“He conquers, who conquers himself.”
Once upon a time… Kidding. I’ll just get right to it.
I currently live in the United States of America. And, culturally, this country is worlds removed from where I was born. Competition is fierce, for everything from jobs, to parking spaces, to shopping carts. We measure success by the number of achievements we accrue, and we define them by measuring our successes against someone else’s. As published writers, our achievements translate into book sales and Bestseller rankings.
But let’s take it back a step or two. Before I became published, my greatest achievements centered around how much I had written. How many pages I’d written that day. How many stories I’d churned out that month, or how many full novels I had finished and stashed away in my treasurebox of a digital file folder. I used to live for that feeling of victory when I typed The End to a book. I would sit there with a great big smile on my face and stare at the document for a long time, before I gleefully clicked Print and watched page after page of a novel feed out of the printer. That was my “publication” process. I would take that great big stack of 200+ pages to the closest Fedex Kinko’s and have them bind it for me so it would feel like a real book. I used to ship out two copies of said book to Washington, DC for an official copyright certificate, and subsequently wait endless months until it arrived in the mail. Each time I received one, it felt like I’d just graduated with another degree. I would make a color copy to file in my cabinet, but stash the original in my safe, just in case.
Those were my greatest victories. To some extent, they still are. I revel in each new book I write. I fall in love with it when the print proof arrives. I get inappropriately affectionate with the product of my imagination, hug it to my heart, caress its gorgeous cover, fan the pages and inhale the sweet scent of a freshly printed paperback. I read through each page as if it was for the first time, and when I get to the end I hug the book again and put it under my pillow for a few nights.
But something changes when you put a book out for public consumption. Your passion turns into a business, and it’s no longer just about the art and the craft. It’s about getting your product in front of the masses. Seducing them into buying it. Coaxing them into leaving a review, telling their friends, sharing your vision ever farther. You watch the sales numbers rise and fall, snatch your royalties check out of the postman’s stack with greedy hands, get ecstatic to see your sales rank rise to new heights, even though you know the fickle nature of the market will shove you back down in no time flat.
I play a constant tug-of-war with myself when it comes to this. Hey, I’m not perfect. My dreams are the same as every other writer’s. I want enough people to buy and read my books so that my royalties provide a steady income for me to live on, so I can do this full time and not worry about staff meetings, office hours, time sheets, unpaid vacation time, or jammed copy machines ever again. And I fall into the same flytrap as everyone else: watching those sales ranks, getting frustrated over lack of sales or reviews, envying every other writer who shares achievements which sound so impressive on social media because they rarely offer the whole story.
“My book is #5 on Amazon’s Bestseller list!” Congratulations. Your book has been downloaded an impressive number of times–for free through the KU system. It’s still an impressive feat, don’t get me wrong, but if all those readers are anything like me, unless they start reading your book right away, odds are it will end up forgotten on their Kindle for years, possibly forever. You gained rank, but no new readers.
“I finished my sixth novel this year!” Congratulations. How long is it? 20,000 words? Hmm. I would call that a novella. Still a great achievement, don’t get me wrong, but somewhat misleading in the grand scheme of things. My books take several months to write, but they are 5 times that long, if not more.
“My book is a bestseller on All Romance eBooks in its first week of publication!” Okay, yeah, I’ve been there. Most of my books (with the exception of 1, I think) have achieved bestseller status on ARe within a week or two of publication. Do you know what that translated to, in terms of sales? 3-5 copies. That’s between 3 and 5, not 35.
“I got 20 5-star reviews on my new ARC!” Congratulations. How many of those reviews were from actual readers (as in not your friends, or people you paid to give you 5-stars)? Yes, this happens, more and more lately, and it kind of throws a massive wrench into the whole review system, for both readers and writers.
You can see how getting swept up in things like this can kill the will to create. How can you ever compete? You don’t even know the rules of the competition, starting out! And precious few are they who will tell you. Most of us have to learn the ropes on our own. We recognize the traps by first falling into them and struggling to climb back out. We learn to judge people’s sincerity by being misled or betrayed by them and building our confidence back up the hard way. Every time it happens, you feel like you’re losing the race, and you get more and more disillusioned about making a serious go at this.
Except it’s not a race. You’re not in competition with anyone except yourself, and the hardest part of being a writer is coming to terms with that, and learning to overcome the need to be “better” than someone else. We don’t see behind the scenes of their achievements, only the bright and shiny label they display. We do see behind the scenes of our own processes, and more often than not, the spectre of that struggle overwhelms the joy of success it brings in the end. In other words, when we compare ourselves to others, we compare our hardships with their victories.
Vincit qui se vincit.
He conquers, who conquers himself. In this context, it means not only to be better than you were the day before, but also to overcome that relentless drive to try and compete with others. Because that is one competition you can never win.
The best books I ever write come into being when I push all that stuff into the background–where it belongs. I lose myself in the story and forget anything else exists. That way, if I feel inadequate, it’s because I failed to tell the story the way it needs to be told, and that is something I can control and overcome. I can’t force readers to buy my books, I can’t stop writers from rigging the review system in their favor, I can’t influence distributor policies, or royalty rates. All I can do is write the best story I can write, make a beautiful, professional cover, have an expert edit it for me, and then publish it, and hope for the best. And while I await its fate, watching the world spin on, and the great big global marketing machine churn out more flytraps, I can tune it all out, and lose myself again in another book. Sometimes it’s easy, other times not so much. But every time I manage it, it’s another victory for me. Because “He conquers, who conquers himself.”
Until next time!
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