Publishing is not a zero-sum game

Okay, fellow writers, I know you know this, but bugger it, I’ll say it again:

Publishing is not a competitive sport. If another writer is unbelievably successful that does not take away your chance of success. If it has any effect on you at all it’s a positive one. Super sccessful writers create more readers. J. K. Rowling has single-handedly made young adult publishing more profitable and better paying. Every YA writer should fall down on their knees in gratitude. (I have my own J. K. Rowling shrine that I worship at every day. Bless, J. K., bless!)

If we’re defining success as making loads of dosh, then most writers are not super successful, or even mildly successful. I’m certainly not. The majority of published writers cannot make a living from their writing. Does that mean their writing is not as good as those who can? No, it does not. I know fabulous writers who are still unpublished (and, yes, Jeannie, I mean you). Writing good books (however you define “good”) and making money from books are two different things. Sometimes they co-incide—sometimes not.

There are lots of ways to measure success as a writer: good reviews, respect of your peers, winning prizes, or best of all—knowing that you’ve written a book that you’re really proud of. The last one is best of all because all the others will do your head in. What happens if you stop getting good reviews or winning prizes? Does that mean you’re no longer a good writer? That path leads to madness.

In my genre lots of books I don’t like sell better than mine, and lots I adore sell worse. Neither state of things has anything to do with how my books sell. If you start thinking that other books published are stealing sales from your books, and that other writers are “the competition”, you will become bitter and twisted. I’m hear to tell you that bitter & twisted clashes with every single thing you’ve got in your wardrobe.

Trust me on this.

Thus endeth the rant.


  1. holly on #

    This is true. I work in a bookstore. When kids finish one series, they come looking for another author. One person’s success is also your success.

  2. Katie on #

    Certainly competitive and zero sum are not right: they don’t describe what really happens, and they muck up what work you might be doing, the work of positively pushing the world around while being transformed yourself.

    But it’s hard not to notice Justine, that you do a lot of kinds of work additional to writing: I note the list at my right: appearances, bibliography, bio and multiple careers, community building, creating ways for folks to learn how to read you as well as where you get your stuff. When I logged onto Amazon recently, there you were in a thing I’d never heard of before, a “plog”! You had to sign up for that, do the work (or have someone else do the work) of getting “authorized” by amazon.

    Writing is not the only work you do to make a book! (Not to mention all the other folks who make it a book too, although that doesn’t make all your work especially easy, or easier.)

    Here you are on the blog, helping others to think about becoming writers, being writers, giving support to writers, helping us all imagine our writer-ness, the nuts and blots of it all. And again, teaching us all how to read you. Which includes appreciating you.

    I love the picture of you on the Amazon plog: the hair is fabulous!

  3. Justine on #

    Holly: I hear that over and over. Booksellers tell me they handsell my books to people wanting more books like Tithe and Valiant and, weirdly, His Dark Materials. Very pleasing to hear. Bless all booksellers! And everyone else what reads!

    Katie: Thank you! I definitely think a writer’s job encompasses all that. As it happens I wrote a whole post on that of which you speak. The comments thread is particularly entertaining.

    Everyone loves that photo. It’s excellently silly!

  4. Robin Brande on #

    Justine, you’re right, you’re brilliant, thanks for saying this.

  5. Maggie on #

    I always say I wouldn’t be published today if it weren’t for J. K. YA Canadian publishers (in the past) were notorious for only publishing regionalized stories. All my writer friends said I would never get a first book published if it was fantasy. Then along came J. K. and suddenly fantasy was popular (even with Canadian publishers). Yay J. K.! I bow to her shrine too! 😀

  6. Katie on #

    I read the posts and comments on self promotion and found it enlightening, witty, and helpful.

    But I still wonder:

    Is teaching people how to read you the same, or included in, self promotion? Or is its something in addition to all that, less nuts and bolts and more, ah hem, epistemological? (Sorry). (Not that nuts and bolts aren’t epistemological.)

    I’m reading a manuscript now for an academic book that refers to Cherrie Moraga’s Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (which I haven’t read yet) and its analysis kept reminding me of Magic or Madness, and (ah hem) its “world.” Those feminist revisions that are not utopian.

    Meanwhile I have waiting here a bunch of Ellen Kushner to read after falling for Privilege of the Sword. How could a person who “loves” Dorothy Dunnett and Highlander not fall for this world?

  7. Rebecca on #

    i liketh your rants.

  8. A.R.Yngve on #

    What about reader responses? Is there a better measure of writerly success than reader letters? I live for those moments when a reader writes in to tell me her opinion of something I wrote.

    That is worth more than money: it’s proof that you TOUCHED the reader’s soul.

  9. sh on #

    “the last one is best of all because all the others will do your head in. what happens if you stop getting good reviews or winning prizes? does that mean you’re no longer a good writer? that path leads to madness.”

    i weep.

    that just makes so much sense. and not just applicable to writing.


  10. Justine on #

    Thanks all!

    Maggie: Zackly! All hail J.K.!

    Katie: I’m not sure a writer can teach people to read them. The variety of responses I’ve gotten has confirmed for me just how little control the writer has over how they’re read.

    . . . its analysis kept reminding me of Magic or Madness

    Really? That’s too cool.

    So pleased you’re into Kushner. She’s unspeakably wonderful and addictive.

    Rebecca: Excellent! More rants it is!


    What about reader responses?

    For me they’re in the same class as reviews. Yes, good ones are awesome, but you cannot get dependent on them. Cause you’ll also get ranty I-hate-your-work-and-you letters from readers.

    SH: You’re welcome!

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