I read something about the publishing biz the other day that really resonated, from "The Tao of Publishing," an article by respected literary agent Steven Axelrod and author Julie Ann Long in the December issue of The Romance Writers Report (the trade magazine of Romance Writers of America... and a very worthwhile member benefit). In it, Axelrod discussed the human wish to impose order, to seek out patterns and rules that can guarantee success. I'm paraphrasing here, but when this pattern-seeking tendency is wed to a random, unpredictable environment, we have trouble accepting chaos and continue searching for some hidden, reliable cause-and-effect (if I do X and Y, then Z will necessarily follow).
But publishing's not like that, he argues, and an author can't duplicate another writer's success predictably because he/she can't duplicate whatever "random factors were at play." In trying (desperately at times) to impose order, authors waste a lot of time and money on promotional efforts and checking whatever numbers they can glean instead of doing the one thing that really gives them a better shot at success: diligently writing more good books.
He also shares a pair of quotes that particularly struck me, the first from Leonard Mlodinow, who tells us, "What I've learned above all is to keep marching forward...one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized."
The second quote, Thomas Watson (who founded IBM) shares this world-rocking wisdom: "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate."
I've been writing in this blog for quite a while about authors who rise after years of obscurity or crash and burn under one or two names before triumphing under yet another. As long as the writer keeps "marching forward," there's always the chance that publishing's roulette wheel will eventually stop at his/her number, always a reason to have hope.
So today, let's accept the harsh truths about this business. There are a ton of random factors. There's not a shred of "fairness." Real talent is often overlooked, and at times the mediocre flourish.
Take a deep breath and move past this. Then move on to the work you love.
*Thanks so much to Steve Axelrod (may you and your clients prosper) and Julie Ann Long (may all bestseller listes be yours) for this meaty and thought-provoking article. Thanks also to Carsten Peter for this awesome National Geographic photo.