Monday, August 23, 2004

Random thoughts on randomness

Here, as promised, are some random thoughts prompted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Fooled by Randomness. Said thoughts come in no particular order, but they relate, loosely speaking, to books and publishing.


A reviewer of Taleb's book points out that 'we view the world through the lens of survivorship bias -- we tend to consider only the few winners and not the many losers in a particular endeavour.' Well quite. And in few areas is this more the case than in relation to writing books in general, and fiction in particular.

Suppose you are a young man with a passion for cars. You want to make a career in the motor trade. Two options: you can either become a greasy-handed mechanic, or a suit-and-tie salesman. Either way, unless you are a complete idiot, you have an excellent chance of getting a job of some sort. Turn up on time, work reasonably hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and you will make some progress. You will at least earn a living.

Is this true of a young person with a passion for writing books? Hell no. First, you have to write a book, which is likely to take you a year of your spare time. Then you have to try to interest an agent or a publisher. Any idea of the odds against that? Enormous, is the answer.

But let's suppose that you succeed in getting published. What is the most likely outcome? It is that you will be allowed to publish a couple of books, that no one will take much notice, and that your publisher will then dump you, and you will have nowhere else to go. End of 'career'.

Does any wannabe writer ever understand these simple facts? Well, maybe, and if they do then you and I will never hear about them, because they will go off and do something sensible, like breeding budgerigars or making quilts. But even I -- and goodness knows I am not a high-profile person -- even I am regularly approached by ambitious writers who seem to think that I can make them rich and famous.

These people tend to have a number of crystal-clear characteristics. First, they are rabidly ambitious. Second, they are convinced that they have more talent 'than quite a few of the people being published today', and they say so. And third, they exhibit no awareness whatever of the statistics relating to would-be writers, published books, and the proportion of published books which actually make any money or achieve any degree of recognition for their authors.

It is not a sin or a crime to be young, inexperienced, ignorant, and hopeful. But this combination, in relation to writing, does make you peculiarly vulnerable. And I get nervous on behalf of divine innocents when I see their vulnerability. It will end in tears, I say to myself. And it frequently does.


Which follows on somewhat from one. Publish, say, a hundred novels a year, written to a decent professional standard, and the simple laws of probability dictate that some of them are going to do better than others, either in terms of critical assessment or sales, or both. Publish a hundred novels a year for five years, and it is quite likely that one of them will get some word-of-mouth recommendation which builds the thing into a reasonable seller if not a smash hit.

Will you, as the publisher, ascribe this phenomenon (as it should properly be ascribed) to sheer luck -- the working of the law of averages? No, of course not. You will ascribe it to your own brilliance as a publisher. ('I always knew that book would be a hit, Daphne,' says Nigel, the Managing Director of that well-known firm Clapham & Irons. Which is why Nigel paid the author a £500 advance, and limited its publicity to a page in his catalogue.)

Saying that a book which takes off unexpectedly is the result of chance is not to deny that the author possesses talent and has exercised considerable skill in writing the book. But all our hundred books a year are of professional standard -- I said that at the beginning, remember? And, in all probability, every one of those hundred authors was convinced that her book would catch on once it got into print.

After a book has achieved a certain momentum, of course, repeating the success is not too difficult. Nigel, the MD of Clapham & Irons, will probably be prepared to invest in a decent advertising budget, and, provided the author can go on turning out professional stuff, a career of sorts can be built. It's not really all that difficult, though author may get weary of repeating the same book with small but significant alterations. But then I dare say that dentists get a bit bored with filling teeth.


And another thing about random events. They do not occur at evenly spaced intervals. Many types of cancer, for instance, can be thought of as a random event, in that we do not know what causes them. So, in a city of a hundred streets, you do not get one case of cancer every ten streets. What you get is 1 case in Street 5, 3 cases in Street 22, four in Street 23, then nothing until Street 55, when you get 4 cases, and so on. Random.

How does this relate to publishing? It relates in this way. In any given centre of publishing, say New York or London or Paris, there may well be fifteen firms which each publish a hundred professionally written and competent novels a year. And what happens is that surprise hits are not distributed evenly between those fifteen firms. Surprise hits occur at random.

So, in London last year, our friends at Clapham & Irons did not have just one novel which suddenly took off unexpectedly -- they had ten of them! Wow!

'Daphne,' remarks the MD Nigel modestly, 'people say that I have a flair for this business. And they are absolutely right.'

Bollocks. Total, complete and absolute bollocks. But then, since there is so much of that substance floating around in publishing anyway, hardly anyone notices.


The 2004 edition of Fooled by Randomness is substantially revised and enlarged over the original 2001 edition. Taleb tells us that, in general, publishing a second and revised edition is a smart move. He claims (and he is more likely to know than you or I) that books have bubble dynamics. This means that a new edition of an existing non-fiction book is 'far more likely to break through the critical point than a new one.'

I can't say that Taleb produces the figures to prove it, but the idea is at least worth thinking about. And I know of at least one case in point. I have a friend who wrote a non-fiction book which was published by an academic publishing company back in the 1980s. When the first edition was sold out, the rights in the book were sold to a mainstream trade publisher, who issued it with revisions and a slightly altered title. Publisher 2 didn't do all that well with it, but when the rights reverted again the book was sold for a third time. Publisher 3 has issued a succession of versions, with slightly differing titles, new covers and revised and updated content. The book is currently doing very nicely indeed, and both author and publisher intend to keep it alive pretty much for ever.


In his acknowledgements, Taleb thanks the Hollywood agent Jeff Berg 'for his insights on the wild type of uncertainty that prevails in the media business.' You can say that again. Remember William Goldman's dictum about making movies: 'No one knows anything.'

In a later book, Goldman points out (a) that the film Titanic has been one of the most gigantic box-office successes of all time, and (b) that, even on the night before the film went on release, the producer had absolutely no idea that it would be any sort of a hit at all.

More randomness later. Maybe. Depending on random events in the life of this blog.

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