Luck vs. Good Timing

The other day I read a guest post by Zoe Winters on The Creative Penn that talked about why indie author success isn’t based on luck.  It got me thinking why that word gets tossed around so much.

I guess it’s because not many people think writing is hard work.  When a marathon runner wins the race or a doctor saves a life, “luck” never enters the mind.  We automatically know how much training/education went into developing those skills.  That’s why it’s weird to me that telling stories that other people want to pay money for is not considered a skill.

When you call something lucky, you’re saying that it happened by chance and nothing else.  Basically you had no control over the awesome thing that just happened to you.  It fell into you lap already awesome.  You think J.K. Rowling wants to hear that about her Harry Potter series?  You think anyone wants to hear that about something they worked hard on?

So then sticking with the Harry Potter example why was that series such a gigantimous hit?  I think what we’re talking about is good timing rather than luck.  I know these sound like they’re synonymous, but I see a difference.

Before this series started, I worked at a book store.  In the summer, when the kids came in to buy their summer reading books the question was always, “What’s the shortest book you have?”  I could’ve suggested a ton of great books for them, but they weren’t interested.  Then Harry Potter came along and suddenly they wanted to read books that were triple the size of what they’d been reading.  Since interpretation varies from reader to reader, I can’t say why the series affected them like it did.  What I can say is that is it satisfied a need in something that was missing in the books they were reading.

I doubt Rowling did this on purpose.  She worked for years until she had the best product she could make and then tried to sell it.  She didn’t know it would hit like it did.  Not even the publisher did.  She was in the right place at the right time and had the goods to be successful.  If she had been just lucky she would’ve thrown her manuscript out the window and waited for someone to knock at her door with sacks of money.

Opportunities will come along to further your writing career.  The good ones, the ones that are going to be the most beneficial will only be available if you’ve done the work to become the best at what you do.

13 comments on “Luck vs. Good Timing

  1. An absolutely fascinating freakin’ book: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. To tell you how freakin’ brilliant I think he is, he’s one of the few authors I’d still buy DRM-encumbered books by right now–and do you know how much I hate DRM? His research is fascinating, and his ability to write intelligently without trying to be highbrow, over-your-head, impress the intellectuals complicated is superb.

    The book is about stand-out people and events, and how little things, things completely out of an individual’s control, have these massive effects on outcome.

    How sometimes it IS about luck, whether that’s good timing, having the right connections or cultural background, having the right person be aware of your existence, whatever. Two people can be, in many respects, just about equal in qualification for greatness, and yet great success comes to one of them because of some seemingly small advantage that can sometimes open the doors for them to gain further advantage.

    So take two books that might be equally good. But someone makes a tweet about one of the books that spikes sales in one hour, that gets that book onto a category list at a good shopping time of day, which helps other people find it, which fuels sales, and keeps it on the list, for other people to find, and one of those is a book blogger who has a following, who reads and posts a great review, which leads to more people buying the book, which increases its visibility on more lists, and of course book bloggers travel in packs, so a bunch of them pick it up and review it on their blogs, and all the while this author is gaining a crapload of credibility from all these reviews because, just because, a little bird went Ka-choo!

    And nothing in that chain of events changes or speaks to the worth or quality of the other of the two books.

    BUT, none of this is an excuse for getting all hang-dog, sorry-assed, pissed off angry about how life isn’t fair and there’s no point in trying because it’s all about luck. Because it’s not ALL about luck. That’s nuts. That chain of events has to start with a good book or none of it works. It can’t continue to build. So if you have or are writing a good book, you have to keep writing it. And you have to keep marketing until YOUR bit of luck comes your way. Because if you pack up your toys and leave the sandbox, it probably won’t.

    I’m remembering that I said on my blog the other day that I’ve been very lucky and you gave me a bit of a cuff to the head that it’s not luck. That I did good. (which I appreciated) And yeah, part of me saying that was modesty because I’m kind of afraid to come out and say something like yeah, Hush Money totally kicks ass and I’m the mac daddy shit, no matter how much I personally love and believe in the book. I mean, come on, it’s not perfect, nor am I, and who DOES that? But at the same time, it was also a reflection of how I really believe that part of how well it’s doing is based, not on what I did, but what others have helped me do, others whose attention I was lucky enough to have caught at the right moment, and the sentiment was also intended to imply my gratitude for that help.

    In conclusion, I agree with your conclusion, it’s just that I think the concept of luck might mean something different to me than it does to you.

    • You know, I had planned on posting this a different week. I must have scheduled it, then decided on something else and forgot this one was still set to go out. Wow. Coming up next week, “Newb in Need of a Day Planner”.

      Outliers has always been a book I wanted to read. From your example it seems to agree with what I’m talking about. Obviously there are a ton of factors out of a person’s control that make him more or less successful. And I don’t have a problem with someone calling that luck if its meant that way. It just burns my biscuits when a person tries to make sound like NO hard work went into someone’s success.

      I’ve been stocking up on ideas based on what you and a bunch of other authors have been doing and when I’m ready, I’ll try them for myself. What worked for them might not work the same for me, but I’ll keep at it until I find my groove. Hopefully that’ll be around the same time I get MY moment.

      I know I’m in a marathon. Plus I’ve got a ways to go before I get my 10k hours of marketing experience.

      So in conclusion I agree with your conclusion about being in agreement with my first conclusion.

      • Arg, 10,000 hours. Do we actually have to be social media experts? Because I’m not sure I wanna tweet for 10K hours. No, wait, I am sure I don’t wanna.

        Yeah, anyone who implies that opening up and spilling your guts all over the page in a way that other people can connect with isn’t hard hasn’t done it. I’m not even sure they’ve ever read a good book.

        There are a lot of great things about Harry Potter, but right there, at the very beginning, he was The Boy Who Lived. He lived in a constant state of caution, what life was dealing him seemed so unfair, he was pathetically alone. But he hoped for something better. And from that beginning I wanted that for him, desperately.

  2. People seem to use the word luck in two ways when talking about indies. One to encompass all of those stars aligning that get a buzz going about a certain book. Sometimes it does seem like luck because it happens so easily for a few, yet others have to wait a long time.

    The other way it’s used is to put people down in a bitter, self-pitying way. I see this sometimes when people are frustrated because they feel like their book is better than other, more popular books. I’m a firm believer that if a book is good, its time will come. Keep at it and people will find it. If not, well, maybe you aren’t directing it at the right audience or maybe it isn’t as great as you think.

    A good book is more than good grammar and spelling. It’s also more than a good story. So many factors go into it, it’s hard to say what exactly will make a book memorable but luck is never the answer, at least not completely. 🙂

    • Totally agree about a good book finding its audience. I’ve seen authors having success with differing styles of marketing, but the common thing was that they wrote a good book.

      You also make a good point about why one book sells better than another. You need some level of quality to strive for and then you need to be really honest with yourself about how well you’re doing to get there. After that, there’s a host of uncontrollable factors that come into play. If you’re not properly prepared, then you risk having a great opportunity pass you by. It just sounds better to me to call it “good timing” rather than “luck”.

  3. I don’t think it’s even just good timing on Rowling’s part. I mean there were other books that had similar themes that had been written, and changing the timing probably wouldn’t have changed their success. It is all in Rowling’s talent, IMO. She wrote a book that was so grippable more people than not told everyone they knew about it after they read it and the word of mouth grew until it was giant and everyone was talking about it.

    I’ve had pro authors tell me that there is a lot of “luck in this business” and that they’ve had a lot of good luck. And I’m genuinely not sure if they believe in that BS or if they are just saying it because “it’s what you say.” Certainly if you say you were lucky you sound more modest, and people like that.

    No one likes to hear how awesome you know you are. But it perpetuates this myth of luck being a factor in success, and I just don’t really believe it is. I might be in a minority on that viewpoint, but if I was going to do something luck-based, I’d play the lottery. But I don’t play games of chance. I use strategy. Sometimes my strategies may fail, but that’s not about luck. To me luck is based in superstition.

    • I didn’t mean to make it sound like I thought Rowling was only successful based on timing. She’s an enormous talent and that’s not coming from anywhere but herself. I just think there are some things out of a person’s control, but calling them luck takes away everything that person did to get to that point. So I decided it sounded more like right place, right time, which judging by the comments is pretty subjective too.

      Agree re: luck=modesty. I don’t think you’re in the minority. You’re doing as well as you are because of your talent as a writer and you’re smart business sense, but if you said it like that, people would say you’ve got a swelled head. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

      • I know you weren’t saying Rowling was only successful based on timing! 🙂

        Re: “big heads” and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, I’ll never say any success I reach was because of “luck”. But because I can’t tell the truth about it without sounding like an egomaniac, I will most likely just learn to keep my mouth shut about it altogether. Of course, if you do that… don’t talk about it at all… people think you’re a snob or hoarding knowledge. So you really CAN’T win.

  4. As a side note… someone else said something about “maybe your book isn’t as great as you thought”… and I totally agree with that. Even if a book is “great”, it may not be great in the right way… i.e. a way that people absolutely cannot put down and can’t stop talking about. When you’ve written THAT book, you know it. And if an author wants to truly succeed in the classic money/bestseller way… then they have to stop whining about how their book is “better” and learn to write a grippable book.

    And certainly this isn’t the only way to measure success or greatness. But one can’t write literary books with a tiny audience and then whine about how their book is better than the latest NYT bestseller. That’s apples and oranges and a bit disingenuous. I think too many people want to write the Great American Novel but they ALSO want it to be on the bestseller list. Those goals are “almost” mutually exclusive and a lot of bitterness could be a avoided if an author could just figure out what the hell they want in the first place and set aside what they are “supposed to want”.

    And maybe the answer is to write under more than one pen name. Write that deeper more literary stuff under one name and learn to write things that grip people…i.e. good commercial fiction… under another.

    I think when an author clings to the belief that their book was “better” than a bestseller, they are shutting down opportunities for growth. Whining won’t ever get you on a bestseller list… but writing a stronger book, might.

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