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Let's Open This Can of Worms
A good friend of the newsletter recently asked something I thought warranted a whole newsletter, and I have a feeling you’ll agree. They asked:
I have a question I wonder if you might address sometime, which is how to deal with unwelcome feelings of professional jealousy. Not even jealous that someone else got something you wanted, but just like, feelings of insecurity when you see people out there doing things that are completely unrelated to you! (This is probably something to talk to a therapist about, really, but I just wondered if you had any mantras or things like that that you tell yourself or your clients when this kind of thing comes up. I can't remember if you've already covered this from an author standpoint, but I wonder if you could also speak to it more from an agent/business standpoint?)
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh boy, so I have a lot of thoughts on this. As a writer, as an agent, as a person in the world. It suuuuuuuuucks. But also, it’s pretty common and normal, from what I understand.
In case you are one of the lucky people who has never wanted anything another person had, professional jealousy is, well, wanting what another person has achieved professionally, regardless of what you already have, what you can do, what’s reasonable, what’s possible, what they have, etc etc etc. Not just stuff or money, but accolades or reputation or stature or clout. It’s irrational most of the time, and comes from the less-charitable and loving parts of our brain. (I mean, probably. I am not a therapist or doctor and you should not look to me for advice on this in terms of caring for your mental health.) This is how it feels to me, at least. And it does not matter how personally successful you are when these feelings come up! There’s always something to want.
Our friend is also talking about professional jealousy in terms of comparisons. This is when our brains say hold up, if X person did this already, why haven’t I? Should I have/do/get that? What’s wrong with me that I haven’t????? This is just material wanting in other clothes. This is just our brains expressing fear and anxiety in the least helpful ways possible. Thanks, brain.
A good friend of mine who is also an agent basically talk about this every time we meet. Who is writing or selling what and how we wish we had something like that. We are both very successful and have been agents for decades! This still doesn’t stop us from wanting and brooding and being jealous. There are other agents out there whose lists I salivate over. I don’t want to steal their clients—never—but I want to emulate them, learn from them, strive to find projects in the neighborhood of the kinds of books they do. When I am my best self, this is motivating. I appreciate these other agents and their fantastic books and their happy clients! Good for them! At my least charitable, I start to think how did that person get that deal for that much money!!!??? I mean, if we work in and around books, haven’t we all had that thought?
As a writer, <whistles>, I am even worse about this. Maybe as an agent, I know more about the chance that comes into signing an author and selling a book and having it find success. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not! This does not seem to translate as well to me as a writer, who reads the deal announcements with a different kind of longing and jealousy than I do as an agent. I’m not proud of it. I know it isn’t helpful or productive or kind to anyone involved, including me. No one is getting a book deal AT me, which is one of the primary things I try to remember, as both an agent as a writer.
So, that is one of my mantras. No one is being successful AT me. No one gets up in the morning and says I’m going to write this book and sell it for a million dollars just to make Kate McKean jealous. LOL. I mean, if they did, I might actually feel a little flattered? If wanting to prove me wrong or impress me or whatever fuels you to write and sell the greatest book of all time, then I am happy to be your motivating force. Huh, maybe I just figured out another way to frame this that makes me feel better.
I have definitely told clients, many times, that another writer’s book/deal/editor/marketing plan is not your book/deal/editor/marketing plan. Someone else’s romance novel got a $50k advance and you only got $25k and that is just how it goes. Just because two books or writers are in the same genre or of similar stature or sold exactly the same number of books previously does not mean they will get the same advance. Your book might not sell overseas, and your friend’s might, and you won’t be able to see why. You can ask your agent and they may also not be able to tell you why. Sometimes we just don’t know! Sometimes there is no answer! Some countries like books about X but not Y, even in the same genre! Some imprints have more money! This is not helpful, I know. Except when you look at a book deal as something influenced by so many individual factors that you can’t do anything but throw up your arms and say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, then you start to see it as something you cannot minutely control, that isn’t fair, that cannot be optimized or reverse engineered or data analyzed perfectly, that you just give up trying to do those things and get back to writing your book. That is the only thing you can do. Write YOUR book.
There are a lot of things publishing needs to be more transparent and equitable about, but I’m not sure there is a ways to be fair about it all.
I tell my clients eyes on your own paper. I tell my clients write the book you want to write because no one else can. I say their book is not your book. I tell my clients publishing is not a meritocracy. I tell them, in a nicer way, that no one owes anyone a book deal. That’s the one I probably need to tell myself more. I’m trying. Because that’s all I can do.
Remember, the person you are jealous of is jealous of someone else—or you! Everyone has something someone else wants. Everyone wants something they don’t have. The trick is to make the wanting motivation, not self-recrimination. You are not bad for wanting, nor are you bad for not having. The wanting just is. It probably never goes away. Like all feelings, I am learning, you just have to have them, and then they pass or morph or you forget them, and you get on with your day, wanting something else.
You don’t have to cure yourself of this. You just have to not let it consume you.
This book, y’all. I reached out to Emily and her team, then called Hollaback!, like over a decade ago, because I thought their anti-street harassment message was so important and needed to be out there in a book. But sometimes, it takes a long time for things to come together, and this book is worth the wait. Now focused on bystander intervention, this book is the prep you need to help those around you safely, for them and you. Get it for yourself, get it for your family, tell your workplace about it.