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Agony Editor: Comparison is the thief of joy – even when it’s to yourself

An illustration of Brian Francis

Dear Agony Editor,

I published my debut novel 10 years ago and it was a massive hit. But none of my subsequent novels have even come close to my previous success. My wife says maybe I’ve had my 15 minutes and to accept that. But it’s a bitter pill and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m a failure. How do I move forward?


One Hit Wonder

Dear One Hit,

While your talent played a major role in the success of your first book, many other influential factors were no doubt working in your favour at the time, none of which had anything to do with your talent. Your publisher, media attention, and legions of readers who were willing to buy your book likely contributed to one crucial thing that’s very hard to duplicate: buzz. Success rarely comes down to just one person. And success is often determined by timing. It can come down to putting out the right book at the right time. So try not to take success (or failure) personally.

My advice is to listen to your wife. While I get that it’s a bitter pill, you need to ask: Could you come to terms with that 15 minutes? Could a part of you actually find that acceptance liberating? Could it mean you stop living in your own shadow? What if it meant writing books that you really want to write, rather than feeling the constant pressure to recapture some former glory?

By all accounts, you’re an incredibly successful writer. At least, in the eyes of your family and readers. Embrace those 15 minutes for what they represent: a bit of magic. Every writer experiences ebbs and flows throughout their career. There’s rarely a consistent, upward trajectory.

The good news is that you’re a better writer for riding through those times of doubt and uncertainty. Stop competing with yourself, embrace that past success, and turn your attention to work that gives you a sense of purpose.

Your greatest success won’t be in the number of books you sell but in producing work that you can stand behind, regardless of the reaction it does – or doesn’t – receive. And don’t count yourself out. Should you have a hit again, it will taste all the sweeter because you’ll appreciate something you couldn’t the first time around: the long and hard road you’ve taken to get there.


May 31st, 2021

1:32 pm

Category: Opinion

Issue Date: June 2021