on the origin of authors

It's hard not to be a little skeptical when the winners chalk it up to hard work.

"I was obliged to be industrious," Bach wrote. "Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well." Sure, Bach. Sure.

Of course talent is a thing. And yet...as both an acquiring editor and a collaborator, I've sat across the table from more than a few pre-successful people. In retrospect, the common theme to the ones who rose ain't talent. It's, I don't know, sticktoitiveness. Grit. Whatever you want to label it. The people who persist have no other option—they've convinced themselves somehow. The question in their minds isn't whether they'll succeed. Just how, when, under what circumstances. Plan A and Plan B are just opening moves.

Getting a book published successfully doesn't just take time. It takes ceaselessness. Unflappability. Because the process will try to flap the hell out of you. Writing a book—an exercise in frustration (if by exercise you mean running a marathon doing kettlebell swings)—is table stakes. Even when agents have your submission exclusively, many will sit on it for weeks, even months, before reviewing it, only to pass on it more often than not with a bloodless sentence or two. (Not every agent. Not the agents I prefer to deal with. But boy, it happens.)

If an agent passes on your book after all that bated breath, it takes a special degree of commitment to get up, dust yourself off, and hand it off to another. And another. And still another. Doing the same thing and expecting different results—isn't that our definition of insanity?

If so, to quote Michael Keaton, let's get nuts. You're going to do it all over again with book publishers.

Think adaptation. Crab-like creatures have evolved independently at least five different times in Earth's history. Why? The pincers, the beady stalk-eyes, those scrabbly little legs—on the sea floor, the formula just works.

Approaching a book rationally doesn't work. "Normal person" isn't the right shape for that environment. That's because the evolutionary pressure just isn't as intense in the real world. Enter this ocean, and you'll quickly be eaten alive. Success in the author ecosystem requires a metamorphosis. Luckily, humans can Darwinize themselves when necessary. I've seen it happen with the many normal people—journalists, academics, entrepreneurs, leaders—who deliberately evolved before my eyes into the sharp, angular form of a successful author.

"The structure of every organic being is related," Darwin wrote, "in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys." The authors who manage to adapt do so by networking with other, more successful authors. They immerse themselves with other organic beings in competition for the same shrimp, prawns, and krill. Then, through vast effort, they adapt: Shell hardens. Pincers and eye-stalks emerge. By pub date, they're scrabbling successfully along the sea floor just like all their peers.

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