Thursday, August 8, 2019

Writing a Bestseller is Like Winning The Lottery (How Facing Facts Can Help You Beat The Odds)

Have you ever stopped to consider what the odds of writing a New York Times bestseller actually are? Well, in case you haven't looked it up yourself, both Forbes and Free Money Finance say that your odds are about 1 in 200. On the one hand, those odds are significantly better than winning the Powerball (about 1 in 238,000,000 in case you're thinking about buying a ticket), but those odds still aren't great. Especially if you've got to put in sweat, blood, creative juices, and years of hellish effort just to get that one ticket ready.

Come on, baby, papa needs a new laptop!
It's pretty easy to find that discouraging. However, if you can face the facts, and accept that you probably won't beat the odds, you'll actually find the game is a lot easier to play.

Ancient Greece, Acceptance, and Spinning The Wheel

In case you're not an etymology geek, the word happen comes from the Greek hap, which referred to chance and fortune. While today we think of happiness as something we have, as a commodity generated from inside ourselves, in the ancient Western world happiness was something that literally happened to you. It came and it went much like luck, ebbing and flowing with fate and favor. And while people still had bad times, the philosophy of the language was basically that you accepted what the gods and chance gave you, because there was nothing you could do about it one way or the other.

And you would be amazed at how freeing that can be in a professional sense.

Let me give you an example.
As a quick for instance, not long after I released my pulp fantasy novel Crier's Knife, I held an ebook giveaway for it. As promotional devices go, these giveaways are a smart bet. People like free stuff, it increases the traffic to your page, and you see a lot more action than you otherwise might. I moved 700 copies over a weekend, which at the level I work at was a pretty decent success. My previous giveaway, which was for my steampunk noir collection New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam barely hit 500 copies, so I was making clear progress.

Was I involved in that process? Absolutely. I was the one who decided when to host the giveaway, I was the one who made the social media posts, and I was the one who made sure the book was ready for prime time, so to speak. I kept the comments going on the forums, and I was the one who drew as much attention to it as I possibly could. At the end of the day, though, the downloads were only partially determined by my efforts; mostly, they were determined by raw chance.

Every part of this process was affected by so many factors that were outside of my control. Facebook and Reddit's group algorithms decided who saw my posts, and more importantly who didn't see them. I also had no control over the reaction people had to my post. If they were in a good mood, or a bad one. If they decided to download my book since they liked free stuff, or if they down-voted my post because they didn't like something about my description. I had no control over who shared the link with other people, who actually read the book once they downloaded it, and of the people that did read it who left a review.

I was tossing a message in a bottle out into the ocean, and hoping against hope that a YouTube influencer with millions of fans found it, then told all their followers to go buy a copy. That didn't happen, but at the same time there was no guarantee that it would. No magic assurance that my book would become a success if I just tweaked these words in the description, or posted it on this platform as opposed to another one. There is no magic formula to bring a stampede of people with their dollars held out for more of your story.

And the sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to keep trying to make that very thing happen.

You've Got Enough of The Burden as It Is

Don't misunderstand me, here; this is your job, and you are a big part of what goes into it. You're the one who writes the book, helps with the promotion, and who is the face of your brand. You're the one turning up at shows, making your pitch, and getting people interesting. You are, in other words, the one who is buying the ticket.

You simply have no guarantee that the ticket you buy is going to be a winner.

You can, however, stack the odds in your favor.
I said this back in If You Write One Story It May Be Bad. Write A Hundred, And The Odds Are In Your Favor, but it bears repeating. The more you create, the more your put out, and the louder your signal gets, the better the odds you have of people actually discovering you. Much like how buying one ticket might only have a small chance of winning big, but if you buy a few hundred, or a few thousand, well, the odds are looking better all the time.

Because if you put out one book, one article, one YouTube video, etc., your odds of going viral overnight are pretty slim unless you already have a massive fan base of people interested in your work, or you have a gigantic budget to pay for the advertising machine it would take to acquire all those eyes. However, little successes add up over time, and every person you win over as a fan is one more snowflake to stack on your mountain. You pile them up slowly, and eventually there are enough of them to cause an honest-to-goodness avalanche.

Sure, there are some people who buy one lottery ticket as a goof, and win millions of dollars by sheer happenstance. Just like there are people whose books just happened to be in the right genre, or who told just the right story at the right time to get everyone's attention. There's no rhyme or reason to it, because it happens to good books and bad, to books that are heavily promoted, and indie darlings no one has ever heard of.

But don't you worry about that. Because whether the odds are with you, or against you, doesn't matter. Because sometimes your luck will be good, and sometimes it will be bad. But if you focus on telling good stories, on spreading the word, and on cultivating your little crop of readers, you'll get there eventually. Even better, you'll get there without "what-iffing" yourself inside out, wondering why other books got more attention, sold more copies, or got more likes than yours did.

Are there factors you can quantify? Sure there are. But they're only a tiny slice of the pie, and the sooner you learn to accept that luck is a huge part of whether you succeed or fail, the sooner you can get back to work without that huge weight of worry on your shoulders. Do your best, and let the rest take care of itself, because you cannot force fortune to turn your way.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

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