Outrageous Fortune: Authors With Bad Luck

I OFTEN PONDER THE ROLE PLAYED by luck in the fates of books and authors. Are some authors luckier than others? Are there lucky breaks for writers, the literary equivalent of the understudy who replaces a lead actor in a show and becomes a star overnight? Do we make our own luck? Can good luck be bought or manipulated? Can bad luck be avoided? Are some of us simply, to use the poignant Yiddish word, schlemazels, those hapless folks who always seem to be standing under the flowerpot when it falls from a windowsill?

Our natural egotism rejects the notion that our successes or failures are the products of random and indiscriminate accidents. This may be particularly true for writers, not (just) because they possess an excessive supply of egotism, but because as intellectuals it is their task to rationalize their world, and the only way to do that is to start with some assumptions about human beings’ control over their destinies. What, after all, is fiction but the depiction of human heroes and heroines employing their wit, skill, strength, and other resources to defeat antagonists and overcome adversity? What would become of our fiction if the protagonists’ achievements were portrayed as nothing more than lucky?

As we know, the road to publication is mined with perils. It takes intelligence, determination, and fortitude to avoid or conquer them. Yet, in my experience, there is no guarantee that these virtues will prevail in the writing game. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that the most important asset of all, talent, will emerge victorious, at least not without a little assistance from good fortune. For while writing is certainly a solitary occupation, publishing is a social enterprise involving scores of critical processes performed by numerous individuals, many of whom possess considerably less enthusiasm for the product than the author does. And beyond the mechanics of publication and distribution are processes of a magnitude and complexity impossible to reckon, including trends and fads that are no more predictable than the course of a cyclone.

Any attempt to grasp this leaves us wondering how any books at all ever manage to succeed with so many hostile factors militating against them. Indeed, though I have handled many successful books in my career, I can recall only a handful that behaved in a way that might be described as an agent’s dream, that is, were textbook case histories of books that performed precisely the way they were supposed to if everybody did his or her job. For me, the perfect publishing experience is a unicorn, glimpsed in my fantasies but never captured.

There was the Vietnam War novel that I sold to the perfect editor at the perfect publisher, which went on to do a great job of publication, eliciting dream reviews and sensational sales. At every step of the way I rubbed my eyes with astonishment and kept wondering when something would go wrong. Fortunately, it never did. The book went on to become not just a bestseller, but a backlist staple that continued to earn solid royalties year after year.

I am, of course, happy to take my share of the credit for the success of this book, and I’m sure that that success was created in some measure by my enthusiasm, commitment, and effort. But, looking back, I realize that Lady Luck influenced that book’s destiny far more than I did, for there were numerous moments when disaster could have struck but was averted, as if the book were defended by an invisible shield. For example, some months before publication, the three principal editors who had acquired and sponsored the novel quit or were fired, leaving the book in danger of having no champion at the publisher to guide it through the hazards of publication. Providence intervened, however, in the form of a key executive in the sales department who happened to be a veteran of Vietnam and stepped into the role of protector. Similar threats arose to imperil the book after that, yet it seemed to be under a star. Perhaps the same star that brought it to me in the first place, for I have speculated on what fate might have befallen it had it been offered to an agent who didn’t love it as much as I did, or if I had submitted it to a less suitable publisher.

In another instance, a writer submitted a police thriller to our agency. The format was awful: he had typed his book single-spaced on canary yellow paper, then bound the manuscript so tightly you needed a crowbar to read the left side of every page. In addition, the writer had not queried us before sending his book, but simply submitted his big fat manuscript unsolicited. The book seemed to be begging for rejection. But the first page or two arrested the attention of the assistant who took it out of its mailer, and he showed it to me. I was predisposed to dislike it, particularly the single-spaced aspect, for an agent’s eyes are his most precious tool and this manuscript would have triggered a migraine headache by the third chapter. But I too liked the first few pages. “If he wants to retype the whole damn thing double-spaced, I’ll look at it,” I snapped at my young colleague. I figured it would be three months before I saw the book again, if ever. It showed up on my desk two days later. I hadn’t reckoned on the formatting capabilities of what were at that time newfangled gadgets called word processors. It turned out to be a marvelous read, and I sold it for quite a lot of money to a hardcover publisher, which sold it for twice that much to a reprinter. Foreign and movie deals followed in quick order. But I wonder what would have happened if my assistant hadn’t persisted. The book may well never have seen the light of day.

If a book is the bearer of bad karma, even the most hardworking author, enthusiastic agent, and committed publisher may not be able to overcome what appear to be the machinations of evil spirits. Editors leave their companies, abandoning books at critical moments; publishers are sold or acquired, playing havoc with books making their way toward the light of day; competitive books pop up out of nowhere to steal the limelight from what was expected to be a surefire bestseller; production snafus create fatal delays, putting books in stores too late to sell when they were intended to; trends veer off in unexpected directions, leaving great books stranded on the caprices of popular taste.

We are not talking about bad publishing, or wrong decision making, or poor judgment. We’re simply talking about fate, the things that can happen to books when all of the gods watching over them happen to be named Murphy.

A few years ago my agency handled a business book by one of America’s most prominent moguls. It had everything going for it and I’d have bet the store that nothing could stand in the way of this baby hitting the bestseller list and staying there a good long time. Another baron of industry had brought out a book of his own a short while before my guy’s, however. That man’s name was Lee Iacocca, and his autobiography was nothing short of the biggest hardcover bestseller in publishing history to that time, a book whose sales, heaven help the author, challenged those of the Bible itself. And although our book performed respectably by ordinary standards, it was utterly eclipsed by Iacocca’s.

You might think that bad luck can be warded off by the expenditure of a lot of money, by researching the competition, by taking every precaution to produce the book competently, position it shrewdly, promote it vigorously, and sell it enthusiastically. It just isn’t so. Fickle Fortune’s finger taps any book, any author its whims designate. Even one superstar author, it was rumored, became upset when she learned her latest blockbuster was pitted in the same month against another author’s latest blockbuster, threatening that guaranteed number one bestseller position she had come to assume was her right. And who can blame her for making that assumption, considering the millions spent on acquiring and publishing her books? Yet, all that money couldn’t control another publisher’s schedule.

I’ve had similarly sad experiences with a few books. A beauty book by a leading figure in the cosmetics world should have had it made, with a committed publisher, a strong advertising and promotion campaign, the whole bit. But it was published at the tail end of a beauty book trend in which the laurels had all been awarded to the likes of Jane Fonda, Victoria Principal, and Adrienne Arpel. The buyers were just not there, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. In another instance, a publisher paid a ton of money for a medical book we were handling. A little while later, that publisher acquired another author whose popular books on medical subjects almost invariably went to the top of the bestseller lists. There was clearly a conflict of interest here, and when it became obvious that my client’s book was going to be on the losing end of that conflict, I protested and pulled his book from the publisher. It was clear that the publisher was prepared to sacrifice all that money paid to my client in order to land an even bigger author.

And I remember a show-business client of mine who had written a beautiful novel. After I sold it, the publisher invited him in to chat about promotion. At the meeting, the author boasted he could furnish plugs from just about any celebrity they could name. The promotion people’s eyes lit up. “Great!” they gasped. And, true to his word, he brought in a sheaf of star endorsements an inch thick. There was scarcely enough room in the ads to fit them all.

And how did his book fare?

Don’t ask.

It’s one thing for a single book to flop because of bad luck. Most of us pick ourselves up, dismiss the experience philosophically, contemptuously, or humorously, and get on with our lives. It’s quite another matter when one’s entire career comes to grief, when unforeseen calamities befall book after book, crushing the author under the burden of misfortune. We know that there are winners and losers in the writing game—as there are in every other, but it is impossible to be philosophical or good humored when, over a stretch of time and a string of good books, everything goes wrong—and goes wrong consistently. I know of more than one author who can identify with the one who has had seven or eight books published and on not a single one did the editor who’d acquired it remain at the company long enough to see it published.

And there is more than one soul staggering around shell-shocked after seeing his first book crushed by a corporate takeover, his second sucked into the maelstrom of its publisher’s bankruptcy, a third shut out of the stores in the Christmas sales season because a production snafu delayed publication by two months; and a fourth, fifth, and sixth orphaned after their editors quit their jobs or got the sack. Fires and floods in the warehouse, presidential assassinations, newspaper strikes—you name it, it’s befallen these unfortunate souls.

Literary agents exist to even the odds against malevolent providence. We cannot, of course, prevent such calamities, but we may be able to help our clients avoid them, or rescue them before it’s too late. If I’ve heard a rumor that a publisher may be up for sale, I am certainly not going to submit anything there until the situation stabilizes. And, on a more routine level, we try to locate the editor who will do best by a book, to push for promotional campaigns, to make sure our clients’ books are scheduled for the most appropriate season, to reintroduce books to editors who have replaced those who originally acquired the properties. In short, we can maneuver our authors into the best possible positions to take advantage of good luck and evade bad.

We are certainly not deities, however, and we are still dependent to a good degree on luck. Years ago I launched an author’s career when I sold her book to an editor who was so compatible with her that it seemed he had been put on earth specifically to minister to her work. One December day, just before the holidays, she visited my office and presented me with a bottle of champagne. “This,” she declared, “is for your brilliance in selecting the perfect editor for me.” Modestly, I lowered my eyes. How would she feel, I wondered, if she knew the truth: that on the day I’d sold her first novel, I had called six or eight editors I thought were more appropriate. They were all on vacation, ill, or too busy to come to the phone, and one was simply in the ladies’ room. The “perfect” editor I had so presciently selected had actually been way down toward the bottom of my list! I decided not to tell my client. A magician never reveals his secrets, and besides, I like champagne.

I could tell countless more stories about agents who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The point is simply that success isn’t everything we crack it up to be. Good luck plays a tremendous part, and though the most successful businesspeople are those who are best prepared to deal with fortunate coincidences, and who place themselves in the best position for lucky breaks to happen to them, nobody has the advantage over anybody else in making luck happen.

But it’s a strange thing about luck. The lucky look back and see one or two incredibly fortunate accidents, godsends as it were. The unlucky look back and see a conspiracy of evil forces that seemed to stalk them deliberately and maliciously. And perhaps that is how those who have lost in this nasty game may console themselves. There are so many good writers who have not made it, talented and industrious people whose careers don’t deserve to perish, who have done everything necessary to win, yet still they fail. Perhaps, instead of blaming themselves or immolating themselves in guilt, they can hold their heads up and say, “I had some hard luck.”

Richard Curtis

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