Does helping others succeed hurt your own success?
December 22, 2006 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Can helping aspiring authors succeed somehow help me, or does it hurt my own chances of being published?

I am a not very successful author. I have published a book but did not make any money at it. I am still trying to have other books published. But because I am published, I sometimes get friends who will show me their manuscript to get my advice and opinion. Most of these are not very good, but sometimes I will find one which is very good. As in, much better than my own work. I fear them, because they are competition.

I think that if I give them encouragement and suggest they send their work to an agent, they will be in direct competition with my own books on the desk of the publisher, and they will win because their story is better. The publisher only has so many spaces for books to buy, and so he will choose to publish theirs instead of mine. And that will set my own dreams back that much farther. But I know that is spiteful of me and I would rather be able to encourage my friends without feeling that in the process I am shooting myself in the foot. I would like to genuinely be glad for them, without feeling like I hate them for beating me.

Can you please give me some kind of logical explanation, or cost/benefit analysis, or even philosophical thoughts, on why it's OK, or even good for me, to help others succeed in my place? Is there any way in this circumstance for their success to somehow benefit my own writing career? I have heard "a rising tide floats all boats", but it doesn't seem to apply when there is only so much ocean (or in this case, places on the yearly publishing lists) to go around.

Or, if this premise will not run, can you then tell me how I should scuttle their hopes and scare them away from my field, and how I can best steal their ideas and use them to further my own work?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It is a zero sum game, so yes you are hurting yourself. But considering how subjective the entire process of approving a book for publishing is then I doubt it makes any real difference. Add on difference genres, reputation, etc and you really shouldnt worry. There may even be a good argument out there that exposure to these manuscripts and people can help you in the long run in terms of absorbing ideas and networking/favors.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:07 AM on December 22, 2006

Untrue. Example:

You help new writer. New writer gets published, becomes successful. New writer feels gratitude towards you for helping him get discovered. You write new book, pass it on to your now established writer friend. He enjoys it and passes it on to his editor, recommends you to other established writers, other assorted contacts he has made. Etc.

It's plain old networking, really, and I can't imagine why you wouldn't want any part in it, especially if you haven't managed to get off the ground on your own yet.
posted by The Straightener at 8:15 AM on December 22, 2006

It's not a zero-sum game. For one thing, publishers can publish as many books as they want. It's not like they're going to run out of paper. Besides, the argument could be made that your top-tier superwriters spur sales for the more midlist names ('the argument could be made' because I'm not familiar with the actual sales figures. It's a fairly widespread opinion, anyway).

Aside from that, though, I agree with the ape.

Also, many people find that helping other people makes them feel good. A smaller but still significant portion of people find that helping other people causes the helper to be rewarded with money, sex, 'networking,' etc.
posted by box at 8:18 AM on December 22, 2006

i think it never hurts to be generous.

also, chances are, unless you are shakespeare, your friend isn't the only one out there with a better manuscript out there. better for the publisher's eye to fall on your friend's book than a stranger's. at least if your friend has success, they may be able to help you network and make connections that will lead to more successful deals than you might be able to do on your own. a stranger won't.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:19 AM on December 22, 2006

If you want to scuttle their hopes, tell them their writing is crap.

Scare them away by telling them publishing is full of evil, greedy people who will steal their ideas and use them to further their own work.

Or you could stop reading your friends' work and giving them advice and work harder on your own writing: join a writers' group or take some classes. Keep in mind that the number of published writers who make enough money on their books to do nothing but write is miniscule.

(And what The Straightener said: it's all about the networking.)
posted by rtha at 8:19 AM on December 22, 2006

The idea that one more book, that you agree is good (even better than yours), getting published will be the one book that will "fill up" publishing so that there's no room for your book, is so absurd that I'm having a hard time thinking of a good way of explaining why, because it seems so obvious.

There seems to be a lot of jealousy among writers, but it's pretty much just that--jealousy. One person's success does not mean you can't have success, too. The publishing industry makes more and more books every year. Yes, there's a limit, but it's not quantifiable. And the better every other book does, the bigger the budget for the next year for that publisher, which means more books/bigger advances/more publicity and marketing for the books they do. Other books doing well is good for aspiring writers. There is room for any one book, if it's good enough and right for that publisher.

Of course, you have no responsibility to help others publish. If your friends' books are so much better than yours, then the reason you're less likely to get published is not that they might get published--it's because your book isn't as good. So yeah, your time is probably best bet working on your writing. Sorry.
posted by lampoil at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2006

I agree with all of the comments saying that helping your friend get published will certainly not hurt you, and will probably help you indirectly.

But, considering your feelings toward the whole adventure, I think you need to stop putting yourself in that position- in other words, stop being an intermediary. Tell your friends that what you think about a book and what your publisher thinks are often worlds apart, and you can never tell what they consider worthy of publication. Put the onus on them to go to the publisher directly.
posted by mkultra at 9:43 AM on December 22, 2006

It's good to help others for the benefit of society. If your attitude spreads, creative writing workshops will be more likely to be miserable and discouraging. Somewhere out there, the next Shakespeare will give up hope and go back to school to be an accountant instead.
posted by Kirklander at 9:43 AM on December 22, 2006

Being stingy, protective, jealous about ideas doesn't just hurt friendships, it hurts your capability to be creatively prolific. The more you treat it like a precious, stealable commodity, the less you'll be able to create it. Generosity with ideas leads to more ideas.

More importantly, seeing what others are doing wrong and being able to correctly, honestly and precisely define it is an amazing opportunity to get better at it yourself.

Also, a point about publishing. A large percentage of published books these days succeed not on the writing, but the marketing savvy of the writer. It sucks, yes. But the most successful published author I know had a marketing analysis with her first book. The target market, why it would appeal to the target market, the cobranding opportunities, etc. This got her an amazingly well connected agent, which got her the killer book deals. When I asked her how she was able to get published, she told me she stopped looking at it as art and started looking at it as business. Because if you want to make money, rather than something beautiful that will be appreciated after you're gone, that's how you have to approach it. It is easier to start by looking at someone else's work this way, rather than your "baby."

So, help people make their writing beautiful. Give yourself the benefit of analyzing not just what works and what doesn't, but how it fits into a publisher's, and a target market's, sweet spot. And when you sit down at the keyboard, and better yet, when you're ready to pimp your own work, you'll be far more prepared to make a dent in the market.
posted by Gucky at 9:53 AM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

yeah, networking is a good thing. I cant speak for book publishing, but in the movie industry most writers and pretty much everyone else gets their start based on personal referrals.

And I know this:

If you want to scuttle their hopes, tell them their writing is crap.

Scare them away by telling them publishing is full of evil, greedy people who will steal their ideas and use them to further their own work.

was a joke, but please please dont ever do that. These people abound in Hollywood. In the guise of being "helpful," they'll try to talk anyone and everyone out of pursuing a career in acting/writing/filmmaking because it's difficult and not that many succeed. In my opinion people who try to talk other people out of following their dreams are one small notch above child molesters.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:14 AM on December 22, 2006

I agree with mkultra: stop being an intermediary.

I disagree with drjimmy; I actively discourage people from "pursuing their Hollywood dreams" because the odds are ridiculously low and because even "success" there is destructive if you have any creative stake in your work. I also try to dissuade people from playing the lottery and blowing their paycheck at the racetrack. And I am not a child molester.
posted by languagehat at 11:06 AM on December 22, 2006

Maybe you need to check your perspective. I'm a writer, and also an editor for an online lit magazine. A lot of what comes through the submission box is bad, but some of it's genius, and far better than what I am doing. When I come across the genius stuff, I feel very privileged to be reading it, and it makes me enthusiastic. I take what I can from good writing, and always appreciate the opportunity to read it.
posted by xmutex at 11:10 AM on December 22, 2006

even "success" there is destructive if you have any creative stake in your work

I know what you mean about screenwriters losing control of their work if they don't also direct, although it's a much more complicated issue than "OMG!! HOLLYWOOD NOT REAL ARTISTS EVERYONE PHONY LOL!11!!!!!"

I just feel like people need to learn their lessons for themselves. if it's their dream, let them give it a try. A lot of people seem to really get off on crushing others' hopes, and that rubs me thr wrong way.

But enough derailing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:46 AM on December 22, 2006

there are so many books out there, the impact of another one on the market is miniscule. i reflexively encourage and support my friends because that's the kind of guy i am, and the people i'm attracted to as friends return this in kind. i am aware, of course, that there are people in the world who measure every friendly interaction by its financial effect on them, but i don't let these people get anywhere near me. i give you props for being upfront about it though.
posted by bruce at 11:52 AM on December 22, 2006

Perhaps you can leverage these manuscripts towards finding a better/more interested agent for both of you, sweetening the pot so to speak? In lieu of a finder's fee, something like that.
posted by Skorgu at 11:58 AM on December 22, 2006

When you mentor someone, you teach them new things but you often learn a lot, too. You have a much more objective perspective when reading a novel you didn't write, and helping someone else improve their work will give you a fresh perspective on how to improve your own. If you have an honest desire to help your friends, approach it with this mentality and you'll be motivated to do the best for both you and your friends.
posted by rhiannon at 12:21 PM on December 22, 2006

If a publisher likes his book, they'll publish it. If a publisher likes your book, they'll publish it, too. I don't think you need to worry about "competetion" when neither of you even has a market share yet.
posted by dagnyscott at 12:55 PM on December 22, 2006

If I were an agent, and you brought a book to my attention that became a runaway success, I'd become a super agent. I'd also remember that you were the one that put me in touch with the now-successful writer. I'd also be more inclined, rather than less inclined, to look at your manuscript, and (if I liked it) to use my now-legendary super-agent skills to find you a buyer.
posted by Alt F4 at 1:13 PM on December 22, 2006

Anyone who can look a friend in the eye and tell them that their creative endeavour - especially something they've slaved over for months or years - is shit when it's not deserves to be shot at with guns.

You absolutely cannot give out advice of this kind if you're going to pass it through a jealousy filter first. So don't. Just refuse to read their work, and you won't put yourself in that position.

You're not obliged to give them advice, but if you agree to, you are obliged to make it honest, however much it puts you out.

Also, even if you don't read their work, it'll still exist. It'll still be better than yours. Reading work that's better than your own is an excellent way to learn. And if the fact that it is superior rankles you (and it certainly rankles when it happens to me), use your irritation as motivation improve your own writing. There's nothing wrong with a bit of (secret) competition.
posted by Robot Rowboat at 1:17 PM on December 22, 2006

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