Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Yet more thoughts on randomness

Yet more thoughts on randomness – thoughts inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Fooled by Randomness. (See also, if you have not read them already, my posts of 20, 23, and 27 August.)


Taleb makes the point that some people (typically mathematicians and scientists) are capable of the most complex calculations, carried out with the utmost rigour, in relation to equations. But these same people are totally incapable of solving a problem with the smallest connection to reality.

This reminds me very much of the situation of many writers. They are quite capable, it seems, of writing a 100,000 word novel, to which they have devoted several hundred hours of effort. It may well be an immaculately written novel, correctly spelt, beautifully punctuated, and full of poetic language and noble ideas.

But does it bear any relation to what the market wants?

Not usually, because for most as-yet-unpublished writers ‘what the market wants’ is a sordid and disgusting concept with which the writer resolutely declines to engage.

And does our as-yet-unpublished writer have the foggiest clue about how the present-day publishing industry actually works?

Certainly not. There is no need for that (in the opinion of as-yet-unpublished writers) because a novel which is a masterpiece (naturally – they all are) will immediately be recognised for what it is.

Won’t it?


The stove is hot.

Taleb remarks that children learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it is the only way in which they can learn. Children will refrain from touching a hot ‘stove’ – or radiator, or whatever – only after they have actually touched it and suffered pain. Telling them not to touch it will just not work.

Exactly the same situation applies to writers. And if it doesn’t apply to all of them, it certainly applies to a high percentage. They just won't be told.

Bloggers and other experienced hands like me can bang on for ever about how unlikely it is that even an experienced publisher or agent will be able to make an accurate assessment of a novel’s commercial or literary potential (a statement for which there is masses of evidence) – and will point out that submitting a manuscript to publishers and literary agents is a process likely to lead only to high postage costs, long waits, and a deep-seated sense of frustration. But does anyone take any notice? No.

Does the advice offered by old and wise heads effect any reduction in the number of novels being written? Not so’s you would notice.

And does such advice reduce, even to the tiniest degree, the naïve and hopeless optimism exhibited by those who insist on writing novels? Nope. Not even the tiniest bit.

It may be, perhaps, that there is a small army of people who have flirted briefly with the idea of writing a novel, have looked at some of the facts surrounding publishing, and have then decided not to bother.

But somehow I doubt it.


Mr Taleb describes an incident in his own life, when he was working as a Wall-Street trader.

A new man was brought into the firm that Taleb worked for. He was an ex-civil servant, adept at writing reports. This ‘expert’ analysed a large number of the transactions which the foreign-exchange traders in the company had undertaken, and noticed that only about 1% of these transactions generated any significant profit; the rest either resulted in a loss, or a tiny profit which was hardly worth bothering about.

The solution to improving the firm’s overall performance was simple, said the ‘expert’. The traders should just concentrate on making those trades which would result in a decent profit, and not bother with any other transactions.


Of course, exactly the same situation applies in publishing, because publishing, like trading on Wall Street, is a business governed to a large extent by randomness.

I read a story once about HarperCollins (I think it was HC – but it could have been any of the big firms). HC, it is said, called in some consultants to try to improve their efficiency. The consultants went through the accounts and in particular looked at the sales figures for each book. What they found, of course, was that most books did not even recover the cost of publishing them; that was particularly noticeable if you calculated the costs properly, including elements for heating, lighting, staff time and so forth.

Aha! After a comparatively short time those brilliant (and expensive) brains on the consultants’ staff had cracked it. The solution to improving the profits at HC was, they said, to give up publishing all those money-losing books and just publish the books which were going to be popular with the readers.

The staff at HC read this expensive report and scratched their heads for a while. Ah, yes, well, they said. There’s a bit of a problem with that….

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