Survivorship Bias in Publishing

How do we as writers best learn successful habits? By emulating the successful? As I prepared for my first return to AWP in six years, I had to brace myself for the inevitable recognition of Survivorship Bias in my own thinking and the confounding nature of writing advice in general. Never mind the fact that every writer has an entirely different aesthetic and approach, and never mind that, as Cheryl Strayed argues, being published only means two people need like your work — an editor and a publisher.

Those things are troublesome enough and prove that an artist’s merit isn’t measured in seconds shaved off a 100-meter dash. But what confounds matters even more is this thing called Survivorship Bias. And this is something I’d like to share with respect to the way we approach the wonderful world of publishing.

This theory shows that you can’t always tell what works by looking at the thing that succeeds, and, worse, sometimes by looking at the thing that succeeds you might get a completely wrong picture of what works.

Here’s a fun anecdote sure to make you the life of any party: During World War II only half of America’s B-24 bombers were coming back from their missions. The military took an interest in improving these numbers because if you were anything like Captain John Yossarian, you might just go to excessive lengths in order to avoid flying these missions.

The planes returned with bullet holes in the wings and fuselage. So the first thought is to reinforce the wings and fuselage with better armor, right? Army statistician Abraham Wald recognized that efforts to improve the aircrafts’ armor were going about it completely wrong. The solution to saving more aircraft lay in the crashed planes military engineers did not get to examine. What they could not see was the damage taken by the planes that did not survive. Thus, the opposite of what was apparent in the surviving planes — where they could not see damage was where the planes were most vulnerable. The planes that had returned could clearly withstand the injuries they demonstrated by virtue of their, you know, surviving and all.

Hitching your wagon to the habits and behaviors of successfully published authors can cause your logic to fall prey to the same fallacy. The challenges, choices, and adversity suffered by those who eventually succeeded well enough to be before you espousing their brilliance, could represent the bullet holes in their own fuselage — not contributing to, but completely inconsequential to their success.

We all know the number of unpublished or under-published authors far outweigh the number of published, yet it is still easy to overlook just how vast this number truly is, especially when surrounding ourselves with what is still, as an aggregate, by no means a small number of successful authors. In other words, enough examples are out there to give one the impression that complete and unmitigated success is the norm.

And besides, who spends time soaking up the advice of the forgotten and discarded? Who reads the cautionary tale of She Who Was Not Published? Further, has she told it? We inevitably mine secrets for success from the acclaimed and the glamorous. We skip the industry columns, craft advice, writing blogs, and conference seminars paneled by tenacious mid-list genre authors working their asses off in favor of the wildly successful shooting stars because we want to think of ourselves as destined for the shoes of JK Rowling, not Cody Goodfellow. And when listening to the advice of giants we may find their habits and theories and discipline less than inspirational. We scratch our heads, yet continue to soak in what must surely be the secret by virtue of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning until it hits us — that one salient answer to just the right question from the audience — How did you finally get your best seller published?

And then that fatal answer — Well, Oprah Winfrey happened to see my book sitting in a pile…

And like that, all the air is at once sucked from the room. It’s a lucky break. Sure, everybody counts on a little bit of luck coming their way. Nobody in this world has accomplished anything without at least some measure of luck. But it is the authors who are out there mucking about in the absence of this luck that you should pay close attention to.

We cannot simply discount that one phenomenally unlikely factor in order to avoid Survivorship Bias. Because wildly successful end results apologize for all blunders and miscues of the past, sometimes making blunders of the past seem as though they’re the keys to success, especially if unorthodox, atypical, or eccentric. For example, it is not Hunter S. Thompson’s ordinary, grueling, prolific journalism that impressionable writers often attribute to his eventual success, but his mythologized drug habit.

Some advice that sticks with me to this day — I had asked David Foster Wallace back in 1998 what I should be doing with myself during my ignoramus 20’s, until I am ready to become a famous author. His advice? There is no becoming a famous author. You do what you are doing now.

You work your ass off.

Jason Rizos is the author of the psychedelic dystopia Supercenter, his first novel, published in 2013 by Montag Press and the non-fiction The Frugal Homebrewers Companion. He teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College and has had short fiction appear in innumerable magazines.