Let’s talk about luck

Since I finally managed to sell a book, I’ve had a fair few letters asking me how I managed it and what advice can I give a struggling unpublished writer. I also read lots of other writers’s and agents’s blogs and they all get the same question, which boils down to this: No matter how hard I work and how often I submit I cannot get published.

All I can say to that is that I was unpublished for almost 20 years. It sucked. I kept writing but, I admit, sometimes I quit submitting for years at a time because I was sick of being rejected. Rejection is foul. I’ve never gotten used to it.1

It’s true that the surest path to publication is to keep on writing and writing and writing. Then you have to keep submitting. It also helps if you’re talented. Those are the facts.

But there are a small percentage of people who just can’t get a break. (Let me emphasise though that it is a small percentage. Most people not getting published aren’t any good. I’ve seen those slush piles.) Such as the writer who submits a publishable chicklit book at a time when that genre is dead in the water. Had they submitted five years earlier they woulda been published for sure. Then they turn to vampires where there’s a glut and get the same result. Or they’re bought by a house just before there is a major restructuring and their contract is cancelled. Or editors keep falling in love with their books but sales & marketing does not. I’ve seen all of these happen.

Luck has an even bigger part to play in published writers’s lives. Right now there seem to be skads of six-figure deals for YA books; ten years ago there were almost none. But even if your genre is hot, as YA seems to be at the moment, that doesn’t mean you’ll wind up with the big bucks. The vast majority of YA deals I read about on Publisher’s Lunch are “nice” deals. That is, the advances2 are between $0 and $50,000. I’d be willing to bet that most of those deals are no where near $50k. Most surveys I’ve seen peg the average advance in most genres at between $5,000 and $10,000. That’s why our Real World Deal Descriptions make more sense than those of Publishers Lunch.3

My guess is that less than 10% of writers, even in a hot genre, are getting big deals. What separates them from the other 90% of writers?


The majority of the teen books that I’ve read and loved over the last few years were paid advances of $20k or less. Sometimes, heaps less.

I know of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers who are still only getting “nice” deals. This is especially true in romance.

I’ve seen horribly written, completely unoriginal books get huge advances and heaps and heaps of promotion and sell like crazy. I’ve seen other bad books get the same treatment and sink like lead balloons. I’ve seen good books get the huge treatment and fail. I’ve seen good books get the full treatment and do really well.4

What makes the difference? Who knows? But luck has a lot to do with it.

Getting a big advance, being well promoted, and generally noised about does not mean you are a great writer; it means you are a really lucky writer.

  1. And the bad news is that even after you get published you still get rejected. []
  2. Go here to learn what an advance is. []
  3. I’m kind of bummed they never really took off. Though Publishers Lunch did change what a “nice” deal is and added the “very nice” category. []
  4. Of course, my notion of what’s a “good” or “bad” book will most likely vary from yours. []


  1. Eric Luper on #

    Say it sister!!! What you describe is the very true reality of writing. I tell people all the time that the only way to ensure you will not be a starving artist is to get a job that pays enough money to live on.

  2. JS Bangs on #

    Have you read On the survival of rats in the slushpile? The author makes essentially the same point that you do here: that becoming a Big Name Author is essentially a matter of luck, once you get beyond a certain basic level of competence.

    OTOH, I think that he oversells his point by half, as he tries to conclude that being published *at all* is just a matter of luck, and that writers are better off settling for vanity press or self-publishing.

  3. barb on #

    It is important to not see rejection as actual rejection. It only means not the right time for that particular publisher.

  4. Merrie Haskell on #

    The formula I’ve taken to heart is “right manuscript, right editor, right day.” You can write the best MS you can, you can pick the editor to fling slush at with care, but the rest, indeed, is luck. It’s not insurmountable randomness, but still. It’s a factor.

  5. limeywesty on #

    If only pennys were more abundant, and mirrors were made of non-breaking glass.

  6. Chris S. on #

    So true! Some bad books sell zillions. Some good books vanish from sight. On the other hand, some bad books fail miserably, and some good books go nova. If publishers could predict accurately every time, every single book published would be a bestseller.

    It’s important to know what you can control and what you can’t. And not to allow the latter make you insane or bitter.

  7. Justine on #

    limeywest: If only pennys were more abundant, and mirrors were made of non-breaking glass.

    And people weren’t so superstitious!

    Chris S.: It’s important to know what you can control and what you can’t. And not to allow the latter make you insane or bitter.

    Absolutely! And that’s true of any industry, though ESPECIALLY of publishing.

  8. Margaret C. on #

    Great topic, justine! I’m with Chris S.: Don’t get bitter if you’re unpublished (AND don’t be all superior if you are). Whether you believe in luck, karma, or hard work, you should enjoy the writing first and foremost. If the money and contracts follow, that’s icing on the cake!

    But sometimes it’s hard. Yep.

  9. Micolz on #

    Oh, my. You’re preaching to the choir. Your coherent argument is much appreciated.

  10. Kaylie on #

    Thank you. I don’t think that’s discouraging at all. It’s nice to know that even good writers get rejected all the time, and it’s nice to read something that helps me keep at it.

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