Jane Friedman

How to Increase Your Odds at Getting Lucky

Photo by SCFiasco / Flickr

Today’s guest post is by author Ransom Stephens (@ransomstephens).


Last year, an e-mail showed up in my inbox from someone who liked my first novel, The God Patent. Since The God Patent was published three years before, these notes didn’t come as often as they once had.

Instead of ending with something like, “I hope there will be a sequel,” the e-mail ended with “Oh, by the way, I’m an acquisitions editor for 47North, Amazon’s science fiction and fantasy imprint. I was wondering if you might have some time to chat next week.”

Mind you, I never queried this person or this publisher, and I didn’t have an agent.

Okay, let’s back up.

On May 18, 2009, I clicked upload and a manuscript became my first novel, an e-book. Prior to hitting upload, The God Patent had been rejected by more than 50 agents. Comments ranged from “I love this book, but have no idea who would buy it” to (written in all caps) “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK SOMEONE WOULD PAY $15 FOR THIS?”

I promoted the crap out of the e-book, and it did well enough to attract tiny boutique publisher Numina Press, who released a print version. The promotion marathon continued with a YouTube series, blogsscience articles, and 75+ literary events and speeches to writing groups, science groups, and groups of unemployed people (an easy-to-find audience from 2009–2011). A feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle fell into my lap through the confluence of six years volunteering at San Francisco’s literary festival, Litquake, and co-producing a literary series.

By March of 2011, I couldn’t bear another event, but The God Patent continued on its merry way, providing monthly checks that took a nibble out of the mortgage and covered most of my bar tabs.

Even as “the first debut author to emerge from the new paradigm of online publishing” (said the SF Chronicle), my second novel, The Sensory Deception, got rejections from all agents and publishers I queried.

Early in July 2012, ready to go the self-publish route, I contacted three freelance editors for price quotes. Then, on that lovely day in July, in a hotel room in Silicon Valley, preparing to meet with a potential high-tech client to write some physics for engineers and pay a few bills, I got that e-mail from 47North. A month later, I signed a two-book deal.

Today, The Sensory Deception comes out. 

It got the whole treatment: 47North assigned me a development editor and we did a major revision. Then came a copy editor and two proofreaders who repaired my abuse of the English language. The cover is fucking beautiful.

Jane asked me to tell you this story. She wants you to know the useful parts of my experience.

Here are the useful parts:

  1. Expose yourself.
  2. You don’t know everything that is happening.
  3. Do your very best, but don’t obsess too much.

By hitting “upload” four years ago and converting my manuscript into the e-book version of my first novel, The God Patent, I bared my neck to the world. That feeling of exposing myself returned with every promotional activity, including every time I walked into a café, a library, a bar, a museum, or a college to speak, read, or dance. (I don’t actually dance.)

And including every time I hit send to blast my e-mail list (if you’re interested in science, physics for lay people, neuroscience, how science affects society, etc, send me a note and I’ll add you my list). I send notes as rarely as possible, never more than 4-5 times a year, and people seem to actually enjoy receiving them—blows my mind.

Keep pushing and eventually, Sisyphus, you’ll get your rock to the top of hill.

One thing I haven’t told you: As I was querying agents and publishers and collecting rejections, another 47North author, Robert Kroese, read The God Patent and liked it enough to recommend it to his acquisition editor who read it, liked it, and sent me that career-altering e-mail. I was utterly, wholly, <insert adverb here>ly, unaware that any of this was taking place. Things happen outside of your control and sometimes they’re helpful.

Is it all luck? Sort of, but luck is about odds. The better the odds, the more likely you’ll get lucky. The best way to increase your odds is to increase your opportunity cross section.

Every query you send increases your odds. Every story you publish, every book, every literary event you attend, every time you bear your neck, your cross section gets bigger, and the odds of opportunity finding you increase.

You hear people say that making a living as a novelist is like winning the lottery, but that’s bullshit. Every time you play the lottery the odds are the same.

In this game, every time you play, your odds get better.

But do your best. Don’t put anything out there that sucks. By “sucks” I don’t mean that you have to make sure that I like your work or that Jane Friedman likes your work. Storytelling is a mix of totally subjective art and mostly objective skill. The mostly objective skill boils down to clarity. If people can’t follow your story, no matter how awesome, they won’t like it.

So do your best. Be a craft junkie and learn all the rules and all the tricks, then proceed to break the rules and create your own tricks and write what you think is best, not what I think or Jane thinks, what you think. That’s art.

We hear agents and publishers say “it has to be perfect.” If you’re not a perfectionist, listen to them. If you are a perfectionist, 97% perfect is just fine. Get that thing out the door!

And please, read The Sensory Deception, I hear it’s pretty good.