Are bestselling authors just lucky? Some, you could argue, are in the right place at the right time. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey, for example: a book that is not particularly well-written and started out as a piece of fan fiction has hit the big time, selling millions of copies and spawning movie adaptations to boot. Is there luck involved in becoming successful?

So what’s the secret to the success of Fifty Shades? The discrete nature of e-reading devices. With the release of the Kindle, suddenly you could read naughty books wherever you were – even on a packed train going to work in the morning. In other words, Fifty Shades was released just at the right time, and happened to spark a renewed interest in female erotica.

But is this an example of good luck? Could E.L. James have foreseen that the nature of the Kindle would be the very thing to propel her book up the bestseller charts (even outselling the Harry Potter series in the UK)? Probably not – it’s doubtful that anyone could have predicted that.

What about the fact that she had a book ready to be released just at the right time to (unwittingly) take advantage of the opportunity created by the Kindle? It’s true that they’re both examples of luck; but the key thing is that in having a book ready to be released at all, James made her own luck.

Now, Fifty Shades was released way back in 2011, and a lot has changed in the book market since then. It’s possible that James would not have enjoyed nearly as much success if she released her book today – the market is simply too crowded.

But that still leaves us with the question: what is luck?

Defining a “luck event”

Let’s take a look at the very succinct definition of luck found in the excellent business book Great by Choice by Jim Collins (the guy who brought you Good to Great) and Morten T. Hansen. They define a “luck event” as having to pass three tests:

“(1) some significant aspect of the event occurs largely or entirely independent of the key actions of the enterprise, (2) the event has a potentially significant consequence (good or bad), and (3) the event has come element of unpredictability.”

So let’s apply this definition to our Fifty Shades example:

Test 1: James did not invent the Kindle, so that event was completely out of her control.
Test 2: The Kindle had the potential to be a huge hit.
Test 3: But equally, the Kindle was a risky thing to release and could have been a huge flop.

So by this definition, the success of the Kindle and, by extension, its impact on the success of Fifty Shades was a luck event; James does, indeed, owe her fortune in large part to good luck. But let’s not forget that she was in a position to take advantage of that luck event: she wasn’t sitting at home with her fan fiction secreted away on her laptop, never to be shared with anyone.

So how can a self-published author make their own luck in 2017– to position themselves for success?

The randomness of selling

Buying anything, including books, has an element of randomness and unpredictability to itTwitter . Think about it: there are a lot of outside forces at play that may influence a person to buy or not buy something, like distractions, tastes, particular circumstances etc. It can therefore be argued that there is an element of luck involved in selling anything.

But what does this mean for you as a self-publisher? You can’t predict that someone who is about to buy your book online may get distracted by their child, or that they don’t like the shade of red you used on your cover and change their mind at the last second. But there are certainly things that you can do to increase the probability of someone buying your book. Let’s look at some examples of luck when it comes to selling books.

Examples of luck in book sales

Certain factors may have the potential to compel someone to buy or not buy your book. These include:

  • The potential buyer finds/doesn’t find your book for sale in their preferred format or store.
  • The potential buyer likes/dislikes your cover and/or title.
  • The potential buyer likes/dislikes your book description.
  • The potential buyer was encouraged/discouraged to read your book by a friend.
  • The potential buyer read a favourable/unfavourable review of you book somewhere.

It can be argued that all of these things have an element of randomness to them. In the end, you can’t force anyone to buy your book: they need to make their own minds up. So, if you want to be successful in today’s book market, you need to manage the odds and influence what you can, leaving as little to chance as possible and making your own luck.

What do you have in your control?

You can’t do anything about the mood of your potential buyer, but there are a few things you have in your control that can make or break a sale.

Is your book properly targeted at the correct audience?
Make sure that your book is correctly categorized in the online stores and that the description reflects its genre. You don’t want irate readers leaving 1 star reviews because they thought they were going to get something different out of your book.

Is the book properly formatted and as polished as you can get it?
Again, you don’t want bad reviews or negative word-of-mouth because of typos and poor typesetting/ebook conversion – these are things that can easily be fixed. If your “star” rating is low, potential buyers may pass on your book before they’ve even given it a chance.

Does the cover work to attract the right kind of attention to your book?
Is it true to your story and genre? Does it stand out and look professional? You want your cover to stand out in the memory of a potential buyer, so that they don’t forget you and move on. At the same time, you don’t want your cover to seem amateurish as your reader will then assume that your writing is, too.

Is your book accessible in as many stores and formats as possible?
Is your book available in print or only ebook? It is on Amazon exclusively, or widely available? Remember that readers all have their preferences when it comes to their literary habits: some prefer good old fashioned paperbacks, while others are attached to their Kindles. If your book isn’t available in their preferred format, and in an online store that they prefer to use, they’re likely to move on without buying it.

Have you actively marketed your book?
Do you have a website and are you active on social media? Do you have an email newsletter? You’re competing with a lot of other authors for attention, so make sure that you remain upmost in the mind of your potential buyer. Popping up every now and then on their newsfeeds or inboxes will remind them that they want to buy your book.

If everything comes together, good luck happens and you make a sale; but sometimes bad luck happens, too. What do you do with the luck you create? In Great by Choice, Morten and Hansen assure us that you can get a return on both good luck and bad luck, so you shouldn’t squander either (or despair if you’re only seem to be getting the bad kind!).

Return on good luck

Here are a few ways that you can ensure a greater return on your good luck or sales of your books:

  • Sales mean you have readers, and readers mean you have fans: Start an email newsletter and put a link to sign up to it in your book, so you can keep in touch with them and start building demand for your other books.
  • Sales mean royalties: Put as much as possible back into marketing and polishing your current and future books. Don’t stop investing time and money into your books – they are your products.
  • Ask for reviews: Don’t forget to ask for a review at the front and back of your book. Be shameless! It’s that simple.

Return on bad luck

If you are getting a lot of poor reviews or not a lot of sales, get feedback, improve and keep trying. Learn from what you’re doing wrong; research new methods of marketing, and get professionals in to help you if you can. Resilience is key!

What other examples of luck can you think of? Let us know in the comments below.

In the meantime, keep writing and learning and may the odds be ever in your favour!