Back in my early twenties, I’d wanted to be a motivational speaker. I read books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and, because I was also a Knicks fan (hey, I’m a New Yorker, and this was the early-mid-90s), I also read former Knicks coach Pat Riley’s The Winner Within. That was the first time I’d learned the term “complacency” in the context of self-driven success. Says the coach about complacency:
The temptation to slack off starts when you’re feeling good about who you are and what you’ve achieved. After you have spent yourself emotionally and physically to achieve the great dream, it’s so easy to accept the illusion that your struggle has ended. . . .You’ve arrived. And it feels so great to let go of yesterday’s hunger and insecurity. From that enticing moment forward, it gets harder and harder to make sacrifices. . . .While you’re celebrating success, someone is making plans to move up in the world, and you better know it.
A psychology of entitlement is a looming threat. The top spot now belongs to you. You think the wins will be automatic. The rewards will never stop.
But it does stop. And when it does, you crash.
Sadly, this rings all too familiar to me.
In February 2013, my best-selling book Faking It was translated into German and spent three consecutive months at Number One on the German Kindle Store bestseller list. I had made more in one month than my yearly teaching salary.
One year later, my fifth novel, She Has Your Eyes, entered the Top 100 and invigorated my entire backlist, especially Faking It and Ordinary World (She Has Your Eyes completed that trilogy.) I earned out the advance in six weeks and continued to sell thousands of books per month.
That’s when I succumbed to the spell of complacency. What makes complacency so dangerous is that you don’t realize you’re in it. You’re too busy feeling good. And when the shit hits the fan, your first reaction is panic, then blame.
In 2015, I noticed the drop in sales. No big deal, I thought. It will rebound when I release a new title.
Problem was, I didn’t have a new title. I had written a new manuscript the previous year, submitted it to my publisher, and, two months later, they rejected it. Disappointed, I started several new manuscripts, but none of them took root. I didn’t sign a contract for a new book until late 2014—and it wasn’t published until July 2016. That means I went for almost two years without a new title.
Meanwhile, with no new book to capitalize on momentum, sales continued to plummet, especially in 2016.
Still unaware that I was in the throes of complacency, I reacted in typical ways: First, panic. Second, blame.
Especially when my last title face-planted out of the gate.
Finally, in January of this year, I snapped out of it. The market wasn’t to blame. The industry wasn’t to blame. Amazon wasn’t to blame. My publisher wasn’t to blame.
It was all on me.
The antidote to complacency is responsibility.
With my eyes wide open, I took responsibility for the role I played in the reversal of fortune. Despite my efforts, I didn’t have a new book to publish. I didn’t keep up momentum with a mailing list, consistent blog posting, or some other content. I turned a blind eye while my publisher expanded, signed new and upcoming authors, and embraced Kindle Unlimited.
Next, I became proactive.
I looked for ways to retain loyal followers and win new ones. I began following experts in the industry again. I brainstormed new ideas. Rather than resent reader subscriptions like Kindle Unlimited, I looked for ways to either capitalize on them or in spite of them.
I made mistakes along the way. But little by little, I not only found my footing, but also the path.
My most recent release has performed very well, and every day I am attracting new readers and subscribers. Moreover, I’m working on a new manuscript, plus several other projects that I hope will be lucrative.
I still have a long way to go to reach the level of success I’d reached years ago. And I may never get to those heights. But I have clear goals, and with the lessons of complacency firmly etched in my consciousness, I know how to keep myself from falling in the trap again.
If you find yourself in the same place, follow these three steps:
1. Take responsibility for your failure to keep moving forward.
Yes, the market changes and stuff happens, but it’s up to you to ride with the tide, keep your eyes and ears open, and, to use a football metaphor, keep moving the chains.
2. Get back in the game—now.
Don’t tell yourself it’s too late to start a mailing list, dust off an old manuscript or write a new one, create a podcast, or whatever it is you need to do to get where you need and want to be, where you might have been had you remained vigilant. Don’t be intimidated by how hard you’ll need to work. Just get up and get back in. Make a plan. Try new things. As long as you’re proactive.
3. Be vigilant.
You got into this mess because you stopped paying attention and rested on your laurels. So pay attention again. When someone publishes an article about the newest trend in marketing strategies or announces changes in the royalty system or finds a new publisher to hit the competition, perk up. Don’t dismiss it. Talk about it. Keep learning your craft. Keep learning the business. Keep in touch with your peers.
In the words of Jed Bartlet, break’s over.
Discussion: Have you fallen into the trap of complacency? If so, how will of did you break free of it?