Home » David Farland, The Business of Writing » To Win Big, You Have to Enter the Race

To Win Big, You Have to Enter the Race

19 May 2015

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

Last week I got a note from a student who just had a novel accepted by a major publisher. He seemed a little surprised at how easily it had happened, as if he’d happened to enter a horserace and had just taken first place by accident.

But it’s no accident. I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about publishing and making money in this business as having an element of chance, as if writers who succeed are just lucky. I’ll grant you, it does seem to me that at times there is an element of chance.

For example, my friend Richard Paul Evans started out as a self-published author. He took his little book out to Book Expo America—a huge trade show—and tried to get a table so that he could display it. But the tables were sold out.

Yet as he was walking through the exhibition halls, he noticed that one table was open—the vendor that had reserved it was a no show—so he quietly set up a little display and talked to people about his book. No one was interested, it seemed, but he was invited to a small bookstore in the South to do a signing.

He went to the bookstore, and signed in the midst of a snowstorm. No one came. He realized that he had wasted his time and thousands of dollars in self-publishing, but then a woman walked in late, just before the store was about to close for the night.

She brushed the snow off of her coat and got to talking to him. She told him that she was a television producer for a morning news show—Good Morning America. Due to the snow, their guest the next morning wasn’t going to be able to make it. She asked if he would be willing to stand in for the missing guest.

. . . .

Was it luck? Coincidence? Perseverance?

I think it was a combination of factors. Richard Paul Evans perseveres. He’s also smart. But eventually, when he most needed publicity, he met someone who happened to need a guest speaker, and it changed his life.

Yet time and time again I meet young would-be writers who say, “You know, those authors who make it big? It’s all a matter of luck.” This becomes their excuse for doing nothing at all.

Link to the rest at David Farland

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David Farland, The Business of Writing

56 Comments to “To Win Big, You Have to Enter the Race”

  1. I like Dave, and he has a lot of insight, but his example is the very definition of blind luck.

    • I must agree!

      Yes, the author featured was persevering. Yes, he was smart. Yes, he wrote a good story.

      Lacking those elements, he would not have been in a position to seize his luck when it arrived.

      But without the element of crazy chance, he might well have taken his realization that “…he had wasted his time and thousands of dollars in self-publishing,” and quit.

      Or maybe, because he’s the persevering type, he’d have gotten past that trough-moment and carried on writing great stories that remained undiscovered for many more years until some future “overnight success.”

      I agree that you must enter your “horses” in the “race” (write and release your books to the world of readers), if you want to win. But random chance is always a factor.

    • Agreed.

      He was in the right place at the right time…how is that anything but luck?

    • More to the point: this has the effect of convincing the rest of us that success are not only improbable, it’s impossible to achieve. On the whole, I’d rather believe that quality will out in the end.

    • Yeah, there are plenty of authors who work just as hard who don’t get the lucky breaks. This doesn’t take anything away from those who do get lucky. It is a combination of doing your job, and getting lucky. First, the job has to be done–writing a good book–then more work to get it out there. Then luck plays a factor after that.

    • I hope people know who Richard Paul Evans is, just FYI. Cribbed from Wiki:

      “Unable to find a publisher or an agent, he self-published the work in 1993 as a paperback novella entitled The Christmas Box. He distributed it to book stores in his community.

      The book became a local bestseller, prompting Evans to publish the book nationally. The next year The Christmas Box hit #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, inciting an auction for the publishing rights among the world’s top publishing houses. Evans signed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, who paid Evans $4.2 million in an advance. Released in hardcover in 1995, The Christmas Box became the first book to simultaneously reach the number-one position on the New York Times bestseller list for both paperback and hardcover editions. That same year, the book was made into a television movie of the same title, starring Richard Thomas and Maureen O’Hara.

      Evans has subsequently written 31 nationally best-selling books, including those for children, with conservative Christian themes and appealing to family values.”

      So he’s a big deal.

      • Good for him, but not relevant to Dave’s article.

        • Dan, I mentioned it not because I think we should celebrate this author, but only because the article makes it sound like he was a recent self-publisher, and because a lot of people in the comments don’t seem to know the name and what a big success he is/was. Of course that’s the reason Dave cited him.

          I completely agree that the article makes little sense, and that the statement, “it does seem to me that at times there is an element of chance” is absurd.

          • I’m with you. I may have come across as a tad more dismissive of your point than I intended. 🙂

    • Agreed. It’s great to look at the what worked for successful people, but it’s even better to see how many of those things were also done by unsuccessful people, and in what combinations.

    • Many of those who get lucky like to say it’s all about skill.

      Many of those who are skilled admit luck played a massive role.

      YMMV.

      • I agree on the first line, but I have problems with “skill.”

        The word can cover a multitude of aspects. What comes to mind is writing to the market, knowing what pleases the largest segment of the buying public, and then paying BookBub to promote.

      • I agree on the first line, but I have problems with “skill.”

        The word can cover a multitude of aspects. What comes to mind is writing to the market, knowing what pleases the largest segment of the buying public, and then paying BookBub to promote.

  2. Joe Konrath…listening?

    • To a story that quite literally lines up with his contention that it takes a whole lot of luck to strike it rich in trad pub? Probably.

    • So hand selling print books is how this man expected to achieve success in self-publishing in 2015. Then he decided that it was a failure from one day in a bookstore. In a way he was right though since without working for ebook sales, success was highly unlikely.

      If you think he somehow showed up Konrath, I can only say you are dead wrong.

      I’m not sure where the gentleman got THAT advice but it sure as hell wasn’t from anyone who has achieved success in self-publishing. In addition, anyone who thinks that success (trad OR SP) is likely to be instantaneous, including with a contract, would do well to have a very hard think. No, it is not. That is vanishingly unlikely.

      If the usually intelligent Mr. Farland was actually saying that pushing print books is the way to success, ummm… There are no words. There is nothing wrong with doing so, mind, but do NOT expect it to be the road to success.

      • Actually, Richard Paul Evans got his break way before the e-publishing boom. He self-published his book in the 1990s, I think around 1993. At that time, hand selling print books was more of a viable option than selling ebooks. He has published a number of books since, available both in print and in ebook format. A number of his books have been adapted to TV movies.

  3. I wonder if that GMA story grew in the telling. It seems to be a stretcher that a producer would be in a small bookstore in the South, needing an author, and picking a guy selling his self-published book that no one’s heard before.

    Maybe New York City doesn’t have as many notable authors as I thought.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking. Why would a GMA gal come in a grab a nobody author off the street for a fill in? I’m sorry but that feels a bit weird.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking. Why would a GMA gal come in a grab a nobody author off the street for a fill in? I’m sorry but that feels a bit weird.

    • Richard Paul Evans himself tells the story in his book, The Christmas Box Miracle. I read the book years ago, but I remember a lot of it was both luck and perseverance. 🙂

  4. There’s no such thing as luck … In other words, work hard. Be in the right place at the right time.

    Apparently being in the right place at the right time is a skill.

    Okay, okay, I’m moving on. 😀

    • I was waiting for someone to say it concisely. Bam, you can count on Dan.

      I usually put it this way, “No, hard work is a prerequisite for success AND failure.”

  5. Smart Debut Author

    To take control of your career, don’t “give up” and “waste thousands” self-publishing.
    Instead, try to buy a booth at a literary festival, or if you can’t afford the AuthorSolutions “booth signing” package, steal one. Because you might get invited to another signing in an empty bookstore in a snowstorm, and a producer of a morning TV show might get trapped in there with you, while desperately trying to fill a cancellation. Because it’s not about luck.

    Wow. Does this guy sell some kind of “author services”?

    Abysmally dumb article.

  6. I really can’t argue that if you want to win, you have to actually play the game, but on the other hand, it might be worth pointing out that you have to actually get access to said game. You can sit around on the bench and hope for the corporate jersey, but that really is mostly luck (they certainly don’t go only to the best players).

    I think Franklin said he found the luck he encountered directly proportional to how hard he worked.

  7. No one wants to think that all they’ve learned and worked for might be for nothing.

    No one wants to face the possibility that their dreams might never be realized.

    No one wants to accept the idea that success is beyond their control.

    I’m an American. I live in the land of freedom and opportunity, where anyone can grow up to be president. This is what we’re taught from a young age. That we’re worthy. That we’re special. That if we work hard enough, we can have it all.

    We see this echoed everywhere in society. Sports, politics, media. Every celebrity, every self-made millionaire. They’re all shining examples that prove it is possible to reach your dreams. And each of those shining examples will be happy to tell you about all the obstacles they faced on their trip to the top. And they believe they deserved to make it, that it was destiny, because they were smart and talented and worked hard.

    But there is a problem.

    A lot of people who are smart and talented and work hard never find success. I don’t know anyone who has read The Essays of Warren Buffett and then followed his advice and tips and became a billionaire. If worked for Buffett, why didn’t it work for me?

    Because luck always comes into play.

    This is a scary concept. People don’t want to think that bad luck might prevent them from success. Nor do they like to think good luck is the reason they became successful. I’ve shared drinks with enough bestsellers to be blown away by their sense of entitlement. Many think they deserve the success they’ve had. This belief is reinforced by everyone around them.

    We worship celebrity. It’s part of our genetic code. We want what they have.

    If it’s all just a crap shoot, then unworthy people could become rich and famous. And that’s not fair.

    Perseverance, like talent, education, and hard work, can help you get lucky.

    Coincidence, like fate, is a human construct. No one is destined for anything.

    We’re lucky our parents had sex when they did, or we wouldn’t be here. We’re lucky were were born in an affluent country, at this point in history when there are so many technological, medical, and scientific advances. We’re lucky we got free education. We’re lucky our ancestors decided books were a good form of entertainment, and lucky our contemporaries made ebooks available to the masses.

    Farland is wrong. Luck isn’t an excuse to do nothing. Luck is what stopped me from quitting when I’d done everything. Because the odds favor the one who keeps playing.

    • There’s also an old quote attributed to Coleman Cox:

      “I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”

    • This is a scary concept. People don’t want to think that bad luck might prevent them from success. Nor do they like to think good luck is the reason they became successful.

      So true. People rarely credit the luck that saw them born into right place and time in which to flourish.

      And, certainly, the possibility that the undeserving succeed while the deserving fail is repugnant. But it does happen. Think of Kay Nielsen (an artist whose work I adore) who enjoyed success for a time, but died ill and poor because his style of art had ceased to be fashionable.

      It’s shocking that his story ended thusly. He deserved riches and acclaim to the end of his days for his brilliant work. But he didn’t get it. And he is only one among many.

      Perseverance increases one’s odds of success, but even perseverance won’t make those odds reach 100%. I want to believe that all my hard work and learning and perseverance will result in success. But it might not.

      The thing is, there’s no point in staying out of the game just because the chance of failure exists. Writing stories is what I love to do. There is no plan B which comes close to touching my plan A. So I’m all in! Writing and learning every day, indie publishing each book when it is ready.

    • Everyone that knows me in person has had to reassess how they see fortune play out. I came from trailer parks, busted a** through law school, started my own firm right out of graduation by burrowing 6k from my credit card. I started in the perfect location, where there were no attorneys but a ton of population growth (due to an Amazon server farm, ha!).

      Plus I was from that wasteland area so I had tons of tumble weed credibility. It was half Spanish speaking there, and I was relearning the language quickly. I traveled all around the desert visiting the little courthouses, getting cases, first name basis with DA’s and judges, mayors (oxford comma) and city council people. 3 months in I was making expenses, the next month would have saw a profit.

      Then I got sick. Breathing problems. Lost everything. Couldn’t work, and lord knows I tried, finally the local bar members asked me to stop. Begged me really.

      Fast forward 3 more months and I’m living in my dad’s dirt basement begging the government for disability but being denied.

      The theory is I just pushed myself too hard and my body quit. It decided to be allergic to everything. I don’t like that, but hey, it’s the prevailing theory.

      The moral of the story is work hard enough and you might lose it all. Lol.

      This story is depressing as hell, but don’t look at it that way. Look at it and be thankful for what you got. I’m certainly not depressed or sad. I had a great run and I’m not dead. Losing everything allowed me to step back and reassess. What can I do when sick and in bed? Write books!

      There isn’t going to be some phoenix rising ending to my story, but here I am writing books and being alive, and it’s awesome. 🙂

    • Scott Nicholson

      Love you, Joe!

      Perseverance and hard work are skills and talents that one is LUCKY to be born with. In fact, I’d go so far as to call them character defects or even emotional disorders rather than something to be celebrated.

      On the other hand, better to be lucky than good. David Farland is awesome.

  8. Whenever I hear about what can happen, I then look at the probability that it will happen at various levels of effort.

  9. I got the impression somehow from this excerpt that the note Farland received had been RECENT.

    Doesn’t sound as if the story is recent at all if the self-publishing happened in the previous century.

    Are there no CURRENT stories like this that he had to reach so far back in time to find a story of luck?

    Outliers make good stories, but the very rarity of them means the few available get overused. ‘Luck’ is uncommon; it is more likely that competence in writing followed by competence in marketing followed by years of persistence will put the writer either in a good place, or high enough up the food chain to receive Luck’s blessing.

  10. Luck is just a blanket term we use for all of the factors that effect our lives that we have no control over. Because you just can’t wrap your mind around the thousands of things that can change your life everyday. So we pretend it’s simple and we call it luck and we pretend that you can have either “good luck” or “bad luck”. In truth you don’t “have” luck at all. It happens to you and then you react to it as best you can.

  11. I think lottery winners should write “you can strike it rich, too” books. They could describe how the secret of their success was enteing the store at exactly seven minutes past seven. Or how avoiding cracks on the sidewalk was the key. Maybe touching three telephone poles on the walk to the store, that was it.

    “The Drunkard’s Walk” is a good book on the statistical principals behind all this. Short summary – luck matters but so does persistence, and the latter is the one you have some limited control over.

    • Funny. Every time I buy a lotto ticket I think of the lecture I’m going to give after winning, about working hard and seizing the opportunities that present themselves. Lol.

  12. You also have a “Survivor’s Tale” fallacy going on here.

    A million people didn’t have this happen to them. They told no story.

    One person had this happen to them. Here’s their story.

    It can happen to anyone!

    And is the point of this article: “Keep submitting to agents. The pickings are getting slim!” ?

  13. Michael Parnell

    Sounds like some of you may need a pep talk from the motivational speaker in the van down by the river. 😉

  14. Well, to win you do have to play the game. It reminds me of an old joke about a guy who was so desperate and down on his luck that he prayed to win the lottery. Week after week, he never won. Finally, he begs God to tell him why, why he couldn’t win the lottery. Why had he been forsaken? And God said, “Son, I’ve done all I can, but you have to buy the ticket.”

    All we can do is what is under our control: write a good story, get it in shape and find a good cover, write a decent blurb, choose the categories and keywords that will get the book before the right eyes. We can buy ads, tweet and email our grandmothers. But without luck, we might just float around the shallow end of the pool, wondering why the cool kids are diving and doing fancy strokes.

    What is luck? Writing a book that hits the public just at the right time. Getting into an anthology that gets lots of sales, so that readers flock to your other books. Pick a subject that meshes with a current topic or trend. Any number of things over which we have no control.

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