By Writing Excuses | August 25, 2013 - 6:22 pm - Posted in Business, Career, Season 8

When people who have succeeded at a given endeavor speak about their success, we are inclined to listen because hey, we’d like to succeed there as well. It’s critical to recognize the bias here. Survivorship bias is the skewing of the data that occurs when you examine and seek to emulate successes without considering failures in that same space.

Here at Writing Excuses we suffer from it. So in this podcast we’ll talk about the places in which our experiences may just not apply to you because we got lucky. Sure, there are things we’ve done right, and clearly in some cases we’ve been able to exploit good fortune to our advantage, but in this episode we’ll focus on the non-reproducible aspects of our own success with an eye toward helping you to focus your own efforts on the things that actually matter.

The Liner Notes We Keep Promising You: Here is Tobias Buckell’s post on Survivorship Bias (note: contains strong language)

Word of the Week: “Rothfussian,” which means “writing something so awesome on your first go that success cannot be denied to you.”

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: We plugged Michael Moorcock's Elric series for you, but those are no longer available on Audible. You might consider Moorcock's Blood: A Southern Fantasy instead.

Writing Prompt: A very successful author or artist has a fan who decides to emulate that creator's life in crazy, cargo-cult detail in an effort to become similarly successful.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 25th, 2013 at 6:22 pm and is filed under Business, Career, Season 8. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

44 Comments

  1. August 25, 2013 @ 10:40 pm


    Dan hit the nail right on the head with his comment at the very beginning. The publishing industry is changing so rapidly that anyone who broke in before 2011 is not qualified to tell beginning writers what they should and shouldn’t be doing to get published.

    In fact, this whole concept of “getting published” that you guys are always talking about is itself a major aspect of your own survivorship bias that none of you seem to be able to see. Publishing is easy. Publishing is a button. “Getting published” is not a challenge–you can get drunk, write a book, and publish it in less than an hour. Even producing a quality book, with professional cover art, professional editing, and professional formatting is not particularly difficult or expensive–and that goes for print as well as for ebooks. The last great advantage of traditionally publishers–getting books into bookstores–is already eroding, with CreateSpace and Lightning Source discounting for booksellers just like the major distributors. It is now possible, and perhaps even preferable, to have a viable writing career without ever publishing a book through a major New York publisher.

    In my own experience, Mary’s advice about not writing novellas is particularly bad. I am a nobody, with very little platform and only a handful of self-published titles to my name, and the most success I’ve seen so far has been in publishing a series of $2.99 novellas with the first in the series perma-free. Before that, I was selling maybe a dozen books per month; now, I’m selling hundreds. Granted, it’s not a huge runaway success, but it’s showed me that there is a place for stories of this kind, and that writing novellas is a strategy that’s very well suited to an indie writing career such as my own. As always, though, YMMV.

    tl;dr — It’s great to see you guys try to address this survivorship bias issue, but I think it’s much more pervasive than you realize–perhaps even more than you’re capable of realizing. Great podcast though.

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  2. August 25, 2013 @ 10:41 pm


    Great insights in this cast and thanks for linking to the blogposts.

    Howard, to address the concerns that we never hear from people in the graveyards…
    Didn’t you once do a Schlock merchandise / t-shirt offer which didn’t work out as well as you might have hoped? Could you be our graveyard ghost and tell us where things went wrong, and how you’ve adapted for future Schlock-related ventures?

    Posted by Jonathan
  3. August 25, 2013 @ 11:03 pm


    Check your own bias, Joe. HARD. Everything you’re saying applies to you.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  4. August 25, 2013 @ 11:07 pm


    The little setbacks I’ve had are horrible examples, because they’re things where I can clearly see what I was doing wrong, and they’re things that a lot of people do wrong.

    I’ve said before that this is kind of like making grizzly bear soup — first, kill a grizzly bear. The rest is just a soup recipe. The survivorship bias we’re most likely to lead you astray with is with regard to where we found our grizzly and how we killed it. The soup recipe stuff is just number-crunching.

    The early merchandise mistakes I made amounted to not asking people what they wanted. I’ve got a platform, I can use it for inbound marketing as well as outbound marketing. That’s basic business.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  5. August 25, 2013 @ 11:33 pm


    I can’t really say I’ve “survived” yet, but yes, I know I need to be aware of my own biases. But when you talk about “killing the grizzly bear,” are you talking about how to tell an amazing story, or how to “break in”? Because almost nothing on this podcast was about story or craft–it revolved almost entirely around how to break in.

    Then again, maybe I’m biased.

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  6. August 26, 2013 @ 12:11 am


    Howard,
    I think you meant *Nassim* Taleb.

    Posted by Scot
  7. August 26, 2013 @ 7:25 am


    […] know I’ve mentioned the Writing Excuses podcast here before, but I just had to highlight this weeks episode, which gives some very solid (if, somewhat disheartening) advice. Referencing an interesting […]

  8. August 26, 2013 @ 8:40 am


    Very much enjoyed this podcast and I wish I had been given this sort of advice when I was in school for acting.

    The 3 points I got from this podcast were:
    1) Just because it worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you
    2) Sometimes writers teach the opposite of #1 to their students
    3) “Search the graveyard” to figure out why #1

    But here’s my question: isn’t the hypothesis that it will happen AT ALL part of the survivorship bias? To me it seems like the survivorship bias has to be extended to say that anyone succeeding is the exception and while the student can do everything in his power to do the “right” things to try and stack the odds in his favor, it is still a “fluke” when people succeed.

    I have plenty of friends who are talented, hard-working, attractive actors who are doing the “right” things to get their careers going and still nothing. They aren’t doing anything “wrong” as far as I can see and they can compare themselves to actors who have succeeded until they’re blue in the face, but that isn’t going to make my friends the stars of the next Hollywood blockbuster.

    I think the problem that nagged me listening to the podcast was that I was left with the feeling that there still are “rules” to succeeding it’s just that they’re always changing and don’t apply from one author to the next, but they’re still out there. To me, that doesn’t account for the fact that luck plays a huge role in how our lives shape up. If two people write books that are equally good and do the same things to try and get published and A does and B doesn’t, it just might not ever happen for B and he might eventually have to get to the point where his goals need to be redefined.

    Great podcast and I enjoy listening, just wanted to share my 2 cents this morning. I’m working on a novel now and if it gets published you guys can interview me and I’ll tell everyone that listening to the podcast worked for me, but won’t necessarily work for them.

    Posted by Sean
  9. August 26, 2013 @ 8:59 am


    Goodness grapes, comics are hard. My dad was on keenspot, had fans, a print run, and still could never support our family off his work. He ended up giving up. After watching that I was silly enough to start my own comics.

    My silly assumption was that you get popular around chapter 2 :P

    I’m still in the trough of despair with 150 readers.

    Posted by Bones McKay
  10. August 26, 2013 @ 9:08 am


    @Bones First, who’s your dad? Have I met him? Second, I like to quote Dave Kellett on matters like this — we make comics because it’s a thing we’d be doing anyway, not because we expect to be wealthy. Third, I’m going to assume that “silly enough to start my own” means “it looked like Dad was having fun, so I tried it and found out that it is!” My dad was an attorney. Never at any point did I look at what he was doing and think I should try it for kicks.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  11. August 26, 2013 @ 9:26 am


    @Sean: Apples and oranges, I think. Except they both grow on trees, and groves of them need to be cared for. So… yes, your comparison works.

    I know enough agents, editors, and new authors to feel confident in THIS statement: the publishing industry, as a top-down, career-building entity, is still a going concern. Manuscripts are still getting sold and contracts are still getting signed, new authors continue to appear in all genres, and the ebook revolution appears to have given reading (as a leisure activity) a huge shot in the arm.

    Yes, for every face you see in the movies there are thousands of equally skilled and comely faces waiting tables in the greater Los Angeles area, and for every published manuscript there are thousands of equally excellent unpublished novels collecting dust, slush-jam, or rejection letters.

    What’s the take-away, though? Give up, because there’s no hope? Well, some folks do that. Repurposing my paraphrase of Dave Kellett, the thing all writers have in common is that they write. If you write because it’s what you’d be doing anyway, then keep doing it. You enjoy it, you’re getting better at it, and like Han Solo you don’t need some droid telling you the odds.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  12. August 26, 2013 @ 9:30 am
  13. August 26, 2013 @ 9:39 am


    Howard,

    I don’t know if you know him but he worked on Alice Comics. Also, I totally agree with the quote, I’m just giddy about comics. I think the silliness is what I want, not the giving up on art forever. My dad did that for a while, then I guess my silliness caught on and he started up again.

    Same thing happened with my mom, but now she’s finished illustrating another children’s book. Artist parents are pretty great.

    Posted by Bones McKay
  14. August 26, 2013 @ 9:42 am


    Joe: The grizzly bear is “tell a story that suddenly has thousands of people reading it and wanting more story.”

    In short, tell a story that results in a platform. This can be as a result of a sweet, A-list publishing deal, or runaway popularity of your tumblr account. It’s impossible to predict, and it’s no respecter of form, formula, or format. A stick-figure comic resulted in a nomination for a Hugo Award (Randal Munroe, XKCD) — none of us could have predicted that.

    BUT! Once that platform exists, even in just its earliest form, once the grizzly is dead on the forest floor, it is time to make soup. The soup recipe IS a respecter of formula. Principles of inbound marketing, filtering, R&D, and outbound marketing will let you take the grizzly bear, the soup, and the whole rest of this overburdened metaphor to the bank.

    Do I have survivorship bias regarding the soup recipe? Of course I do. But I’m engaging with other cartoonists on a daily basis, talking about these things, and the common element is “if you have a passionate following, you can make money.” The soup flavors will differ (a lot) but that’s a function of the inbound marketing driving the R&D.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  15. August 26, 2013 @ 10:21 am


    In that case, I think the problem is that those of us who are following the self-published ebook route are actually trying to make shark soup, and all this talk of how to kill grizzlies isn’t all that helpful. The publishing houses might be looking a runaway blockbuster that “suddenly has thousands of people reading it and wanting more story,” but for writers who can put out new stories quickly and consistently, the slow-growth model works just as well. With ebooks, the only significant up-front investment is time, so patience is the only start-up capital you really need. One book probably won’t give you much of a platform, but after fifteen or twenty, something is probably going to stick.

    Also, can I just take a moment to say how much I hate the word “platform”? That word makes me feel like a sleazebag every time I talk about it. I’d much rather think of my readers as people than as chips in some sort of a marketing shell game. I know it’s a necessary part of “making soup,” as you put it, but still …

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  16. August 26, 2013 @ 10:44 am


    Joe: Re: the metaphor — Shark, grizzly, whatever. The overarching strategy is the same — keep shooting, keep fishing, keep plugging away, whether you’re submitting manuscripts to agents and editors or putting books out on Amazon or blogging or tumbling or whatever. At the end of the day, you either have enough bear-shark for soup, or you don’t. And sometimes you NEVER do, even though you’re using the same ammo, the same bait, the same tricks and tools as folks currently supping at the bear-shark buffet.

    Re: “Platform” — I can’t talk about 150,000 readers as individuals, but when I meet them I can talk TO them, one at a time. And I do. And the only way to build a business that lets me do that, and lets me keep writing and drawing for them, is thinking of them (at least from time to time) as a single body whose behaviors average out in some way. The word “platform” can be replaced with the word “audience,” but after a while you’ll get the same queasy feeling from THAT word, because you haven’t owned up to the fact that as a businessperson sometimes you MUST consider your customers as a market, as a demographic, as an aggregate body rather than as individuals.

    Watch Brandon at BYU, or Tracy Hickman at GenCon, or really any of us at a busy signing. A 30-second snippet will show you that we treated that person in front of us as their own person, as an individual who is separate from the crowd. A 30-second time-lapse of the whole signing won’t communicate that detail, but it’ll demonstrate what has to be done in order to get the crowd to move, and in order to ensure the smooth commission of sweet, sweet commerce.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  17. August 26, 2013 @ 11:52 am


    One thing I got from reading the original article referenced by Tobias Buckell’s post had to do with survivorship bias and luck.

    Apparently, luck is actually just being open to new experiences and trying lots of things. For example people who are ‘lucky’ are ones who don’t go to a party looking for a perfect mate, but go to a party hoping to meet fun people.

    Becoming a successful published author seems to have the ‘luck’ factor.

    Posted by Teresa
  18. August 26, 2013 @ 1:31 pm


    This BBC article, entitled “The loser’s guide to getting lucky” might be of interest.

    Posted by Ed
  19. August 26, 2013 @ 7:32 pm


    I think survivorship bias is a huge flaw in the 10,000 hours of practice idea.

    The 10,000 idea that’s run amok in the popular culture is that if you just put in 10,000 of deliberate practice, you will be successful because talent or early success doesn’t mean that much.

    The problem is that Ericsson’s research, the research that Gladwell and the Talen is Overrated people based their books on, never proved that.

    Ericsson only looked at correlations. He took a bunch of successful people and looked at their work habits. Hum, they’ve put in a lot of hours.

    BUT he did NOT do any studies that determined causation. At least, not in the papers of his I read. He did not take a randomly selected group of people, create a control group, and then see what their eventual success was in a given task at various levels of practice.

    He especially did not take artists and see what their eventual popular success was. He only looked backwards. Oh, the Beatles played a lot in Germany–that must have been the key to their success.

    But he totally misses the factor early success plays. Especially in writing and other tournament-style endeavours where rejection plays a huge role.

    So many people quit because the effort is not worth the reward. What you have left then are a bunch of people who perservered, but was it the hours they put in that led to their success? Or did they have a lot of hours because they hung in there?

    And did they hang in because they had early success?

    And did they have early success because of luck or some natural aptitude or advantage like birthday that seems to factor so heavily in Canadian hockey (right birthdate means you’re older compared to the other kids and therefore seem to have talent when it’s just a few months more development)?

    Furthermore, when you do some simple math and look at surveys of writers breaking in, 10,000 starts to look odd.

    Lets say you’re a poopy-slow writer and can only get 250 words in per hour. In 10,000 hours will you have written 2.5 million words or about 25 100k novels.

    25 novels?

    You say, hey, you can’t be typing the whole time. Okay, what if you spend about half that time writing and the other editing and doing pre-draft work? That’s still 12.5 novels.

    That sounds like Brandon. Except it’s not. Remember, he sold number 5 or 6.

    Furthermore, the problem is that from all the surveys I’ve seen, writers who have broken in aren’t averaging 12.5 novels. They’re averaging 3-4, with a lot selling their first or second.

    Hello, Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling.

    From Jim Hines: “I also asked how many books people had written before they sold one to a major publisher. The average was between three and four. Median was two. I was surprised, however, to see that the mode was zero. 58 authors sold the first novel they wrote.”

    See: http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/novel-survey-results-part-ii/

    See other surveys here: http://johndbrown.com/writers/writing-business-facts-figures/

    Gladwell seems to scoff at this reading of his original writings on the matter: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/08/psychology-ten-thousand-hour-rule-complexity.html

    But this is precisely the message so many have taken from the studies. Just put in the time and you’ll become great because the practice is more important than any natural aptitude. Or early success.

    I’m not saying hard work isn’t valuable. I’m not saying good practice can’t make you better.

    I am saying that popular success cannot be bottled. Not even with 10,000 hours.

    Posted by John Brown
  20. August 26, 2013 @ 8:13 pm


    John Brown: You and I are in agreement here, which is why I’m very careful when I stress the importance of focused practice (especially under the guidance of an expert who can show you where you’re making mistakes.) My own interpretation of the 10,000 hours rule is that it is no guarantor of success. It is a strong, strong predictor of expert performance. Gladwell may have overplayed Ericsson’s research, but in my reading I never got “success” from it. I got a methodology for becoming very, very good at that thing you want to do.

    Expert performance and success are completely different things.

    On of our major goals with Writing Excuses, at least with the “crunchy” episodes, is to help guide people into expert performance. With the fluffy, career-oriented episodes we’re more likely to cover “success-ish” stuff, but we try to take the non-guaranteed angle. We’re talking about giving you the tools and the strategies you need so that you can drag opportunity into the house and empty its pockets the moment it knocks on your door.

    And in this episode we’ve described circumstances in which opportunity stumbled upon our house blind drunk with pockets full of gold, and acknowledged that a more sober, more wary, less lucre-laden opportunity would have changed things entirely.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  21. August 26, 2013 @ 9:41 pm


    “Expert performance and success are completely different things”

    Boy, do I agree :) Especially when we say commerical success.

    Here’s a great case in point: Judson Roberts. The guy gets a three-book Harper Collins deal for historical fiction. The books come out and don’t do as well as lots of people would have liked despite rave reviews from all sorts of people.

    Great execution. No “success.”

    This is partly the publisher’s fault for putting them in the YA section. Partly the fact that you only have an 8-12 week window in traditional brick-and-mortar distribution to hit a noteworthy sales volume .

    Judson gets his rights back and indie publishes the books. And sells tens of thousands of copies, making much more moo-lah than HC ever dreamed about giving him.

    Same books. Same great execution. Now he has success.

    Posted by John Brown
  22. August 26, 2013 @ 11:36 pm


    Take 1,000 manuscripts, reasonably refined.

    Submit them all to editors. A certain number will be picked up.

    Turn them all into ebooks, self-pubbed. A certain number will sell well.

    I posit that the overlap of “bought by editors” and “selling well self-pubbed” will be less than 10%. It would not surprise me if the overlap was ZERO.

    I do not have the time to actually conduct this experiment.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  23. August 27, 2013 @ 12:00 pm


    Joe: I think you missed my point about novellas. When Brandon suggested that people write novellas he was not taking into account his exiting platform.

  24. August 27, 2013 @ 1:10 pm


    The threshold of “selling well” is completely different for self vs traditional publishing, though. A few hundred sales per month (or even less if spread out over multiple titles) is enough to sustain a self published writer. It makes no difference whether these sales come right away or don’t pick up until years after initial publication. For traditional/big pub, the book has to have tens or hundreds of thousands of sales in the first few months, or it’s a failure.

    This is not a difference of nuts and bolts. It’s a case of conflicting paradigms. Hybrid authors can straddle both worlds, but their approach for the one is not the same as their approach for the other.

    Mary: I’m not sure what you mean.

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  25. August 27, 2013 @ 3:58 pm


    You said, “Mary’s advice about not writing novellas is particularly bad.” Only I didn’t tell people not to write novellas. I said that I thought that Brandon’s advice was founded on the fact that it works for him. But when he looks at his success with self-publishing novellas, he isn’t taking into account that he has an existing audience. A new writer should not expect the same levels of sales because they don’t have that audience.

    For traditional/big pub, the book has to have tens or hundreds of thousands of sales in the first few months, or it’s a failure.
    No. This isn’t true. For instance, it only takes 4000 hardcovers to hit that NYC bestseller list. A few hundred sales per month is good for a traditionally published author. They may not be blockbusters, but publishers understand that they only get a couple of those a year, if they are lucky. Everybody else is mid-list.

  26. August 27, 2013 @ 6:15 pm


    Love the episode. I usually don’t listen to you guys for advice on publishing, but I value the writing advice very highly. I thought it was easy to see the bias of this show, do people actually listen to this for tips on being published? Maybe the comic strip guy, Howard, but for beginning novelists like myself I think it’s better to listen to Dean Wesley Smith or Konrath on the appropriate way to break in nowadays.

    But what would I know really? I’m an attorney and find traditional publishing contracts to be shockingly bad, but other than that I have no idea what it really takes to break in.

    Hard work and persistence, of course it takes that. Beyond that who knows? I do know that I’ll probably never try to get traditionally published, not with the self publishing option out there.

    I will continue to listen, think and do my homework. I might change my mind. Probably not. I don’t like begging for scraps and giving away my freedom if I don’t have to.

    @Mary – E-publishing series of novellas has led to a great deal of success for unknown authors. The novella bias doesn’t exist in the electronic market, people aren’t seeing skinny books and avoiding them like they might on book shelves. Short books look the same as big books. I think that’s what the guy above was saying. Also you should note he is quoting and heavily referencing Joe Konrath’s recent blog posts. Konrath is a big ebook indie publishing prophet with many followers…but you probably knew that.

    Posted by Jo
  27. August 27, 2013 @ 9:24 pm


    @Jo: And Konrath, it should be noted, is positively SWIMMING in survivorship bias. Citing the cases of outliers like Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, and Amanda Hocking is confirmation bias, and rather disingenuously so.

    Y’all need to be careful when you defend your arguments by calling us out on our biases because HOLY BIAS, BATMAN, BIAS IS EVERYWHERE.

    And that’s the point. You have to learn to look past the biases in order to find out what’s really going on, and what might work for you.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  28. August 27, 2013 @ 9:41 pm


    Not to contradict y’all, but at the same time as survivorship bias exists…. you have survived. You made it. And you do have something valuable to share. You’re experience qualifies you to advise and predict future trends.

    Ok, but you do have a point.

    Perhaps the point could be put like this: some career aspects are incidental and others are essential. Genre is incidental; work ethic is essential. The route to success is incidental; a professional, congenial attitude is essential. The marshmallow diet is incidental; the quick wit is essential.

    Great podcast! I’ve become a WE junkie. Almost caught up on all the episodes. May create a web comic fantasy about puppets while wearing Dan Wells’ glasses, just so that I make it to the big time….

    Posted by Matthew Sample II
  29. August 27, 2013 @ 10:13 pm


    Howard: I agree. Which is why I stand by my statement that anyone who broke in before 2011 is not qualified to tell beginning writers what they should and shouldn’t be doing (and I include myself in that list). The best we can say is “this is what’s worked for me, YMMV.”

    Mary: All I know is that in two years of self publishing, writing novellas has gained me a readership much more effectively than anything else. From that, I can say that it’s not just writers with an established readership who can find success with novellas. YMMV.

    Also, I don’t think your numbers match what I’ve read on Kris Rusch’s blog. Perhaps in the middle of the summer dead season, but that’s admittedly not my area of expertise. However, I do know that I’m a lot closer to making a living with my current numbers as a self published writer than I ever would be with the same numbers as a traditionally published author. Considering how we all compete in the same marketplace, I think I’ll stick with self publishing for now.

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  30. August 27, 2013 @ 10:32 pm


    Couldn’t agree more Howard.

    Posted by Jo
  31. August 27, 2013 @ 11:33 pm


    To follow up. My plan, such as it exists, is to self publish and if that goes well to use that to leverage a print contract. Hoping to get a worthwhile publishing deal with my established track record. I’ll let you know in 5 years how that works out…and of course I’ll change it up as soon as circumstances within the industry change.

    Posted by Jo
  32. August 28, 2013 @ 5:16 pm


    I love this episode. The lesson is pretty clear. What works for someone may not work for another. It’s good to be realistic and to not affirm the consequent. I have to admit that I often wonder which advice I should listen to since many writers contradict each other based on their experience. For example, I always heard many writers say, “Don’t expect to quit your day job. Many writers need to work another job or have a working spouse to support”. So it threw me a bit off guard when I would hear some writers say, “You can make real money from writing! You can make money from it!” It leaves me confused, but in the end I can tell that some writers who couldn’t support themselves on the writing think that the same applies to all writers, and likewise writers who could support themselves on their writing think that the same applies to all writers. I think the best thing that a writer can do is just analyze your situation, use your best judgment, notice the circumstances, and judge what is right for you. I noticed a problem also where I would see writers who talked about the writer who made more than $1 million from a self-published book and thought that this success could be easily replicated. I can tell how important it is to judge why one is successful and others won’t be successful. I like how despair.com once had a meme that said, “Before you go out to beat the odds, make sure you can survive the odds beating you”. Yeah, I love success stories, but it’s good to recognize biases.

    Posted by Callie
  33. August 29, 2013 @ 9:42 am


    Just ran into this old article on cumulative advantage and thought I’d throw it into the conversation: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?_r=0

    Premise: amazing market successes are determined less by formula, and more by the whim of large masses of people acting both individually and as groups.

    Enjoy!

    Posted by Matthew Sample II
  34. August 29, 2013 @ 10:12 am


    Deterministic vs probabilistic.

    I think this is at the heart of this discussion.

    Deterministic factors are mechanical: if you do X then Y will occur. If you drink a gallon of rat poison, you will die. Every time.

    Probabilitic factors only raise the probability that something will occur. They may raise the probability a lot or a little. If you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, you increase your risk of lung cancer dramatically, but you still might live to a ripe old age and never get that cancer.

    I think most everyone listening to this podcast probably wants to entertain lots of readers. Especially paying ones.

    But I can’t see ANY factor that is deterministic.

    Writing something is necessary, but not sufficient.

    Distributing your work in some way (via brick-and-mortar stores, online stores, convention booths, your own website, etc.) is necessary, but not sufficient.

    We could list all the actions someone might take to develop, market, and distribute our books and stories, and I think we’d see that none of those actions guarantee anything.

    So which ones increase the probability? Which of those are feasible? And which ones have a good likelihood of a decent return on the investment of time and money?

    It would be great if there were tons of studies to show us how various factors affected the probability of us attracting the attention of and then entertaining gobs of readers. There are some surveys that seem to shed a little light. The link in my previous post links to a few.

    But I think we still work mostly with anecdotal evidence. Mary Robinette did this, Brandon did that, Larry Correia did this, etc.

    And so we have to try to arrive at some conclusion without be able to send our data through a rigorous examination. How?

    Well, I think this podcast points us in that direction. Sure, we find out the details about what happened to the person and what exactly they did. But we can’t then assume it will work for us.

    I like the question posed in the podcast: what does the graveyard look like?

    Okay, Brandon is doing gangbusters selling novellas. Others without platform are as well. What are the details about that AND what does the graveyard look like? How many others are selling novellas and not doing so well? What’s the failure rate?

    Just asking that one question helps us temper our expectations.

    Once we see that, we can look at commonalities between those that failed and those that didn’t and our own experience and make conjectures. Many of which might be wrong.

    And then, if it’s feasible, we can give it a shot. Because in the end you CAN’T win if you don’t play the game. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, well, we can try to figure out why, realizing we still might draw faulty lessons from the experience.

    In the end, I think the message of the podcast is vital: check your expectations because in this game there are no sure bets.

    Posted by John Brown
  35. August 29, 2013 @ 12:54 pm


    […] two websites that I recently visited.  The first, is this week’s Writing Excuses podcast on “Survivorship Bias”, and the other comes from an article that I saw on TOR’s website, entitled, “The Only […]

  36. August 29, 2013 @ 7:40 pm


    All passengers should be on board when the survivorship casts off, otherwise you will have to swim…

    Come sail your survivorships around me
    And burn your bridges down…

    Don’t forget to check the graveyard, the survivorship is headed outbound and those who miss it… can take their ebooks out on the information superhighway?

    Anyway, a transcript for the text of it.

    http://wetranscripts.livejournal.com/78321.html

    Posted by 'nother Mike
  37. August 29, 2013 @ 9:52 pm


    Why has one of my comments been awaiting moderation for the past several days, while several comments from other posters have shown up immediately? Has my name/email somehow been flagged on this site, or are the moderators simply not letting my comments through?

    Posted by Joe Vasicek
  38. August 30, 2013 @ 7:58 am


    Joe You dropped into the spam trap, and we’ve been on the road so comment moderation has been via email. Lots of delay, and if we miss one (easy to do when the iOS mail app threads them the way it does), there’s no second email to let us know.

    Chill. Or be paranoid, whatever. It’s not all about you.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  39. August 30, 2013 @ 8:39 am


    I think the biggest takeaway of this podcast & comments is to just write, write, write and pick a direction and start peeing and if peeing into the wind doesn’t work then do a 90 degree turn and pee perpendicular to the wind then do another 90 and pee with the wind until something sticks. Zip your fly, look around, and tell the new recruits how it was done back in the day.

    Posted by merryxmas
  40. August 30, 2013 @ 11:42 pm


    “If I pee far, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” — Kevyn Andreasyn, from Schlock Mercenary: Longshoreman of the Apocalypse

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  41. August 31, 2013 @ 3:35 am


    And the giants have been known to remark, “Don’t pee into the wind, don’t yank on our capes…” As they wipe their faces…

    Posted by 'nother Mike
  42. September 12, 2013 @ 2:31 pm


    The best way to break in…WRITE A REALLY GREAT STORY.
    All I’m going to say is that the bad writing still outstrips the good. I think too many writers think that they are way better than they truly are due to the fact they avoid open critique. Writing according to a formula in anonymity is the best way to wander the wilderness forever. Just because you “know the rules” and have finished something doesn’t mean that “something” is any good. How do I KNOW this? I read indie submissions to a review site and am responsible for kicking the submissions that are merely able to be reviewed out to our reviewers. Before that, I was an editor at a literary journal. I’d easily say that the majority of writers don’t do the little things correctly. Stuff that has nothing to do with the writing. Stuff like submitting according to clearly posted guidelines. Then, of the stuff that does make it through, EASILY 90% of that is just crap. So, are you a writer that’s doing EVERYTHING correctly and paying attention to all detail?

    Posted by Another Anon
  43. September 15, 2013 @ 3:21 pm


    This is a great podcast!

    By the way, I half to apologies about the reading to learn to write thing. What I mean is in my own experience I’ve learned to rewrite something in my owns, not necessarily emulate whatever author in question.^^

    As far as building a platform, what if your only capable of writing short stories? Can one building a platform on those? One way I’ve sort of gotten around the short story issue is by writing connected “shared world” shorts.

    I do know the issue those, I tend to count syllables instead of words.

    Posted by Sarah
  44. November 13, 2013 @ 5:43 pm


    Hi,

    Thanks for some great insights and some new angles. I’m currently working on my own article on Survivorship Bias, in danish, on my personal blog.
    http://jaleelhamid.dk/vi-skal-laere-af-fejl-men-betale-succeshistorier/

    If anyone cares to use a translation tool, and give some feedback, I’d really appreciate it :-)

    Posted by Jaleel