The Big Kill/Big Hit Misconception

I know an investor who’s always looking for that one stock that will make him at least a millionaire. It’s never happened, at least not so far as I’ve been able to tell, and he’s lost plenty seeking out those kinds of stocks. People shake their heads when they hear stories like that, but what they so often fail to realize is that our entire society is infected with that same disease, just in varying forms.

All too many people praise and admire those who “hit it big,” whether it’s a chart-topping song, the most home runs in a baseball season, or what team wins the national collegiate football championship or the Super Bowl.

But one of the problems with the big hit is that very few of them last. In writing, there are literally a handful of what the trade calls “evergreens.” According to Ranker, there are a hundred books that have sold more than ten million copies, and that’s over several centuries, although the majority of those have been sold in the last 150 years. Put in other terms, on average less than one book a year sells that way. And last year in the United States alone, over a million separate book titles were published, although two-thirds of those were either self-published or print-on-demand titles. So, if you want to be successful as an author, the odds favor those who can produce good or excellent books consistently over those who strive for the one “big” book, especially authors who labor for years over a single book. For every J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien, there are tens of thousands of authors who make at best a few thousand dollars a year, and usually a lot less.

Who’s a better voice professor – the one who teaches one opera star/Metropolitan Opera winner in his/her career and few others, or the one who turns scores of talented but overlooked students into solid professional teachers and performers but never has a big name performer?

Who’s the better CEO – the one with the headlines who’s gone in five years or the one whom no one has ever heard of who leads a firm successfully for a decade or more?

I know a lobbyist/consultant who’s accomplished quite a great deal for his clients over the past thirty plus years and who managed to get enacted a clause in legislation that radically changed environmental and other regulatory processes in favor of his clients. His name isn’t a household word, unlike scores of other lobbyists and consultants who’ve made the headlines and flamed out or gone to jail, but he’s lived well for a long time on moderate and consistent success.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that there a number of professionals in many fields that have had “big hits,” but they did so on the basis of consistency, not one-shot efforts. Babe Ruth held the major league record for most home runs for years, but he also, even today, has the third most home runs ever, as well as a career batting average of .342 over 22 years. The two who have more home runs than Ruth both played at a high level for 22-23 years as well. The man who took the record from him, Roger Maris, never had another season close to that season and left baseball after 11 years with a .260 batting average.

Yet all too often people think about the “big year” or the big record, rather than the consistency that’s often [but not always] behind it.

2 thoughts on “The Big Kill/Big Hit Misconception”

  1. JakeB says:

    In “Fantasyland: how America went haywire”, Kurt Andersen argues (entirely convincingly, from my perspective) that the urge to make it big/to hustle/to bull**** one’s way to wealth has been a fundamental element of American life since the white man came to these shores.

    As much as I enjoyed Nassim Taleb’s first couple of books, I wonder if his ideas haven’t made the problem you describe even worse. Taleb pointed out that his method means never losing one’s shirt, but losing regularly (sometimes for years at a time) until a black swan event occurs, at which point everything and more gets earned back. I have the feeling the essential elements of tenacity and endurance are entirely elided in popular understanding for the sake of the idea of the big win.

    I realized some time ago that a number of my favorite books in the fantasy genre, such as Elizabeth Willey’s _The Well-Favored Man_ or Barry Hughart’s _Bridge of Birds_, were written by authors who tried and gave up after a few books because their books never reached the audience size needed for them to make a decent living out of it.

    Many years ago Theodore Sturgeon grumped about how it was that a thoughtful author like Edgar Pangborn could be hardly recognized while a dabbler like Kingsley Amis could write science fiction and have everyone (the literary reviews at the time, I suppose) chatter about it. Plus ca change, etc.

    1. I frankly don’t have much sympathy for writers who give up after a few books and who quit and complain because they can’t make a living at it. It took me twenty years to become a full time writer, and I was working long hours at other full-time jobs the whole time.

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