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A New Year Brings Fresh Author Envy

[1]“Okay, I’m a little, teeny bit jealous of a few writers,” I admitted to another debut author via the anonymity of Facebook Messenger.

“I am SOOOO jealous,” she typed back.

Behind the confessional curtain of social media, we could whisper that ugly truth. We even conceded we’d been jealous of each other from time to time. Once I began opening up to more of my writer friends, many revealed mild annoyances, burning secret resentments, and even crippling envy. Still, everyone stressed they were extremely happy, thrilled, and overjoyed (substitute other convincing superlatives) for the success of other authors.

One of the most insidious sources of this madness has to be the list, which is lauded as the holy grail of success by enough writers for it to be stressful. Well, all the lists. This time of year, almost every publication from O, The Oprah Magazine to The New York Times and PopSugar releases its list of the most anticipated books for the new year. The timing couldn’t be worse because those lists come on the heels of year-end wraps of the best books from the previous year. Every time a new list emerges, a collective, congratulatory whoop rises in my author communities and I believe it’s genuine. Still, amid all the fanfare, I know authors scan those lists, starry-eyed, looking for their own names.

Lists are not an immediate consideration for me right now. I’m in the early stages of the publication process completing a second round of structural edits for my novel, which doesn’t release until early 2021. But anticipatory angst is real, if a bit irrational, and I sometimes envy authors who make lists I’m not even eligible for, wondering if my own trajectory will be on par with theirs.

One winter afternoon I spent hours poring over a website called Edelweiss (totally unrelated to The Sound of Music), where you can request advance reader copies of books and browse publishers’ catalogs. It’s still early so my book doesn’t appear in the database yet. Still, Edelweiss offers a preview of what’s happening for other authors. I try to manage my expectations.

Be cool. Just be cool.

Still, I couldn’t help but notice the publicity and marketing plans for the most buzzed about authors, which include branded influencer packages, national author tours, New York media lunches, and pre-pub cocktail parties. Some authors whose publishers are committing few if any resources to boost their books often look at those plans with envy. For me, there’s this bubble of hope, cautious optimism coursing through my veins, as I imagine all that hoopla for my novel someday.

At every stage of this journey, you become better informed while making yourself susceptible to inevitable comparisons. I only recently learned in an author group that not every book cover is created equal. Rumor has it that there’s gloss, foil, and all sorts of embossing that signal a book is getting lead title treatment at the publishing house.

These are first world literary problems, the rantings of the privileged in a world where traditional book deals are rare. I have plenty of insanely talented writer friends who have been querying agents for years or submitting manuscripts to publishers without success. They’d love the luxury of obsessing over a book’s custom gold foil stamping.

I’m convinced that jealousy arises at every step on this road to publication. As writers, many of us are naturally sensitive, strongly connected to our emotional selves. Even our fiction provides a roadmap to our psyches and life experiences. When the publishing industry sends us a signal of how our work measures up, it’s not just the worth of our books at stake.

It’s us.

Am I good enough?

That’s the endless question we’re all asking ourselves. And that’s real whether you’re languishing in the query trenches or preparing for the launch of your debut or publishing your sixth book. And it batters you emotionally if you let it.

If we can all agree our insecurities breed jealousy sometimes, we can be gentler with other authors and ourselves. In what I can only chalk up to a spiral of jealousy, I know of a writer who snidely mocked a debut author’s success in an open forum. While she wrapped her disdain in a feeble attempt at humor, it landed hard on the intended victim who was hurt by this insult. Believe me when I tell you that some of the authors we perceive as industry darlings are facing a slew of fears and doubts that we’ll never know about.

In a tough industry like publishing, we need to lift each other up and celebrate other writers’ triumphs while waiting for our own. Channeling our inevitable bouts with jealousy into respectful ranting in safe spaces is a good thing as long as it’s not done at the expense of others in the community.

One author friend constantly reminds herself of the goal she set for 2020: to rejoice in the successes of other authors. She keeps that message on a Post-it-note stuck to her computer where she can see it every day.

I write because I love language and can’t imagine a life without making meaning through words. I want people who look like me to see themselves fully on the page. I hope my novel will spark important conversations about race and class in America. If my book finds its readers and inspires them to think and feel, then I will be successful. That’s what truly matters to me.

I must keep reminding myself of my writing goals to gird my ego against the inevitable missed opportunities, perceived slights, and omissions that will occur. Of course, I still want to make lists and have the literati buzz about my book. But if that doesn’t happen, I will return to my core purpose, the reason I must put pen to paper no matter who notices.

When does your writer envy surface and how do you handle it? Have you ever admitted your jealousy to another writer, and if so, what did you learn from that experience? How do you stay focused on your own path in an industry where comparisons are easy to make?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [3].