I finally have a new dishwasher! And to celebrate, how about a writing post? For those who are new here, I generally do a post about some aspect of writing -- the craft, the mechanics, the business, marketing, the writing life, etc. -- every other Wednesday. If you want to get these by e-mail, you can subscribe at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/writewithshanna/. I don't send anything else via that list, so you won't get spammed by book promo, or anything like that. Feel free to share with other writers, but just let people know who it came from.
Today's topic falls into the writing life category: professional jealousy. In a business this public, it's nearly impossible not to compare yourself to others. You generally hear when someone sells a book because that gets announced. You know when someone finals in or wins a contest. You definitely know when a book gets published. You know whether a book makes a bestseller list. You can see if the publisher is doing a lot of promotional activity. You can check out reviews and Amazon rankings. You know who's being invited as guest of honor to conventions. That all makes it easy to tell how other people are doing in comparison to you and your own goals.
How this affects you can be either positive or negative, depending on how you deal with it. You can let jealousy consume you in a negative way so that it becomes a distraction. You can derail your own career by chasing after the career someone else has if that leads you to write something that isn't really what you need to be writing or miss opportunities that lead in a different direction. You can poison professional relationships if you let your jealousy make you resent other authors or if you start demanding things of your agent or editor based on what you think someone else is getting. If you go public with your jealousy or let your jealousy affect the way you behave in public, it can affect your image or the way fans see you (passive-aggressive digs at another author on convention or conference panels, for instance, may turn people off of trying your work).
The truth is, although there's a lot of stuff that's public about a writing career, the public elements don't tell the whole story, and they only tell a snapshot at a moment in time. A book that never makes a bestseller list can actually end up selling more copies over time than a "bestseller." You may not have made a list, but you might be making more money than the bestseller. Some careers move in fits and starts instead of a steady upward trajectory, and some burst out of the gate in a big way. The person who is successful now may have had a few false starts along the way. Someone who got a huge start may crash and burn. When I sold the first book in my series with only one publisher making an offer and a modest advance, I was jealous of someone I knew whose book sold in a big auction not long afterward. It turned out that she was terrified of what she had to live up to because her publisher had huge expectations for that book, something I didn't have to worry about. There are authors who have the things I think I want in a career -- a dedicated and vocal fan base, guest of honor invitations to conventions, name recognition -- who mention on Facebook that they're worried about being able to pay bills or the mortgage, a problem I haven't faced in spite of my relative obscurity. So the things you're comparing yourself to may not be what you think they are.
How can you keep professional jealousy from becoming toxic? First, remind yourself that it may not be what it looks like. Second, take stock of what you want for your career -- what you really want and what would make you happy, not what someone else has. Then figure out what it will take for you to get what you want out of your career and focus on that. Use any jealousy as a motivation for going after what you want. Emulate what the people who have what you want are doing rather than envying them. What are they doing to achieve their success? While there are cases where lightning strikes and there's no rational explanation for why one book explodes, usually there's something behind that success -- most often, a lot of hard work.
If you find yourself really being sidetracked by comparing yourself to others, cut yourself off from getting your fix. Resist the temptation to look at bestseller lists, read your rivals' reviews or compare Amazon rankings. Focus on what you need to do. Most of this career is entirely out of your control. The only thing you control entirely is how much you write, the kinds of stories you write, and how well you write them.
I think I need to embroider that on a throw pillow.