Luck by Dale T. Phillips

The one thing as a fiction writer to understand and accept: in reality, you have very little control over how many people will pay for your writing, or how many readers you will get. None. Advertising, quality, being deserving, none of it is a guarantee of sales. If your book sells, great, but even some of the great classics of the past were absolute failures in their time. Whether or not a book sells a lot of copies depends greatly on LUCK.

Some of the worst books hit it big, and some of the best had original pitiable sales numbers, and were quickly forgotten. Some books were pushed hard by traditional publishing, with major sales campaigns, and they were still flops. Some were rejected to death, and others blew up out of nowhere and sold millions.

As best-selling mystery author Barbara Ross says: “Even if you do everything right, you still might not move the sales needle significantly.”

NOTE: Despite this hard, realistic fact, the more you plan and work for success, the more likely it becomes, as you increase your chances significantly.

How to Get Luckier

Getting lucky involves putting yourself in a position to recognize and act on the lucky breaks when they happen. The more you follow the success techniques, the more often you get a shot at lucky breaks. Funny thing is, even with those who seemed to have skipped the line, they were writing for years before they became an “overnight” success. When author B.A. Shapiro burst onto the scene with The Art Forger, most people didn’t know she wrote nine novels before that, which didn’t get sold or published, and she had all but given up— only convinced to do “one more” by her husband. So, for many, having an incredibly supportive spouse is one of those “lucky breaks”! Remember that Tabitha King pulled a few pages of beginner Carrie manuscript from the wastebasket, and convinced Stephen to continue with it! That one turned out rather well…

Richard Wiseman showed some research into how lucky people generate good fortune, via these basic principles:

  • They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities
  • They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuitions
  • They create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations
  • They adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good

Low Sales

When authors complain about their low sales, one of my favorite examples to bring up is the artist Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings are worth uncounted millions now, and he is considered one of the most influential artists of all time. I ask the disgruntled author(s) how many paintings did Van Gogh sell in his lifetime of work? One. One painting, to his brother Theo, who had a gallery. Vincent’s work was completely unappreciated in his time. And yet, he produced more and more work, keeping up his art without stopping. He had to paint. Some have to write. So I tell the author(s) if they’ve sold a single book to a stranger, they’ve already been more successful in their lifetime than Van Gogh was in his. Some of them really get it, and it’s great to watch them process that, and change the frame of how they view their own success.

There is no telling what will happen to book sales over time. Some sell in small numbers but steadily over the years, some hit it big long after their publication date. Don Winslow is an astonishingly good writer, who toiled for twenty years with meh sales, until exploding with a best-seller. Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, had fairly modest sales in his lifetime, and now they’re making smash movies and television shows from dozens of his works. Shame he didn’t live to see it, he’d have been baffled and tickled at the same time. Emily Dickinson didn’t have many poems published until after she was dead, and now she’s a literary icon. You just never know when your work might get popular.

The thing is to get it out. An unpublished book does not sell, while each published work increases your chances of having more sales of all your work (discoverability). That’s a term for when readers discover your work.

Some authors write a book, get it quickly published without the years of frustration and heartache, and do well right out of the gate. That’s been the dream sold by traditional publishing for years, that once you’re launched, you’ve made it. It’s only true for a tiny few— like someone who doesn’t usually play the lottery buying one ticket one day and hitting it big. Some friends of mine were a big deal starting with their first novel, and good for them, because they’re terrific people and excellent writers. Another writer had written a novel, went to a party, mentioned his book, and got an agent essentially on the spot, and went on to a nice career writing mystery novels, without any of the hassle of agent and publisher hunting. He’s careful about telling this story, because so many authors have gone through hell, and here he breezed past all that, and knows many would hate him for it. For some, it’s difficult not to begrudge someone else’s spectacular good fortune if you’ve been struggling to do something similar for years, but without success.

Another author who hit it big with traditional publishing on her first novel told me she’d written twenty unpublished novels before that. That’s dedication to your craft, people, and that’s how she got good enough to do well when the time came to go commercial. And yet, some authors still feel she didn’t “pay her dues,” and she has a tough time with the naked, bitter envy of those who haven’t worked anywhere near as long or hard as she has.

So if you’ve written only one or two books or so, and haven’t got them to the top of the NY Times best-seller list yet, don’t despair. John D. MacDonald (or Ray Bradbury, or both) said that a writer has to write about a million words without any hope of selling them before they’re good enough to really sell. That number is more than a lot of writers will ever do in their entire career. That’s more than a dozen of those roughly 80K manuscripts that traditional publishing wants. If you only write one book a year, that’s twelve years of unpaid work before you do your good work. How many are willing to undergo that long an apprenticeship, with no guarantee?

With the new world in Indie publishing, one can publish anything and everything they’ve written. Best though, is to polish your work before you show it to the world. Don’t push out any old junk and expect it to sell a lot of copies. Too many did that (and still do), and it gives Indie publishing a bad rap, giving fuel to those who only point out the worst examples as representative of the whole world of Indie.

If a book is poorly written or badly flawed, I seldom give that author another chance. This includes many of the authors I meet, and even though they’re nice, and trying hard, I won’t finish their book if it doesn’t meet my standards for story and quality. The flip side is when I try something new and like it, I’ll grab other books that author has written. Good work has a much better chance of selling well. Sounds simple, but a surprising number of people don’t want to do the hard work to make a book better. We had one such in a critique group, and we gave him terrific ideas which would make the story compelling and exciting, a simple change that would kick it from humdrum into high gear. He said he’d already written that section, so he didn’t want to bother to rewrite. His books hardly sell, and that’s not bad luck, just poor craftsmanship.

For some authors who did well with their first novel, it put too much pressure on them to repeat, and they suffered from the ‘Sophomore slump’ of having trouble trying to make the next one as good. It even ruined some. If an author dumps their entire life story into the first book, what’s left for them to write about, when the traditional publishing house wants another just like it?

In this new world of publishing, there’s a related issue where authors who sold x number of copies in the past are selling thousands fewer with each book. Many writers who used to make a comfortable living can no longer sustain the sales numbers to pay the bills. That’s usually due simply to the major paradigm shifts in the publishing world, but if some enjoyed a career of success that suddenly went away, some writers panic, or are at a complete loss as to how to proceed. They’ve never had to adapt, and now they must, if they wish to keep going. As Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch have extensively documented, they know of many writers who simply gave up because they could not sustain their past sales numbers. Add to that the declining advance offers, and the hundreds of authors dropped by their publishers, and you’ve got big problems for many.

You know the publishing world has changed when long-time writers with distinguished careers, a string of awards, and track records of outstanding success are coming up to me (and Indie authors like me) to ask for advice on how now to move forward with their writing career. And yes, it happens more often than you’d think. Some get it, and are willing to adapt, others just quit, because it’s difficult and all new territory.

In poker, we have a half-joking saying: It’s better to be lucky than good. But don’t just put out something and hope for good luck. In writing, the better you are, and the more you work for it, the better your chances of good luck allowing you to sell more.

The Big Break

One day, something big might fall in your lap: the big contract, the television or movie option, the promotion that sells thousands. Celebrate, enjoy thoroughly, and also use caution. The wonderful wave might be a temporary thing, so never assume good fortune will last forever. There have been too many articles by authors who got a whopping book contract for a truckload of money, thought they Had it Made, spent the money, and found out the gravy train wasn’t running much after that. Some even got themselves into serious financial trouble, which is why you need that business way of thinking. They’d spend that windfall without taking care of the bottom line, and before they knew it, they’d overextended. The luck which seemed fabulous now looked like a curse.


And sometimes the big break is only promised, such as getting a movie or television deal, which may take years, or not come to fruition at all, through any number of things. That’s happened to a few writer friends, who have seen lovely offers come and go. It’s frustrating to have the big brass ring within reach, only to have it snatched away. Don’t spend money that isn’t in your account yet!

Fortune’s Wheel turns: one day you have great reviews, interviews aplenty, award nominations, top placement on selling charts, and everything going right. A few years later, it seems you can’t sell anything, nobody knows your name, and you’re left wondering what happened. Don’t get discouraged, it’s just life. Keep on the success path for a continued career.

Dale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale’s college writing teacher, and since then, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, radio, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy. He’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit Dale at