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Writing Excuses 8.34: Survivorship Bias

Writing Excuses 8.34: Survivorship Bias


Key points: survivorship bias is created by only paying attention to successes, without comparison to failures. Brandon and Dan's method: write lots of books, talk to editors, send out lots of books. Mary's method: go to conventions, write short stories, be prominent on the Internet -- be approachable and agreeable. Howard's method: start a webcomic! A space opera comic! With a regular update schedule. BUT just because it worked for us, does not mean it will work for you. Beware advice such as "Get a professional headshot" or "Novellas will work for you." Don't forget to check the graveyard -- see what is similar between success and failure, and what is different. Get the data! Imitation does not automatically lead to success, nor does failure mean you are doing something wrong.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Survivorship Bias.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] With this podcast, I'm actually referencing a blog post that Toby Bucknell did. We'll link in the liner notes.
He actually is referencing yet another blog post.
Yet I'm going to focus on Toby's because basically the concept here is I want us as a podcast to talk about and acknowledge our survivorship bias. The survivorship bias is the idea that in any sort of endeavor, you will start listening to people who have been successful. It makes some pretty logical sense. Yet there's a fallacy based in... Built into this that if there's a lot of luck to the system, then that may not be helpful for you. The example given is if you wrote a book on how to become a millionaire and interviewed only people who had won the lottery, you would receive a very skewed perspective on how to become a millionaire. So the survivorship bias says that we pay attention to those who have been successful, and assume that what they did to become successful is the way they became successful.
[Mary] Also that it will work...
[Brandon] For you. Yes. Yes. Now, these things may all be true. In fact, we wouldn't be doing this podcast if we didn't think some of our experience will be helpful to those who are listening. However, I think what we have to do as a podcast is acknowledge some of the luck that went into us getting published, talk about maybe how we made that luck, and how maybe that won't apply to those who are listening. So this is going to be a very odd podcast. I hope this is helpful for you. But I want you particularly as listeners to be paying attention to the idea that we have been successful, and that does not mean that what we did...
[Background honking?]
[Brandon] Will work for you, necessarily.
[Dan] I think another factor of this is just the speed with which the industry is changing. That our success stories might not apply anymore at all, just because of the way editors and agents and everything has shifted in the past few years.

[Brandon] I'll talk first about my experience. I got published, and we've mentioned this several times on the blog... Or on the blog, on the podcast by writing a whole lot of books, by sending them to editors the traditional way, and by schmoozing editors at the science fiction and fantasy cons. Those were the three pillars of Brandon Sanderson's success. Writing lots of books, meeting editors, schmoozing them, and then sending out lots of books places. But what that leaves out is the fact that I could have written great books and just sent them to the wrong editors. I sent them to a guy who... My editor Moshe, he does not read what people send him. Like all of my students, and a lot of my fans are like, "I want to be published by Brandon's editor. I'll send to Moshe." Well, everyone's sending these great books, Moshe hasn't gotten to any of them. It annoys me, it frustrates me, but he hasn't read anything anyone sent him in two years. In fact, it took him 18 months to read my book when he first bought it. So suddenly this whole idea of let's meet Brandon's editor... I love Moshe, he's a great guy, he's been on the podcast, he's given advice, but that advice is probably bad advice for you right now. He would admit, "Don't send me your book, because I won't read it, because I'm bad at doing that." He's bad at doing what his job is, in other words.
[Dan] Well, if you want to talk about skewed demographics, you and I have incredibly similar stories. Because we went to all the same cons together, we schmoozed the same editors, we have the same editor that we met at the same party, so 50% of the writing advice that you're getting on this podcast is coming from that background.

[Brandon] Yes. We broke in exactly the same way. So, Mary, what would you maybe think if you analyzed this yourself, what pieces of your story might people take and overemphasize?
[Mary] Well, clearly everyone looks at me and thinks that they need to be a professional puppeteer in order to be successful.
[Brandon] Obviously.
[Howard] With an injury.
[Mary] Yes. A professional puppeteer with an injury. So for me, it's... What people will look at and think is that they need to write short stories in order to break-in. I think. Because... One of the things that I want to talk about is that part of what people will look at is the external view of someone's career path. They will draw conclusions from that without understanding what's happening within what someone is doing.
[Howard] The principle of a 10 year overnight success. You burst onto the scene with these two short stories and then this novel. What they don't realize is that there are actually two dozen short stories and a whole bunch of thrown out drafts, a whole bunch of meeting people...
[Mary] So what it looks like is that I went to a whole bunch of conventions, I sold some short stories, and because I did that and worked very hard to be prominent on the Internet...
[Brandon] Okay. The prominent on the Internet is the part I think that... This could... This works for people. This does. But that is really the core thing, when I talk to people and when I fol... When I noticed your career, it was because everyone loves Mary. You just have to be as lovable as Mary and write as well as Mary... Writing well is like, well, we'll take that for granted. But the people will fixate on the let's make a big platform, let's get to know everybody, let's be well known on the Internet. I've seen people do that and fail spectacularly at getting published.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that... What I... I often look at things in think that people get fixated on a specific ingredient of someone's career without understanding kind of what the overall goal is, which is, at least in my opinion... And this is again, my survivorship bias, is that in today's society, the way publishing seems to be working right now, if you are approachable and agreeable, it is easier to have a career.
[Brandon] It is.
[Mary] Certainly there are aspects of the career where that is totally true, or at least it looks like it.
[Brandon] Although there are the jerks who make...
[Mary] That's exactly...
[Brandon] Being a jerk the way that they gain attention.
[Mary] Well, and there are also people who don't do any of those things. Like Ted Chiang wins basically every time he is in a Campbell cate... Not a Campbell, a Hugo category. Everyone looks at it and goes, "Well, it's going to be Ted." But he has no Internet. He doesn't have Facebook. He doesn't have Twitter. He's not... He does none of those make my public persona visible...
[Howard] So if I disable all of my social media access, I will win all of the Hugos?
[Mary] Yes.

[Brandon] Howard, what do you think about your success story...
[Howard] Oh, goodness.
[Brandon] People might imitate just by... Try to imitate, but fixate on as one thing this is what Howard did, so it will work for me?
[Howard] Gosh, this is so...
[Brandon] I'm putting you on the spot.
[Howard] Well, it's... Here's the problem. I got it through my head that webcomicing would be a fun way to tell a story. The first thing I wrote became the thing that is currently paying the bills. All right. That is, at risk of comparing myself to Pat Rothfuss, kind of Rothfussian in that...
[Brandon] Rothfussian?
[Howard] Well, as opposed to Rothfusstoria, which would be something else altogether.
[Brandon] That would be silly.
[Howard] It would be.
[Mary] Or... Yes, no.
[Howard] The point is there are folks out there who think, "Oh, I just need to start the right webcomic and it'll all take care of itself." I've seen a lot of people start web comics and then three years, four years, five years later say, "Oh, it's not paying the bills yet, I've gotta quit." Well, mine wasn't paying the bills for five years. That doesn't mean though that if you go for six years, seven years, eight years...
[Brandon] That it will.
[Howard] That a paycheck is right around the corner.
[Mary] Yeah. Sometimes people will get even more specific than that. They'll look at your success and think, "Ah, I need to write a space opera comic." That's the thing that I see a lot of writers do when they are starting out. It's like, well, this book is successful, therefore I need to write books like that book.
[Dan] We're getting almost into cargo cult territory with a lot of this.
[Howard] We did do a podcast on the... Affirming the consequent.
[Mary, Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] But that's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about here is legitimate things that we did right. One of the legitimate things that I did right was I looked at where I thought webcomics were weak. That was that they didn't update regularly when the cartoonists got sick or had life or whatever, the comics would stop updating. Back in 2000, it was a big deal when that happened, because we didn't have RSS feeds, people weren't sending things out via email, there was no push technology for webcomics. So I thought, "Well, it's always going to go up at the same time and I'm just going to structure my work habits around making that happen." People think that, "Oh, well, if I have a regular update schedule, then that will work." What they don't realize is that the regular update schedule did several things. It forced me to draw more regularly, it forced me to become far more disciplined with this project than I'd ever been with any project before then. Today, if I were doing that, there's no way that I would treat that as item the first. I would make sure that there was an RSS feed and Facebook and twitter and tumblr and glitter and whatever else is with two t's and the r and the... I don't know, you Web 2.0 folks. But I would do it that way in order to make sure that the publicity engine worked.

[Brandon] Now let's stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is done by me. It's actually Elric. If you haven't read the Elric books, and I'm not going to actually try and pronounce the full title because I got it wrong like three times when we were prepping for this, but Elric was written by Michael Moorcock. It is one of the great heroic fantasy series. It's about this guy can live only because he's bound to this magical sword. It keeps him alive, but it also like feasts on souls and forces him to do these evil things. He belongs to a race of people who have no morals. All of this sounds very gritty, and kind of like modern gritty heroic fantasy that's being... That's popular right now except he was doing this in the 70s. I find the books fantastic. They are about an antihero, so if antihero stuff isn't your thing, then okay. But they are fan... Fascinating as you look at like the history of the fantasy genre as a whole. I just think they're fun fantastic books to read. So, the first one's just called Elric of Melniborn?
[Dan] Melnibone.
[Brandon] Melnibone. Elric of Melnibone. They're delightful books. Howard, how can they get them?
[Howard] Direct yourself and your browser out there. Start a 30 day free trial and pick up Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock for free, and have somebody read it to you which will be awesome.

[Brandon] Now I'm going to read a bit of Toby's blog post to you, so that you guys can kind of hear what we're going on. This is like the second part of it. He says:
"If you've been successful, good on you. I'm thrilled when any artist breaks out to make a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.
. . .
There's a lot of snake oil sales going on. And a lot of well-meaning people who won the lottery telling everyone to go buy lottery tickets while financial advisors shake their heads."
Now what... The whole purpose of this podcast is not to tell you guys don't listen to us. The purpose of this podcast is to say you really should know this. I think as a new writer trying to break in, which I assume a lot of our audience is, you need to know that this is right. That just because we're successful, or just because someone is successful, doesn't mean they know what they're talking about. I have talked to a lot of people who are writing instructors who give terrible advice. Particularly about breaking into the industry. There's one famous story where I had some students come to me in my class once. An author who had broken in told them that the thing they needed to do was send one of their... Send a photo of themselves along with their submission because they wanted to treated like... They said... He said, "Get professional head shots and send them along. It will make you look more professional. It will make the editors think you're a big deal." I had like three students come to me saying, "I've got to go get professional head shots. This guy's saying we need to do professional head shots." I'm like, "What?" But it worked for him. So that he assumes that that's... I would hope that those head shots didn't have anything to do with it, but I don't know. Like that sort of thing, you get lots of weird advice. Have you guys seen anything like that? Where something really weird has gone around the community, like the fad diet version of how to get published? I've see a lot of it with self-publishing these days, where it seems like somebody gets big in self-publishing and everybody says, "This must be the big thing in self-publishing."

[Mary] You actually keep doing this.
[Brandon] Do I? What do I do?
[Mary] You keep doing this when you talk about the novellas.
[Brandon] Right. Yes.
[Dan] Burn.
[Mary] No, but... It's true that you are having incredible success with novellas, and a couple of other authors are having incredible success with novellas, but because... But these are people... So it's easy to look at them and go, "Oh, well, this looks like it's a good idea." But these are all authors who already have a platform. The idea of than attempting to sell a novella when you have no platform is... It seems like... It's... That's one of the spots where I look at you and go, "Brandon, do you have any idea what you're telling other people to do, because other people don't have the platform that you do?"
[Brandon] Right. No, that's true. People don't have my platform at all. That's... A lot of the things I do that are successful are because of that.
[Mary] [garbled]
[Brandon] Granted, I have seen a lot of success with novellas. I think that people doing 35,000 worders is working better online than people doing 120,000 worders.
[Mary] Yes. Yes. But I think... I suspect that there are also a lot of them that are going absolutely nowhere.

[Howard] This is a case where... We're talking about survivorship bias. I've seen Nicholas Taleb described this as failure to check the graveyard. We need to look at the people who are writing novellas and having zero traction, zero success, and find out where they are similar to the people who are having success, where they are different to the people who are having success so that we can find out what it is that actually sells a novella online. It may be the platform, it may be the color blue in the cover, I don't know. Without data, you don't know. You can't figure that out. I had a very successful Kickstarter in February-March of 2013. I never know when these episodes are going to air, so I'm just going to start saying it that way, instead of last week or two months ago. Very successful Kickstarter. There was a whole raft of copycat Kickstarters that were making essentially the same sort of merchandise that I made and everybody was puzzling over why they were failing. Well, guys, it was all platform. There were also Kickstarters that ran similar to mine, in that they were structured similarly, but they were offering something different. They were very puzzled as to why they were failing. The way I built my Kickstarter, I capitalized on my platform. There are rules that will work for most Kickstarters: have a short video, documents things clearly, really high level sorts of easy stuff, but ultimately, none of those are a guarantee of success. Yet people were puzzled. "Man, I did it just like Howard did. But I haven't cracked 10% funding."
[Mary] Yeah. I know lots of people who... Again, with today the survivorship bias that I have, which is that you have to go to a lot of conventions and meet lots of people. I absolutely know people who don't do any of that.
[Brandon] I know lots of people who have done that, and then they don't get... They don't have the success. It sometimes makes me scratch my head, where I say, "Well, that worked so well for me. What are you doing wrong?"
[Howard] [laughter]
[Brandon] When it's not... Does that make sense? Like that's the thing I think all of us need to be aware of, is the scratch your head and say, "Well, what are you doing wrong?" I guess... You must be doing something wrong, otherwise the formula would work for you.
[Howard] I was sitting next to Jake Black at LTUE in 2005 on a panel. Jake said, "People ask me all the time how you break into comics. My response..." And he was quoting somebody else, "My response is, when you break into comics, it's a little bit like breaking into a maximum-security facility. You break-in and they look at you and they say 'Whoa! You got in! Tell us how you did it so we can patch that hole up so nobody else gets in.' So I can tell you how I broke in, but that hole is gone."

[Brandon] All right. We need a writing prompt. And...
[Dan] I got one.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Dan] Okay. Go back to the cargo cult idea. A very successful author, or artist in whatever, then they have a fan who decides they're going to emulate their life in every aspect in order to achieve their same success.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] About somebody wearing my skin.

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