Challenge,  publishing

I Feel Bad For New Writers… Part 4

The Failures on Both Paths…

In fiction writing, the only time you fail is if you stop writing fiction.


There is no other marker. You stop writing, you fail.

It really is that simple.

So in this series, I have been talking about the choices of paths new writers can take to get their books to readers. Traditional path and indie path.

So what forces in those two distribution paths make a writer think they should quit writing and thus fail?


On this path, the dreams can be crushed in a number of points along the way, causing maybe a great writer to stop writing.

Understand clearly… Nothing in traditional publishing is about quality of story. Nothing. It is totally about being in the right place at the right time with the correct product that some untrained gatekeeper will think might work for some unknown specifications of a book line.

In other words, as proved in court under oath in the Simon and Schuster case, no one knows what will sell and quality does not matter. In fact, by the time a book is published, any new writer’s book has been rewritten two or three times into mush, mostly by people who do not know how to write fiction but believe themselves to be experts in what will sell.

The process can be soul-crushing, but keep in mind that is the success. Most writers who go at traditional publishing never get that far. Most spend years and years and years rewriting the same book or the same story to constantly have it rejected and never see a reader.

Not one reader.

That spot is where most writers give up on their dream and put the books on thumb drives, stored in a box with old pictures, and move on.

The second spot souls are crushed is when you have won the first battle and have a two-book contract, and your book does not explode and reach some imagined goal as the gatekeepers hoped and you can’t sell another book and your agent stops returning your calls, or worse doesn’t like your new book and can’t sell it and drops you.

At this point the writer just quits. The reality of real (vs the myth of) traditional publishing has hit home. The writer has a book or two published, has set in a book signing when no one shows up, and the book is on their shelf, and that is where they leave it, all because of some marketing thing.

It will be a great story to tell the grandkids in thirty years, about how they were once a published novelist.

Again, nothing at all to do with the quality of the writing.

From these two spots, almost no writers recover. I have seen a few who have after years gotten help from friends to shift over to indie. But almost none survive. The dream was to be a “published writer” by some major house and that failed. That dream does not shift out of that myth into indie easily.

Sadly. (And I say sadly from far, far too much experience watching great writers vanish.)


The indie writers who fail by quitting on this side are often the ones who bought into a ton of myths and are writing for the wrong reasons.

Often they are the writers who spout the stupidity “I hate writing but love to have written.” You hear someone say that, just ease away slowly. (On second thought… RUN!!)

The writers who quit are the writers always in a hurry and looking for shortcuts. (There are none.)

These are the writers who buy into every marketing ploy for their first novel and spend thousands and thousands and then boast to other writers how much they “made” on their novel (never once saying how much they spent to make that many sales).

There are lots and lots and lots of these types of writers and they go away quickly.

And then a new batch washes up on the shores.

Back in my day in traditional publishing, we called them “Want-to-be-writers.” They want to be writers, they love the idea, but are unwilling to learn craft, business, or put in the time.

Indie publishing kicks these people to the curb quickly. In traditional publishing, you just never saw them except in coffee shops and local writer’s workshops.

The path in indie is pretty simple after 15 years into this transition. It actually has become a clear path if you can avoid all the stupidity of the myths and those who want to take shortcuts.

The Path into Indie Publishing in 2023

1… Write and finish what you love to write. (Never write to market, only what you love.)

2… Learn the steps of doing your own covers, layout, proofing. (Small learning curve, but seems huge until you do it. Then you will wonder what you were afraid of.) No stupidity like beta readers.

3… Get the book out wide to 80+% of the English reading world through Draft2Digital, Kobo, and Amazon.

4… Write the next book.

5… Keep reading top writers and learning craft and storytelling.

6… Never read reviews or watch sales numbers. Ever.

7… Learn basics of finding readers like Patreon, web sites, newsletters, social media, and kickstarters. Watch for new stuff coming up to help you as well. Don’t be an early adaptor, wait and let whatever the new thing is prove itself.

8… Write the next book and keep learning, especially licensing and business and copyright.

9… Keep writing until you find yourself making more money than you expected every year.

10… Write the next book and just keep on writing what you love and having fun.

Yup, it is that simple…

So how to avoid failure in indie publishing? Never quit writing. Never get in a hurry. Never compare yourself or your sales to any other writer. But most importantly, never stop writing.

Sadly, the indie side is easy to make up excuses to quit for writers who want to quit, who don’t want to do the work. On the traditional side, gatekeepers tell you to quit. Indie, the writers give up on themselves.

So that’s it for a fun chapter in this discussion about the two paths that new writers are picking as they come into the field.

Next chapter… What is success, what does it look like in publishing on both sides in ten years or twenty years for a new writer coming in now?

Stay tuned, the numbers might surprise you.


  • Philip

    I love this series. One thing I’d like to point out is how the Traditional and Indie myths work together sometimes to kill your writing. I think a lot of new indie writers buy into the Indie Marketing Myths BECAUSE they believe “My book was never vetted by a traditional gatekeeper, so deep down I know it’s not good enough and therefore MUST spend thousands to advertise it and trick people to buy it!”

    So the sad writer in that example was smart enough to go indie but still clings to Traditional = Better Quality myth.

    • dwsmith

      Really good point, Philip. Since I worked in and published over a hundred novels in traditional publishing, I know the reality that there is no quality control in traditional. All the real quality control comes in indie, actually. So I forget that stupid myth at times because from the outside new writers can’t see the lack of quality in traditional.

      And they can’t see the logic either, that if they were in charge of their own book they would care more and do a better job than some international mega corporation where that writer’s book is only a number on a spread sheet and no one really cares.

  • Brady

    Great stuff, Dean. Thank you.

    Long(ish) time reader, frist time commenter. This one is getting bookmarked personally, because especially when you’re new to this game, it’s easy to get bogged down with myth stuff even when you’ve seen the matrix already, so to speak. I started taking this seriously in about August of last year and I have one novel out on Amazon and two more that should be up in the next month or so. Organizing the chaos of life to ramp up the productivity even more, but your articles and craft books have been instrumental in keeping me on the straight and narrow.

    #6 is definitely a temptation I fail at frequently right now. Not in terms of sales (no expectations this early) but reviews. Virtually universally positive so far, some of them downright effusive. Parodoxically, but as you warned in one of your lectures, it set up a lot of pressure for me, so I’m working to disregard them and not worry about being “good”, if you know what I mean. Obviously I’m reading constantly and learning craft and applying to the next book, but I have to force myself not to judge the work in progress. I frequently rewatch both yours and Kris’s videos from the 20to50K a couple years ago about attitudes for the long haul and the “destructive pursuit of perfection”.

    Anyhow, lots of heartfelt gratitude to you and your wife for helping us green, but willing-to-learn, writers escape the morass of myth.

    (P.S. reading Magic Bakery absolutely blew my mind, even though ya kick yourself (myself) in retrospect for not thinking of this as a darn BUSINESS. Saved me lots of time and money in pondering promoting my single book catalogue)

    (P.P.S and thanks for the reminder in this article to just write what calls you and not worry about trendy BS. My released book is light-horror/thriller/romance or something, and the works in progress are high fantasy and crime/suspense. Of course, we shouldn’t need permission to hop around and do what we love, but it reassuring to have a successful veteran championing the practice. I’ll stop using up my daily word count in your comments section now!)

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Brady, for the kind words. And sounds like you have a great attitude. I often think that moving through the writing and publishing world is like stepping through a minefield of myths and traps and ratholes of stupidity. Traditional publishing hates logic. Logic blows it up. And indie publishing loves logic when applied like a business.

      You ever hear any indie publisher talk about 5 or 10% growth year over year? Nope. So far very few indie writers think that way. But they should. Since I am the CFO of WMG Publishing, me and my accountant talk about that every year. We have been growing 9-14% year over year for the last nine years. In a normal business world, that is stunning. Inside the business, it feels like we have been all over the map with large things and cash flow and so on and so on. But in the end, every year, the growth is there and I know we are on a great track. (I would be happy with 5-7% to be honest.)

      • Brady

        I appreciate that. I continue to work on my attitude. I understand how vital it is for sustainability to have my head screwed on straight. My training and professional experience prior to this was music, so I grok long term commitment and marginal gains and PRACTICE. Haha. Big reason why what you teach resonates. I have my down days of course, but mostly because I’m anxious to get out of the day job grind, but it’ll happen eventually. Like you say, don’t stop. Plus I’m so die hard about Heinlein’s Rules and some of your teaching that I get called a cult acolyte. So be it. Works for me. I didn’t write jack before your stuff and the goading of a few pulp-minded friends.

        Great perspective on the business angle, thanks. Something to keep in mind for myself later on. And yeah that’s insane growth from the biz angle for you guys, inspiring. For me it will be a game of compartmentalizing like Kris mentions on one of her Youtube videos, one mind for biz, one for creative work, so to speak. Anyway, I’m still stocking up my bakery, so I don’t think about too much biz right now. But I’ll learn it all when it’s time.

        (another P.S., a bit more personal – The Stages of a Fiction Writer was another big revelation for me. You say something like (more cordially),” if you think Cussler and Roberts are bad writers you don’t understand why people read books and you’re kind of an A-hole”. I took that to heart big time. Snapped me out of some lingering snobbery and I read a stack of my late father-in-law’s Dirk Pitt books (which were a blast) and I tried out Nora, hesitantly. Her “Born In” Trilogy has ended up as three of my favorite novels of all time. I get crap for being a man enjoying romance novels, but screw it. Nora can write her butt off. I’ve read probably 10 of hers since reading your guide and will probably read just about everything she’s ever written. So more thanks to you. (I could go on thanking you a lot haha))

        • dwsmith

          Not sure if I would try for everything Nora has ever written. That would be like trying to read everything I have ever written. I honestly don’t think it would be possible.

          But fun reading, huh?

          • Brady


            Well, I’m a bit crazy with my reading intake at the moment. 3-6 novels a week. I’m gunning to read the bulk of the work of writers that sold over 100M units, so Cussler, Roberts, King, Koontz, Christie, Follett, Archer, L’Amour, Spillane, MacLean etc. Plus classic sci fi/fantasy, crime (John D MacDonald has got to be my favorite writer by a good margin), and old pulp stuff, Doc Savage, H Bedford Jones, Hubbard, Talbut Mundy, Max Brand (holy cow! the quality at that pace), and so on. Having a ball doing it anyway so we’ll see what happens, but shoot for the moon and what not. I’m super driven to understand what makes popular fiction tick and I think the rather “strenuous” (but really it’s just entertaining) reading program has improved my writing tremendously.

            Joining the ranks of you multi-hundred ultra prolific writers is certainly a lifetime goal of mine. Just keep working the 5 Rules and I’ll be up there with you guys eventually. Is there a secret social club I’ll get a key to? 🙂

    • Em

      Your books sound interesting and I’ve found authors whose books I enjoy here. When you have an author website please add a link to your name.

      • Brady

        Thank you! I’m not sure if it’s kosher to post a book link here, but my name is Brady Putzke and my first novel is called “Dream House”. You should be able to search it on Amazon.

        I’m going wide with that and a couple more books within a few months and I’ll have an author site up in the same timeframe.

        • dwsmith

          What she meant was that in the posting information you can put up a web site under your email address. If people like your comments, they can find you that way. I don’t allow links here for promotion.

          • Brady

            Oh I see. Sorry if I overstepped a boundary mentioning the book name. I wasn’t sure if that was tantamount to a link. Please go ahead and delete my comment if I messed up here. Did not mean to abuse the system at all.

  • Frank Theodat

    I’m printing the The Path into Indie Publishing and posting it in front of my desk as a daily reminder. I’m finally building momentum in my writing and will be publishing later this year. This blog helped build the foundation for me and changed my attitude towards writing fiction.

    Thanks Dean!

  • Pur

    I think my favourite example of longevity these days is Dracula Daily. A guy named Matt Kirkland read Dracula during the lockdowns and thought, ‘it would be cool to send this out in date order as a newsletter’.

    So he did for the first time in 2021. In 2022 he did it again and a specific, large part of the internet noticed and got on board. For six to eight months that year, thousands of people as an online community — purely uncoordinated — read about our friend Jonathan for the first time. There were memes. There was fanart.

    At the end of it, Kirkland published Dracula as a novel in date order, including (with permission) commentary and art from the community. And he’s doing the newsletter again this year. I think he’s also looking at other public domain epistolaries he can give the same treatment.

    Something like that could never happen in trad pub. It’s such elegant proof there’s no way of knowing what will become popular again, or how, or why; that books don’t die unless they’re killed. And in indie, that means they just don’t die … unless their author kills them.

    • Em

      Tumblr is full off Dracula Daily posts, fan art and memes. It a point of pride for many people on the site that they’re reading a very old novel.

      I missed the 2022 one, but I’m reading it now.

      • Pur

        This is where I admit Tumblr is my social media of choice, haha. Being part of that unexpected zeitgeist was very fun; I hadn’t read original Dracula before then either, nor ever would have if it hadn’t been so easy.

        I’m skipping the Substack this year but I’m looking forward to the Tumblr content coming around my dashboard again. I find it inspiring; there’s really no predicting what a new readership will look like, if something is packaged just the right way and kept out there.