Imitation May Be Flattering, But It Doesn’t Lead To Success
The first thing I learned as an author is that, even if you’re traditionally published, you are expected to do much of your own marketing. You’re also strongly encouraged to follow in the footsteps of others. “Author X became famous on TikTok. Do what she did.” “Author Y found success with a YouTube Channel. Replicate his videos.” “Author Z gave away merch. Do that.” On and on it goes, with everyone telling you to just do what everyone else did in order to achieve success.
The second thing I learned as an author is that this “do what everyone else does” approach very rarely works. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t lead to success. In order to stand out, you have to be different and that doesn’t happen when you’re walking in the shadows of those who have already done the same things you’re doing.
I see this in many industries (particularly creative fields), not just publishing. Art, music, “influencing,” reviewing, game design, sports marketing, etc. all confer success upon those who do things that others have not already done. Originality coupled with popular appeal equals breakout success. And yet, the traditional advice in all of these fields is to do what others are doing. Seems a bit twisted, no?
Admittedly, imitation may be a way to start out toward success. I think of it like training wheels. Doing what others are doing can help you gather knowledge about your industry and gain some practice in doing whatever it is that you do. It can help you hone things like production values, techniques, and editing. You can get a sense of where your work fits into the marketplace and what sets it apart from others. Following others can be a safe way to learn exactly where the boundaries are within your industry and what is acceptable vs. what is frowned upon. Only once you know the rules can you successfully break them.
However, if you want long-term success, you have to break away from the pack at some point. You have to figure out what you do better/differently from others and capitalize on that. And, most important (and difficult), you have to trust your ideas and trust that you can find your own way.
Why Imitation Doesn’t Work
It isn’t authentic
People can sense when you’re faking it, or when you aren’t passionate about something (doubly so on social media). If you’re just following the herd because you’ve been told to, your vision and voice aren’t coming through in whatever you’re doing. People respond to your unique way of creating and presenting your ideas and products. They respond to your passion and interest. If you’re just following others, much of that is lost.
You don’t know exactly what your model did, or what paid off the most
The biggest limitation of imitation is that you are not that other person, and you don’t live in their head or world. (At least you shouldn’t… You definitely don’t want to cross into stalker territory!) You see the results of their actions, but you don’t know exactly what they did. They’re selling a million books, but is it because of that TikTok video you’re trying to recreate, or is it because of an interview they gave? Did they do a book tour that made them popular, or was it the grassroots effort of giving tons of books away that catapulted them to success? You see what they’re doing or have done, but you don’t know the single thing that paid off the most. Without that knowledge, any attempt to imitate their success is like shooting in the dark.
You don’t know what kinds of contacts/help/lucky breaks they may have had
Someone who is hugely successful might (for example) have a great YouTube channel and you think, “Hey, that’s the key to their success.” But you have no idea whether or not they know someone who coached them, or offered behind the scenes help. If you don’t have access to that skillset, can you replicate someone else’s success? Did your model know someone or have a contact who gave them an “in” into your industry? For example, the successful author’s book may not be objectively better than another’s, but the successful person perhaps received an introduction to an agent that led to publication. If you don’t know (or can’t replicate) the assistance (or luck) someone else had, how can you expect to imitate their success?
Whatever you’re imitating is no longer original or interesting
If you’re imitating something, it is no longer original. It’s been done, often to death. Looking at publishing again, how many books came out trying to imitate Harry Potter or Twilight? Thousands. Did any of them achieve the same level of success? Nope. Why? Because the new books weren’t original. Sometimes things just tap into a cultural current for whatever reason and go big. You can’t possibly replicate that by producing a copy of something. The only way you’ll tap into that cultural current is to produce your own, unique thing. It might not meet with success, but just producing more of the same won’t work, either.
One final caveat about the limitations of imitation: There is a fine line between being original and being completely bonkers. You can push the envelope, but only likely so far before you turn fans, investors, or employers off completely. Most industries have unspoken rules that you’ll have to learn before carving your own path.
Some of “How far can I go?” is simply learned through trial and error and watching what others do can show you the guidelines. Who went too far and got punished for it? Who played it too safe and got nowhere? Just don’t get so invested in watching others that you slide into imitation. Use others as inspiration and as learning tools, but not as your sole route to success. Be your own unique self.
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Jennifer Derrick is a freelance writer, novelist and children’s book author. When she’s not writing Jennifer enjoys running marathons, playing tennis, boardgames and reading pretty much everything she can get her hands on. You can learn more about Jennifer at: https://jenniferderrick.com/.