27 May

Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now

I love this quote from the recent marketing guide that Smashwords published:

“we cannot promise you your book will sell well, even if you follow all the tips in this guide. In fact, most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well. Whether your book is intended to inspire, inform or entertain, millions of other books and media forms are competing against you for your prospective reader’s ever-shrinking pie of attention.”

(From Smashwords — Smashwords Book Marketing Guide – A book by Mark Coker – page 7.)

This just does not get emphasized nearly enough. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal since I published The Apocalypse Ocean. One, because so many rah rah eBook advocates have been indicating to me that if I’d only just publish digitally first I’d keep 70% of the profits and *obviously* make more than I would with ‘traditional publishing.’

Since 2001, I’d been involved in selling eBooks. I initially began with stories being sold through Fictionwise. I did this to test the waters, and begin understanding what I felt was going to be a new way of reading. I also have been reading eBooks since the same year. I’ve since switched to selling a portfolio of short story collections, individual short stories, novellas, and a novel via various eBook outlets.

I lay down my bonafides, because usually the first thing I get is a lot of ‘booksplainin,’ by which I mean people lecturing me about what to do as if it’s self evident, obvious, and usually based entirely on their own anecdotal experience.

In fact, the self assured expertise of anecdotes drives me nuts.

Here’s the data. Mark Coker, looking at sales of *all* the books self published at Smashwords, points this chart out in a recent slideshare of information and best practices (for all that he’s been an initial booster, I’m grateful to him for sharing some raw data, unlike the other venues which highlight, boost, and act as if the superstars’ stories are average):


The problem, right now, in eBook direct sales, is that everyone is paying and listening to people in the green area. They’re listening to everything they say, and sifting everything they say as if it’s a formula for success.

Like in most cultish behavior, if you follow the rules and don’t get the results, you’re either ostracized, ignored, or it’s pretended you don’t exist. Many who don’t get the same results just shut up and go away. Thus creating an environment where people are creating massive amounts of confirmation bias by continually listening to the top sellers.

In an interview recently, David Kirtley pointed out that in business school there’s this point made that if you interview rich people who have won the lottery, you might come to believe that playing the lottery is the only way to become rich. I thought that was interesting. One of the things I’m constantly trying to point out is that we’re not doing nearly enough to highlight both median and failure modes, because that’s where the real lessons lie. As for myself, I find message boards where new writers struggle to sell more than a few copies interesting, and where I harvest data about the low end.

That survivorship bias is useful to understand, and I just read a very large article that I think should be required reading for authors.

If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all.

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other.


Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning.

So here’s how survivorship bias affects people. Here’s a chart from Smashwords of how all the books do in their system:


Guess where on this tail-like chart above the books and authors with the most articles, blog posts, and largest followings sit?

Mark helpfully takes out the top 100 so we can get a better look at it. But remember, the people in the top 100 are the ones that everyone points to as if those results have some meaning for the rest of everyone else.


Does this mean I’m somehow against direct digital publishing? No, obviously I’m a hybrid player and have been for over a decade now. But my refusal to damn either version of publishing means I don’t get lauded by certain parties, ink isn’t spilled over me, I’m not some vanguard. I’m just a working stiff, a mid list writer with a decent but passionate audience. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks, and I’m fully aware of both and try to communicate that.

I am trying to say ‘please approach this with some rationality.’ I’m slowly building up a portfolio over time of work that I hope will offer me an additional income stream. There are some benefits to this form of publication that I like, but to be honest, in a direct apples to apples comparison, I’m making more off the much despised traditional publishing still. By a large margin. This piece of anecdotal data means that the formula for each writer is different, and the constant ‘us vs them’ battle going on is harming artists who are losing a chance to make more money, or get a larger audience, who are being led astray.

It is only by trying lots of different methods, and paying attention to real data, not cherry picked anecdata, that you will best succeed.

If you’ve been successful, good on ya. I’m thrilled when any artist breaks out to making a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.

This is not bitterness on my part. I’m actually thrilled with where I am, which is far ahead of many. Over half my income comes from writing fiction (and if I weren’t in debt from having a medical crisis in 2008 I’d likely be able to make a living just on my fiction). I’ve been slowly building my career since 1999, since my first tiny sale. Each year my readership grows, my blog audience grows, the money I make off my fiction grows. I use eBooks, traditional publishing and crowdsourcing all as tools to survive. I’m playing the long game. And maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m pretty open to that, but I’m always happy to report on what’s going on. Each successful career I’ve seen, though, requires a ton of hard work, and many people I see trying any method with a focus on shiny and new and ‘beating’ some system often flame out and fall away. Lots of people who’re doing the right thing and working hard flame and fall away too.

Making a living off art is hard.

But that isn’t a sexy sell.

That isn’t to say you should give up. Fuck that. But I am going to say: get ready to work, don’t expect riches. Focus hard on the art.

And pay attention to those charts and adjust your expectations accordingly.

There’s a lot of snake oil sales going on. And a lot of well meaning people who won the lottery telling everyone to go buy lottery tickets while financial advisors shake their head.

Pretty much the same as its always been…

PS: this survivorship bias also works for writing advice about ‘how to write’ if you think about it…

09 Jan

I told my intern… (thoughts about being a writer)

I have a new intern, joining the team with another intern I already have been working with from the local college. They do cool things for me that help with some outreach, PR, admin tasks that I struggle to keep up with.

New intern came with a notebook and lots of questions for her first meeting, and for some reason I was quite willing to talk on and on. And I wrote on twitter that I’d wished I’d recorded the little monologues. I then began to tweet what I remembered. Here’s a pseudo reconstruction of all the tweets I made:

I told my intern, it’s so hard to predict who’ll sell enough books to make a living, or make a splash. Or which books will react…

So you need to focus on doing what Neil Gaiman said, the art. The book. The story. Not whether you’re owed a living or success…

The success may come. It may not. But if you did work you love are proud of and don’t come at [the job of being a writer] with entitlement, you’ll always be proud of it…

I’ve seen a lot of writers get twisted up and bitter about that entitlement. They’ve worked so hard (and they have) and didn’t sell X… [I let expectations and bitterness sabotage me on my second novel, a hard but valuable lesson among many I learned on that book]

But in art, sometimes the hard work on a specific project doesn’t translate to success…

And that is hard [it really is] to take. But if you focus on the love of the work, then you have that. It can’t be taken away…

And if you work really hard for a very long time, you increase the chances of breaking out. Almost all overnight success is after long work… [if you look hard enough, you almost always find years of prep. I can only think of a small number of true overnight successes I’ve met. Many of them often faded away because they didn’t understand what they’d just done, or got frustrated by the next level of hard work ahead of them]

I told my intern refuse debt. Live as simply as you can b/c if you want to be an artist there are no regular paychecks…

…if single, consider exploring another country where exchange rate helps you, or do the tiny apartment thing. Minimalism. [is your ally]

I told my intern there’s nothing wrong with not making a full living off art. Amazing art comes from long time part timers…

If you part time your art, don’t resent it’s inability to make your living. Remember it’s importance, maybe even over job. But don’t resent…

I told my intern everyone around you is not an artist. They will pressure you, out of good will and love, to make bad decisions for an artist [it’s not their fault, they mean well, but they’re not doing what you’re doing]

I told my intern if you want art to be your job, it needs to be your job now. You need to spend time on it like it’s your second job.

I told my intern once you write the work, and loved it, and created it, then you become mercenary. Put on small biz cap.

…once you’ve lovingly crafted widget, you try to sell it. But don’t assume your first widget will work, entrepreneur. Maybe next…

I told my intern go out and start trying to make art, and make money off it right now. There’s no certificate, no formal hiring process.

I told my intern you will hear no a lot. It doesn’t mean anything other than ‘not right now with this.’ I still hear no all the time.

19 Dec

Survey results: how many novels did you write before selling one?

The results of my survey concerning how many books a published writer wrote before they sold their first are in.

This survey came about because not too long ago I overhead a newer writer talking about the fact that he had been submitting his first novel to publishers and was growing quite discouraged by the sheer number of rejections he’d received. The writer he was talking to asked him what he was doing while waiting for the first one to make the rounds.

“Trying to write a better query letter,” was the response.

“So you’re not working on another novel?” the other writer asked. “Because you realize you’re probably not going to sell your first.”

On the surface that sounds like a pretty harsh response, but talking to any given novelist and you’ll probably find that for a great number of them they did not break into the field with their first novel. In conversation with other novelists I found all sorts of experiences and paths to publishing, with first book written being first book sold more the exception than the rule.

However I was recently challenged when I stated that, so I decided that there was one way to get some raw data (and also reminded again by John Brown in an online discussion when he asked if anyone had ever done a survey of this): a quick and dirty survey. It’s not a perfect survey. There was slightly confusing language, a repeated question, and I’m aware of all the reasons a survey can go wrong, but I still found it interesting, nonetheless.

I received 150 responses from a variety of authors, most of them SF/F, but thanks to Diana Peterfreund and others, a large number of Romance writers.

Of these published novelists, 65% did not break in with their first novel. 35% did.

I asked, in the first question, how many novels a writer wrote before selling their first. Here is the breakdown of that with percentages rounded.

32% wrote one novel
13% wrote two
11% wrote 3
8% wrote 4
9% wrote 5
3% wrote 6
13% wrote 7 or more novels
6% wrote some short fiction first
5% wrote a ton of short fiction first

What does that tell us? Out of a group of 10 writers who will go on to be published (we can’t guess at how many are turned away unpublished, right, this is a self selecting group), 3 will sell the first novel they write. 1 will write some, or a lot, of short fiction before selling their first novel. 1-2 will sell their second. The other half will write 3 or more novels before breaking in.

This is not intended to discourage. It is intended to encourage writers to keep busy after the first one is done. Also, many of those writers who wrote multiple books were able to sell their later books. They’d grown and gotten better, and could rewrite them.

With this in mind, having heard some novelists who noted that selling a first novel could be a bit stressful, I also asked the following question. Would you recommend starting your career off by selling your first novel?

5% picked ‘hell yes!’
15% picked ‘yes’
9% picked ‘no’
9% picked ‘hell no’

62% picked ‘don’t know’ or ‘sold a later novel.’ Presumably the ‘I don’t know’ selections were later novel sellers.

So those who sold their first seemed almost evenly divided between the experience. There were a lot of comments, so I’m going to provide sample of many of them here after the jump.

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