What Causes Success?

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Some will say it’s talent.  Others will say it’s marketing.  But the research done by Matthew Salganik points to something else as a the final step from obscurity to success.  It’s something we don’t yet understand, and so we call it… luck.

Salganik wanted to know why some things—a painting, a song, other artistic works — become the Most Greatest Super Things while others of seemingly equal artistic quality plummeted into nothingness with scarcely a whisper.  So he created a bunch of online worlds — parallel universes, if you will, to study alternate histories — and introduced the same new songs into each world.  Then the teenagers assigned to each world got to choose, independently of the other worlds, the songs they most liked.

Guess what?  There was no consistency whatsoever.  Once a baseline of quality was achieved, whether a song hit the top or sank to the bottom was a matter of luck.

For writers, this is both heartening and heartbreaking.  It’s somewhat nice to know a rejection or drop in sales isn’t necessarily a reflection of the work’s quality.  But it’s frustrating, even maddening, to know our stories will be found or ignored for reasons beyond our control.

So we writers must continue to do what we can to influence the odds: write more, ensure the work remains available on a variety of platforms, and plug away at lettings folks know where the work can be found.  Each of those steps increases the opportunity for luck to meet our preparation.  After all, I’ve just now discovered Martha Wells’ Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy—a decade after its original publication—because of a recommendation Kate Elliott made on Twitter and on her blog.

How do you make that happen on purpose?  As soon as someone figures that out, we’ll have a new word for luck.

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