The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and writers in the 21 Century

I got my education degree from a good university that I earned around the books I was writing at the time. None of the books that I wrote in my early twenties went anywhere, and I walked into uni as being a very clever 17-year-old and walked out at 21 being not that much smarter.

It also left me with a lot of holes in my learning. I was told in a philosophy course that philosophers died in many strange ways, including sticking their hands into too many frozen chickens. If I’d had my full attention on the class, I would have asked who that was and what the ld50 of frozen chickens was. It took me 20 years to learn that was Francis Bacon, and no one knows how many frozen chickens are necessary to kill half the people who stick their hands into them.

I remember being told about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment[1] without ever knowing what it was called, but talking to an author this morning reminded me of it. Kids that were about to be left alone were told they could have two marshmallows once the researchers returned. (Or pretzels, or oreos…the kids got to choose. It was a good catch on the research side. I wouldn’t have touched the marshmallow but not because I was any good at delayed gratification, I hated marshmallows. That would have totally skewed the data)

They followed the kids and found that the ones who were able to delay their gratification did much better than the kids who could not. I’m not anti-self publishing at all. I think that if you have built up a following and you have a book that its ideal readership would want to read, or it’s for a niche market or family or the rights to your books have come back, and you want to compete with the resellers who are making money off your backlist, self-publishing makes sense.

But first books are that marshmallow in hand. If you’re not in that 99th percentile of writers whose first efforts compare favourably with most people’s best efforts, there is a reason to hold back and wait. The best idea in the world can be hampered by its presentation, and not wanting to wait until skill-levels match the story you’re telling is gobbling up the marshmallow the moment the researchers turn their back.

And it’s not just self-publishing this effects. My province has a lot of small genre publishers in the market. I’ve read dozens of books that had a kernel of story that I could totally see why the small market snapped it up, but I could also see the tragic flaw that the big publishers turned down. Since the small presses started almost fifteen years ago, I’ve had several friends get published, but no one in both writing groups I belonged to sold a story to a big five publisher.

I’m not one to speak. Self-publishing wasn’t an option when I was churning out my first couple of adult books, but I know I would have done it if it had been. Maybe I would have had the ability to keep writing despite the resounding response from a market over-saturated with first books by people who couldn’t wait, but again, I have a sample size of a hundred or so writers that I know, and only one person I know made self-publishing work for her. Most people I know who self-publish aren’t fooling themselves about the chances of their success, but I’ve known lots of people who were just going to get their stuff out there. For three years I sat on a panel that lumped ebook with self-publishing. None of the self-published authors on the panel were even at the convention the next year. The only people who push self-publishing are people just starting off with it, the lottery winners that had it work for them, and the get-rich-quick types who have been working on their first million for years. We don’t hear from those who have the typical experience of self-publishing. Our media tells us that a ten thousand to one shot is a sure thing and if you fail to make it work, you just didn’t work hard enough at not being one of the other nine thouand, nine hundred and ninety-nine writers out there who also didn’t work hard enough.

I think writers would be more successful if they were better at delaying their gratification. And I say that as a person who would have eaten the Oreo and published my first book.

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