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Why Casinos Aren’t Publishers

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s another math-centric spiel on probability.

We all know why casinos work and make money, right? It’s because they know the odds are stacked in their favor. They go to great lengths to safeguard against cheating. As a player, some games have better odds than others, but the numbers are what they are. You can’t change them—all you can do is know the parameters, consider your choices within them, and take a chance.

As writers, we talk about trying to increase our odds of getting an agent, getting published, making a bestseller list, etc.

It seems a natural statement, but we can’t do it. There are no odds. Odds assume all things are equal—the dice aren’t loaded, the roulette wheel isn’t rigged. In the writing and publishing world, nothing is equal.

We’re all have different strengths and weaknesses. We’re all at different stages of progression. Some have a story agents/editors want right now; some have a story they might have wanted a year or two ago; some have a story agents/editors won’t want for a year or two (or five) yet.

Seriously, no probabilities or odds out there at all.

I can understand the urge to think of it that way, though. Just like the casino, much of what happens is out of our control. And like the casino, there is some luck involved, if only as far as timing—getting the right agent’s (or editor’s) attention at the right time with the right project.

When things aren’t within our control, we tend to think of them in terms of chance, odds, hoping the cards fall our way.

When we think that way, we may forget things that are within our control. Working hard to continually improve our craft. Looking ahead to the next project (and the next, and the next) when the stars don’t line up for one, rather than staying stuck on that one, never moving forward. Educating ourselves on the industry and our options within it.

There is no magic bullet or shortcut, no counting cards or rigging the machines. We can do everything right and still not “win.”

Because there are no numbers to work. There is only work to be done.

Well, there’s one number out there. If we quit—or never get out there in the first place—our “odds” of success are precisely zero. As long as we avoid that number, we’re on the right track.

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Chances Are, We Don’t Understand Chances

Personally, I think probability is one of the most fun math concepts to teach. Break out the dice, the coins, the different-colored marbles, and the spinners. Do a bunch of trials to see how the experimental compares to the theoretical.

Despite the fun, I see a lot of students get all the way to high school without a solid understanding of what probabilities really mean. Take, for example, these two questions:

#1 You flip a fair coin five times and get five heads in a row. What’s the probability of getting heads on the sixth flip?

#2 What’s the probability of flipping a coin six times and getting heads all six times?

People often think these are asking the same thing. Our gut instinct for #1 is that if we’ve already gotten an uncommon five heads in a row, surely the chance of getting heads again isn’t that good. But the coin doesn’t know what it landed on before. The situation only has two choices: heads or tails. For that single sixth flip, it has a 50% chance of landing heads just like every other time.

The situation in #2 is completely different. You’re taking all six flips as one situation, so there are a lot more “choices” for the results. All heads, all tails, one tail and five heads (with six different configurations for this one alone), and so on. There is only a 1/64, or a little more than 1.5% chance, of this happening.

The difference in the two is that in #1, the five heads in a row have already happened, and cannot influence the sixth flip.

It’s also good to talk about what makes a game fair or unfair, and why gambling isn’t such a great idea.

The thing about probabilities is that they often make an assumption about all else being equal. The coin or dice being evenly weighted. Every individual outcome (like heads or tails) having an equal chance.

In life, we can’t always make that assumption. That’s where people sometimes confuse “probability” with “statistics.” For example, say we collect some data and find that 2% of writers querying a novel this year will secure representation with an agent. Does that mean any given querying writer this year has a 2% chance of getting an agent?

Not remotely.

Within that pool of querying writers, we can’t say “all things being equal,” because they aren’t. Some of the writers don’t have a clue what they’re doing. (You’ve seen Slushpile Hell, right?) Some aren’t making such egregious mistakes, but just aren’t ready yet. Some just don’t have the right timing with market trends. Some aren’t querying that aggressively, only sending out a few here and there. And then some are at the top of their game, do their homework, and go at it. The percentage of that last group getting representation is probably quite different.

So, strange as it is for a math teacher to say, don’t get caught up in the numbers when it comes to these subjective, highly variable, real life scenarios. Save thoughts of probability for when you’re deciding whether to walk into a casino, or figuring out whether you should take an umbrella when you leave for work.

When it comes to situations where all things aren’t equal, work to make sure you belong to the group that successes draw from. That’s the way to up your chances.

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