better to surf your own turf than mac on someone else’s cheese

I initially published this in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


You know how I told you to stop recommending this newsletter last week?

I was joking.

That was a rhetorical device.

Listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words: don’t 👏 listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words.

OK, let’s put it behind us.


New topic: go elsewhere for advice immediately.

This is not a joke or a rhetorical device. Crumple up this newsletter, pop it in the old recycle bin, and move along.

“Maven Game face.”

I see that I’m going to have to explain this one.

I recently attended a panel talk for writers. In the audience sat the last 19 people on Earth who haven’t yet discovered Ask Jeeves.

Each attendee had brought along their most pressing questions about publishing and book marketing. The stuff they couldn’t find answers for anywhere else.

They had already consulted both the June 1992 issue of Writer’s Digest and the “book publishing” entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. No dice.

Obviously, attending a writers conference in another state was the next logical step.

“How many MySpace friends guarantees a bestseller?”

“Which agent should I hire to negotiate my book deal with Lulu.com?”

“I have 18 rarely updated blogs—one for each of my extreme religious and political positions. Which one should I use to market my science fiction novel?”

The three experts on the panel fielded these questions, and more along these lines, calmly and patiently. (I’m assuming they were medicated to the hilt.)

They answer questions like these at every event. They will continue to answer questions like these until the very last post-apocalyptic dystopian YA novel is thrown on a radioactive bonfire by the jump-suited stooges of a totalitarian government.

These experts chose this life by positioning themselves at the widest part of the author funnel, right at the gaping maw, where undiluted ignorance meets baseless ambition.

For an expert, there are pros and cons to this approach.

When cultivating your own flock of followers, you may feel the pressure to target beginners. After all, there are many more of them.

However, even if you wanted to, you may not be built that way. Some experts are like hungry orcas imitating the success strategies of humpbacks. Good luck straining the sea for plankton if you weren’t born with baleen.

There is another way.

In 2005, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne wrote Blue Ocean Strategy. They argue that competing over the same turf is a race to the bottom. Real profits are made by carving out a new, untapped market space.

I’ve seen this to be true over and over again. A book comes out of left field and succeeds in a brand-new way. Yet authors (and publishers) keep trying to re-do the last definitive book in their category.

It makes me sad.

As they like to say in Silicon Valley, “books are the Uber of ideas.” “Nothing scales like words, bro.” “Karl Ove Knausgaard absolutely crushed it with My Struggle: Book 4.”

OK, they don’t say any of those things in Silicon Valley. But books really do scale like nothing else. When you write something, you’ve written it for all time. Books don’t even go out of print anymore.

If you write a book about something, you wrote the book on it.

Once the book is written, it frees the rest of us to solve other problems. When someone has already written the go-to resource on a subject, don’t chase their tail. Find another angle. If they aim for beginners, tackle the intermediate tier. If they don’t use stupid animated GIFs, use stupid animated GIFs. Differentiate yourself.

I do my very best each week to drive away readers who aren’t going to find this useful. And yet, you may still be here for the wrong reasons. Let’s fix that.

Do you have questions about how book publishing works? Read Jane Friedman. You can stick a fork in writing a book proposal or self-publishing your novel. Those topics are done.

Burned out? Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She’s the McDonald’s of high-octane creative recovery; 1 billion authors served. There is no need to go any further. Morning pages. Artist dates. Writer’s block, solved.

Typography? Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography. Margins. Kerning. Fonts, solved.

No-nonsense business writing? Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit. Bullshit, solved. (I’ve read it, but don’t hold this newsletter against Josh.)

Each of these folks comprehensively tackles one of the fundamentals of the craft. There is no need for another resource. If you’ve got #1, there is no need to go #2.

I write the Maven Game to address the existential crisis that is writing for an audience in the 21st century. I’m only interested in tackling the big questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? Is there anybody out there? Love, what is it good for? I’m not going to waste your time with stuff you could easily find elsewhere.

As I continue to develop my own book, it’s on me to keep a careful eye on the landscape. I have no interest in duplicating efforts, and neither should you.

Nothing beats paddling in your own patch of blue ocean.