What Is Luck?

luckI mentioned to a non-author friend my idea that book promotion is what we authors do until luck finds us, and she asked, “What is luck?” That brought me up short because I had no answer to her question. It seemed self-evident to me — luck is luck. But what is luck really? So I went searching for an answer.

Merriam-Webster says that luck means 1a) a force that brings good fortune or adversity; 1b) the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual; 2) favoring chance.

The Free Dictionary says that luck means the chance happening of fortunate or adverse events; 2) good fortune or prosperity; success; 3: One’s personal fate or lot:

Wikipedia says that luck means fortune (whether bad or good), which occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention, or desired result.

Google says that luck means success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.

Some people believe in luck as a separate entity or force that they can control by using various lucky charms. (Supposedly, Michael Jordan spent his entire NBA career wearing his old University of North Carolina shorts under his team shorts for good luck. Various politicians, including the current president, carry an array of objects in their pockets for luck.) To these people, luck is faith. They believe that the talisman will help make things go a bit better for them than circumstances might dictate.

My friend suggested that there is no such thing as luck, that what happens is the result of choices we make. And perhaps that is true, or at least partly true. You cannot win the lottery if you do not choose to buy a ticket, but winning the lottery is a matter of chance as far as I know.

Most of us believe that luck is being in the right place at the right time, but perhaps such a confluence is not so much a matter of luck as a matter of choices — ours and everyone else’s — a cascade of decisions and events that brings us to that particular place in time. Since we have no control over all those choices and events, we call the outcome luck. Perhaps if we were privy to the algorithms that control the universe, we would see that on a cosmic level, such fortuitous happenings as being in the right place at the right time are not chance at all. But on a personal level, since they are beyond our control, we call them luck.

Some people don’t believe in luck at all. They say it doesn’t exist. That, as in my example of being in the right place at the right time, “lucky events” are only those that exist beyond our ability to predict. This idea skirts close to determinism, which according to Wikipedia is “a metaphysical philosophical position stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen.” There is no luck then, just something that has been ordained by circumstances. Of course, if any one of those circumstances had not come about, then the outcome would have been different, and that sounds a lot like luck to me.

So, does any of this change my idea that promotion is what we authors do until luck finds us? Not really. So much of the book business, and especially what will strike a chord with the reading public is beyond anyone’s ability to predict. (If the major publishers were better at it, they wouldn’t be in the financial mess they are, paying high advances to authors whose books don’t warrant the cash outlay.) Some writers follow trends and manage to write books that make it big, such as the myriad vampire books that followed on Twilight’s coattails and Fifty Shades of Gray, which stemmed originally from the Twilight series. But what about Twilight itself? Was it luck that the book appeared when people were receptive to such a thing? Perhaps it wasn’t vampires that people were fascinated with but the bondage issue, which could be why so many vampire writers who expected to make it big didn’t. They missed the broader picture.

Those of us who write the books only we could write rather than trying to write books to fit trends or to fit what a reading pubic might like are more subject to the whims of chance and circumstance, especially if those books don’t fit into a prescribed genre. (I was appalled to read where one reviewer downrated a well-written book she loved only because it didn’t follow many genre conventions.)

If we struggling authors had been different, if we had had a different outlook on life, if the books we chose to write hadn’t been so dear to our hearts, if we’d been more outgoing or aggressive or innovative when it came to promotion . . if, if, if. All those ifs help create the circumstances of our books, and since most of those circumstances and characteristics are beyond our control (we can only be who we are after all), we are dependent on luck for our eventual success.

We will continue promoting until luck finds us. Perhaps by doing so, we will change our circumstances and so have no need of luck. But of course, luck itself could bring about that change in circumstance.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

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First the Bread Wars, Now the Book Wars

Before a certain well-known bread was manufactured, people bought their bread fresh every day from a local bakery. When bread was first mass-produced and packaged in a colorful wrapping, people were hesitant to buy because they didn’t believe it could be fresh since it hadn’t been baked that very morning. So, what did the bread manufacturer do? They had people drive up and down the streets handing out loaves of their bread to everyone they saw. Who could pass up a free loaf of bread? Not many people, that’s for sure. One free loaf wouldn’t have made an impact. That brand of bread would have become just one choice among many. But . . . the company kept giving away the bread, day after day after day. Soon people began to expect free bread. They stopped buying bread from their local bakers, and eventually, those bakers went out of business. The manufactured bread became the only choice in town, a price was attached, and the price went up and up and up. And people had no idea this coup d’état had taken place or that they had been pawns in a major cultural revolution.

That story might sound like a fairy tale, but it happened. And it’s happening again, though this time it’s about books. There is a war going on between Amazon and the major publishers to determine the course of the book business, and we are all pawns. People laugh at the entrenched publishers, saying they don’t have a clue where the book business is going, but the truth is, they do know, and they are fighting back. It’s a war of price — what to charge readers to buy an ebook (most people who own kindles seem to believe they paid their price of admission by buying the kindle and that anything they download should be free or pretty close to it). And it’s a war of literary value. Dinner and a movie costs a small fortune now, and the pleasure is fleeting. The movie is forgotten, but even before that, the food becomes waste. Why should a book, especially a thoughtful, well-written book be valued less than human waste?

Make no mistake about it. Books are being devalued at this very minute. People think they are in the vanguard of a fight for the people’s right to write and publish whatever they wish without having to kowtow to the old publshing standards. But who are they working for? Amazon. With all the free books people are uploading onto Amazon, Amazon doesn’t even have to manufacture a product like the bread company did. People are standing in line, begging to give them product, hoping to be one of the chosen few who makes a mint selling books. And Amazon is playing them like a violin, choosing certain books to promote, showing everyone that yes, it is possible. But only if you give Amazon the keys to your literary kingdom.

Perhaps people do have the right to write and publish whatever they like, good or bad. The major publishers certainly didn’t do a good job of it, shoving crap down our throats and expecting us to like it, but once upon a time, there were standards. Sure, some good books were rejected out of hand, but others were published, polished, promoted. It was a golden age of reading, but it came to an end because of corporate greed and the first devaluation of books. Bottom line became important, quality was slashed, books were chosen not so much on merit but what a person standing in a grocery story line would be apt to throw in their cart. People didn’t seem to care since there were so many other entertainment choices vying for their spare change.

So now, books are being devalued even more. Amazon is spewing out bestsellers as fast as the major book publishers are. It sounds nice, doesn’t it: let readers decide what they want to read. But it doesn’t happen that way. Readers are inundated with constant demands to “buy my book!” Dross is being over-promoted at both ends of the spectrum — the traditionally published books and the self-published kindle books. The books that come to the general reader’s attention are those the various book publishing companies choose to push (and make no mistake about it — Amazon is a publisher in a major way), and the books that the relentless and shameful marketers are bringing to your attention. Of course there are good books at both ends of the spectrum. But the vast majority are books that any discerning reader couldn’t stomach.

There is a third player in this war, though so far they seem to be standing by, bewildered by the onslaught. These are the small, independent, royalty paying publishing companies who follow the traditional publishing model to the extent that they accept submissions but choose to publish only the best.

People assume I am a kindle author because I am so visible in various places on the internet, but I am not. My books were chosen out of a slushpile, and were accepted by Second Wind Publishing. It would be nice if, after the gunsmoke clears away, that we few, we chosen few, are still left standing.

McBooks

The book business is a very thin slice of the entertainment pie graph, but it is still big business. Moreover, it is a business steeped in tradition and antiquated business practices. There is a chance that the recent upheavals “just happened” because of the economy, the high price of hardback books, the younger generation (and even older ones) not as interested in reading. It could also be due to more people buying used books or patronizing libraries.

But I don’t believe it.

I tend to see purpose behind seemingly unpurposeful events. I don’t necessarily think that those at the top of the publishing food chain created this so-called crisis, but I do think they are taking advantage of it; they would be foolish not to.

Innovative technologies, such as the much-maligned print-on-demand (POD) publishing, put the big guys at a disadvantage. True, for now, POD-produced books are more expensive than those printed by major publishers, but that is because the machines are new, very expensive, and in the hands of only a few.

What will happen when these machines become cheap enough that every bookstore owner can buy one? A customer will be able to walk into a bookstore, browse through a catalog or display copies of books, make their choice, and in fifteen minutes the bookseller will hand them their purchase, hot off the press.

For the bookseller, this will mean a cleaner, more profitable shop. As it stands now, 85% of books in a typical bookstore sell less than two copies. It also means less time packing up books for return, less inventory costs, and the ability to offer an unlimited selection.

For the big publishers, it will mean no more costly print runs, no more warehousing overstock, no more returned books, no more shipping costs, no more having to destroy 25% of their product as they now do.

It’s entirely possible that as the technology becomes even more advanced, there will be book vending machines — customers make their choice, the machine prints and binds your books, and there it is. Who knows, there could even come a day when you order a cheeseburger, fries, and shake for lunch, and at the same drive-up window, order a book by Pat Bertram to read while you are eating.

Many people see print books as obsolete, taken over by e-publishing, and that is definitely a possibility, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Many readers like the feel and smell of books; other readers, especially older ones or those with failing eyesight, need the print format.

What I do know is that heads of major corporations are not stupid. Why would they put up with the ridiculous expenses of traditional publishing ways if they don’t have to? And with new technologies (some of which, I’m sure, we have yet to hear about) they won’t have to.

The end of the book business? No.

The end of the book business as we know it? Without a doubt.

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