compare and despair—with flair

Compare and despair: maybe there’s no use fighting it.

A college writing prof once told me that fury about the success of her peers gave her the strength she needed to continue working. Comparisons tire me out, personally, but if resentment fuels you, why not use it? Even the DeLorean runs on garbage.

The trap is trying to learn how to succeed from these comparisons. They can be deceptive.

A book proposal’s strength rests on its comparative and competitive analysis. The comp analysis explain how your book fits into the larger picture. Crafting a convincing one isn’t easy, though, and most proposals fail here to one degree or another. The most common error is a comparison with a bestseller written by an author with an enormous platform. That’s easy to avoid: if the other gal’s way more famous than you, steer clear.

Sometimes, however, false comparisons aren’t so obvious. If it isn’t completely clear why something else originally took off, tread carefully. It comes down to what I call entry points. The thing isn’t always the thing.

I’ve written before about reader experience design, i.e. publishers drawing lessons from the world of user experience design. If you’re doing UX for a website, you start by mapping out all the different ways users will end up there: in-store sign with a URL, linking from other sites, search results, etc. You think really hard about discovery—the entry points. 

Popularity begets popularity, but it has to start somewhere. For books and other creative works, there’s no equivalent of Google Analytics to tell you where all those first fans originally came from, why something became popular in the first place.

Go ahead, listen to a song by Phish, if you never have. Do you feel the sudden urge to climb into a van and follow them from venue to venue for the rest of your life? Of course not. Listening to a song by Phish is not the entry point for Phish. The thing isn’t always the thing.

Just because entry points can be hard to uncover doesn’t mean you can skip this crucial exercise. If you want to learn from your (apparently) successful competitors, you have to at least try to understand what sparked for them in the first place.

For sequels and genres, the entry point is obvious. If you bought Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Part 2, your entry point was My Struggle: Part 1. Likewise, if you bought The New Testament, it’s probably because you were a big fan of the meticulously crafted genealogical lists of the Old Testament and you wanted to see what happened to all the characters from the first part. We crave familiarity.

What about original work, new voices? That’s where the study of entry points gets interesting. How do we first get hooked on something? Business and self-help are unusual categories in that two books can be on the same shelf and offer wildly different kinds of advice for wildly different kinds of readers. In a sense, we’re always fighting this battle, creating new entry points from scratch. Authors of “cozy mysteries,” for example, just need to hit their cozy mystery marks and they’ve got a good chance to win over cozy mystery readers. Just send a cat-loving amateur sleuth to a bed-and-breakfast on the coast of Massachusetts and shoot somebody. Done.

Authors fall into the trap of thinking that a particular book must have succeeded because of the idea, i.e. the cover and the bookstore placement, as though people just wander Barnes & Noble looking at jackets. I mean, they do, I guess, but not really.

I spotted Who Moved My Cheese?  prominently displayed once. The title caught my attention, but it left me flummoxed. What is this?  It was surrounded by business books. But it appeared to be a novel, a novel about ambitious rats. I opened it, tried to read it, looked at the cover again, put it down, picked it up. Picture one of the apes poking at the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These WTF moments happen more and more frequently to all of us. We see something—a book, a show, a 14-year-old YouTuber being interviewed on The Tonight Show. We’re told, explicitly or not, that this new thing is massively popular. Millions of people love this thing.

You look at it and think, am I crazy?  What is this? Everyone else saw this and liked it?

It’s a bit like the classic Asch experiment into judgment conformity. We instinctively believe our tastes should generally agree with the masses (or we decide to hate popular things on principle, but that’s essentially the same thing). But with many of these new things, we’ve missed the entry point and we can’t like it even if we’re disposed to do so. We start to doubt our own sanity because the aspect of the work we’re seeing is not the thing that made it popular.

And that aspect can be the work itself! There are bestselling books that are utterly unreadable—but if you saw that phenomenal TED talk…

The thing isn’t always the thing.

It’s getting weird out there and nobody has a complete picture of why each thing succeeds anymore. I passed an Amazon Books this week. The front window display promised great gifts for Dads. Right in the center: Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Considering Peterson’s toxic beliefs about forced monogamy and his popularity among the “incel” community, there’s a certain irony in that placement. Even if an algorithm decided it belonged there, the human employee—empowered by Amazon’s leadership principles—should have overridden that decision for a window display in midtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the guy who physically put it there probably had no idea how and why Jordan Peterson is popular. (Peterson’s true entry point is a smoky mix of MMA, Joe Rogan’s podcast, and hate.)

We do this to ourselves every day. It goes back to what I’ve written previously about cargo-cult thinking among creators. If there’s something that’s really, really popular and you don’t understand how, you’ve missed the entry point. Either suss it out, or stop comparing yourself and wondering why your thing—which may be superficially similar—doesn’t enjoy the same success.

Think of all the people who injured themselves trying to lean like Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal”  video. He had magnetic locking shoes on!

If you can’t figure out the secret, your best bet is to assume you’re out of your league. If you don’t know who the sucker at the poker table is, you’re it. Pity the indie filmmaker who asks the stylist to give his lead actress Rooney Mara’s hairstyle from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It won’t work. David Fincher used CGI to make Mara’s bangs part the same way in every sceneRooney Mara’s hair is literally impossible.

In 1938, Action Comics #1 featured a man in blue tights and a red cape holding a car over his head.

“I don’t know what the S stands for, but I’m curious to know more about this piece of intellectual property,” said that newsboy kid from 1938 whose only alternative for entertainment was rolling a hoop down a hill with a stick. “Assuming it relies on very few retcons and maintains a consistent tone throughout the franchise’s extended universe, of course.” 

Superman was a good thing to copy because its appeal was obvious and everyone understood why kids loved it. And copy we have, with great success, for eight decades and counting. (Side-note: Did you know The Greatest American Hero is streaming on Hulu? I sure didn’t!)

If you want to paralyze yourself with your comparisons, keep on trying to write Malcolm Gladwell’s next book without a regular gig at The New Yorker. If you want to be a productive and happy writer—to the very limited extent that’s possible—pad your media diet with plenty of failures. Read the stuff that doesn’t make the front window display. That can actually be a good filter for finding worthy books. For a publisher to tackle something that isn’t already a platform slam dunk, the book itself must be pretty darn good.

More important, sticking with the failures means that, when something does suddenly break out of obscurity, you can resent that success on an apples-to-apples basis.