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Thursday, March 21

Rising Above the Average as a Writer: Regression Toward the Mean

By Dario Ciriello

Part of The Writer’s Life Series


JH: So much of publishing success is blind luck, and getting lucky twice (or more) can be harder than getting published in the first place. Dario Ciriello is back at the podium today to share thoughts on keeping success going.


We all want to succeed at our writing and produce that breakout book that hits big. And it is possible, for all of us. But it’s also necessary to understand success comes with its own challenges.

Not at first, of course. Faced with a sudden, maybe unanticipated hit, a writer, musician, or other creative will be overjoyed and exuberant. Recognition, validation, even money: what’s not to like?

But once the wave crests and the initial happy surprise gives way to considering the next project, that’s when apprehension can set in, and with good reason: how do you do it again?

Before we discuss that, let’s look a little at the concept of “regression toward the mean” aka “reversion to mediocrity”.

Simply stated, “regression to the mean” is a way of saying that an event which differs a lot from the average is—especially where variables such as luck, timing, fashions, you-name-it, are involved—is unlikely to be repeated. It’s an outlier. The phenomenon occurs regularly in repeated data sets of all sorts, from genetics to pop songs to games of chance.

Let’s say your first book is a wild success (this happened to me with my nonfiction memoir, Aegean Dream). Or it could be your second. Either way, once you’ve finished celebrating, you’ll naturally want to follow up and consolidate your win with another book—how do you do that?



Well, it’s tricky. Here’s why.

If you write a book that’s significantly different in category or genre from the successful one (as I did, and continue to do), you’ve introduced a major variable, and all bets are off. Why? One obvious reason is that your wildly successful book established a fan base with its roots in that category, genre, or even, heaven help you, subgenre. So changing, (as I did) from, say, a nonfiction memoir to a fiction thriller puts you back at square one, with the result that your sales will fall close to the mean (a few hundred books at most is where the mean falls in publishing).

But being smarter than I, you’ve probably controlled for that variable, so you stick to the same genre. Still, you’re an artist, so you might create a new protagonist, a new plot, maybe even a whole new world…because, I mean, you can’t write the same book again, right?

If you cleave close enough to your breakout book, the chances are you’ll do better than the mean. But your readers loved that book, and will measure everything you write thereafter by that. What they really want in their hearts is the same book again; they want to re-live that story, those characters, that plot. Of course, if your next work is too close to your first, they’ll feel cheated; but change too many things and the risk of disappointing the reader increases as you tweak every variable. It’s regression to the mean either way. And there are many variables: timing, trends… and sheer luck, the wild card we have zero control over.

It’s a truism that any writer is, in effect, only as good as their best book. Whether your craft is improving with each publication is probably a minor factor.

Or not, if you’re writing a series work. This may be the best strategy of all if we want to avoid regressing to the mean. Keep the same setting, the same protagonist and possibly other characters, and go for a home run by throwing your series arc as far as you can.

But when you reach the end of that arc, or perhaps begin to get bored, then you’re back in risk territory. Most of us know of very prolific authors who write several series with distinct protagonists and settings within the same genre or category, and in probably every case one series stands head and shoulders above the others for most readers.

My own take on this is that writers come in all kinds, from those who do their best work and get the most satisfaction within a single genre, to those who need to explore wild new territory.

I believe some degree of regression to the mean is inevitable for most of us, no matter what level we’re playing at—new writer, moderately successful, or Name author. Of course, this in no way suggests that we should limit our attempts at success, but I think it’s wise to be aware of the tendency of events to cluster in a narrow band if one isn’t mindful of the phenomenon. And since one can only control so many of the variables, what it comes down to is our own comfort zone and artistic goals.

If you love writing within one genre, or digging deeper into the world and characters you’ve already created, more power to you; and if your writing allows you to put food on the table and pay the bills (at which point you’re already doing better than the vast majority of authors), you have a win-win. If on the other hand, you’ve more of a restless spirit and have a higher tolerance for risk and unpredictability, then your mind is probably made up anyway.

The bottom line? Do what you love, write what you enjoy. There are no guarantees in this game, so listen to your heart on this one.

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing and copyediting services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads

About Made in L.A.

Readers in Los Angeles are thirsty for stories that bring their city to life. This anthology features a diverse range of voices and genres. Like the City of Angels in which these stories were born, nothing is off-limits. Literary or contemporary, noir or ghost story, fabulism or science fiction, each story in this volume will forever change the way you look at this iconic metropolis.

Made in L.A. Writers is a collaborative of Los Angeles-based authors dedicated to nurturing and promoting indie fiction. This 2018 volume is the first of the annual Made in L.A. anthology series. While our styles, themes, and story locales differ, our work is both influenced and illuminated by our hometown and underpinned by the extraordinary, multifaceted, and often surreal culture and life in the City of Angels.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse

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