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COMPETITIVE, MOI? Only if forced to it. 

Before I became a writer, I had a lovely idea of what it would entail. Writing in coffee shops came to mind – and I have been known to. Chatting with writers about writing and books was up there – and I do that quite a lot, as it happens. Banging my head off a keyboard, whilst not entirely fun, wasn’t unexpected.

What I didn’t expect was to discover how the business is competitive.

To be clear this is nothing to do with the writers I know. My writer friends are supportive – as I hope I am to them. I wish for nothing but the best for all of them. I want them all to be best-sellers – and therein lies the problem.

A few days ago I found myself in an exchange with a writer which started well (and ended well, this was a friendly exchange and there was a lot of good stuff amongst it) but which took on an edge of competition. It wasn’t the type of competitiveness that looked to bulldoze everyone else, it was more insidious than that.

It was the competition of value. It’s central to the publishing industry, and it goes, in my very humble opinion, against everything writing should mean.

Writing should be about creating something of value, that’s meaningful to the person who’s put hours of their life into it. The value of the project/book/poem/blog/whatever should be judged in terms of whether it delivers what the writer hoped for and what a reader, anywhere, took value from.

It shouldn’t be about which publisher you’re with, or how many copies you’ve sold, or how many great reviews (although, that’s coming closer because at least reviews are about a reader’s value-base for the product.)

There are two main models for a writing career.

Model one – the Traditional model:

Get an agent if you can. I blogged about that a few weeks ago, but the bottom line is most would-be writers will never get agented. For every 100 going in for an agent’s attention, one, or two, or five, might get a full request. (The stats vary from agent to agent and writer-anecdote to anecdote.)

Get a publisher if you can. The bigger the better. Go through an open submissions window if you’re unagented (and let’s not look at the percentage acceptance rate under than model), get an agent, bribe the CEO’s PA, whatever. But get someone big to invest in you and you’re more of a success than another writer who didn’t.

Hang on. My value is based on the size of publisher that takes my fairly niche writing? (Space dynasties with some fighting, and some kissing. And kids. And dark, nasty corners.)

Surely, that’s wrong. Being with a big 6 publisher is not a sign your book is any better than someone with a small, boutique, choosy small press. It’s a sign, perhaps, that you might get more marketing budget (it’s a very big might). It might give you kudos but, if so, it’s the wrong type of kudos. Your book is your book, irrelevant of who publishes it. It’s either the book you wanted to write and are proud of, or it’s not.

Okay, then, model two: Self-publish.

Seek reviews to prove your worth. Measure sales against others. Check your kindle sales graph and your rank and, from that, judge if you’re doing okay.

Stop, and look at that again? In a market of millions of books, where it’s easy to get lost, value can be judgedd by how well we hit a mass-market?

I read a book this week (published as it happens). I found it in a library that has a fiction department with sf and crime and romance all in together, listed alphabetically. I would never have found it on Amazon using my search history, their recommend algorithms, or just a general nosy around. It’s listed in crime, mystery and thriller, despite having a sf-feel to it. It’s not in any Top 100 search. It doesn’t have 100s of reviews (but the ones it does have are very, good.) For me, it’s the standout book of 2016 so far, and unlikely to be topped. Amazon is not the purveyor of quality – it’s a marketplace; it makes its money selling books. Popular books. And, frankly, its algorithms can go a long way towards making a book popular (once you have its attention.)

Faced with this as a business model, it’s no wonder many writers – though not by any means all – start to become competitive. If you can’t stand out from the crowd, how will anyone find your books? If you don’t sound like a success what value do you have? Without value, who will read your books?

I don’t, really, have an answer. Publishing is a business. It always has been. And a business looks to make money. Like any product, from jam to cars, some models will be less popular and they’ll cease to be produced. A book without readers makes no money.

But that concept goes against any reason of why people should write.

Writers I know laugh and say they knew not to expect to become rich, but many secretly hope not to have to squeeze writing into the corners of their life where we used to have leisure. They don’t want to live a high life (very few writers I know aspire to the mansion) but do want to be fed and clothed.

Which puts competition back into the model – because the pot of money spent on books can’t provide for everyone who wants to write.

Perhaps, then, we should look at what makes measurements of success?

Is it the quantifiable:

How many copies you’ve sold.
How easy it is to find your book on Amazon.
How many bookstores you’re in.
How big your publisher is.
How big/reputable/able to sell your agent – if you have one - is.
How big your mailing list/blog followership/web hits are.

Or the more personal, less tangible benefits:

How proud you are of the book.
That you enjoy your own book if you pick it up and read it.
That someone, somewhere enjoyed your work.
They thought it was worth the money they spent, and the time taken to read it.
That they took a moment to tell you, either in person, or in reviews. (This week, I had a lovely PM to tell me someone had enjoyed my book – and that PM was sent during a not-easy-time for the sender. It meant a lot. I had a friend on Twitter call out for the books, and a lovely exchange with them. And a great review from someone whose opinion I looked forward to. All were lovely.)
That your peers like it.

I’m not sure how to get from one paradigm to the other. The first list provides the means to continue to write. The second provides self-actualization. As long as publishing focuses on the top list and not the bottom, our writing values are skewed and our motivation to write off-kilter.

What I do know, having thought about this all week (that’s a lot of reflection for pragmatic me), is that I’m going to try to focus less on the top list and more on the second.

If that means I’m having to do real-life work a bit more, and write a little less so be it. I wanted to be a writer to be happy, to fulfil something in me. That something wasn’t the need to be a bestseller. It was the need to write the story I’d always wanted to, as well as I could. I did that. All the rest is secondary.

Jo Zebedee happily wrote two books, and has two more coming out this year.

More about her can be found at