Challenge,  publishing

I Feel Bad For New Writers… Part 11


I say this little introduction to each new parts… New fiction writers coming in now are really torn between all the myths and hype of traditional publishing and all the myths and hype of indie publishing.

But as I said back in the first post of this series, the paperback era of big publishing is pretty much done, and the distribution of fiction is changing over to the electronic era of indie publishing, with indie writers in charge.

These kinds of major shifts in fiction distribution to the readers has happened four major times through the history of this country, with each new era lasting about 50 years and the transitions lasting about 25 years. Again, see my first post.

New writers coming in today don’t know this history, don’t realize they are coming in smack in the middle of a transition. And to make matters worse, the myths passed on by writers on both sides make it often impossible to know what is truth and what is myth.


Traditionally focused new writers have a huge belief system, and expectation that no one can talk them out of until they get into what is left of the traditional system and it chews them up and destroys their dreams and often their souls.

This belief, this expectation, the myth, is that once they sell to a traditional publisher, they will be taken care of. (It happens, but not in a good way.)

Here are just some of the expectations of a new traditional writer…

  • They have a good agent.
  • They have a good editor.
  • They will sell more books and get paid more.
  • They will hit bestseller lists.
  • Their books will be in bookstores.
  • In just a few years they will make enough to live on.
  • Their book will be made into a movie.
  • Their calls are important to both their editor and their agent.
  • They will have a book tour.

So let me add in the truth to each of those expectations…

  • They have a good agent. (Nope… Any agent you can get as a new writer is not an agent you want as an experienced writer. Plus the agency model, with lower writer advances, no longer works and the agent has to support the high overhead by other ways, often theft.)
  • They have a good editor. (Nope… Their editor will be right out of a college English class and wouldn’t know what makes good commercial fiction if it bit her. She will pretend to know it all and destroy your voice and your book in the process.)
  • They will sell more books and get paid more. (Nope… As a CEO of one of the major firms said under oath (and no one disagreed in the press or in other companies) over half of the 98 thousand books published by the big companies in 2021 sold less than 12 copies.
  • They will hit bestseller lists. (Nope… You would be better off buying lottery tickets, especially since the New York Times list has proven rigged and theUSA Today list is gone.
  • Their books will be in bookstores.  (Maybe, maybe not. Publishers don’t have sales forces anymore to sell your books to bookstore owners and buyers. A large percentage of all traditionally published books never make it to the bookstores.)
  • In just a few years they will make enough to live on…. (Don’t have expenses, be supported by a spouse, get a job teaching English, and then buy lottery tickets. Not happening.)
  • Their book will be made into a movie. (The odds are better buying lottery tickets. Traditional publishers also never try to market your work to any licenses. They have no staff for it. And neither does your crook of an agent.)
  • Their calls are important to both their editor and their agent. (Only when the contract and publication is in process. You know the term “ghosted?” Both your editor and your agent will do that to you for years in a row.
  • They will have a book tour. (In my day editors and publishers in traditional publishing called writer tours “mercy tours” to pat the writer’s ego and keep them busy. Now they don’t even bother with that.


Expectations of writers (who make stuff up not only in fiction but in business) have not vanished just because they took control of their own writing and publishing. Problem is the expectations are played up in the indie world by people spreading the rumors and writers who need to brag and made worse by the insecurity of the writers themselves.

So here are some of the expectations and myths of new indie writers.

  • They can start making good money after only one or two novels.
  • Indie publishing is easy and anyone can do it and make money.
  • In just a few years they will be making a living.
  • They can’t learn how to do their own covers or publishing.
  • They need story editors or whatever they are called and that costs a lot.
  • They are writing and publishing and don’t have to learn anymore and keep up with new things.
  • They will never get any kind of licensing deal or translation deal because that takes an agent.
  • They must always make a big deal out of launching a new book.
  • They no longer need to write short stories or send them to magazines.

Okay, let me take on each one and talk about the reality.

  • They can start making good money after only one or two novels... (Nope… You might make coffee money, but odds are only your family and a few friends will buy the first book. Doesn’t mean it is bad, just no reach unless you have a major following on social media. Since launches do not matter in indie publishing, those books will keep selling as time goes on.)
  • Indie publishing is easy and anyone can do it and make money. (Nope… It is a ton easier than making it through the years of rewriting one book and trying to get an agent, but doing Indie Publishing you need to be a writer, a promoter, an innovator, and a business person. Most people can’t do that combination.)
  • In just a few years they will be making a living. (Maybe, if you can write a novel a month and can do great covers and build a presences on social media and learn Kickstarters and your income needs are low, very low. But for most, making really good money takes upwards of ten years.)
  • They can’t learn how to do their own covers or publishing. (The whining is epic and this stops a large percentage of writers because of fear. It is stupidly easy to do book covers. Slight learning curve, some imitation of top writers, and you got it. But wow do I hear this stupid myth all the time, so the writer goes and pays for covers and the writing slows down because of the cost of covers.)
  • They need story editors or whatever they are called and that costs a lot. (Nope, a myth left over from traditional publishing that is actually deadly to a writer’s voice and original story. All you need is someone to find typos. But this myth kills another large percentage of indie writers and there are a ton of scammers out there willing to bilk thousands from young writers and help kill their dreams in the belief they are helping them.)
  • They are writing and publishing and don’t have to learn anymore and keep up with new things. (This belief sends hundreds of thousands of writers down the road in a short few years after they start. They compare their sales to other writers, don’t want to learn anything new, and pretty soon everything has gone by them and they quit.)
  • They will never get any kind of licensing deal or translation deal because that takes an agent.  (Nope. In fact, an agent will get in your way. But the licensing part is a part of business that needs to be learned.)
  • They must always make a big deal out of launching a new book. (This book launch garbage is left over from traditional publishing when a book had to sell quickly or spoil and be pulled from the shelves. Most indie books do not launch quickly, but slowly grow in sales over years. But new writers believe the old myth, do a huge book launch, sell five copies, and quit writing. A really sad myth that needs to be killed.
  • They no longer need to write short stories or send them to magazines. (Best promotion you can do for your publishing company and your novels is to write short stories. And if you can sell them to top magazines, they pay you and thus let focused readers read your work and them come buy your books. Plus you can use short fiction in about a thousand different ways. Suck it up, buttercup, and write short fiction at times.)

That is just a few of the many, many expectations that both traditionally published new writers have and indie published new writers have. Sadly, these expectations kill writing careers.


  • Vincent Zandri

    OMG, what a great blog to wake up to on my 59th birthday of all occasions. Thanks for the gift Dean.

    Too true. Not a single one of the past five or six tradtional books I published over the past couple of years made it to bookstores, that I know of anyway. And that’s after making the NYTimes and USA Bestseller Lists, hitting the top over all number 1 spot on the Zon several times, winning the thriller and shamus awards for best paperback plus being a finalist for a Derringer Award, and even having one of my mystery novels included on several college reading lists. Doesn’t …freaking…matter newbies. Sorry to break the news (reality) to you.

    A couple books here and there perhaps made it to bookstores in the post pandemc world, but that’s about it.

    I have two more contracts to fulfull, and then I am completely focused on my own indie business, Bear Media. I am now more or less forused entirely on indie, but once those contracts are complete, I will be free and clear to do what I want, when I want, worry free.

    In fact, I have a galley to go over for a book that should have been published two f’ing years ago, I kid you not. It’s just sitting there because it’s my very last priority at this point. Was a time when I would have dropped poor ole mom on her head to get at that galley proof because after all, the trad publisher was anxiously waiting on me. That is, until it sold “humbly,”…say 15K copies…and then the ghosting began, and so did the sleepless nights.

    “Will my agent read and like my new novel?”
    “Will he find a good publisher for it?”
    “Will the advance cover the mounting bills?”
    “How will I pay the bills this month?”
    “Why are the wife and kids packing their bags?”
    “Why are the inlaws screaming at me to get a real job?”

    And it goes on and on and on….Or should I say, or so it went on and on. But no longer. Now I publish a short and a full novel per month. No fanfare. Just publish the book, buy one copy for myself and put news of the new release out there on social media and move on to the next project. Since I started doing this, sales have been steady and even picked up by 25% more recently. It’s a long, fun game that I will play until the day I face plant my laptop dash and call it a life.


    • dwsmith

      Vin, wow great post. You are in the process of transition yourself and that is fantastic for everyone to hear. I transitioned to indie 15 years ago, so I may be a little jaded after all. (grin) So great to hear your reality. Thank you!!

      And wow did that quote section bring back horrid memories. Shudder… trying to get money out of publishers and agents… shudder… A part I did not mention in my post.

      Everyone, read this comment and then go by Vincent’s books because trust me, I have read some and they are great.

    • Jojoba

      It’s also my 36th birthday on July 2nd! I also appreciate this post! I don’t make my own covers because years ago I found an artist I adored and said to myself “when I have books out, I want their art on my covers” and I now do. And book launches for me helps my brain say “ok, that one is officially out, time to work on the next book”. Plus, I have a background in promotion so it’s just a forced habit of mine. I think it works for me so I can clean out mental shelf space but I do sometimes have to say to myself “my books don’t spoil and I’m not taking them down, people can get them at any time.”

    • Dale T. Phillips

      This is the harsh reality that most do not want to hear. Have heard more and more similar horror stories, like two popular writers I met, one a major award winner, that were recently dropped by their publisher when numbers in the thousands were not enough. As I said years ago, “trad doesn’t want you with those numbers, but when I sell 8000 copies, I can get a nice used car…”
      Am still plodding away, writing and publishing what I want, doing more interviews and shows, and growing the business all the time. And having fun doing it all.

  • Mihnea Stefan Manduteanu

    In just a few years they will be making a living.

    What about romance? Romance novellas, insta love? I see so many authors making a killing with those, with only a few short stories and it’s maddening really. What happens there? Isn’t this a short of shortcut or sure way to make a living quickly from indie writing?
    It’s overwhelming how many people ear thounsands per month from romance novellas…just my opinion.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, Mihnea, you really got to get away from those kind of website and just write what you want to write. If you are focused on making a living with writing, there are about a billion better jobs to make a living with. However, if you write because you love to write, then the living part comes along as you do more things. Stop comparing yourself with others. Write what you love.

      • Mihnea Stefan Manduteanu

        Unfortunately I also bought into that 20 books to 50 k myth, which is, afterall, still a myth and a genius marketing gimmick. I have 20 books. It’s coffee money. And I like my stories. I wrote what I wanted.

        • dwsmith

          Well, that myth is based on some facts and studies I’m afraid. There is a discoverability point around that number that will slowly start to increase sales if you have all the books (short stories alone do not count) under the same name. And in the right genre and with a good blurb and cover. It is actually a formula that almost all advertisers use in one fashion or another for all products. And it does work in books.

          So if you are over 20 major books and still making only coffee money and the sales are not starting to slowly grow, look for other things wrong.

  • Philip

    I really despise the indie myth that anything less than making a full living off writing is a failure.

    I really don’t have enough space to decry why that’s so wrong. Every writer is at a different stage and has different end goals, or else maybe he does want to EVENTUALLY make a living but doesn’t want to destroy his creative voice in the process, so he’s taking a slower road and his goals are to hit smaller milestones along a longer journey.

    • Kate Pavelle

      And since “not making a living” equates “being bad person,” if the writer falls into that mindset, it’s awfully hard to feel motivated to write. Le sigh. I’ve kind of been there, and I’m finally realizing that I can write what I like, not make a full living income, and be a good person regardless.

      Regarding expectations, I’m struggling with “losing readers.” The old model had been to have a separate pen name for every genre. The new model is have one pen name, and just roll with it on the theory that the readers will find what they like and learn to read the blurbs and pay attention to the covers. (I know Kris has separate reading lists, and I’m working on that.)
      What got me is that my “pre-Covid stale” reading list lost 20% of people, so I unsubscribed them. Then I announced that I’ll be writing only under one name and got more active on the list. Whoops, there goes another 20%. Some people looked at my offerings and decided that they don’t want other genres. (The original audience has been gay romantic suspence, and throwing a magical realism weird story at them might have been a stretch.)

      So I just need to stick it out and have the process of weeding out take its place. I’m sure other readers will eventually show up. But it sucks right now, and I’m going to outright own that. Should we call it the “ugly duckling” stage?

  • T Thorn Coyle

    Terrific post, Dean.

    I only had three books in trad pub (non-fiction) and that was enough. I’m grateful for those books and some of the good folks in the pub houses, but never want to go that route again, except in licensing foreign rights of my own books to small publishers outside the US.

    I don’t think I would have ever returned to fiction writing (abandoned years before) if indie publishing hadn’t become viable. But it did, which meant I was able to jump in feet first, and study study study, write write write.

    It’s been 8 years and I now make a modest living. Mostly because 7 years ago I was able to slash my expenses. That helped a lot. It also helped that I’ve worked for myself for a couple of decades, so was somewhat used to that juggling act.

    Still learning a ton about writing and business, and really enjoying it. I also make all of my own covers now. I didn’t at first because until my autoimmune disorder got under control, I simply didn’t have the energy to write, publish, and learn to do covers. But during that time I practiced on short story and collections covers (I thank Allyson for that early covers class that helped me nail design basics!). A year or so ago, I re-designed the covers for that first series because, though gorgeous, they weren’t branded properly. I’ll eventually re-do the second series, too.

    Just mentioning that because I know others who may have similar time/energy drains and need to prioritize. Sometimes it’s okay to make a business decision that helps temporarily keep production going. But if that decision starts to slow someone down, as in your example of “can’t afford covers so I won’t put out a book”? That’s a bad business decision.

    And don’t get me started on developmental editors. They cost a ton of money to tell you how to fix your book. Nope.

    Thanks again for telling the truth as you’ve experienced it.

  • Emilia Pulliainen

    Currently hiking the West Highland Way and practising WIBBOW during the quiet moments by writing on my phone. I have 3000 words so far, despite walking 20+kilometers every day.

    I think the fresh air and exercise is helping me relax and write more.

    • Deb Miller

      Emilia, the West Highland Way is on my (and my husband’s) bucket list!!! Would love to connect somehow and get your feedback on how it went. We’ve done the Laugavegar trail in Iceland, Tour de Mont Blanc, Juliana Trail in Slovenia and hiking on the Argentina side of Patagonia. We’ve got a trip planned for September to hike the Pyrennees and one for February to hike the Chile side of Patagonia (and see a lot of Chile). I’m trying to learn to dictate while I hike so that I don’t quit writing during those trips. So far–not so good. But hopefully I can figure it out. Your experience is inspiring and encourages me to keep trying.

      And, thanks, Dean, not only for the great post but for this random connection with Emilia!

      • dwsmith

        Kevin J. Anderson dictates all of his novels while hiking in the mountains. He has a book on how to do that.

      • Emilia Pulliainen

        Hi Deb! Great to make a connection, I’ve sent you a message through your site.

        I have Kevin J. Anderson’s book on dictating and I’ve wanted to try dictating as well. This hike is making me want to try it more.