Why Survivorship Bias Will Screw You Over

Welcome to the writing world. Attend any conference where writers get to play agent/editor/sales pitch roulette, and you will hear this from someone:

Survivorship Bias
Source: XKCD

Survivorship bias is everywhere. In books, it’s the success stories of those who made it big. Or even just those who did get a traditional contract. Or the craft admonishments of those debuts who wrote their novel according to every formula of their genre. (Experienced hands don’t do this.) Or even the income statistics of authors who, very genuinely and kindly, want people to know that “I did and so can you.”

Without accounting for the ranks of those who put their work out there and never sold a single copy, and those who never even got that far, those statistics are skewed. The advice you’re getting is not from people who are used to success, but who are used to a certain type of success.

Only the “successes” get mentioned. The failures get ignored.

That means the reasons for failure get ignored, and that’s the stuff we should really be troubleshooting.

This also presupposes a particular definition of success, and if your definition doesn’t match, you could end up feeling like a failure before you even get started.

Survivorship bias is the stuff that tells you to have a useless monthly newsletter because certain people have found it fits their audience relationship, and then tell everyone that this is what works. Those people may just be from 2002, kind of like the people who recommend blogging are from 2006. Anyone who can’t make The Success Strategy work is filed under categories like Must Be Doing It Wrong or Doesn’t Really Get It.

And this happens with everything. Like networking stuff. There are, I swear, more than fifty bazillion dawg-awful advice articles about how to market yourself as a public menace, because it worked for some people in some instances, for reasons that happened to override people’s natural reactions to the harassment factor. Or for reasons that may apply to them and not others, like existing social connections.

Never mind that you will quickly, like slap-face quickly, learn that “reminding people about your product” too often or in the wrong way is not appreciated. Being annoying is not representing your work well. Not knowing which channels and presentations are and aren’t appropriate is not charming.

Have I said enough? No, I haven’t. For people who don’t understand good social boundaries and respectful two-way communication, or who don’t respect the etiquette and conventions of various platforms, there will never be enough saying it to make them stop. The only recourse is a rape whistle.

You know the authors I am talking about. You probably also know some of the guilty culprits egging them on. I bet you even read their blogs, you soulless web crawling person.

Success is counterintuitive.

Getting things to work out well is like airplane armor. You have to pay attention to whether your brain is actually being logical, or making false connections from lack of full consideration. Our brains are liars.

Also, like airplanes, applying the armor (or publishing/marketing advice) in the wrong place really can take your plane down. That hardly seems fair to you. So here’s a story.

I have a writing/critique partner in my fiction life , which is pretty much a neglected corner of my writing life overall (I’m an essayist, not a novelist). Whenever he puts out a novel, all of us who love his work go ga-ga over it. People email him and post on his social media.

But he’s rarely there.

Neither are most successful writers. It’s called a virtual assistant, and people hire them because trying to keep up with the speed, frequency and intensity of public contact is a recipe for burnout. A larger writing franchise may find it worth hiring more than one as online channels expand.

Why would you expect yourself to do the work of three people and write?

What I learned from observing my partner early on was that being only slightly available actually increases the allure of contact. If you can just have it, then the value is low. Same with anything. If it’s hard to come by and somebody wants it, like a ruby, then it’s valued high. If it’s hard to come by but nobody wants it, like a bottled fart, then you’re not wasting any energy on being available when you shouldn’t.

You don’t need to try to be everywhere, in front of everybody.

If your business model grows enough to need more channels, then start using more channels. If you don’t really need them, why be out there waving your book cover around to a handful of followers like a drunk dorky kid in an empty room? That’s not a party.

Success is connecting.

Let’s not even talk about the myth of having to pay for promotion or boosting or whatever on social media. If your product is right for the medium, you don’t have to. One of my side projects has never cost its collaborative team a dime. Which is good, because it’s just for fun, to a niche audience. And yet our Facebook fan base is mid-five figures, and we’ve had original content go to a million page views.

The reality is, writers on social media are often boring. I don’t want to be told every week that my friend has a book and here’s the link. I don’t want to be friend requested to rack up someone’s numbers to impress an agent with their “platform.” Or conversed with only when there’s something that needs selling.

Reading is very personally tailored, and books find their way by being in the right place for those who’ll love them. And yes, for instance, BookBub may be one of those places (if your work has already accumulated some audience cred). So could many other channels.

None of this means marketing is useless. It means naively following formulas without understanding their application is useless.

Sounds a lot like why not to hire an editor too soon.

Survivorship bias is why you want to give up.

The most pernicious part is how this tells you that certain genres sell (probably not so much yours). Certain market areas have become oversaturated and are starting to sag (like your favorite thing to write). Certain conventions of composition and structure have been met by every book that’s on the survivors’ list, so every new prospect must meet them too. Certain people work hard and that’s The Reason why they find success.

But whether you’ve put out ten books or zero, your unpublished works aren’t on the survivors’ list.

You don’t know what will happen until you do the thing.

End of story.

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