Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Writing is not a Zero Sum Game

May 26

Writing is not a zero-sum game – far from making my success LESS likely, your success makes it MORE likely, so cooperation between writers is a good thing.

This column is probably as low on content and high on rhetoric as I intend to get in this series. I want to address an issue that’s vexed me ever since I started participating in online writers’ groups at the very start of 2008, after reading a little snippet in the Writers and Artists Yearbook about youwriteon.com.

I’d like to preface this piece with a comment, contra the vast array of critics each of those sites attracts. I have never had any really bad experiences of online writers’ groups. I’ve never been trolled or flamed or anything else jargonese. I’ve just met loads of great writers. People complain because they want sites to give them more – but that’s not the point. Without sites like youwriteon and authonomy, we wouldn’t have better sites, we’d have nothing! Over 400 people read at least some of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall before I completed the final draft. If even 1% of the comments I received (and it was, in fact, way over half) had been useful, that would have been 4 more than I would have received otherwise.

OK. To begin. Morrissey said it. Gore Vidal said it. We all mutter it to ourselves through bitten lips. We hate it when our friends become successful. It’s an ugly trait at any time and in any dose. But amongst anyone in the arts (I won’t single out writers – just look at those faces on Oscar night) it’s more pandemic than episodic. We resent successes we believe should have been ours – why did THEY get it? They must be connected. They must have lucked out?

That’s not really what this post is about. Envy is ugly. Envy is bad. I’m not going to bother discussing it even – it’s not a habit I’ll wean the envy addicts off. What I can do is make a business case against its worst manifestations.

I think there’s a feeling amongst new writers that writing must be a zero sum game. That is to say, we feel – largely because we hear about publishers’ lists, and how many or few new writers an agent will take on each year – there is a finite amount of space on the world’s collective shelf (I am talking for the purpose of this post about the traditionally-published shelf. There is, of course, no limit on the space available to self-published authors, although we can talk in a similar vein of a finite number of readers, a finite amount of newspaper column inches for reviews to occupy).

If we believe this, then writing is like those TV shows – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and its ilk. There are 20 places in Maria school. Every time someone else has their name called out, the odds seem to decrease for the remaining members of the 50-string pool form whom they’re drawn (this is itself not true, of course – if you’re one of the 20 best – certainly if you’re one of the 10 best, your chances haven’t decreased at all, it just feels from your perspective as though they have. And if you’re the worst, your chances remain the zero they always were. Which is an important lesson to carry over into writing – if you really do have “it” then as long as you plug away you’ll get there. And if you can’t string a sentence together you never will – UNLESS [and this is where awareness of your limitations can be an advantage] you play to your weaknesses and make your sheer blimmin awfulness what you do). It’s a zero sum game. Every one place given to someone is one place fewer available to the rest. Extra places will not appear out of think air (unless the show’s been orchestrated of course).

Writing’s not like that. It’s like love and friendship and various other things that sound rather hippyish, like money if you believe Adam Smith, and several more scary and/or esoteric things like mutually assured destruction. The fact is, assuming you can all write, all have a reasonable dose of “it” without being “all that,” the more of your friends who succeed without your own success, the more likely your own success becomes. It reminds me of reading a very basic criticism of the principle induction, which stated that in many instances, the more times one discovered something other than the thing one was looking for, the more likely the existence of that (as yet undiscovered) thing became, although induction tells us its existence becomes less likely each time.

Put in a way that’s not based on lesson plans from my old days as a philosophy teacher, it goes like this. If your writing colleagues get published, it means people are reading – and they’re reading new authors. If lots of them get published, it means there are lots of people reading. And the more people who read, the more demand there is for books. And the more likely it is that your book will find its publisher.

So the next time one of your fellow writers leaves the unpublished ranks for that hallowed hall of those who’ve “made it,” send them that smiley emoticon, those yippees and woo-hoos, that bottle of wine and box of chocolates with a glad heart, because they’ve just done their little bit in helping your career on its way.

And once you’ve sent your flowers, you might consider asking yourself whether next time you hear of a colleague’s success, there might not be a better reason than that to congratulate them.


  1. Hey Dan, I think the above is certainly true of alternative means of production re authors - ie unpublished writers banding together in some innovative marketing way trying to attain sufficient critical mass to get noticed. But if out of that the book deals start getting offered, then the collective will quickly break up.

    Why is there no new version of the Luther Blissett arts collective ?
    With so many new forms of media, we should be establishing collective groups with wide skills base across the various disciplines, so that everything can be done in-house and carry sufficient weight to succeed as an independent entity.

    You taught philosophy ? I should have guessed.

  2. Well, at Year Zero we have people with all kinds of talents from viral marketing to cover design. I'm far too democratic to suggest that people have to stay "in house" - if they get a book deal I'd just be pleased for them. I'd ultimately like to see the group work rather like a rolling maul to use a ternm from the not-so-beautiful game :-)

  3. Cory Doctorow recent Gaurdian article "When it's easier to love than hate" describes how fair use copyright laws have developed to protect critics and discourage fans, and that this is a stigma we still carry, penalizing "illegal" downloads, rather than encouraging grassroots distribution. Culturally, we predisposed to discourage sharing, and you're absolutely right, game non-zero sum games to the extent that they become zero sum.

    A cross-disciplinary approach does seem particularly appropriate, as an alternative to standard publishing methods.

    I look forward to further reading on this site - thank you!


  4. Forgive my ignorance Dan, but apart from Khmer Rouge back to basics, what is Year Zero ?

  5. Thanks for commenting on my blog, Dan. Seeing your intriguing blogger name I've come over to see what you're up to. I'm glad I did. I couldn't agree more with this post.

    I was talking to a literary agent today and he said some interesting stuff. He sees the future as consisting of a few huge monoliths and a multitude of small operators and self publishers.

    It seems to me that when faced with a huge monolith, the only way around it is with people-power. Individuals need to work together because apart they are too weak. We may increasingly stand and fall together.

    And you mention youwriteon.com too. I think it's great. It doesn't have all the answers, and sometimes the top rated books aren't that exciting, but it's fantastic to get that amount of feedback from what I guess you could call members of the public who just happen to like reading.

    That is, our potential audience.


    Right - now I'm going to read some of the other posts on your blog!

  6. Jenny, I knew I knew the name from somewhere - I'm sure I've seen you around in the forums on Youwriteon. I agree, it's not perfect, but we are so much better off for having it rather than not having it.

    Piers - my wife was reading the other day what we probably all knew - the people who download most files illegally are the ones who also buy most products from the artists they're supposedly "ripping off". I think lots of people find it hard to understand "fans" - my experience as a music lover is that I love to listen to free music on people's MySpace, and am always using that as a way to try out new acts, but when I find something I love, I don't move straight on to the next free thing, I go and see if I can buy that band's material and look to see if they're playing anywere near me.

    Sulci, Year Zero Writers is the collective I started with about 20 other writers in january. At the moment we're finalising oour initial "sampler" of material before we launch ourselves on the world. Our basic manifesto pledge is to give fiction back to readers and writers.

  7. Looking great work dear, I really appreciated to you on this quality work.