On Writing,  publishing

Heinlein’s Rules: Chapter Seven


Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



On to the fourth rule.

Rule #4: You Must Put It On the Market.

“It” in the rule refers to your finished and not rewritten story or novel.

On the surface, this rule is very, very basic. And yet it was this rule that I had the most problem with over the years.

This and Rule #5.


Old Traditional Publishing World

What Heinlein meant when he wrote this business rule in 1947 was that you had to send your story to some market that would buy it, publish it, and pay you money.

When I started with these rules in 1982, the meaning was exactly the same. So I started off writing, finishing, and mailing a short story every week to a magazine or anthology that might buy it. I did the writing on an electric typewriter and I didn’t rewrite. (I did fix typos.)

I did 44 stories that first year, 43 the second year, (while working three jobs) and was selling regularly by the end of the start of the second year. In fact, by the end of the second year, I had 16 short story sales.

This was all fine and swell and nifty as long as I was only writing short stories. But then I started writing novels.

I still wrote short stories following Heinlein’s Rules, but I would often just show them to Kris and then never get around to mailing them.

Over the years, knowing I had this problem, I started a number of things that were designed to help me follow this rule.

One solution was called “The Race.”

The Race was simple. You got one point for every short story you had in the mail to a market (remember, this is pre-indie world), three points for every chapter and outline you had out, and eight points for every full novel you had under submission.

I managed just over 70 different short stories in the mail at the same time during the years the race was going on in my writer magazine called The Report.

I was not leading the race.

Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch were always ahead of me in points.

It is amazing, looking back at those old issues of The Report from the late 1980s that the names that were on the top of The Race ended up with long careers and the names with only had a few stories out in the race aren’t around anymore.

Heinlein said, “You must put it on the market.”

But chances are the writers at the bottom of The Race during those years had issues with the first three rules. Kevin, Kris, and I had no issue with those first three. And The Race was a fun way to help us all keep stuff out.

Actually, it helped me.

But to this day, I still find stories that I never mailed.

Wonder why I never sold the stories, huh?

But for the most part, I managed to keep on Rule #4.


The New World of Publishing

Wow, do authors today have more choices for their stories and novels than Heinlein did in 1947.

Or what I did in 1982.

A ton more.

But the meaning of Rule #4 remains solid.

When you finish a story or novel, you must put it on the market.

But what does “market” mean in this modern world?

Well, for short fiction, the traditional rules still work fine. In fact, this is a new golden age for short fiction with as many magazines publishing fiction now as in the 1940s.

So mailing short stories to traditional magazines like I did in the 1980s and 1990s still works great. And I recommend it with short fiction.

As far as mailing novels into the traditional publishing world, I DO NOT recommend it at the moment. Contracts are very bad, advances are so low as to be laughable, and it flat takes too long for anything to get to readers who have grown used to getting it Now!

What to know an interesting bit about Heinlein in his day. Novels were mostly sold to pulp magazines. And ended up in books later, if they were lucky.

When I started writing and mailing novels in the mid-1980s, you sent your work directly to book editors and often sold the editors projects over lunch at conventions.

Those days, both Heinlein’s and my early days, are long gone.

For now, stay away from traditional book publishers and their lackey agents. You will be glad you did.

Sending a book to an agent IS NOT PUTTING IT ON THE MARKET.

Sorry. Agents can’t write you a check for your work.

Agents are not a market.


Indie Publishing

The new world of indie publishing has exploded since 2009. Now a writer, with some learning, can get a book copyedited and to readers within a month or so from finishing it.

Writers now deal directly with readers.

Getting a book or story out for sale to readers is putting it on the market.

In fact, that is the clear, bottom line of the word “market.” Readers are the end product of all storytelling.

Readers are the market.

So Rule #4 now has many, many choices for writers. And that’s a good thing. Stressful at times, sure, but a good thing.

For example, in July of 2015, I decided to write a short story per day. It was great fun and I actually did 32 short stories in 31 days.

I followed Heinlein’s first three rules to the letter.

But what was I going to do for Rule #4 with those 32 short stories?

First off, I put them all together, plus the blog each night about the process of writing the stories, did a cover for each story, a blurb for each story, and put them all in a book called Stories From July that came out just two months after I finished the last story.

So in two months all the short stories were all on the market.

I will be, in 2016, putting some of those stories into my magazine called Smith’s Monthly. (I usually have four or five stories per issue every month.)

A second market for many of the stories I wrote in July.

I will also be putting many of the stories in short story collections over the next few years.

A third market for many of them.

And each story will be for sale in 2016 as a stand-alone story for readers to buy.

A fourth market for all of them.

For a person who has had a lot of trouble over the decades with Rule #4, I’m pretty proud of what I am doing now when it comes to this rule. I think I have finally managed, after over three decades, to wrestle this simple-sounding rule to the ground.



Must Talk About Fear

Now, this is a problem area I have observed when it comes to this rule. And I know it is real.

But I have no deep understanding of the problem. My reason for not mailing a story was just laziness or lack of organization or a bad memory that I had even written the story.

But for some reason, many writers are flat afraid to mail their work to editors or indie publish their work.

I guess writers feel that the editor or reader might hate their work and do some sort of mortal damage to the writer.

I guess.

Damned if I know. Just seems really silly to me.

So let me tell you the reality, folks.

Readers (not jerky critics) don’t read or buy something they don’t like.

Editors don’t read or buy something that doesn’t fit what they are looking for.

Over my decades of editing, I can’t begin to remember the stories I have bought, which means I loved them and worked with the author and paid the author money.

Why would any author think an editor who only glances at a story, knows it won’t work, and passes on it, will remember the author???

Or the story???

Ego. Wow.

I think this fear might come from “my manuscript is my baby” problem some writers have. And of course, ever editor’s desk is empty, just waiting for the writer’s baby to appear in front of the editor so the editor can take their time reading it and remembering every blessed word.


But editors don’t work that way.

And neither do readers. Even if your wonderful cover catches them, your perfect, active blurb draws them in, if the opening of your book or story doesn’t work, the reader will move on and not buy it or read it.

And they won’t remember the writer.

Readers are the ultimate editors.

So this fear of mailing is just damn silly on the face and under the surface.

Get over it.

Get over yourself.

Follow the fourth rule.


Summary of Rule #4

“You must put it (your story or novel) on the market.”

Very simple, yet scary hard for many to do.

My only suggestion is to figure out systems that work for you to get the story from your computer and on the way to a magazine editor or a reader who can buy it.

And if your system breaks down, change it, fix it, get the stories out there.

Get past the fear, get past your ego, and just do it.

Rule #1 stops a vast majority of people who dream of writing.

Rule #2 stops a vast majority of the people who make it past Rule #1.

Rule #3 destroys stories and sends the writers back into Rule #2 problems.

Rule #4 stops careers of a vast majority of the writers who did make it past the first three rules.

And next chapter, Rule #5 wipes out even more.

As Heinlein said, these are simple rules. Deadly if not followed, but simple to understand.






  • Vera Soroka

    I think this is one I need to work on. Getting stuff out there that I have written. I’m a poor publisher so I need to work on that and I may send some out to some magazines. I just have to find the right ones for what I write.
    For the new year it will be all about trying to find a balance to the writing and publishing without stressing about it. Hopefully 2016 will be the year I see a body of work out.
    Happy New Year to everyone!!

  • Linda Maye Adams

    There’s also another aspect of fear in this rule. I know a writer who is very productive. Hates his day job and wants to write full time. He submits everything and keeps it in play. All good there. But he’s scared to death of getting published professionally. His writing is stuck at a level that keeps him from getting noticed by professional editors (no setting, no five senses, characterization issues). He also writes for ANY anthology call, regardless of pay, which includes the token pay ones. He gets published in those, so when anyone suggests he work on skills, he poo-poos because he’s already getting published.

    I’m starting to look at whether I should continue submitting to pro magazines or just send stories straight to indie. One of the problems I’m running into is that I’ve been exhausting the markets for some genre/subgenre combinations. There also hasn’t been that many anthology calls as of late (well, pro-rate ones anyway). Add to that, I have one story that I would have pushed to indie, but I sent it out to a magazine that’s been backlogged over a year. They just closed to new submissions to clear the backlog, so I’m half-expecting it just to get rejected to clear the piles. But I also know it can be good advertising for me to get into a pro-rate magazine, so I’m caught between trying to figure out when to pull a story and SP it and when to hang on.

    • dwsmith

      Always better, in my opinion, to give the pro rate markets a shot inside of each genre. Short stories don’t sell well unless you combine them with other things, such as in collections or how I do it in Smith’s Monthly. They sell a few copies and help with discoverability, sure, but not at the level of a sale to a pro market. And then you get it back anyway.

      Just my suggestion. I don’t do it because I have my own magazine, but I would suggest for others to hit the pros first, then indie FOR SHORT FICTION. Novels, stay away from traditional. Too ugly these days to even think about.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Dean, this is brutal. I’ve been dreading the Rule #4. It’s my worst! I wrote a bunch of books in 2015, but 3 or 4 of them got stuck in the “got to input the corrections” stage (all indie), and with one, the publisher asked me to rewrite, which I was resisting, but after a second opinion from a beta reader, I will (I wrote Ch1 as an afterthought, and it reads different, it was probably in critical voic, but the info can be layered in using 4 simple sentences, but I didn’t see it at the time.)

    Long story short, I had 7 books come out (instead of my goal of 8), but I have 4 just few hours’ work from launch, and 3 others written to the 30% mark. (Yeah, I know. Fear.)

    Next year, I was thinking of shooting for 10 books, but since I already have several lined up, that would be cheating. I think I’ll up the ante to 12. And I”ll dare to be bad, even in new-to-me genres. And I’ll resist the temptation to “go back real quick and just make a few changes” to implement what I learned in Advanced Depth!

    Okay, here goes nothing. 12 books or bust!

  • Victoria Goddard

    This one got me last year. I have three long short stories/novellas that are ready to go except for covers (covers!), one of which has been ready for over a year, plus two short stories that have been sent out once or twice but not any more than that. Plus a novel that has been sitting in the galley-editing stage for months before it goes out.

    My goals for 2016 are to write the whole series of which the stuck novel is #1, publish the completed novellas, send out those that are short enough to actually fit in guidelines, and write the first of another series that has been percolating for a while and which I am increasingly itching to work on. Plus I might try for a few more short stories if I get into them again, although shorts are not my main area at all.