Are You Competing with Your Fellow Writers or Authors?

Monday, February 1, 2016
By Phil Elmore

typingLet me start by saying that I make a distinction between writers — people who make a living by writing for clients — and authors, people who write stories. If you work a job that is not writing in order to support yourself and your family, then you may still be an author (amateur or otherwise), but you are not a writer. To me, the term writer connotes a commitment to the profession that ties it to your continued sustenance. In other words, working writers survive by putting words on paper (or screens). ¬†Authors write stories. Some of them are very successful. Some of them are also writers. Many of them are amateurs.

I am both an author and a working writer. This does not make me special; as an author, my work is not well known. There are many writers like me. I write everything: website copy, marketing material, ghost-written fiction, self-help guides, instructional manuals, etc. Sometimes, my talents as an author and my talents as a writer overlap, such as when I ghost-write adventure fiction. I wrote over twenty novels for Gold Eagle/Worldwide Library/Harlequin Enterprises in their Mack Bolan/Stony Man/The Executioner series, for example.

Writers definitely compete with each other. If you and I both bid for an editing job on a freelancer website like Upwork, only one of us can get the job. That’s the purest form of competition there is. Simply put, yes, you are competing with other writers if you also make a living from writing. But that does not automatically make all other writers your enemies. I have a couple of friends who are writers who are also allies — people who send work my way when they have too much, or when a client makes them aware of an assignment that is not a good fit for my friends, but might be a good fit for me. Even writers with identical skill sets sometimes job out work to each other, because schedules can get tight.

Interestingly, despite all the competition for work in this field, it’s remarkably hard to find a good writer. I know, because at various times I’ve tried to find one to whom I could sub-let some of my workload. I know some great writers, but they charge more than I do; to make a profit on farming out some of my assignments I would need to find someone reliable who works more cheaply than me. That is a tall order, and to date I’ve not yet found it. Periodically I try again.

That brings me to authors. I’ve not always been good about making the distinction between writers and authors, using the terms interchangeably when I should not have. But I’ve said before that most writers — most authors — hate each other. We’re all jealous of each other’s success, and deep down, we’re all convinced that if one guy gets a lucrative contract, he’s just somehow subtracted from the finite total of contracts available to the rest of the writing world. Thus, we believe that one author’s success comes at another author’s expense, even indirectly. It makes us weird with each other.

The thing to remember is that unlike when you are a working writer, you are not in direct competition with your fellow authors. There is no barrier to you being published. If your work is good, you can publish it yourself. You may never reach many people, but you’ll reach some, and if what you do is great, word will get around. The fact that a horrible “social justice” whiner of an author got a million-dollar contract with a major publisher doesn’t stop you from publishing your book, no matter how much you dislike that other guy. And it’s not as if the audience is finite, either. Ask a reader if he’d rather have two great books to read, or only one; rare is the individual who does not want more options.

None of this becomes a problem, in fact, until you become the sort of author who obsesses over his “competition.” I know of at least a couple “independent” authors who go out of their way to attack their peers. They believe the heat and light of flaming another author means higher hit counts on their blogs and thus greater attention for their work. Ultimately, though, these antics don’t serve you. They make you look immature and, worse, they make you look horribly insecure. Sadly, personal dislikes and politics do enter into these conflicts, as the recent “Sad Puppies” row¬†over the Hugo Awards demonstrated. There are definitely authors in the market who believe other authors don’t deserve to be known, to be bought, or to be read. People who think this way are usually pretty awful people. They may or may not also be mediocre writers.

The lesson is this: If you are an author, focus on the quality of your work. No amount of attacking other authors will improve your writing. If you are a writer, focus on the service you provide for your clients. You are in competition with your fellow writers, yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also work with them. In all cases, try not to make enemies you don’t need to make. Most authors aren’t exactly dangerous people, but a few of them are individuals you don’t want to run into at a convention after you’ve spent several blog posts running them down. They might just come take the matter up with you directly.

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