Thursday, May 03, 2007

Competitive Book Selling

I’m competitive by nature, have been my entire life. I always wanted to be the best and still do. Even as a Girl Scout it was never enough to just sell cookies, or sell the most cookies for my troop. I had to sell the most cookies for the entire town. And I did. So I know firsthand the good and the ugly of competition. What I’ve learned is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with competition; it’s comparison, competition’s ugly best friend, that we need to be afraid of.

You can’t compete unless you know what you’re competing against, and while competition can be good (in controlled doses), comparison can be deadly. And don’t try to tell me that you never compare yourself to others. We all do it: writers, agents, publishers, moms, dads, even dog owners spend their days comparing themselves to others. And while it doesn’t hurt to look at others and see the comparison, it does hurt when you start to value yourself based only on that comparison.

On a regular basis I’m fielding calls from clients who have heard that Author X was getting this and “I’m only getting that.” And regularly I’m reminding authors that they can’t compare. While you might know that Author X got a four-billion-dollar advance, that’s all you know (or at least think you know). You don’t know anything about the rest of the contract, her book sales, or even what the marketing and publicity campaign will be, if any. The only thing you know is what you are doing and what you are getting. That’s the only guarantee.

So go out there, compete with Author X. Make sure your books are edgier, funnier, and just plain better. But don’t try to compare your career to hers. You can’t control what she’s getting or doing, you can only control yourself and your writing and what you should be getting. The less time you spend comparing yourself and the more time you spend doing, the more success you will have. I can guarantee that Author X doesn’t give a lick about you. She’s too busy working to perfect her own career and make sure she’s the best.

So as an author, published or unpublished, what do you see as your biggest competition and what do you do to make sure you rise above it?



Anonymous said...

A friend of mine is a writer I greatly admire. Gorgeous style, word painting that's almost luminescent in its beauty. I read her stuff with both enjoyment and dread. Enjoyment because I will be guaranteed unequaled prose. Dread because I compare my work to it, and there is no comparison. Then I suffer writer's block for a day or two.

How do I get over it? I turn that comparison into inspiration. My style is nothing like hers, never will be, and in the end shouldn't be. But, she inspires me to work harder and improve my prose in the hopes that I'll master the art of wordcraft the way she has.

Grace Draven

Kimber Li said...

Hmm, I cannot express to you how foreign a concept this is to me. I've competed as a member of a sports team, but competition on an individual basis is not something that enters my mind. Either a reader will like my book or she won't. What's to compete with? It's not like she can only have one book in life. Most readers go through tons of books a year! I'll just write the best stories I can and try to communicate why they're worth a reader's time and money.

I think of authors in my sub-genre as members of my team. If they succeed, then maybe I'll get a chance to play too. If they fail, the sub-genre (science fiction romance) may go away and I'll be stuck on the bench forever. Or, I'll have to find a new team and start all over.

Kate Douglas said...

Jessica, you? Competitive? I NEVER would have guessed...okay, now that I've quit giggling, I will say that I can't help but compare my career to that of other authors, but I see their success as something to aspire to, not to make me feel as if I'm failing. I will never have the same success as that of some of my multi-published friends, but I will have my own success, and the only way to get it is to work my butt off now, while the market is hot for the type of books I write. And, when the market changes, as it will, I just hope I'm ready to change with it.

Anonymous said...

As an unpublished author, I think my biggest hurdle is being competitive without knowing the competition. We only see the published books and thus have no idea where we "rank" in the slush pile. How does my requested material, if rejected, compare to others' rejected material--was I "close"? Was my working screaming "amateur"? We newbies, until offered representation, have no way to know where in the slush pile bell curve we are.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous --

The published books ARE your true competition. When agents and editors are reading submissions, we're thinking about how these projects would stand out among others on the bookstore shelves...not how much we like it compared to the last slush manuscript we read. So don't worry about how your rank in the "pile." Go to the bookstore and read, read, read to figure out how to top your competition.

Good luck!

Liz Wolfe said...

As far as writing, I compete with myself. I really try to make each book better than the last. But, of course, I compare my writing career to others who are more successful. I just try to keep those comparisons brief and remind myself that it's all about the writing.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm not sure competitive is the world I'd use to describe my feelings. More like hunger.

To me the whole business is so objective. What one agent or editor thinks is the best novel ever might not even make anothers list, so to say I have to write better than So-and-so's last novel sems like a stretch.

My goal is to write a novel that makes popel sit up and take notice, an agent first, editor second, and readers after that, but if I look too closley at some published work already out there, I won't be telling the story I originally set out to write.

Now I'm rambling, but what I'm saying is my desire and motivation come from within, to tell the story in my mind to the best of my abilities. That is all I can do and and the rest is out of my hands.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question. One I've tackled several times with my kids. What I tell them is what I tell myself: The only person I'm in competition with is myself. My goal is to do better tomorrow than today. Everything else is out of our control.

Christa M. Miller said...

I'm with the folks who say competition comes from within. Sure I have had many many go-rounds with the green-eyed monster, but one thing I think is true of any profession - to try to "be like" your hero is a mistake. Better to figure out what your own strengths are and then capitalize on them. To read great fiction, figure out why it resonates - TO YOU, because it won't resonate the same way to someone else - and then figure out how to apply those qualities to your own fiction.

I think it really helps to join a positive community of other writers. Like Crimespace or Forward Motion. Then you start to see other authors as friends and professional acquaintances, not competition. Spend time with them and you see that we all share the same insecurities and hopes and fears and dreams. And that being part of each other's worlds helps smooth it all over. For me, being able to relax about all that stuff has helped me focus on the writing to the extent I need to make it better!

Laura K. Curtis said...

I grew up in an extremely competitive family. We didn't so much converse as use each other as mental whetstones. I decided to go to grad school, so did my brother. I decided (10+ years ago) to write a fantasy novel. It took me more than two years. My brother said, "oh, I'm planning to write a book this summer." Naturally, that didn't happen, but the dismissal was competitive.

I didn't set out to get that book published because I am not good at rejection and the fear of someone saying "you're a lousy writer" was greater than my natural competitive edge.

Now my greatest competition, I find, is other creative people who are successful in their careers. I make beads for a living and am far from the best or most successful in my field, but that doesn't bother me particularly--I sell enough to get by and enough to let me constantly explore new methods, techniques and designs.

The thing is, I want to be as successful in my writing as the really big name beadmakers are in their creative endeavors.

I don't think of myself as competing with other writers because I honestly don't know what markers of success there are for authors. Sure, there are best-seller lists, but most authors in my genre aren't on them, so lists don't count. It's not money, because authors don't make that much. Maybe it's longevity, but since I am as yet unpublished, I can't compete in that aspect of writing.

So my competition is the composed of those in my field who've really "made it." To avoid resenting their achievements, or letting envy stifle my own creativity, I try not to think about the specific criteria of success. I worked my butt off to get good enough at glasswork to be published in magazines and make good money at trade shows. Writing is harder, so I figure I just have to work harder to make my dreams a reality.

And I know I will make it because I have plenty of "butt" to work off!

Beverley Kendall said...

My biggest competition is me. I give myself writing goals every day. I want to write x number of words a day. I must exceed or meet that word count everyday (or revise x number of pages everyday). There isn't a day I go without writing anymore. Right now I'm unpublished so my main goal is to FINISH and write better.

Anonymous said...

Laura K--

Why not start by writing a non-fiction book about beading? It's a hot topic right now. An editor told me beading was "the new knitting." If you're successful and already have a platform, why not start there, make connections in publishing, then try to market your fiction??

Might even be easier to get an agent with a non-fic proposal first.