who play professionally are naturally gifted athletes. Their inborn talents, combined with hard work (and probably some luck) are required to make that 10,000-to-1 shot. The same likely holds true for writers: Even if we all had the same skills, experience, and discipline, some writers are have a natural talent that makes them more likely to succeed.
Some authors have a gift for language. I really think this is more like an inherent ability than a learned skill. There’s an epic fantasy author I know who writes beautiful, beautiful prose. As far as I know, they’ve written only a couple of books, but the command of language is astonishing. Granted, it may be that there are more prose artists in other genres (e.g. literary) and I simply don’t know because I don’t read them.
A more common trait of highly successful authors is that they’re natural storytellers. Neal Stephenson, who did an author visit here earlier this month, used to tell bedtime stories as a summer camp counselor. Stephen King and his brother ran stories in an unsanctioned school newspaper. Despite the stereotype that writers are introverted loners, many authors are known for being that person who always had a great story to tell at a party.
Writing Skill: Acquired Ability
Writing a publishable book requires a certain level of skill. The good news? This is something an author can control. There are books, blogs, and podcasts dedicated to improving writing craft. There are classes. There are software tools like Scrivener and the Hemingway app.
When it comes to writing publishable fiction, experience is the best teacher. Most authors have written other books before they wrote their debut novel. Mike wrote at least one. I wrote two. My friend Mindy McGinnis recently shared on her podcast that she wrote like, five.**
Critique is another way to improve writing skill, which is why most authors have beta readers and critique partners. Good CPs not only help you improve a manuscript, but help you recognize your writing strengths and weaknesses. For example, I learned from my early critique partners that I was better at narrative than dialogue. As a result, I know I have to work harder on my dialogue.
Here’s another thing that many published authors have in common: they took time to understand the publishing industry. They know genre conventions, what agents do, how book deals are structured, etc. There are several reasons this information is valuable even to an unpublished author. Among other things, it helps an author know whether or not their experience is normal.
This is something authors often ask themselves, especially when things don’t seem to be going well. For example, an agented author sends their agent a new manuscript. Two weeks later, the agent has not yet sent notes. This, I would say, is normal. However, I’ve also talked to writers who hadn’t heard from their agent in six months even though they were waiting on something. This is not normal.
For another example: a publisher makes an offer for your books. They want World English rights for print and ebook. They also want audio rights. This is a normal initial offer (though an agent may try to keep audio rights, most large publishers now require them). However, let’s say the publisher also wants dramatic adaptation, serialization, and merchandising rights. This is not normal in most cases; this is a rights grab.
Is it is possible to get published without knowing much about the industry? Yes. However, I’d argue that it can be disadvantageous, or even hazardous, for authors to do so.
Perseverance in Publishing
Last but not least, I want to talk about perseverance. In my opinion, this is the deciding factor for whether or not someone gets published. However, I don’t mean to imply that embracing the general platitude of “keep going” is enough. Breaking into traditional publishing requires intentional perseverance toward this goal. It means:
- Finishing a novel and calling it done.
- Querying widely and persistently.
- Revising and polishing between rounds of queries.
- Continuing to improve craft.
- Writing another book (not a sequel). And another.
These things are hard. Persevering in the face of negative forces (self-doubt, criticism, rejection, envy, etc.) is even harder. Many authors give up, and I don’t blame them. However, very few published authors I know had a perfectly smooth, rejection-free
Keep Multiple Irons in the Fire
Given the odds (never tell me the odds), I often advise authors to keep multiple irons in the fire. Try multiple books/genres/age categories because you never know what route will lead to success. Here’s an example from my own career.
Sometime after I landed my first agent, I dedicated some time to writing nonfiction. I wrote for Clarkesworld and Fantasy Scroll Magazine, among other places. When I learned that Baen was looking for science-themed articles for their website, I pitched and wrote some articles drawing on my background as a working geneticist. It was a nice deal: they got some content for their readers; I got some exposure and a nice check. Plus, I became acquainted with the editor who oversaw the website content.
A couple of years later, when my agent and I were seeking a publisher for my book Domesticating Dragons, we sent it to that same editor. My agent didn’t even have his e-mail address, so I introduce them. That editor bought my book for Baen. I didn’t know this would come to pass when I pitched those nonfiction articles. I simply saw an opportunity and went for it.
Many factors influence whether an author will break in, which book will do it, and whether that book will be successful. Luck, talent, and skill undoubtedly play a role. However, perseverance is often what distinguishes dreamers from traditionally published authors.
* The agency managed to sell the unused audio rights to Blackstone, so I did get audiobooks narrated by James Patrick Cronin.
** Yes, most of my friends are more successful than me
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