On Writing,  publishing

Heinlein’s Rules: Chapter Eight and Epilogue


Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



On to the fifth rule.

Rule #5: You Must Keep It On the Market Until Sold.

“It” in the rule refers to your story or novel.

In 1947, when Heinlein wrote this rule, for the most part the only markets were pulp magazines. Paperbacks were just gaining strength and hardback publishers were very, very selective.

So all short stories and most novels were sold to pulp magazines, and the few digest magazines that were starting up, and maybe to the slick magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, if you were good and well-known as a writer.

But as with today, there were enough markets in 1947 to make this fifth rule a great business rule.

There are a million stories over the decades of how many times some book or story was rejected before being bought.

I had one story rejected over thirty times before finally selling it to a top market I had never thought of before.

I was following Heinlein’s Rules.


Indie Publishing

The new world of indie publishing causes this rule to change slightly to follow Heinlein’s intent.

If you put a story up for sale indie, the rule basically means leave it there.

I have heard of so many writers who, for some reason unknown to my way of thinking, gave up on a story or novel because it didn’t sell to some preconceived level and pulled the story down.

And never put the story or novel back up.

In the old traditional days, we used to have a saying: “No story sold while sitting in your top drawer.”

So these writers who pull down an indie-published story, give up on a story, usually out of fear, and put the story in a drawer. No reader will ever buy it.

Headshaking in this modern world of unlimited shelf space.

So this rule (in this new world) means get the story available to readers and leave it there.


Giving Up

The new world of indie publishing also causes another major problem with this rule that I see and hear about all the time.


It goes like this for short stories:

Writer: I’ve tried the short story at three markets. I’m going to indie publish it now.

Me: (Thinking) Dumb.

I never say that to any writer with my out-loud voice. But I think it.

For a short story, the advantages of selling to major magazines or top anthologies is far, far greater in both money and exposure and free advertising.

Sure, at some point you don’t want to go below a 5 cent per word market, but wow are there a lot of that level markets out there.


It goes like this for novels:

Writer: I’ve tried the novel at three agents for two years and rewritten it twice for agents. I’m going to indie publish it now.

Me: (Thinking) Dumb that you sent the novel there in the first place. You wasted all the years never putting it on the market.

I never say that to any writer with my out-loud voice. But I think it.

Oh, wow, do I think it.

Agents are not a market.

So the new world of indie publishing is causing, with Rule #5, writers to stay up on the business, to find top short fiction markets, to watch what is happening in the major book publishers, and to learn how to indie publish their own work.

That is all good, if you do it.


Boiling Rule #5 Down

Simple. Keep the story or novel on the market until it sells. For short stories, keep it going to the top short fiction magazines, for novels, get it indie published and then leave it alone for a few years.

And if you have to touch it after a few years, do a better cover, learn how to write better blurbs, and make sure your formatting is working on all devices.

But past that, leave it alone.

Don’t rewrite the story or novel because some reviewer said something. (Really the dumbest thing I have heard in this new world.)

Don’t give up on the short story just because it has a few rejections.

Don’t pull a story down from indie published because it only sold a few copies in a year.

Rule #5: You must keep it on the market.

For writers who have made it this far in the writing process, not following this rule will often swallow their work in self-doubt and wasted time.

Follow the rule. It’s a simple rule.

Don’t waste the time.



Robert A. Heinlein called these five rules “Business Habits.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Even though the first three talk about writing, they are firmly in how a writer manages his or her own business.

As Heinlein said, talking about the five business habits:

“… they are amazingly hard to follow — which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket!”

After following these rules since 1982 and making a living with my fiction writing since 1987, I can attest to how hard these five simple rules are to follow.

I would fall off, my writing would grind to a halt, I would realize I had slipped, and I would get back onto the rules.

Don’t be mad at yourself when you slip off these rules if you really want to follow them. Just keep going at it.


A Few Additions That Need to Be Made


First, you can follow the above rules like a perfect clock and they will do you no good if you don’t continue to learn how to be a better storyteller.

Learning is critical because the business rules are guidelines to practice.

Learn, then practice, then learn, then practice.

Learning how to be a better storyteller is critical to making these rules work for you.

And that learning never stops. Ever.

Second, there is no place in the five business rules that Heinlein talks about speed of typing or production or all the other favorite topics writers have these days.

You can follow these rules just fine if you only have ten minutes a day to write or if you have ten hours.

However, Heinlein’s Rules, if followed, will allow you to have far more fun with your writing, something I hear that many writers have lost lately.

Third, you must keep up with the business side of the industry. Heinlein called these his “Business habits.” You need to also make it a habit to understand the new world of publishing and follow the changes.

The advice I gave above is for 2016, the year this book was published. I have no idea if the indie world will look the same in 2018, or if traditional book publishing will collapse or start giving writers their real value and decent contracts.

But whatever happens, follow the publishing business, stay up with it as best you can.


I hope these five business rules from the great Robert A. Heinlein will help you with your own writing going forward.

I know I owe my entire career to them.

And I still follow them.

Have fun with your writing.



  • Bettye Griffin

    Happy New Year!

    For the last 18 months I have been trying to break into Woman’s World, a well-paying market for short stories. At best I’ve gotten notes on my rejection letter stating that it came close but “didn’t quite make it,” at worst I heard nothing after 10 months and resubmitted. I had an idea a couple off weeks ago to package these stories into a collection and sell it (along with a preview of my next novel) because, simply, I don’t believe in wasting good words. Two days later I had it uploaded (the beauty of indie publishing). I’ll continue to do this.

  • Peggy

    Hi, Dean.

    Question: how do you ensure the formatting is working on all devices? Do you own each device or is there a place you can go to check it out somehow?


    PS HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone. Good luck with your writing goals.

    • dwsmith

      They show you screen shots as you load it of what your book will look like. After that, yes, you check it or have someone check it for you when you get the chance. It’s a problem but if you have a clean epub to upload, most of the time you are fine. You check the epub before loading it.

    • Harvey

      You can also download a free Kindle reader for PC or Mac at Amazon and you can download a free Nook/Apple (.epub) reader at Adobe. If you visit my website at HarveyStanbrough.com and look on the left sidebar under Readers’ Resources you’ll see the links.

    • Harvey

      Sorry. I meant to add, then you can download your .mobi file directly from Amazon soon after you upload it and your .mobi and .epub files directly from Smashwords if you go through them.

  • Anita Cooper

    Dean, what if you’ve written a short story that doesn’t seem to fit any of the paying markets? Keep looking or indie publish with other stories in an anthology?


    • dwsmith

      Anita, I can hear a whole bunch of editors screaming “I’m the editor, let me edit!” (grin)

      If a story is close, send it. Let the editor decide. Worst thing they can do is say no. And in most cases, you’re not even out postage these days.

      But if you just can’t find a market for the story that you feel comfortable with, yup, fire it up indie, both stand-alone and in collections.

  • Dane Tyler

    This has been an amazing set of lessons, Dean. Great to see how these five simple rules, even though they’re clear and simple, still create such a challenge for so many writers. I know I can put stuff up indie published easier and faster than ever now, but I’ve never even considered sending short fiction out for sales since 2009. I guess I just thought it would be easier and better for me to do it myself.

    But with Kris’s discussions on discoverability and now you voicing the same, I can see there’s potential in sending them out before posting them yourself. So I guess Rules 4 and 5 have been sticking points for me. I did put them on a market, but maybe the wrong choice? Hm.

    Heck, I need to focus on Rules 1 and 2 right now. Especially 2, but 2016 is The Year of Writing, so I have to get on that track and grind. I can’t wait. I’m shooting for a streak by starting with a challenge. Hope that will kick-start things for me a bit.

    Meanwhile, I’ve got some learning targeted for this year too. Not sure I’ll have free hours for all of it, but I’m going to really push for it, until and unless it stops being fun.

    That’s the other big lesson this year. Is the writing fun? If not, why? I’m digging for that nugget too.

    Thank you for the ride this past year. I can’t wait to travel the road with you this year as you go forward.

    Happy 2016.

  • Bob Mueller

    Great series, Dean. Thanks for putting it together.

    Your best points come in the epilogue I think, especially the second one about writing speed.

    I’m still aiming for 1/2 impulse this year though. 🙂

  • Martin L. Shoemaker

    “For a short story, the advantages of selling to major magazines or top anthologies is far, far greater in both money and exposure and free advertising.

    Sure, at some point you don’t want to go below a 5 cent per word market, but wow are there a lot of that level markets out there.”

    Well, that depends on length. I tend toward novellas or long novelettes. No doubt you know markets that I don’t, but my searches usually turn up the same four markets for those: Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, and IGMS. Once I’ve gone through those, the search gets a lot harder, and self-publishing looks more attractive.