Sunday, June 12, 2011

Talent aside, a huge number of random factors are in your favor if you are published.

The title may sound like a downer. But it doesn't need to be. Frankly, a lot of talented people get published, but in my observation and experience, a lot of not so very talented people get published as well. Talent doesn't guarantee a person success in the least. So how do some mediocre writers get published over some very talented writers?

Humans try to find patterns and order out of chaos. We try to find reasons for why things happen the way they do, when there really is no reason to be found, only invented. I'm currently reading a rather fabulous book about randomness called The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow.
My current random read.
In it, the author illustrates some enthralling examples of how randomness plays out in different industries, and how people try to intepret meaning where there is none. Eventually this causes them to lose out in the end. Mlodinow applies the idea of randomness to the publishing industry as well. Here is an excerpt that caught my attention:

"Suppose four publishers have rejected the manuscript for your thriller about love, war, and global warming. Your intuition and the bad feeling in the pit of your stomach might say that the rejections by all those publishing experts mean your manuscript is no good. But is your intuition correct? Is your novel unsellable? We all know from experience that if several tosses of a coin come up heads, it doesn't mean we are tossing a two-headed coin. Could it be that publishing success is so unpredictable that even if our novel is destined for the best-seller list, numerous publishers could miss the point and send those letters that say thanks but no thanks?"

Mlodinow goes on to share some books that were initially rejected by numerous publishers that later became known in an average household in the western world. One publisher, after rejecting The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, "responded with such comments as 'very dull,' 'a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions,' and 'even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it.' . . . Anne Frank has sold 30 million copies" since then (despite the fact that my 8th grade self tends to agree with that publisher :D). Mlodinow goes on to describe the rather random events leading up to Grisham's  success. He also points out that Dr. Seuss's first children's book was rejected by 27 publishers. 

This leads up to my favorite little bit in this section. Mlodinow writes, "There exists a vast gulf of randomness and uncertainty between the creation of a great novel - or a piece of jewelry or chocolate-chip cookie - and the presence of huge stacks of that novel - or jewelry or bags of cookies - at the front of thousands of retail outlets. That's why successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set - the set of people who don't give up."

So to answer my initial question regarding why some writers get published and why others don't, I think the answer is that there really is no right answer. It may sound like a cop-out but I think Mlodinow is able to illustrate this quite well in his book. Too many butterflies flap their wings in the course of a person trying to publish a work. Trying to pin down one reason as to how a work becomes a best seller is futile. 

The biggest little nugget of wisdom that I have been able to glean is this: Drop the mindset of "well, my stuff has been rejected by 10 publishers, then it wasn't meant to be." Don't fall into that easy trap of fatalism. Keep trying and you'll get there... eventually. 

Yes, talent is a big part of it that helps your chances slightly, but really, a bunch of random factors go into a work being accepted into publication or not. Keep playing the game. Keep flipping that coin. Eventually it will turn up heads at one point. I know we've all heard it before, but that's what keeps me going at least. And I think it merits some repeating... :)

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