So You Don’t Believe in Luck?
By Richard F.X. O’Connor
A couple of years back I was co-chairing an agents’ panel for a writers’ conference. A strong-minded young agent couple averred that there was no such thing as "luck" in the publishing process—that, in this day and age, you make your own luck.
In one way they were very correct—what we put out there as publicity, promotion, and buzz are the keys to success.
But what if no one is listening? Let’s assume the week your book breaks—with its well-thought through marketing plan and tour—it bumps into a small, snag—say for instance it’s the same release week Woodward and Bernstein actually name Deep Throat.
Oops, bad luck.
Here’s a case for luck: my own book, co-written with my first wife (who is in the biz and chooses not to be named). I originally wrote it as a diatribe aimed at my Brethren, excoriating them for not being more sensitive to women, circa 1973.
By then I had been in the pub biz for more than twelve years. I knew agents, editors, and publishers on a first-martini basis. Not a bite. And I was an Insider! The first piece of luck came when I chatted with the late Tom Congdon at a Doubleday party he was hosting for a new book by Peter Benchley called "Jaws."
Tom assured me he was interested and would get back to me. Three long months later, he called from E.P. Dutton telling me he was still interested but that he had been in the process of changing houses and ethics prevented him from pursuing me at that time, not to mention that he was unloading his extant list.
My glorious first meeting yielded the luck that Tom was building a list at his new house, and was looking for a nonfiction list leader. All I’d have to do was rewrite my manuscript, get some pro-help shepherding it, and have my wife’s name as co-author, since women, not men, bought books.
It took a three-block walk from his offices for it to sink in that the man just told me to rewrite this 600-page mess.
Luck #2: The man was smart. He gave us just enough of an advance (five figs) to get everyone in his house to sit up and pay attention to recouping the advance—preferably before pub date. He retitled my gibberish "How To Make Your Man More Sensitive."
Luck #3: In an unheard of twist, "Ladies Home Journal" and "McCall’s" both bid for first serial. The former got it.
Luck #4: Well before pub date, Mr. Congdon puts it up for mass paperback auction and Warner establishes a floor above $75,000. With much trembling, we bypass the floor—big gamble—and it sells to Fawcett for almost double that price. Its second life was 300,000 in mass paperback sales.
BIG LUCK #5: A guy named Phil Donahue reads the galleys and sees a parallel in our strict Catholic upbringing, that we were both getting a divorce (his was not in the offing at that point, as I hear it) but he sees so many similarities that he must get us on his full one-hour TV show in a Milwaukee open-air stadium, in front of 14,000 people.
A glitch. The book wasn’t ready yet! And a prime rule of marketing is that you don’t waste airtime without a product to sell.
Luck #6: Well, E.P. Dutton had a secret weapon, Lois Shapiro, one helluva sharp PR director who said, "Okay, I’ll give you this couple but under one condition; you must book them again at pub date when books are ready." Deal done. Who gets Donahue for a full hour, twice?
Luck #7: It sold to more than half a dozen book clubs. Trade did okay. Paperback was obscenely successful and I’ve even got copies in Dutch and Spanish.
I’ve got to agree that there were tons of careful planning—but also a helluva dollop of LUCK!
—Richard F X. O'Connor is the published author of seven books including the best selling "How To Make Your Man More Sensitive" (E.P. Dutton/ Fawcett) and "Ident-A-Kid" (S&S). His self-published work is "How to Market You and Your Book." His writers’ Web site is http://www.richardfxoconnor.com.