Why is Success in Writing so Elusive?

Popularity ranking or The Long Tail
Why is the writer's life so hard? Because readers tend to forget what they read? That's what a recent post by Ian Crouch in the New Yorker suggested: if true, then whatever passing success we might have with our books is destined to fade unless we can do something dramatic to remain in the "public consciousness" (is that possible for books? I wonder...)

Tobias Buckell, a New York Times best-selling author with a long experience of digital publishing, made a further suggestion: 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now he says, and he explained why on his blog (here). Very, very few books sell, he points out, most are nested in the so-called "long tail", i.e. forgotten, submerged in the Kindle's two million book titles. In one word: passed over, burned away. Only the top 100 titles on Amazon sell, the others don't. It's a vicious, self-feeding circle, the crown always comes to rest on the same heads in the green area.

He then applied to the world of books the concept of "survivorship bias" often used in finance but born during World War II from a question put by the US Air Force to a math genius (curious about that? See here, a long read but as Buckell says, most profitable). Mathematically speaking, much more can be learned from median and below-average data, in this case from the majority of writers  (those who don't sell) rather than from the few who do. Survivorship bias means we are overlooking the lessons from failure, thus leading us to an overly optimistic view of digital self-publishing.

You should always pay attention to both sides of the equation, the winners and the losers. You should always ask yourself "what am I missing, is what I see all there is?"

To illustrate the point, Buckell refers to one of Mark Coker's most telling diagrams in his recent Smashwords marketing guide (a must-read, by the way):
And this diagram, once populated with real data from real book sales made by Smashwords' clients (note: most writers who are digitally published use Smashwords) looks even worse, steeper - the green area is almost gone! - and with a super long, flat tail:


 This is the lesson Buckell draws: "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."

Sure, a "formula for success" that is a mirage and a lure. And people stuck in the long tail are not talking, they're not telling you why they're stuck there. As journalist David Mc Raney says on his fascinating blog exploring the concept of self delusion, "if you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete."
 
So what can we learn from failure? Put another way, for us poor writers, how do you get out of the long tail?

Buckell's advice is simple: pay attention to those charts and act accordingly. He says he's  "thrilled" with where he is, and that is certainly far ahead of many: "over half my income", he explains "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."

More precisely, what I walk away from what he says is this. Being a "hybrid" author, Buckell uses all the different means available to an author today:
- big publishers
- digital self-publishing
- crowdsourcing (great to get funds to finance your marketing expenditures)
- sales off his website (yes, it's cool and clean-looking)
And as he says (in the conversation listed below) he's open to "some interesting other companies that are popping up" without telling us which ones...

Indeed, what one should do is play the "long game", there's not one "true new way to success" but many...Writers have created now, through digital publishing, a direct-to-reader marketplace: up to them to use it in the best possible way! That means keeping at it in every way possible, using all known marketing techniques and above all keep writing, writing, writing...And remember, to break through, ultimately you need luck and luck comes to those with an open mind, who keep smiling and trying everything that comes their way. 

Think positive!

Any advice you'd like to add based on your experience?
 
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