Leonard Mlodinow on Publishing’s Vagaries of Chance


Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, The Drunkard’s Walk is about the surprising and misunderstood role that randomness plays in people’s fate, and, as Mlodinow himself observes, “Those who study randomness—or write books for Pantheon about it—are not immune to its effects.” He reports on some of the odd twists that have befallen other researchers into randomness: The 16th-century scholar Gerolamo Cardano, who couldn’t find a publisher for his Book on Games of Chance, made a fortune as a doctor based on a recommendation to one patient that didn’t really work; Blaise Pascal’s breakthroughs in probability theory emerged from a gambling habit he developed on what was supposed to be a restful retreat in Paris; Adolphe Quetelet went to Paris to study astronomy but got sidetracked into statistics and made his reputation in that newly developing field; Edward Norton Lorenz’s elaboration of the butterfly effect was the result of an attempted computational shortcut resulting in massive errors. “These lives might be outliers,” Mlodinow says. “Or they could be archetypes.” In the meantime, what’s going to happen to his book? The only thing he knows is that we just don’t know.

Now that I have finished this book, it is time for me to stare randomness in the face myself, to adjust my thinking and my expectations according to the principles I have espoused. Will this book succeed? Like most books, it was a labor of love. But all I can control are the words, and now that those words are almost completed Pantheon is focusing on what they can make happen, formulating the very plans that, through some chain of events, eventually led you to read this. These days a publishing plan represents an effort so thoroughly thought out and researched that even if you are only interested in this volume because you thought The Drunkard’s Walk would be a self-help book, the marketing department has probably accounted for you in one way or another. And so as I prepare to relinquish my offspring to their earnest efforts, I must confront the tendency to believe that they are in control, and later another tendency to judge my work on the basis of how many people cared to read it, or what might be said (or worse, not said) about it.

But I didn’t just write the book, I read it. (At least a dozen times). So before I take my publisher’s early excitement over the manuscript too seriously, I remind myself that this is the industry that rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm, because “it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.;” turned down Isaac Bashevis Singer because “it’s Poland and the rich Jews again;” and dumped a young Tony Hillerman, imploring him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.” One book in the 1950s was repeatedly rejected by publishers who responded to the manuscript with criticism such as “very dull,” “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions,” and “even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject [World War II] was timely, I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

That book, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, has since sold 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books in history. And John Kennedy Toole, after his many rejections, lost hope of ever getting his novel published and committed suicide. His mother, however, persevered, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces was published, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and sold 1.5 million copies.

I guard my own sanity by reminding myself that my book’s fate depends at least as much on the vicissitudes of the marketplace as it does on its content, my publisher’s enthusiasm, or their hard work and promotions. I recall cases such as that of The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, which was hailed by one industry magazine as a “must read” and a “compelling, expertly crafted murder mystery,” and launched with a $500,000 marketing campaign. So high were the sales projections that 10,000 advance seed copies were given away, expected to be a drop in the bucket. As it turned out, not many more drops were contributed by paying customers, and the book sold only about 17,000 copies in its crucial first weeks. Optimists at the publisher might have argued that the bucket wasn’t 99% empty, it was 1% full, but the bucket never filled, and the great expectations died a quiet death.

On the flip side, I also recall Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, by Noam Chomsky. That blessed book required an emergency printing of 50,000 extra copies simply because left wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez held it up and praised it in a rambling denunciation of the U.S. he made in a speech to the United Nations (had Oprah Winfrey been interested in our quest for global domination the extra printing might have been 20 times that large). And so I take it all, both the good and the bad, with a grain of salt.

With that, as I write these last 61 words, I’m satisfied that in Drunkard’s Walk I said what I set out to say, and I’m content to leave the rest to that ubiquitous toss of the dice. Although I am asking my editor to send a dozen copies of this title to Venezuela in case there’s an open slot on Hugo Chavez’s reading list.

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21 May 2008 | guest authors |