Writers as Competition?

I came late to Twitter’s “Harsh Writing Advice” trend, but apparently someone posted that other writers are your competition, and then got slammed, and then deleted the tweet, but of course (because Internet) it’s still around in various formats.

People piled on this guy for posting this, and… given that he didn’t really explain his logic (if there was any), I understand why. But I can also understand why he might think other writers are his competition.

Let’s assume that there are a limited number of agents who handle your genre. And each of those agents has a limited bandwidth—that is, they can’t rep even as many authors as they’d like. They’ve got their signed clients, they’ve got families and lives, and many of them have second jobs as well since the commissions don’t always pay the bills. If you look at it through that lens, it would be easy to think you’re fighting for limited “slots.” There are more aspiring writers than there are agents able to take them on.

Let’s say, instead, that you’re looking for a small publisher. But each publisher only has the ability to produce a limited number of books each year. Or let’s say you plan to self-publish. Even still, it’s easy to imagine you’re fighting other authors for the same readers. Because, hey, not every reader can read every book, so…

But here’s the thing. Publishing is extremely fluid. Agents come and go, and they’re always looking. With patience, salable, marketable work will eventually find a home. (I’m not going to say “good work always finds a home” because I don’t believe that’s true; I think publishing is more about what can sell than what is “good”—which is, in itself, subjective—but that’s another discussion entirely.) Small publishers will pick up books, even if they have to schedule them a year or two out, which is what big publishers do anyway. And once you publish something, it’s out there for readers to find and pick up whenever they’re ready. Even if a book doesn’t bolt out of the gate, it can find its following over time. It’s easy to worry it will get buried by newer, shinier titles, and that can happen, but this isn’t like the cinema. The book doesn’t get booted after a week or two if it doesn’t sell. Again, it’s about patience.

And the bottom line is, publishing is a field of networks. It’s all about relationships. Agents who know editors, writers who know each other… Those bonds are so important. A lot of writers don’t want to hear that because they’re shy, and they just want their work to speak for itself, and why do they have to, you know, be social or online or any of that? Can’t they just stay under their rock and write? Well, yeah, you can. But as a rule you’ll find more success if you engage with others. Which means not treating them like competition, like someone to squash on the way up. It means being respectful, not just to agents or editors who you think can do something for you, but to your fellow writers. Because humans deserve respect, first of all, and (if that’s not a good enough reason for you) because treating others badly is a story that will get passed around, writer to writer to agent to agent to editor to publisher, until no one wants to work with you.

So IF other writers are your competition it’s in this way: you need to vie FOR their camaraderie. Be gracious. And pay it forward when given the opportunity to help others. Seeing your fellow writers as people you need to fight and win against primes you to behave like a jerk, and no one in the industry wants to work with an asshole.

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