Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing's a community, not a competition

Are authors in direct competition with one another?

In many professions, people who do the same job are competing. TV shows vie for the same audience during a limited time slot; car salesmen vie for a limited number of consumers who are actually buying cars. Politicians have to fight for votes, and dentists can't make new toothaches just by wishing for them. It makes sense for competitors to want each other to do poorly. It doesn't make sense for direct competitors to protect each other, or help advertise one another, or share ideas on best marketing strategies. Can you imagine a politician saying, "The other guy running for my job is great, and you should vote for him"?

How you view other authors, as competitors or coworkers, will affect how you interact with them. Make no mistake: writing is a cooperative pursuit. Each writer's success helps all others who write similar books.

I say this because of how people read. The more someone reads, the more he or she tends to want to read. No, one book won't necessarily create a lifetime reader. But, every book read is practice in reading fluency--which means people who read a lot, read faster, and thus it's easier to excuse picking up a new book, so they read more.

And when you find a book you love, what do you do when you finish it? Read more. GoodReads and Amazon both use the "similar books" algorithm to suggest other books that you might like. These are books in the same genre, and often books with similar topics.

So, assume another author writes an urban fantasy at the same time as you. That other author finishes first and sells her story before you do. Is it reasonable to be angry? No. Because if a reader comes across that book and becomes hooked on the genre, your book--in the same genre, with a similar tone--could be next on the reader's list. In essence, another author's success helps build your own, by bringing readers to your genre.

That's why it's so important for authors to support one another. Helping one another not only creates a professional community where you can learn about potential problems before they reach you, but also expands sales for everyone involved. Yes, there are only so many books any person can read at any given time. But every fantastic book shared to someone who wasn't a reader creates a larger audience. And maybe that new reader will pick up your book, because the first person introduced them to another writer.

Should authors pander to one another? No, of course not. An author's target audience is readers, not authors. But it benefits every author to look out, in a general way, for all others. That's why authors create professional communities, and share marketing ideas, and write blurbs for books they themselves love. Writing isn't a competition: it's a profession, and a community.

So if you hear about a scam, share it with others. Share ideas, and offer encouraging words to other writers. Focus first on your own audience, but don't be afraid to recommend books to readers if you really think those readers will like them (always be honest, though).

And if someone asks you why you're helping "the competition," don't be afraid to explain that there is no competition. Not every profession will understand this (your uncle in sales? He might not ever get it), but then, only writers have to. In writing, it's okay to say, "This other urban fantasy writer is great. Read them!"

Do you work in a profession that's a community instead of a competition? How does helping others out help you?


  1. The vert paleo community is a little bit of both. We all want to see as much research being done as possible, but we also want to be the ones landing the good jobs in a limited market, getting big grants to help us do our research, and, in the case of students and recent postdocs, we want to be the ones winning the prize session for our talks or posters because that makes us more likely to get the first two I listed.
    I was in the poster prize session at our big meeting last year. I helped out a couple other entrants by being a practice audience for them before the judges came by. ...But I also knew from looking at their posters that they had no chance against me. I didn't help anyone I thought would be in the running and wouldn't have because winning it would have been a big boost to my prestige (one of them just barely beat me for first place).

    1. Yeah, when you're competing for grants or awards that make a difference in your career, it makes it harder to support others who are serious competition. Science may be another field where your work bounces off others' successes, but it's also one where others' successes can limit your own instead of expanding it due to the limited resources available. Talk about conflict of self-interests!