The way I see it, an agent’s job is to eliminate the wildcard that is luck. I want to exert as much control as I can over the publication process, and leave as little as possible to chance. But you can never completely snuff out luck, or chance, or that factor X. As much as you might try.
Maybe some of you are thinking: who invited this hopeless pessimist who wants to smother the wonder and awe of luck to the party? What fun is any experience without a bit of chance? But here’s the thing: in hindsight good luck looks a lot like savvy and bad luck looks a lot like carelessness. So if you believe the spin then there is no good luck in publishing, there are just a bunch of unevenly smart and savvy people. Someone will always take credit for the pleasantly surprising strokes of good fortune and make them seem inevitable. And when things go unexpectedly and irrevocably wrong, well, that’s just bad luck. Ergo, there is no such thing as good luck in publishing.
Even so, many readers have wondered how much of a book’s success (or lack of success) is due to luck. The answer from the publishing industry is predictable: if it was successful, there was no luck involved. If it was a flop, it was, as the Brits are fond of saying when you miss an open shot on goal, unlucky. In publishing, luck is like a surprise visit from your in-laws. It’s always bad.
Publishing is fraught with bad luck stories. That perfect book you sent to the perfect editor, except that perfect editor just blew her entire budget on a similar book last week. The groundbreaking book about Zimbabwe that is published the same week as a bestselling author’s book about Zimbabwe. The discount sticker that was positioned over a key element of the cover art. All those reader reviews that gave away whodunit in your wondunit. A September 12, 2001 publication date.
I work at an agency that specializes in fiction, where the predominate idea is that a loyal and large readership is built on word-of-mouth, and the most effective publicity campaign is between the covers. It’s a very empowering belief, since content is the area where authors have the most control. For the most part I think it’s true. But there are a lot of outside factors that can determine a book’s visibility, and ultimate success. Is one of them luck? I don’t know; maybe, probably. I don’t think anyone can say with 100% accuracy which books will make it and which won’t. There’s no formula, no science, no hard and fast rules. As an element of success, luck doesn’t interest me. You can’t command it, or depend on it. It doesn’t reward hard work and talent; it doesn’t punish laziness and bad taste. There’s nothing to be learned from it. So while I can’t say that luck doesn’t play a role in a book’s shelf life, I certainly wouldn’t set a place for it at the table.
What about you? As a reader, has luck ever led you to a book that became one of your favorites? Any writers have good or bad luck stories to share?
—Cameron McClure joined the Donald Maass Literary Agency in 2004, and handles the agency’s foreign and film rights as well as her own growing client list. Prior to this she worked as an assistant agent for Curtis Brown. She represents mostly fiction, and is especially looking for projects that combine genre style plotting with literary quality writing. She is Debutante Emily Winslow’s fantastic agent, and blogs at Book Cannibal.