The Torgersen Equation

In many professional fields, there is usually a formula you can follow to become successful: pick a career path, obtain the necessary schooling and on-the-job training, apply what you’ve learned in day to day operations, gain additional experience, learn from mistakes, seek additional career progression training, continue to practice what you’ve learned, et cetera. A doctor therefore knows she’s successful when she’s in her clinic or her hospital doing medicine or surgery, and pulling down a nice paycheck as a result. Similarly, a pilot knows he’s successful when he’s flying airplanes (military or commercial) for a living. And so on and so forth. For dozens upon dozens of careers. It’s usually the same. In each case there has been a prescribed path, navigable with a little talent, usually some brains, but most of all a lot of discipline and hard work.

But is there such a formula for authors? A to B to C to D?

Kevin J. Anderson is fond of telling people his excellent popcorn analogy: wherein hard work and productivity are keys to being successful in the writing business. I deeply love the popcorn analogy, and think it extremely apt. But while I was reading through some commentary today (regarding the changing roles of publishers) I was also reminded of something else: the famous Drake Equation, which is used to guesstimate the number of potential technical civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

I’d like to propose a new equation for fiction writers, in the spirit of the Drake Equation.

If we use the letter S to represent total SUCCESS, we can use St for TALENT, Sw for WORK ETHIC, Sp for PROCRASTINATION, Sc for COMMERCIAL APTITUDE, Sl for LIFE SETBACKS, Sa for AWARDS, and so on and so forth. Each of these will contribute positively or negatively to the equation. So, someone who may not be that talented, but who can be prolific, stands a better chance of success than someone with lots of talent, but poor work ethic. Someone with an eye for projects that have commercial appeal might succeed despite poor work ethic and mediocre talent. A talented, hard-working author can overcome a life setback, while awards might offset lack of broad commercial appeal, etc. There are many other factors that can play into it. I am not sure publishers/agents are even the largest or most important factors, though they can be.

St * Sw * Sp * Sc * Sl * Sa * (insert more factors here) = S

My own general hunch is that hard work and being prolific, with perhaps a smidgen of talent and commercialism, will set an author up to have a career. Make it a nice career if this person happens to be a decent chap with a good personality, who can work well with others and is easy to get along with. Harlan Ellison has crazy talent (by most estimations) but has also been notoriously difficult to work with in his career, thus he’s potentially offset his St with the negative Sd, for DIFFICULT PERSON. (Eric Flint cites Robert Urich in this regard: a journeyman actor who always had lots of work, because he was punctual, friendly, proficient, didn’t cause drama on the set, and was easy to get along with.)

To go back to the Kevin J. Anderson popcorn idea: authors who can generate a lot of books and short fiction seem to have a better overall outcome than authors who spend their time investing in just one book, one series, one idea, etc. It’s the single, polished “kernel” versus the whole mess of kernels. The more you have in the popper, the more you will pop. Some will be duds, but many won’t. And with a bit of luck (Su) you might even stumble into the feedback loop wherein word of mouth and publisher interest/push reinforce each other — to such an extent that the project goes viral/exponential, like the Harry Potter books. Your chance of having an exponentially/virally-exploding project get better, the more “kernels” you have in your popper — provided that you use the right oil, and the butter isn’t rancid. (grin)

Now. For a little hard talk.

There is a recent explosion (in the last six years) of writers going directly to self publishing (indie pub) without putting in the hours on their craft. In many cases these people will complain bitterly when the sales aren’t there, despite frantic marketing and networking. To include lots of hours and more than a little out-of-pocket money. In these instances I think the writers are applying boatloads of principles familiar to them in standard businesses or other professions with a set “model” of how to get ahead. But because writing is an entertainment business, I often quote Eric Flint, who says that good writing just isn’t that common. And I think he’s right.

So, we’re witnessing a massive surge in self pub from people who are in love with the idea of being AUTHORS, while not necessarily having the chops to be good writers. At least not right out of the box. (NOTE: In my own case it took over 850,000 unpublished words and 17 years of toil, before I sold my first piece of professional fiction.)

Most readers were not aware of the “iceberg” of a writer’s career (just the top showing what was publishable, and all the rest below the waterline) because the “gatekeeping” system of editors and publishers kept the public from seeing the slush tsunami coming out of the depths of the Aspiring Writer Ocean. Now with indie pub, self pub, e-pub, et al, the slush tsunami is on full display.

And buyers are (I strongly suspect) becoming even more reliant on curators/gatekeepers: to help winnow the grain from the chaff. Whether it’s a trusted publishing label, or a reviewer, or even a starred system like uses. Heck, when Oprah was still on television, one good mention from her in her book club could practically guarantee a bestseller. Because a very large number of consumers trusted Oprah to “point the way” towards the good stuff; in an era that predated indie pub.

Which is not to say that the curators/gatekeepers/reviewers are infallible, or always get it right. We all know of books or movies or music that make us cringe, yet these things were/are soaringly popular anyway. We also know of books and music and movies which got huge push in the marketplace (from their producers, studios, publishers, labels, and so forth) but the projects fizzled out due to lack of audience traction: the fish simply would not bite!

Dean Wesley Smith once told me (rather sternly) that just because I don’t like a thing, that doesn’t make a thing bad. A man like Dan Brown obviously found a way to tell a singularly engaging, compelling story without necessarily being an artisan wordsmith. Which is worth (I think) paying attention to. Because there are a ton of very talented, beautiful wordsmiths in the field who will never be able to quit their day jobs due to the fact they are “boutique” writers who haven’t found a way to tap commercial veins; or even openly eschew commercialism altogether as venal or petty or beneath their sensibilities.

In the end, how you define “success” may not match someone else’s definition. Once upon a time the Science Fiction Writers of America was composed strictly of working professional SF and F authors who earned the majority or totality of their income from their fiction — and could prove it with royalties statements and bank receipts.


Success appears to be a moving target. One author may not be satisfied with anything less than six or seven-figure deals and movie options. Someone else may be content with the occasional short story sale to a critically-acclaimed academic review. The “rules” by which each of these authors operates will be different, and there might not be a lot of overlap in terms of attitude, or outlook.

Me? I think it’s possible to strike a happy medium between art and finance. And I am old enough to have grown up in the era of traditional publishing, thus some of my benchmarks are tied to achievements or accomplishments in that realm.

But I am also young enough to see that publishing is passing through a rather turbulent period — the rules of the game are being overturned by technology. Everyone involved in publishing (from the writer to the consumer, and waypoints in between) are feeling the shift. And how it all shakes out is difficult to guess at this point. Thus I think it pays to pay attention to examples of people finding success via non-traditional models. Not because non-traditional is the new “best” way, but because non-traditional is at least a way that didn’t exist even a decade ago.

Which takes me back to fretting over the sea of new authors putting their work on the indie market before their skillset/talent can sustain the effort. Contrary to popular opinion, writing stories and books worth reading is not easy. Almost everyone who is doing it for five figures (or more) per year (and I am now one of those) had to go through a teething period. The gatekeepers provided a gauge against which to measure ability. I know this was true for me, and is still true in most respects. Passing the gatekeeper test is a good way for me to keep myself honest — and it’s fun, as well as lucrative too.

Thus if your LIFETIME PRACTICE (call it Sr) is shallow or even nonexistent, even a ferocious amount of MARKETING (call it Sm) won’t necessarily get you the results you want. Because sooner or later readers can tell if you’re not camera-ready. You won’t have honed your abilities to the same degree a doctor or a pilot has honed her abilities — through long hours and years of training. Maybe once in a blue moon some fortunate soul can emerge spontaneously, with a gift for writing so sparkling in its wholeness, that no honing is necessary. 98.9% of the rest of us have to slog through the trenches: write, get rejected, write some more, get rejected some more, and write again still.

Indie pub lets you skip the honing as well as the gatekeepers.

And I fear indie pub also lets too many people skip success, too.

So take a look at your equation: what factors are involved, and where do you think you might be weak? Could you stand to improve somewhere? Devote hours or energy to something that maybe isn’t fun or sexy, but which is absolutely necessary? Are you overlooking or ignoring anything that might make you embarrassed? Heck, what’s your real motivation, anyway? Do you love and enjoy the process of writing? Of making stories? Or do you simply want the fame (Sf) and the glory, without some of the unglamorous work?

Hat tips: Hugo/Nebula winner Mike Resnick, Nebula/Hugo nominee Nancy Fulda, Nebula nominee Jake Kerr, bestsellers Eric Flint and Kevin J. Anderson, and Codex members James Beamon and Nicole Cushing.


11 thoughts on “The Torgersen Equation

  1. Great article. I like that you factor in the ‘likability’ aspect of the author as well. I’m more willing to buy from someone that seems like an overall “good person.”

    I also agree that self-pub enables writers to bypass the gatekeepers and skip the quick and hard lessons of rejection, but I think the consumer marketplace does an okay job of separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s not perfect yet and there are still ways to game the system, but I believe it will get better.

    Why do I write? I’m in love with creation. It began coming up with my own stories when I was younger, then I moved on to composing music and now I’m back to a balance of both, leaning heavily on writing stories again. A little fame and glory would be nice, but I’d be happy with supporting myself and my family.

  2. Thanks for this post, Brad. It’s one of those things I sometimes stumble upon right at that moment when I think I’m ready to quit my aspirations of being a (hopefully successful) writer someday and just go watch Netflix. I’ve been writing for almost five years now and I’m still nowhere near ready to submit one of my works to a publisher. It’s just aggravating at times. So when I read about others who are still struggling or who have successfully struggled to get published, in some cases for entire decades, it gives me a little bounce and keeps my butt in the chair with my hands on the keyboard,

    I just keep having to remind myself how long it took for me to get to where I’m at now, and that I’ve got all the time in the world to get better.

  3. Let’s see, I hit my five year mark in 1997. Yeah, that was kind of a tough year for me. I had assumed (in 1992) that the path to professional publication would be relatively straightforward. I had gotten very good audience response on a radio play format script I’d done for KRCL-FM in Salt Lake City. I was versed in the works of Science Fiction giants like Larry Niven. How hard could it be? (chuckles at his own hubris) Anyway, if I’d known I had at least another 12 years ahead of me . . . no, it would have been too scary! My biggest mistake was letting myself lapse between 1998 and 2001, and again from 2002 to 2006. Periods during which I barely wrote anything at all. The discouragement killed my productivity. I felt like I was going in circles, not getting better, etc. Thankfully my wife wouldn’t let me quit. I got back on the horse in 2007, and had won Writers of the Future in 2009. All else since has been gravy. Publishing is FUN! So keep after it. The only one who can really stop you, is you. Rejections and waiting are part of the process. Don’t let the process eat your ambition for lunch.

  4. It’s surprising to me how many authors (in SF and D) are not necessarily great people to hang around, or work with. Lots of prima donnas. Big egos. Not much in the way of people skills. Folks who kind of shoot themselves in the foot by being not-so-nice. To fans. Editors. Their peers. I guess this is true in all creative fields where money is at stake. But you’d think in SF and F at least, the environment would be cozier, more forgiving, less strident, etc. ‘Tis not so, I am afraid. But yes, having a good attitude and being easy to get along with take a chap far. In this biz, as well as authors. So far in my three careers (civilian, military, fiction) being a nice guy is half (or more) of the battle. And it’s not so much of a battle for me, because I am nice. (grin) Also, I certainly hope the indie pub scene straightens out a little in the coming years. Right now it’s a Wild Wild West (as Kris Rusch puts it) which is both good, and bad. Authors indie publishing before their skills are ready, do themselves no favors. And they also make it harder for the rest of us, because now we have even more of a challenge amplifying out “signal” above the “noise” as it were. That was tough even in the days of traditional-only publishing. It’s five times tougher now. Good luck, Phillip!

  5. And thank you for your excellent reply. It was just as helpful as the original post.

  6. I agree; hearing that it took you another 12 years after getting “serious” is pretty encouraging. 12 years is a long time, but the real despair comes from the “expiration date” mentality, where you reason that if something doesn’t happen after a few years of genuine effort, it’s never going to happen.

  7. That’s a sticky one, no question: when is it OK to quit? I guess it boils down to how much each of us wants a given thing. For me, I’d invested so much effort, after awhile it seemed wrong to not keep applying myself until the effort began to (literally) pay off. Also, I genuinely enjoy writing and being published. But the key there is I enjoy WRITING. Some people merely love the idea of being published. Of having a book with their name on it. Not everyone likes or is good at the process itself. And I think that shows in the product. If you merely love the thought of being an Author (capital A) but not a Writer (capital W) it’s perhaps a sign that you can move on, and not feel bad about it. Not everyone is meant to be published and working in the literary arts. But if you love writing and can’t stop writing, even if you want to . . . well, keep after it! Success can be had. It’s a kick in the pants.

  8. Most of the authors I’ve met at conventions have been wonderful to spend time with. However, I met Harlan Ellison at a con in 1979 and he was such an ass that I haven’t bought one of his books since then. He is a great writer but I will not let him have any of my money.

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