“Competing authors” is an oxymoron

Benjamin Dreyer is a copy editor who just wrote a book on English. So is Mary Norris, the “Comma Queen.” So they’re in competition, right?

Not even close.

Here’s some Twitter repartee between the two:

Traditionally, two people in the same space are competitors. But that dynamic doesn’t apply with authors, for several reasons:

  • A person who buys one book on, say, copy editing, is likely to buy a second book on the same topic. It’s not like we’re buying cars here, or deciding which grocery store we’re loyal to.
  • The idea that English is worth reading about, or that copy editors are fascinating people, is more plausible if there are two authors writing about it.
  • Who else but another author on the same topic understands what you’re going through? It’s easy to believe that Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer are comrades.

Basically, Norris and Dreyer are more likely to succeed together than to succeed at each others’ expense. So why not be nice to each other?

I’m sure they disagree about how many commas to use (since the answer, for anyone who copy edits The New Yorker, is, “too many”) but that’s a disagreement among experts, and watching them disagree is probably a treat.

Seth Godin’s blog was right on point about this:

Next to the competition

Books sell better in bookstores than they sell in butcher shops. In a bookstore, surrounded by all the competition, a book is in the right place to be seen, compared and ultimately purchased and read.

Trade show booths work when they’re in close proximity to the other options a buyer has. Building your trade show booth across town might insulate you from the other choices, but it does little to help establish where you belong and whether or not you’re a smart choice.

If I was one of the 25 people running for President of the US, I’d organize my own debate tour. I’d invite four or five other candidates to hit the road with me, and I’d do a debate every single night. All six of us would benefit from the competition, leaving the rest behind, ignored because they are alone. No one will stop you, simply begin.

If you’re an author, blurb the other person’s book, review it on your blog, and talk about it honestly. Invite them to be on panels with you. Help them succeed. And expect the same from them.

And if you’re not an author, maybe there are still lessons in this for you and your “competitors.”

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