How does survivorship bias give you dumb ideas about writing?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Survivorship bias might sound like a pointy-headed theory that has nothing to do with writing. But read on to learn why that’s a mistaken idea…

I apologize for throwing a scary piece of jargon your way with the term survivorship bias. What does this strange phrase mean? And what does it have to do with writing?

Statistician Abraham Wald was the researcher who developed the concept, back in the 1940s when he was studying the strength and durability of aircrafts. Wald had the smart idea that he should help figure out which parts of aircrafts had sustained the most damage during the Second World War. Then, they could reinforce the aircrafts in those precise locations. 

Then, he had the even smarter idea that this action wouldn’t be nearly adequate. Why? Because the most seriously damaged planes would not have returned from battle and therefore couldn’t be studied. So, Wald developed a statistical way to estimate the damage distribution for all aircraft that flew based on the damage done to the ones that had returned.  

Survivorship bias is essentially a “cognitive shortcut” we all use because it allows us to ignore a certain subgroup of failures or under-achievers not easily visible to us.

While the business world has long been mindful of this shortcut, it’s most obvious today with respect to COVID. This is because people who die without having been tested for COVID are not considered part of the virus’s death count — a fact that skews survival rates and makes it difficult to accurately plan for future outbreaks. 

Writers are also vulnerable to survivorship bias at a number of different points, most clearly in publishing. If, for example, we consider the sales figures of Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, we assume it’s relatively easy to be successful as an author. And even if we’re smart enough not to look at more than the handful of wildly successful brand-name writers, our attention is likely to be drawn by people like Douglas Stuart, whose first book was the best-selling and award-winning Shuggie Bain or Stephanie Danler, author of the big-advance earning Sweetbitter — forgetting that they are still unicorns, and not the norm.

Here is the reality of book publishing: Publishers lose money on the vast number of titles they produce. This is why they usually start with relatively small press-runs and then quickly order additional reprints for the books that have been most successful. Publishers, of course, will go whole hog with titles they know are going to be successful. (Memoirs of former presidents tend to fall into this category.) But, otherwise, they know that their ability to predict what’s going to sell is essentially a crapshoot. Look at what happens when there’s an unexpected winner of the Nobel Prize or the Booker Prize. Sales go crazy and the publishers almost always need to order massive reprints. 

The vast majority of books do not even earn back the advance that the publisher has paid the author. So should this sobering news stop you from writing a book? No, but it should stop you from expecting to become wealthy — or even self-sustaining — from book publishing. 

And the vast majority of self-published books don’t make much money either. Think about it: just because your book is available on Amazon, what’s going to cause readers to go looking through the millions of book listings for your title, unless they know you personally? The small number of successfully self-published authors (and I include myself in that title), have clearly defined ways of reaching new readers. But you don’t see us because we’re small and self-published. 

Here’s another way in which survivorship bias affects writers: how we write. We tend to look only at the writing habits of ultra-successful authors. Many writers know that Hemingway wrote 500 words every day and that English novelist Ian McEwan writes 600. So they take those word counts as their own immutable goal, assuming that if they do so, they will be just as successful as Hemingway and McEwan. Instead, too many find out that 500 or 600 words a day isn’t feasible for them and they give up altogether. 

The cost of this blindness is evident. As journalist David McRaney phrased it in a fascinating post:  “Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all. You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other.”

If you want to escape survivorship bias it’s important for you to take a couple of shrewd steps: 

First, seek out stories of failure. Try to learn from people who started on the same path as you and didn’t make it. What would they have done differently if they could do it again? What can you do differently to escape the same problem they suffered from?

Second, if you are pursuing writing to make money be sure that it’s feasible in your genre. Just because some people become astronauts and movie stars doesn’t mean that everyone can. Books are an especially challenging place to make money. But if you can support yourself with teaching (highly feasible), corporate writing (very feasible) or blogging (also feasible) perhaps you can write books for your own pleasure.

And, if you are very lucky, maybe you’ll also have financial success.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed how to find an angle for writing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How do you combat survivorship bias? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Andrea Puente, the winner of this month’s book prize, for an Oct. 27/21 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Andrea!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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