The Paradox of Timing

“Timing is everything,” I often hear editors and writers say. “What’s hot today could be cold tomorrow, and what’s stone-cold today could be red-hot a year from now. The trick is to time things right.”

I take issue with this idea — not because it isn’t true, but because it’s a truth that’s ultimately useless. Here’s why:

Most publishers are extremely short sighted. With rare (and brave) exceptions, they’re not interested in what might attract attention in the future. They’re interested in what’s attracting a lot of attention right now.

As a result, publishers — and all the media — tend to be reactive, not proactive. They look over their shoulders to see what other publishers, and other media, are doing; then they use the information gleaned from this incestuous loop to chart their own courses.

Most publishers are also very risk averse. This combination of short-sightedness, reactivity, and risk aversion typically leads publishers to collectively turn their backs on things that are about to burst into flame. Until something is clearly and obviously very hot, they wait in the wings, unwilling to commit themselves. When they finally do feel confident that something is sufficiently popular, it is often already past its peak. Add to this the lead time required to write, design, and publish material on the subject, and you can see why publishers are consistently behind the curve.

Given this reality, how in the world do you time the market? If you’ve got a keen eye for what’s heating up — or what’s just about to explode — you’ll consistently approach publishers too soon to get them interested. Instead, you’ll be told, over and over, “We’re not convinced there’s an audience for this,” even though you can see that, three months from now, the whole world will want it — and even though you’ll turn out to be right 90 days later.

How do you deal with this? Get in the way of your own vision? Force yourself to be less perceptive? Teach yourself to be short sighted, reactive, and risk averse?

No. Paradoxically, because the market for writing is based less on reality than it is on publishers’ attitudes and perceptions, you can’t time it at all. It’s like trying to time the stock market (which, interestingly, is based less on reality than it is on stockholders’ attitudes and perceptions). That’s why any experienced investment advisor will tell you, “Don’t try to time the market.”

The same is true of the market for the written word. Write what you feel moved to write; then do your best to find a good home for each piece you create. Don’t try to control what you can’t. Instead, focus on what you can control: getting your work into the hands of lots and lots of appropriate editors.