Sizing Up The Competition

I got a note recently from a newly published author asking for advice about something. In it they said something to the effect of “I can understand if you don’t want to reply; I am, after all, technically your competition now.”

Here’s how my reply started: “First off, writing and publishing isn’t a zero sum game. If someone likes one book, they’re more likely to try another book. It’s not like cars, where I buy one every five or ten years, and if I get a Honda, then all the others lose a sale. When people run out of my books to read, they go looking for something else and might stumble on yours, and vice versa. Thanks to e-books, books stay available forever, and a ‘lost sale’ to another book now doesn’t mean you won’t get that sale down the road. So toss that ‘competitor’ nonsense out the window. We’re colleagues.”

This idea that writers are competing for readers’ dollars continues to survive, and it’s not hard to see where it starts. You’re at a convention, and someone’s looking for a book to buy. They pick up yours, put it down, pick up another one, pick up yours again, weigh the two against each other…and then buy the other one. It’s tempting to think, “If not for that other book, they would have bought mine! Curse that other author!”

But think about how you buy books. Certainly you’ve been in that situation, where you really only want one book and there are two that sound interesting. Even when you only bought one, though, you remembered the other, didn’t you? Maybe it took you months or years to come back to it, but you did (or you will). And there have also been times when you wanted a book and nothing looked interesting. Even though there were plenty of choices, you ended up not getting anything.

People buy books that appeal to them. Maybe yours will not appeal to every reader (spoiler: yours will not appeal to every reader). But yours will appeal to some. The hard part is discovering the book, and what makes that easier is to have more points of entry into the book world. And what are points of entry? They are other books–especially books similar to yours.

Yes, the world is crowded with books, over a million published each year. But people’s interests are very specific. Even within furry, there are people who don’t want to read gay romance (I know, weird), who don’t want adventure stories, who don’t want space opera or slice of life or mysteries. If they love both my books and yours, then great! They’ll probably get both. If they love yours but not mine, then I’m happy they found something they love. Your book not being around won’t make them buy mine. And if they love someone else, neither of our books, then that’s fine too. People who love any book are wonderful, and people who love to read are far more likely to eventually decide to try your book or mine than people who don’t read at all. So cheers to all you getting your stories out there, and here’s hoping you bring a bunch more people into our world.

There’s little if anything to be gained from treating your fellow writers as competition, and so much to gain from treating them as colleagues. As is so often the case, I go back to my Faulkner paraphrase: “Don’t bother being better than others. Be better than yourself.”

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