On Writing,  publishing

Chapter One: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only One Way

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


“This is how you do it.”

How often do writers in this business hear that silly phrase? Some writer or editor or agent telling the young writer to do something as if that something was set in stone. Nope. The truth is that nothing in this business is set in stone.


For example, a wonderful new professional writer in one of the workshops here e-mailed a well-written query with ten sample pages and a synopsis of the novel off to an editor in New York from the workshop. The next morning she came out of her room smiling. The editor had asked to see the entire book. So being am imp, I went to that publisher’s website and printed off the guidelines, which said in huge letters “No electronic submissions and absolutely no unagented submissions.”

Lucky for her she hadn’t bothered to look at the guidelines or listen to all the people who said she needed an agent and believe there was only one way to get her book read at that company.

Nothing in this business is set in stone. Nothing.

Of course, that little story about not looking at guidelines will cause massive anger to come at me I’m sure. So before you go tossing bricks at my house because you need a rule to follow, let me back up and try to explain what I am saying here. And what I will be saying throughout this book. Then you can toss the brick.


Perfectly good advice for one writer will be flat wrong for the writer standing beside him.

Some writers need agents, other writers a current agent-rewriter would kill their work. Some writers know business, other writers need help figuring out how to balance a checkbook and wouldn’t understand cash flow in a flood of money.

So how do writers learn? And how can those of us who have walked this publishing road help out the newer professionals coming in? Carefully is my answer. But now let me try to expand on that.

How do writers learn?

1) Take every statement by any WRITER, including me, with your bull detector turned on. If it doesn’t sound right for some reason, ignore it. It may be right for the writer speaking and wrong for you. And for heaven’s sake, be extra, extra careful when you listen to any writer who is not a long distance down the publishing road ahead of you. Some of the stupidest advice I have ever heard has come from writers with three or four short story sales talking like they understand the publishing business and think that everything they say is a rule.

2) Take any statement by any EDITOR through a very fine filter. Ask yourself why they are saying what they are saying, what corporate purpose does it fill, and can you use it to help you.

Remember, editors are not writers.

And they only know what they need in their one publishing house. Editors have the best of intentions to help writers. Honest, they do. But they often do not understand how writers make money, and most think that most writers can’t make a living, since all they see are the small advances to writers they are paying. Just nod nicely when they start into that kind of stuff and move on.

And remember, they always have a corporate agenda. It’s the nature of their job.

3) Take any statement from an AGENT with a giant salt shaker full of salt, then bury it with more salt. Agents are not writers, agents can’t help you rewrite, and they only know about six or seven editors and thus not the big market. If any agent is flat telling you that you must do something, and it sounds completely wrong to you, my suggestion to you is RUN! Remember, agents have an agenda. It is not your agenda. It is their agenda.

And these days they mostly either work for publishers or are starting their own publishing companies even with the conflict of interest issues. Caution!!

Over the next numbers of chapters, mostly in the agent section of this book, I will talk a great deal about the good and the bad of agents in this modern world of publishing. And some alternatives to using agents. Stay tuned.

So how do writers learn?

—By going to lots and lots of conferences and listening to hundreds of writers and editors and taking only the information that seems right to you.

—Read lots and lots of books by writers and only take what seems right for you.

—Learn business, basic business, and apply that to writing as well. Writing is a business, a very big business.

—And keep writing and practicing and mailing to editors.

How Can Professional Writers Help Newer Writers?

1) Keep firmly in mind that your way, the way you broke in might be wrong for just about everyone else in the room listening to you. Especially today, when the world of publishing is shifting so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up. A story about your first sale in 1992 as a way to do it just won’t be relevant in any real way to a new writer in 2011. Be clear that you understand that.

2) Keep abreast of what the newer writers are facing. I get angry at times because newer writers keep accusing me of having some advantage. I don’t, really. I have years more of practice, sure, and I have a better cover letter, and I know how to write a pitch and query and cover blurb that will sell. A new writer can learn all that as well with practice.

I still have to mail my work to editors just like everyone else. Or publish it indie publishing just as everyone else.

There is no secret road to selling just because you have done it before. I wish like hell there was, but alas, if it exists, I haven’t found the entrance ramp yet. So to help myself, I keep abreast of what newer writers are facing, I help teach them how to get through the blocks, so I also know how to do it with my work. Duh. I learn from them as I teach them.

3) Stay informed as to the changes in publishing and don’t be afraid of the new technology.

Bragging that you belong to the Church of Luddite or that you won’t touch any Apple product or that you hate smart phones sure won’t install a lot of confidence in the newer writers who live with this modern publishing world and use the new technology. And wishing things would go back to the way they were just doesn’t help either.

And for heaven’s sake, understand sampling.

Newer Writers Need Set Rules

Writers, especially newer writers are hungry for set rules.

This business is fluid and crazy most of the time, and the need for security screams out in most of us. So in the early years we writers search for “rules” to follow, shortcuts that will cut down the time involved, secret handshakes that will get us through doors. It is only after a lot of time that professional writers come to realize that the only rules are the ones we put on ourselves.

Writers are people who sit alone in a room and make stuff up. The problem we have is that when we get insecure without rules, we make stuff up as well.

When we don’t understand something, we make something up to explain it. Then when someone comes along with a “this is how you do it” stated like a rule, you jump to the rule like a drowning man reaching for a rope. And when someone else says “Let go of the rope to make it to safety,” you get angry and won’t let go of that first safety line.

In all these chapters that’s what I will be trying to tell tell you to do: Let go of the rope and trust your own talents and knowledge.

When I wrote these chapters online over almost two years, my suggestions caused some very “interesting” letters from writers mad at me for challenging their lifeline rules.

The desire for safety and rules is one of the reasons that so many myths have grown up in this business.

Rules/myths like you must rewrite everything, you must have an agent, you must do self-promotion, you don’t dare write fast or it will be bad.

Rule upon rule upon rule, all imposed from the outside. Most are just bad advice believed by the person giving the advice at the time.

The key is to let go of the rope, swim on your own, and find out what works for you.

If you believe you must rewrite, write a story or two and mail them without rewrites to see what happens. If you are having no luck having an agent read your work, send it to editors instead. If you think you can’t write more than 500 words a day, push a few days to double or triple that and see what happens. Push and experiment and find out what is right for you.

Will it scare you? Yes. But I sure don’t remember anyone telling me this profession was easy or not scary. Those two things are not myths just yet.

Okay, all that said, here are a few major areas where following rules blindly can be dangerous to writers. I will talk about these in coming chapters. But for the moment, I want to touch on them right here because they are major.

1) “You must rewrite.”

This is just silly, since writing comes out of the creative side of our brains and rewriting comes from the critical learned side.

Creative side is always better. But again, this is different for every writer no matter what level. Some writers never rewrite other than to fix a few typos, others do a dozen drafts, and both sell. Those professionals have figured out what is best for them. But if a younger writer listens to someone who says you MUST rewrite everything, it could kill that writer’s voice. This rule is just flat destructive. Keep your guard up on this one. Experiment on both sides and then do what works for you, what sells for you.

2) “You must have an agent.”

This is such bad advice for such a large share of writers these days, it’s scary. I will have an entire section on agents in this book.

These days there are many ways of not using or needing an agent.

—Using an intellectual copyright attorney is one way. Cheap and you don’t have to pay them 15% of everything.

— Doing it yourself is fine as well.

—Or hiring an agent just for one project at a time is fine as well.

Read all my chapters on this topic and then decide what you feel right about. And remember the old saying that the agent you can get as an unsold writer is not the agent you will want when you start selling. You don’t need an agent to sell a book. But again, every writer is different. Just don’t take the agent myth as a truth. Figure out what works for you.

3) “Editors don’t like (blank) so you shouldn’t write that way.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many thousand times I have answered questions like “Can I write in first person? Editor’s don’t like that.” No rules, just write your own story with passion and then send it to editors.

If they don’t like it, they will send you a rejection. No big deal. Stop worrying about what editors or agents want and write what you want.

Be an artist, not some sick puppy licking the boots of editors and agents looking for the secret.

Think for yourself, be yourself, write your own stuff. No rules.

4) “It’s a tight market so you need to do (blank).”

You want a secret? It’s always been a tight market. Things are always changing in publishing.

Right now there are more books being published every year than ever before, more markets, more ways for writers to make money. This silly “tight market” statement always sounds so full of authority coming from some young agent. And it will drive a new writer into doing a dozen rewrites on a novel for someone who really doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Caution when you hear those words. It should be a huge RED FLAG. I know, I heard them in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and every year lately. Just silly. It is nothing more than a statement to discourage writers. Don’t listen to it.

Truth: Publishing is always looking for good books and new writers. And it has always been tight in one way or another.

A Brand New World

Right now publishing is going through some major changes, all rotating around distribution for the most part. Writers have been so shut out with the system in New York that they are turning more and more to taking control of various aspects of their own work with indie publishing. POD and electronic publishing is allowing authors to become both writer and publisher and electronic distribution is allowing readers to find more work from their favorite writers, often either new work, dangerous work, or work long out of print..

This new area of publishing is quickly becoming full of “rules” and future myths. For the longest time publishing your own work was looked down on by “the ruling class” (whoever they are). Now, except for a few holdouts in the basements of the Church of Luddite, writers are taking the new technologies and running with them.

Before you run that way because selling to major markets is too hard, be cautious. There are no rules, but there are some things that are common sense.

Common sense #1: It takes a lot of practice to become a professional-level storyteller. You may think your first story or novel is brilliant because you rewrote it ten times and your workshop loved it, but alas, it might not be. In this new market, just as in the old one, the readers will judge. Let them, either through traditional channels or indie publishing. And then write the next book and the next and keep working to become better. Keep writing and learning.

Common sense #2: New York publishers can get your book into the hands of thousands and thousands of readers and help your online sales of your other works. Or you can put your book up first, do a POD, and then try to market the book to traditional publishers while it is selling for you and making you a little money along the way. But just because you are an indie publisher, don’t rule out traditional publishers.

Again, in this area, there is no right way. Just do what feels right for your writing and ignore anyone trying to give you a rule.


As I said above, writers tend to have this fantastic need for rules. We all want to make some sort of order out of this huge business. And actually, there is order if you know where to look and how to look. So instead of giving you rules, let me help you find order without myths and rules.

1) Publishing is a business. A large business run by large corporations in traditional publishing or your own home business when you are indie publishing. But it is always a business. If you remember that, learn basic business, understand corporation politics and thinking, most everything that happens will make some sort of sense. Don’t take anything personally. It’s just business and that is the truth.

2) All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.

3) Learning and continuing to learn is critical. This business keeps changing and the only way to stay abreast of the changes is to go out and keep learning and talk with other writers and find advice that makes sense to you and your way. Go to workshops, conferences, conventions and anything else you can find to get bits of learning. Read everything you can find about the business.

My goal on this is learn one thing new every week at least. I’ve been doing that since my early days and it has worked for me, and kept me focused on learning. Find what works for you.

I know those three things don’t seem to give you any secrets, don’t really show you the path to selling. But actually, they do. And if you just keep them in mind and don’t allow yourself to get caught in strange rules and myths, you will move faster toward your goal, whatever that goal in writing may be.

It’s your writing, it’s your art. Stop looking for the secrets and stand up for your work.

Trust your own voice, your own methods of working. Get your work to editors who will buy it. Or indie publish it. Or both. And if your methods are not producing selling work, try something new.

Keep learning. Keep practicing your art.

The only right way in this business is your way.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean