The publishing gamble.

/The publishing gamble.

So. This meme that traditional publishing is like winning the lottery, [Note: Original article no longer no longer appears to be online.] eh? Specifically as it relates to the concept of “choices”:

The fact is that for almost every author who ever reads this (or any other opinion about publishing) that “choice” is a false one. With very, very few exceptions, an author does not simply choose to traditionally publish. That word “publish” is used incorrectly here. They may CHOOSE to go down a road with a microscopically tiny likelihood that publishing will happen. But for almost every writer who ever considers this, you do not “choose” to traditionally publish. Instead you choose to submit your work to the publishing industry.

This is true, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in tradpub who’d argue against it. The Road To New York sucks. Like, really sucks. It’s waiting and it’s rejection and it’s hundreds of hours of hard work with little-to-nothing to show for it.

But, for some of us, it’s what we wanted to do, because we wanted to do it. That was the “choice” (although, honestly, I’d argue the “language of choice” is more of an artefact of the selfpub community, but whatever, let’s just go with it for now).

Moving on:

The other 1,000 “choose” to traditionally publish.  This isn’t really true at all, because in choosing to go this route, you aren’t really choosing to publish. You are choosing to SUBMIT. You are choosing to buy a lottery ticket.

Woah woah woah woah. No. Stop. No. That last sentence?1 Just no.

Let’s get this straight: landing a tradpub deal is nothing like winning the lottery. Yes, the odds are stacked against you, and yes there’s an element of luck. But a lottery? Hardly.

The problem I have with this argument is that lottery wins are predicated on nothing but luck, which in this case means “randomness”. Even the one small exception–buying additional tickets in the game–is mathematically calculated, by people much smarter than yours truly, to be financially unviable for the purpose of screwing the outcome. That is, you just can’t buy enough lottery tickets to make the slightly increased percentage change of a win worth your initial investment.

The lottery, in other words, is not a game of skill, and the fact that is isn’t is why its metaphor is, I think, comforting to people who’ve been burned by tradpub. Which sucks for them, and I’m sorry for it, I really am.

But it’s also a really shitty thing to say to those of us who did “win” that New York golden ticket.

Calculating odds of publication such as they make mathematical “sense” against the odds of winning lotto is a task that’s beyond my meagre skill at addition. But I can say the odds that I was signed by my agent last year were something like 5,000 to 1. This is slightly better than the chance of a fifth division prize in Oz Lotto, or about $30 at the time of writing. I don’t have numbers to work out what my odds of getting picked up by my publisher were, and, even if I did, I don’t think the comparison would make any sense. Because it would assume the playing field was fair.

The playing field was not fair.

Getting a publisher–or, rather, getting offers from publishers–took way less time and submissions for my agent than getting my agent took for me. That’s the whole point of getting a fucking agent. Not only was she able to get me onto submission piles I wouldn’t normally have been able to get onto, but she was able to use a combination of industry knowledge, personal influence, and strategy to give me the best possible chance in the shortest possible time.

This is what I mean about the lotto analogy being kind of a shitty thing to say. Because not only is it devaluing my work, but it’s devaluing that of my agent, as well.2

Yes, there’s a certain luck in getting published. It’s the luck of having the “right” manuscript, with the “right” agent, and the “right” editor, at the “right” time, for the “right” audience. And the system is an imperfect one; it gets things wrong, and it gets things wrong a lot.

But the problem is that this “luck” isn’t the same “luck” that selfpub advocates talk about when they use the lotto analogy. It’s kind of like a biologist who says life arose “by chance”, only to have someone come along and shake up a box full of cogs and springs and demand to know why he didn’t wind up with a watch.

There’s a concept in gambling which, while not particularly relevant to lotto, is very relevant to casinos and sports betting. This type of play is called AP, or “advantage play“, and it’s a set of skills people can use to increase their returns at things from horse racing to blackjack.

If you want to make gambling analogies about the publishing industry, this is the one you want to make.

Because, sure. Some people just get fucking lucky, and more power to them. They’ve got the right book at the right time–the right ticket in the right draw–and the jackpot comes raining down. But for the rest of us, tradpub–hell, even selfpub–is about brushing up on our AP. AP strategies are writing a good query and landing a good agent. They’re having a good editor and producing a good manuscript, getting a good cover and positioning well against the market.

And, nowadays in particular, they’re about writing and writing and writing. About building a backlist and being in it for the long haul, not just a single bet– er, book.

And, look. I’m not a big expert or anything, but I’m pretty fucking sure you can’t AP lotto (and anyone who tells you you can is selling snake oil).

But you can AP publishing.

So, hey. Why not get to work?


  1. And don’t for one minute think I didn’t see what you did with the word “submit” there, either…
  2. Not to mention the taste of my offering editors, who are obviously all beautiful, perfect, intelligent people and may only the most profitable manuscripts grace their well-worn desks.
2016-05-14T10:03:57+00:0027th April, 2014|Tags: publishing, self-publishing|Comments Off on The publishing gamble.