Nobody Knows Anything

Confused“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” ― William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

I’ve always liked this quote, because it’s so true—and it applies to publishing, too. We don’t know how a book will do until it goes on sale, or sometimes, until it’s been on sale several months or even years.

Publishing companies and Hollywood studios routinely produce works they predict will sell based on past success of similar works. It’s a flawed method of decision making, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Besides analyzing past experience, what can we do to predict future success of a book or movie? We watch the market; we pay attention to the cultural zeitgeist; we look at what’s going on in the world and think about how that might affect people’s choices in how to spend their leisure time; we look at what people are enjoying in the other arts.

But predicting the future based on the past is an inexact science. Not really a science, even, but an art. Anytime we’re trying to project future success of an individual project, we are making an educated guess, no more.

A corollary to “nobody knows anything” is Billy Wilder’s famous tip: The audience is fickle. Sure, last year they may have gone crazy over vampire novels, but will they still be so enthralled next year? Nobody knows.

It takes just as much effort, time, and money to create a movie or a book that’s going to bomb as one that’s going to do well. This underscores the truth of “nobody knows anything” because if we knew—if we were able to make accurate predictions—then perhaps in the pursuit of the bottom line, only bestsellers would be published and only blockbuster movies would be made.

Instead, we have thousands of non-bestselling books published every year so that there are many, many great choices for those of us who like to read. The fact that nobody knows anything works in your favor if you’re a writer, and even if you’re a reader.

Anytime you ask an industry professional a question that has to do with predicting the future (Will Amish fiction ever go away? Is paranormal going out of style or will it still be hot next year?) just remember that the answer they give you is not gospel, it is simply their informed opinion based on what they see around them. It could be completely accurate… or dead wrong.

Only time will tell.

Need a publishing coachBased on what’s happening in books and movies today, what predictions can YOU make about the future?


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Image copyright: sifotography / 123RF Stock Photo

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] Agent Janet Reid relates what questions an agent asks before signing a client, while Rachelle Gardner says that nobody really knows what will sell well and what won’t. […]

  2. Beryl Singleton Bissell on February 11, 2016 at 9:54 AM

    I learned this well when my first book was published . . . my agent went for the biggest advance and the book didn’t meet market expectations. My second book got a much smaller advance but I earned it back quickly. Nothing quite like that royalty check.

  3. Craig Terlson on February 10, 2016 at 3:35 PM

    … which is why I am working on a paranormal Amish romance novel right now. Cover the bases, I say.

    This has been a frustrating thing for me in my writing career. I have a tendency to write things that cross-genres, and though there are many exceptions, my work was often turned down as being not specific enough to a genre. (Too literary to be a thriller – too many thriller elements to be literary).

    As mentioned, a lot of what I read and love broke these rules. After a period of trying to figure how to write in one genre, and also somewhat guess the market – I just became more and more frustrated. I think I have finally come to place where I am going to write the kind of book that I want to read, and if I meet the fickle market there, then so be it. Or maybe better, they will meet me where I’m at.

  4. John Wells on February 10, 2016 at 11:32 AM

    No matter how much we are blessed with a degree of wisdom or success or health, it is good to read the Book of Ecclesiastes from time to time. I’ve heard a tongue-in-cheek version of ECC 9:11 that says, inter alia, “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” but it’s the way to bet. The CEO of a film company or publishing house is like a man with a stack of chips at a roulette table: They’re his chips and he’s betting his fortune with them. Really, we have no choice but to abide by his decisions.
    So what can we do, but write the best novel we can and write the best query and proposal to interest a Literary Agent who shows interest in our work. I keep harping on this: Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting. And recall ECC 12:8 “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.”

  5. Teresa C. on February 10, 2016 at 7:37 AM

    Even though I read your blog, I think this is the first time I’ve commented. Love this article. The market seems to be finicky in that the zombies, vampires etc. trend can be old stuff in a flash. It’s kind of like when a new guy enrolled in high school, back in my day. If I found him cute, the tried and true (other guys) were forgotten as I swooned over the new guy in town. Writing something fresh is the key, something to make readers swoon, but often hard to imagine. 🙂


  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on February 10, 2016 at 6:11 AM

    Well, with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, I think we may have a whole new trend. And I honestly don’t know whether to cheer or weep.

    I have a feeling though, that somewhere…Jane Austen is having the time of her life.

    • John Wells on February 10, 2016 at 4:18 PM

      Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Is there no shame?