Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 7): Competition

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This is another one of those deceptive titles, like “Money.” Because when most writers read “Competition” as the sub header here, they think, Yep, there’s just too much competition out there. A handful of writers win, but the rest of us lose.

Um…no. Readers are a fascinating bunch. They’re terribly unpredictable. Just because something is marked “bestselling” doesn’t mean that everyone wants to read it. Just because there’s a huge ad push for a book doesn’t mean that everyone wants to read it. Just because a book is in a trendy genre doesn’t mean everyone wants to read it. You get the idea.

If you’re actually thinking about that kind of competition, well, I’m really sorry. Because if you think of other writers as your competition, then you have to add the canon to your competition, not to mention every single book that’s still in print from wherever. Or the books stored in your best friend’s grandmother’s basement.

Readers read.

More importantly, readers read what they want to read.

The key for writers is to become a writer that readers want to read. Not all readers, because no one is a writer for all readers. Think on that

from your Reader Self for a minute. I’m sure there’s a writer, genre, storyline that you will never read, no matter how hard someone else pushes you.

That kind of definition of competition shows a misunderstanding of the business of writing and publishing. In fact, the most fascinating part of the entire entertainment industry to me is that when someone consumes and loves something—a spy movie, a blues recording, a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, a vampire romance—that person wants more of the same. More musicals, more spies, more vampire romances.

Sure, the person would want to repeat the exact same experience, but knows that’s not possible, even on second viewing/listening/reading. So that person will then pick up other items of the exact same type.

Rather than being in competition with each other, we cross-pollinate. We become that rising tide that lifts all boats.

We’re in this together with the writers who write what we write, the readers who love what we love. Now that many of us have returned to the theater, think how wonderful it is to sit in a roomful of strangers and gasp at the same moment or chuckle at the same joke. We all have something in common, and that’s our desire to be entertained by the thing in front of us.

So get the vicious, cut-throat idea of competition between writers out of your head. What makes writers fail isn’t that kind of competition.

It’s this kind:

A writer will compare themselves to someone else and either 1) find themselves wanting or 2) find the other writer unworthy of whatever success they have.

Perhaps I should have called this jealousy, but jealousy is a small, petty emotion. This isn’t really jealousy.

This kind of competition is an excuse not to try.

I’m writing this from the perspective of forty-five years as a professional writer. Early in the career, it seems like everyone else is doing so much better than you are. They’re getting book deals. They’re indie-publishing and selling thousands of dollars of books per month. They’re getting options on their work. And on…and on…and on…

Social media exacerbates this, because most people only post when they have good news or when they’re selling something. There’s a small subset of people who post only bad news (each detail of an on-going illness, for example, or each crummy month of book sales), and then there’s that subset of people who post about everything, good and bad, much of which is (for me, anyway) Too Much Information—Squared. I mean, really. We’re casual friends. Do I need to know that you cured your toenail fungus?

There are the gurus, the folks who jump into every discussion to tell some other person not only what they’re doing wrong, but how to fix it.

All of these people exist in real life, but they’re less noticeable. When your friend decides to jump into a conversation between two strangers about their dog’s diet, you might move to another conversation or wander down the street and window shop or hover near the car, hinting quietly that your friend should really butt out. Sometimes you even drag said friend away or tell the friend, No one wants to hear that.

But if you say No one wants to hear that on social media, well, them’s fightin’ words. And many of us don’t have the strength to look away from those weird things that scroll across our phones.

I know a lot of writers who intellectually understand all of this, but can’t comprehend it emotionally. They doom-scroll their friends’ successes and let it crush dreams and hopes, because these writers believe they’ll never measure up.

Or they get angry:

I’m a better writer than Wanda. I’m better than William. But they’re both selling more books on Amazon than I am. I’m making $500 per month, but they’re making $50,000. I’ll never measure up. I’m not going to finish the new project. I’m done trying. Readers are stupid. They don’t like good writers. They just like marketers.

That’s a conversation I walk away from because I’ve heard a variation of it for 45 years. Most of the writers who utter those words or type them out do walk away. They give up, because it’s easier than confronting their own shit.

Yep, I said it.

Because this isn’t a writer problem. It’s a life problem. Chances are these writers look around any room they’re in and find the “successes” and the “failures.” Maybe it’s something as simple as fashion (She’s built just like me, but she can afford clothes that hide the flaws that we share). Or maybe it’s a job. (How come she has a good job that she loves and I don’t? How come I have to work three times as hard for half the money?)

Some of these problems come from upbringing. If a person has this attitude issue, I can almost guarantee that one of their parents had it too. Sometimes it’s so toxic that the entire family has the attitude.

And yes, this is a toxic attitude, because it’s all outer-directed. It’s focused on what other people have that you lack, without any accountability at all.

Am I saying that the person who has the attitude is flawed, and that’s why they’re a failure? First, I’m not saying that they’re a failure at all. Only that they will be if they don’t figure out how to get rid of the attitude.

Second, the attitude is toxic because it’s an easy excuse. At some point in your everyday life, you will encounter someone who is more successful than you. If you look around, you will notice it. What’s fascinating is that if they’re successful at something you don’t value, you won’t notice their success. It’s a combination of perceived success in an area that you value that causes the problem.

It’s okay to notice that others are more successful than you are. It’s even okay to have a twinge of jealousy or envy for a moment or two. It’s when you consistently get stuck in jealousy and envy that it is a problem. And it’s your problem, not theirs.

I confronted a friend about this a while back and that friend did not want to change. It’s how I’m built, the friend said.

I almost said, Then unbuild it. But this was a real-life conversation with someone I value, so I just walked away.

But I actually meant what I almost said. If you’re built—trained—to compare yourself to others and either find them wanting or yourself wanting, unbuild it. Train yourself differently.

Yes, that probably means therapy. Talk therapy, to get rid of this habit of yours. Talk therapy is a lot easier since the pandemic began. You can hire someone rather inexpensively online to help you change this habit of yours.

You need to learn how to compare yourself to someone correctly.

Huh? What? Still compare? What?

Yes. There are some uses in comparison.

Let’s start with something easy, something kids learn in grade school or high school. Kids want to develop their own fashion sense and they imitate what they see, whether it’s on social media or TV or with their friends.

They’ll try a pair of leggings that looked great on their best friend, but accent all of their personal flaws. They’ll try one of those bulky sweaters which will look great except at the neck, because their neck is much shorter than a supermodel’s. Eventually, most of us learn how to buy clothes that suit our bodies, not what we want our bodies to be.

It’s the exact same with writing and a writing career. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t have Stephen King’s career. He already had it—with ups and downs and goods and bads.

Again, I may seem like I’m being flip, but I’m not. Because there’s a lot to learn from King’s career, partly because it’s so long. He’s done a fantastic job maintaining a separation between creating fiction and being a fiction writer. He doesn’t really promote his work on his social media, although he promotes friends. He does interact with fans, something he loved and had to give up thirty years ago when he became really famous.

But what I took from his career, besides learning all kinds of great writerly things from the way he uses the tools of writing (grammar, punctuation, word choice), is how he managed to write after the accident that nearly killed him. He wrote about his fears and his anger. He also wrote as soon as he realistically could, giving himself no excuses.

Every single writer in the world—good and bad, successful or not—can teach us something. They’re all doing something right, even if it’s just approaching the writing with a gusto that some of long term writers forget.

Every single writer is doing something wrong too. I just picked up a book by a longtime New York Times bestseller and realized I got lost in the middle because the man was incredibly unclear about who was doing what. I had noticed that in previous books of his. He never fixed that problem (and can’t now. He’s dead). But the other thing to learn from this?

His books, all of his books, still sell even when they get muddled. Why? Because he tells some of the best stories ever.

There are business things to learn as well. Over the years, I’ve watched dozens of friends license their books to the movies. One friend lost complete control of his work. They made comic books and wrote other novels based on his first novel, and he never saw a dime for that nor did he get any credit.

Another friend had an agent handle the entire deal and the agent made money while the friend did not.

If you just stood back and looked at those two deals, you will see that both men got something I haven’t yet: one of their books became a film seen by millions. The price of that “success,” though, was a loss of control of the work for both of them.

And both of them made only the up front money on the deal. They didn’t even make royalties on the increased sales of the novels because there were no increased sales of their novels. The deals did not allow anyone to take credit for the story except the people who made the movie.

(Yes, that’s possible.)

The other thing about comparison? If you’re going to do it, do it all the way and forever.

No one—and I mean no one—has a career that’s all uphill. No writer gets stellar reviews on all of their books. No reader loves everything a writer does.

The careers of writers are filled with ups and downs. Most of us just don’t see the downs.

One of the…benefits, I guess. I hate that word, though, in this context…of getting older is that you get to see the trajectory of a lot of lives. You meet a person, sometimes at their highest point or at their lowest. You watch them marry (or not), have children (or not), have bestseller after bestseller (or only one), make a boatload of money, lose half the boatload due to ignorance, get success at the end of their lives, or live long enough to realize that they’ve been forgotten because they haven’t produced any new work in forty years.

You see it all, and you realize all the cliches are true: success is fleeting. Life is short. It’s not what you get in life; it’s what you do with it.

The other weird thing about comparison is this: It’s a snapshot.

I can vividly remember feeling momentarily envious of a friend of mine who sold a three-book deal before I had sold a novel. He sold his books for more than $100,000 in the late 1980s, and was on his way—or so we all believed. He handled his money well, turned in his books properly, and…

They didn’t do as well as expected. At the recommendation of his editor, he changed his name. He had a similar kind of success later, but by then, he didn’t believe it. He chased the Hollywood rainbow, writing screenplay after screenplay and never getting them produced.

When I think of him, though, I always think of that shining moment, that three-book deal, and the grin on his face as he learned of it—as we all learned of it, because it was at a conference.

And the young writer part of me, which still exists, still thinks of him as much more successful than me. If you measure in money, I’m more successful than he was. If you measure in the size of book deals, he always commanded more money from New York than I did.

If I had met him twenty years later, I would have thought him a failure, because that was the low point in his career. He didn’t talk about it—who does?

He just kept writing and working and building.

That’s what professional writers do.

The other thing we do? We use other people’s success as an education. We try on parts of it, the way our teenage selves tried on clothing that might or might not suit us.

We experiment. We see if the methods that person used to obtain success will work for us.

Or, over time, we become savvy enough about ourselves to realize we would never commit to doing the kind of work that the other successful person did. Not necessarily writing work, but marketing work or something else.

Some things simply don’t fit. But like those teenage wardrobes, the lack of fit might not be obvious until we try the idea on for size.

Mostly, though, comparison is deadly for writers. None of us can write the same book. None of us will have the same careers.

If you’re using other people’s success as an excuse to not try, that’s your problem. If you’re tearing down other people who are, at this moment in 2022, more successful than you are, that’s also your problem.

If you want a writing career as long as mine, you’d better solve this problem. You need to learn how to become inner focused not outer directed.

You might need therapy.

Or you might need the courage to block all the comparisons from your mind.

This problem is deadly for most writers, not because comparisons are so insidious, but because a comparison with someone else inevitably becomes an excuse.

And once writers have accumulated a lot of excuses, then they cease to be writers. They become people who wrote once, and don’t any longer.

They fail, because they’ve allowed comparisons, and all the jealousy that entails, eat them alive.

Don’t be one of them. Solve this one. Or it will haunt you for the entire length of your very short career.


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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail: Competition,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / galitskaya.

9 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 7): Competition

  1. Great post, Kris.
    I’d add that the tradpub writers — poor souls — are especially angst-ridden on social media. They compare themselves a lot to the big names.
    I’m sure we self-pubbers compare ourselves to others too, but probably less because we at least have more agency to change our careers. Instead, this side of the divide seems to feature more complaints about overwork and burnout.

  2. I see a subtle distinction between jealousy and envy. To me, envy is when you have something and I wish I had it, too. Jealousy is when you have something and I want to have it INSTEAD of you. Jealousy is always selfish: it’s about taking something from someone else. But envy–in moderation–can be inspirational. If I’m jealous of your success, I think you shouldn’t have it; but if I’m envious of your success, I MIGHT be motivated to learn how you got it so I can get it, too.

  3. This post came at a great time. I’ve struggled with being inner focused and blocking out all the external stuff. It’s really just noise in the end. Thankfully, I’m back to producing work on a regular basis.

    This is great insight for those of us that still struggle ignoring the noise every now and then.

    Thank you for this!

  4. I fell into the comparison trap – thinking everyone selling was “better than me”, and that maybe I didn’t have what it takes to write what people want to read. It paralyzed me for several years, unfortunately.

    But I got smart, and stopped being “woe is me”, and started trying to figure out *why* the people who sold better in the genres I write in were selling, and what they were doing that I wasn’t (that readers seemed to really want). That was/is a far more productive perspective, and it pushed me to go study both books that sell well, and also general craft knowledge (including taking some of Dean’s courses). Through that, I identified my weak spots and am now writing regularly and working to improve my storytelling skills in order to hopefully appeal more to the audiences I want to reach.

    Perspective and an openness to learning and change are essential tools in writing and life.

  5. Thanks for these words of wisdom. I’ve been on the writing journey now for 10 years—a baby compared to your experience. I am bummed when I see the high amounts of some authors in the Indie world as I’m not there even though I release my 20th book next week. Still, my writing and my stories are improving judging by reader scores. I bring entertainment to my readers and that’s enough.

  6. There ‘s one more aspect of this that Lawrence Block mentioned in a speech when he was given an award: You don’t have to fail in order for me to succeed. As in, it’s not a pie. the field is infinite. We can all succeed.

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