Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

A Matter of Perspective

How I Feel Every Time…

To the best of my knowledge, I did 106 books for traditional publishers, ending in 2008. At that point, as I have said numbers of times, I was tired of publishing, tired of the worsening contracts and the horrid attitudes of editors.

I was disgusted by the system and the corruptness. And I got really tired of watching the system chew up not only friends, but new writers.

In other words, I was finished.

Indie publishing saved me.

I could control my own copyediting, my own covers, and retain ownership of my copyrights. Plus I didn’t have to feel like a beggar with a tin cup asking for handouts.

Since then I have made a lot of money writing what I wanted to write at the pace I wanted to write it. No stupid schedule or long-held belief by some corporation slowed me down. And I have had a blast learning how to be a better storyteller as well as all the fun of the business of indie publishing.

So understand, I have a perspective. 106 books in traditional publishing. That is part of my perspective.


Four or five times a week I get young writers talking to me in letters about how they are going to submit their books to this or that traditional publisher. I say nothing. I don’t help them. My conscious won’t allow me to do that.

I have friends I thought had better sense who have spent the last four or five years, while I have done over twenty-five books a year, wait on some agent to get a rewrite request back to them. I say nothing.

Young writers have bought into the myth of traditional publishing. Even though stunningly enough, all information would lead any thinking person far from those contracts. But these young writers still go, taking years and years to get that elusive novel sale.

I feel sad, but do little to try to fight that myth. Not my place to tear down another person’s dreams, no matter how ill-thought the dream might be.

Every day I read or look at publishing magazines such as Mystery Scene or Locus or Publisher’s Weekly. They are full of ads for books from traditional publishers still whipping the old and almost dead distribution system. Mostly the books are by names I have never heard of and who won’t be around in three years.

Those ads make me sad. Because I know the story behind the book even though I do not know the author.

Here is the story…

— Author spent years wanting to be a writer.

— Author rewrote that “special snowflake novel,” following all guidelines, to agent’s and editor’s requests, taking years of time.

— Author ignores all warnings because they want to be taken care of by an editor and their cherished agent. Author has no belief in their own work.

— Author signed an all-rights contract for the life of the copyright, selling everything to do with the book with no chance of getting it back. The author celebrated the signing as if it was a good thing.

— Author a year or more later is excited that the book is coming out. Does launch parties or other such foolishness, all for the ego of showing friends and family it was worth it.

— A year later, since the sales were flat as all are in this new world, author can’t sell another book. Agent will no longer answer author’s phone calls. Author gets bitter and goes and does something else with their life.

There are a few side-roads to this. The author might have signed a two-book deal. Add a year before the large crash. The author might actually get, for even less money, two more books. Rare. Add another year or two to the torture.

And even more rare, sadly, do I see these young writers emerging from that grind and turning to indie.

I am seeing a ton of long-term bestselling authors with anywhere from 25 to 75 traditional novels, turning indie. They were either dropped or are fed up with the treatment. They are flocking to indie.

But those new writers are lost. Their dreams of having a book “published” and getting the fairy dust of honor from a traditional publishing turned out to be fools gold. Having a dream slowly crushed like that is almost impossible to recover from.

So every day I hear a young writer’s dream of traditional publishing, or I see hundreds of ads in magazines of new writer’s books, and I just have this sense of immense sadness for the writers.

There is no longer a career path into publishing using the old tin cup method of begging to publishers. You might beat the odds and get in the door, but you will soon be gone.

Career writers now are indie writers. We have accepted the control. In fact, we cherish it and the thought of anyone taking care of us is appalling.

But that is a matter of perspective. If your dream is to be taken care of by traditional publishing and having an agent, nothing I will be able to say will change that.

But I will see your name, your book, and feel sorry for you.

But I will say nothing to you.

After all, it is your dream.

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  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Well, I am one of the writers you saved, Dean. And, believe me, I am so grateful!

    I’d been writing mostly RPG game modules from 1980 through 2000. Then my children were born and I did nothing but take care of infant twins for a few years. And then I finally figured out the writing process that would allow me to transition from writing game modules to writing novels. (Before then, when I’d tried, I hadn’t been able to make the shift.)

    So I was working away on a novel, figuring I’d worry about how to get it published after I’d finished it. This was 2007-8, so I was focused on traditional. And that was the direction I would have headed, except that I encountered your blog in 2011. Your reasoning was so clear and cogent that I shifted directions within a month and pushed for indie. Thank you!

    • Michèle Laframboise

      Same for me, J.M., except I was slower to act on it!

      I discovered Dean’s (then Kris) blog in 2011. It took three years before I trusted myself enough to try the online workshops. A revelation. I decided to go indie, set up my DBA and I don’t regret it. 9 books indie published now (after 17 trad-pub) and going on!

      • J.M. Ney-Grimm

        Michèle, that’s so cool to hear. With 9 books indie, it sounds like you are making up for lost time! I’ve got 20 titles, but only 5 of them are novels. The rest are novellas, plus a handful of shorts. WIP is another novel.

        I took on-the-coast versions of Think Like a Publisher and Pitches and Blurbs (back in 2012) and found them incredibly helpful. (The coast was beautiful!) I went on to take 7 of the online workshops, which were fantastic. I learned so much. I really can’t thank Kris and Dean enough. The only reason I have a writing career is because of them.

    • Stefon Mears

      “I’d been writing mostly RPG game modules”

      THAT’S why I keep recognizing your name. I probably have a few of your game books downstairs. Glad to know you’re still writing. I’ll have to check out your fiction.

      • J.M. Ney-Grimm

        I probably have a few of your game books downstairs.

        LOL! You might!

        I worked for Iron Crown Enterprises from 1984-2000, first in production (laying out books using the wax machine and galleys), then as editor and art director. I picked up a lot of skills that have been very useful in my indie career. 😀

        Many of the early books of Middle-earth Role Playing have bits and pieces in them that I wrote, but the first full work of mine was the adventure in the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game, titled “Dawn Comes Early.” I also wrote a later adventure in that same series: “Over the Misty Mountains Cold.”

        Gethaena (in ICE’s Shadow World series) was mine, as was The Deva Spark from TSR (written under a pen name).

        Btw, we both have stories in an upcoming bundle on BundleRabbit. Yours has an eye-catching cover and an intriguing blurb. I’m looking forward to reading it!

        • Stefon Mears

          So we are! Mythic Tales. That should be a fun one, and I like the looks of yours.

          I think I do have some MERP books downstairs. I’ll have to take a look. Most of my ICE stuff is from Chartmaster, though. Best (and weirdest) crit charts of the 80s. Don’t know if I had any of their adventures though.

  • Jason M

    My feeling: Screw traditional publishers. How could anybody look to them for validation? How could anybody have so little pride in themselves? I’ve felt that way since my short time on the tradpub query-go-round, back in the years 1999-2000, when I was 25. I quickly saw that playing their deranged game of submission would NOT be an effective use of my hours on this earth. Why couldn’t I just write something good in a month or two, publish it, and move on with minimal hassle? So I sighed and went to Los Angeles and went on to do screenplay writing and other forms of writing until something changed in traditional publishing, which it did, in 2008/9.

    Then I came back. Now Indie publishing is entirely where I belong.

    Today, I still feel like a new writer, though I’ve published about twenty titles on my own, and another twenty titles as a ghost. When I hear about new fiction writers doing the tradpub dance, I just shake my head and get back to my 2500 words for the day.

  • Michael J Lawrence

    Every time I talk to somebody about my writing and how I really haven’t sold any copies, they inevitable suggest, as if it is some new revelation that I hadn’t considered, that I “get a publisher.” My chest tightens every time because there is no way to explain to them the hours and hours of research I have done to dispel the myth. They always (always!) mention Stephen King. As if getting a publisher magically makes a best seller. And then they start talking about how a publisher will put money behind me and advertise. And I really have to wonder where the layman gets these ideas.

    I’m still grappling with story. I still don’t quite get it. But I get to keep trying. That’s the part they just don’t get. I can fail as many times as I dare until I finally write something that will find its audience. I don’t need to convince anybody of anything except the reader. And you can’t get around that step with a publishing contract. With a publisher, I have to get it right the first time. As a self-published author, I just have to get it right eventually.

    And they just shake their head and mumble one last time, “But you’re good. You need a publisher.” No, I need a reader. And here’s the funny part: none of these people ever actually buy one of my books. Well, there you go. I’m not there yet. See?

    • dwsmith

      And actually, Michael, how it will work with a good attitude like yours is that the level will just slowly rise as you put out more product, work on sales blurbs, learn some basic discoverability stuff. Nothing will really explode, you will just notice one day that you have sold a bunch of books. Two here, five there, none on that one book, three on another, and when added up at the end of the year the number will be bigger than any first book sales figures. But it will take a few years and production and those are the same years you could be waiting for an agent and a publisher to get around to you. Much more fun working to get better like you are doing. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing that.

    • Gael

      Ok Michael, you have piqued my curiosity as a reader and fellow scribbler. Name of a good book of yours to start with, please? I’m gonna buy one. Cuz I love writers with good attitudes. As long as it’s not gruesomely gory is all. *g* Please share, if Dean doesn’t mind.
      Hi Dean, great post, as always. Gael

  • Tammy

    Hi Dean,
    Never gotten around to comment, but I also must THANK YOU. I published my first two books traditionally five years ago and quickly saw exactly what you’re mentioning here. After that second novel the publisher kept me waiting for almost two years after I sent them a new manuscript.

    I decided I wasn’t going to wait forever so I quickly jumped into indie –mostly encouraged by your experience and blogs. Four books after, I don’t see myself back into traditional, although I frequently sell short stories to multiauthor anthos for promotional purpose. I get few sales, but I’ve seen they’re growing slowly and steadily with every new release. It’s just so exciting. I get approached by small presses from time to time but they just can’t offer anything interesting for me anymore.
    Thanks for your work.


    • dwsmith

      Tammy, wow, thank you. You are the first I have heard who went down the traditional road and jumped at the two book point to indie. Congratulations! And thank you. You made me feel it is possible for some to escape.

  • Cynthia Lee

    I have a very sweet friend, a good writer of unique and quirky novels, whose heart has been broken by traditional publishing.

    She loves to write everyday and she writes fast. I told her she would be a good fit for indie publishing. She told me that
    her agent publishes her books through the agency’s ebook publishing arm and that she hasn’t sold very many books
    for them so far. She would not hear of firing her agent and embarking on an indie adventure. She said it had taken her years to get an
    agent and she’d spent years rewriting her books to please that agent. She didn’t want all that work to go unrewarded (even though it already has).


    I think she’s been clinically (or very nearly) depressed ever since she realized her traditional publishing dreams weren’t
    going to come true. It really is that big of a deal for a lot of people. It makes me sad too but there is nothing I can tell
    her to change her mind.

    • dwsmith

      Cynthia, you are dead right, there is nothing you can do. To your friend, the business and the ego are far more important than wanting to write. That tends to always be the line in the sand. If a writer really wants to write, how readers are delivered the work means little to that writer. If the writer is into writing for the ego, the feeling of being tapped by a magic traditional publishing fairy wand, the writer is lost. Sorry to say, Cynthia, point her to a few places like here or Kris’s blog and then step away from the topic, never talk writing, try to hold the friendship outside of the writing.

      But most of all, if she brings it up, be blunt. Short-term anger on her part might save a long-term career. It happens rarely, but as I have found out with this post, it does happen.

    • David Alastair Hayden

      I had an agent for four years, ending in 2008, just before indie. I had a handful of rejections from editors, via agent, with encouraging notes. A couple of almost sales. I was severely depressed after all that and hardly wrote for two years. Traditional can really wear you out and destroy your self esteem and creativity. You’re constantly on edge waiting for that hit of money and validation.

      In 2011, I started indie. And I’m so glad now that I never sold anything and got caught up into the traditional grind. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak and I’m so happy with writing now. And traditional publishing is the only thing that had ever made me want validation which otherwise I couldn’t care less about.

      And the novel that came closest to a sale with publishers has made over five figures, not counting the four sequel books in the series that might never gotten published even if the first had sold traditional.

  • D J Mills

    After sending 2 ms direct to publishes (rejected and rightly so) I also discovered Dean’s blog, ten or more, years ago. I remember when Dean said he laughed when an indie published short story eBook sold. Since then, I visit Dean’s blog every day, continue to learn and improve my story telling ability (by writing), and love every minute.

    Now 16 published stories later, along with some short stories, waiting to be discovered by readers, they are slowly selling . I am still amazed when I receive a yearly cheque from Createspace, and direct payments from other distributors.

    Oh, Dean, my Dad used to say, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” so, thank you, Dean and Kris, for leading the way.

  • Nicki

    This post makes me grateful I was always too insecure about my work to even think about sending to traditional publishers. By the time I decided writing was going to be a full-time gig (and developed a little backbone), I’d found your blog. I’ve learned so much here. I wish I could take more classes and do some workshops, but I’m faithfully reading and more importantly, writing. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year looks like if I can keep myself on this track!

  • Stefon Mears

    The mention of Stephen King above reminds me, Dean. Have you seen some of the latest hoopla about King’s movie properties? Right now there’s a guy suing (Paramount, I think) over the right to develop spin-offs of Children of the Corn. Spin-off rights. Not remakes or sequels. Spin-offs. Wow.

    Also, apparently a lot of film industry people are panicking because King filed his 35-year paperwork for a bunch of properties. But I haven’t read of anyone thinking about the publishing implications of those filings. Makes me wonder if he’s considering taking the books themselves indie.

    • dwsmith

      Must have been an interesting contract with Children of the Corn. And 35 year reversions will apply to the entire property and all contracts extending from the original contract. So if he sold movie rights to his publisher, his revision on that contract will kill all movie contracts instantly. Oh, the fun. Hope some of this hits the news.

  • John Van Stry

    I tried to break in to writing, but I couldn’t get published. I wasn’t hurting for money, so I just stopped trying and only wrote for myself.
    Then in 2010 discovered ‘indy’ and ‘self publishing’ on Amazon. So I started putting my work up on it, and interestingly enough, it sold! So I worked on my craft, and tried to get a better idea of what would sell, and after some prodding I put up something that the Trads would never have touched (as it was completely and utterly anti-pc). Sold like hotcakes.
    Since then I’ve become a full-time writer. While I make less than I did as a consultant, I get to work from home and the only idiots I have to deal with are myself. No office politics, just write stories and put them up for my fans to read. (I have fans! That was a truly amazing discovery!). Yeah, I hope one day to be back up in the six figure income range, but I make more than enough to live in California with its high taxes and high cost of living. (I really should move someplace cheaper).

    I think Trad pub shot itself in the foot, when the founders died and their kids, who really didn’t understand the business took over and decided the politics was more important than story. And then chased away a lot of their customers.

    • dwsmith

      John, thanks for the great comments.

      On the history of traditional publishing, it didn’t work that way. The family publishing companies kept being acquired or acquiring others and then were bought by international conglomerates with only bottom line issues. The kids of some of the original publishers were very smart. But they also got old and sold out and that lead to the mess at the moment of the big five.

  • Maree Brittenford

    I followed a link and found your blog when I was working on my first novel. Honestly I thought you were a quack. Don’t edit? Don’t outline? And don’t even bother with agents or traditional publishing? It was the opposite of everything I’d been hearing.
    But it was also attractive. The idea that I didn’t have to contort myself through endless revision and I could skip the wait to be chosen, and could just chose myself.
    And then you linked to Kris’ blog.
    I hope you’re not offended when I say that while I love your blog, I’m a bigger fan of hers. She’s basically who I want to be when I grow up.
    And as a result I published my first book myself, too very few sales, but I was good with that. I didn’t expect many since I didn’t spend much time or any money on promotion. It will be very soon followed up with more. When I have a decent body of work I’ll spend more time on promotion.
    But the thing is, my friends are watching. They are mostly avowed trad pub aspirants. And like you, I don’t try to challenge that. But we talk. And I send links to Kris’ posts any time they would be of interest.
    One of my friends told me yesterday that I’ve ‘converted’ her, and that I speak truth about keeping the writing from becoming important (I did give you full credit for the concept!) and that the best way to do that is by self publishing. She is mourning the dream of being taken care of by an agent, but she’s also pragmatic and knows that is really a dream.
    I guess my point is that you altered my path, and by doing that you’ve created ripples outward that you aren’t even aware of.

    • dwsmith

      Maree, what very kind comments. Even the “quack” part because honestly, I know how I fly in the face of all the myths about writing. Trust me, over the years I have been called much worse. (grin) So I really, really appreciate your comments.

      The key is to keep having fun. Remember the fun when you were young of telling a story? Just do that and keep having fun and it will be amazing what happens. And as you get more books out, the sales do come up as you keep learning and practicing.

      Thanks again. Very, very kind of you to say.

      • Sheila G

        I don’t know about “quack”. I was just shocked to see that I wasn’t the only person who felt this way (editing, outlining, and the like). Maybe we’re both quacks! 😀

        I’ve said it before, but when I began to write the way I’d taught myself, lo these many decades ago, I got my love of writing back. So long as I remember that, and don’t let the doubt creep in again, I do just fine. I’m not a big seller, but I’m a heck of a lot happier. And the sales will come.

        • dwsmith

          Exactly, Sheila, when you are having fun with the writing, enjoying it, and getting it out, the readers do come over time.

  • J

    If you want to laugh out loud at some of the most unrealistic takes on publishing, watch some of the Hallmark Channel romantic movies that feature authors as one of the main characters. Those movies are popular, though, and probably feed into the belief in the myths … big time.

    On another note, Dean, have you see James Reasoner’s blog? He’s a huge fan of pulp as well and often talks about pulp magazines and books in his blog: Thought you might want to know.

    • dwsmith

      J, yes, if interested in the old-time pulps and writers, James is a top source. I think we have only met once along the decades, but I have admired his work for decades. He makes me look like I don’t write.

  • David Anthony Brown

    The Sacred Cows series were what finally got me thinking about indie and Heinlein’s rules. And I originally thought the early adopters of indie were making huge mistakes. Now, after 30+ published titles, I’m not looking back.

    But I too have the friends who are stuck in the trad pub mindset. I’ll forward Kris’s articles now and then, but otherwise I don’t argue the point, with one exception and she’s a very pragmatic thinker. Not enough energy and time to devote to waving the indie flag. Better to walk the walk instead.

    I’m still not making a living, but I’m having way more fun. And tons of opportunities have opened up, like Bundle Rabbit (will be in my first bundle next year).

  • Sean Monaghan

    I’m no longer eligible* for L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest, but have participated in a writing forum with others about entering. I frequently despaired at the critique swaps, headlong revisions and endless tinkering with stories that hadn’t made the cut. I wanted to shout about how little that related to the way Hubbard wrote, but could sense that I wouldn’t make much headway. Leaves me a bit sad.

    *BTW, thanks Dean and Kris – losing my eligibility came through sales I never would have made without taking your advice, and courses.

  • Bob Mayer

    There’s another route that I’m seeing more and more of. New authors who get the usual two book deal. By the time the second book is coming out, the trad publisher has already given up on them.
    And then they get picked up by Amazon Publishing. Some of those people have done really well. AP is really doing well by some writers. Like everything else, though, it’s metric driven.
    I had a very positive experience with AP, but prefer double royalties and the control of being indie. However, I would never rule out either trad publishing or AP for the right deal. Which would be as likely as another eclipse, but I never say never.

    • dwsmith

      I just can’t stomach losing the copyright, Bob. So I’m afraid I do say never. Unless those pigs can sprout wings and I get a snap-back reversion of five years in a traditional publishing contract. So still waiting for the wings to sprout I guess. (grin)