Challenge,  publishing

I Feel Bad For New Writers…

Coming Into Fiction Publishing Right Now Is Confusing…

And I do mean really, really confusing.

As I said a number of weeks back, we are solidly in the middle of the transition between traditional paperback publishing and indie electronic publishing. So writers coming into fiction publishing now have no idea what to think and are faced with a million myths from both sides.

When I came into fiction publishing back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was only one way in. We were flat in the middle of the 50 year run of the paper traditional publishers. Everyone around me knew the way in. It was hard work, sure, but we knew it.

When I cam in, you wrote a lot, maybe sold to short fiction markets, met an editor at a convention who liked your work and got an agent. Then you hoped your books sold a little better each time so you didn’t have to start over with a new name. (Dave Farland, Robin Hobbs, Mike Shephard to name a few.)

That path in is still being taught. But when I came in there were maybe a thousand publishers. Now there are five of note remaining. When I came in contracts were basically licensing contracts and you could get your IP back at a certain point. Now the contracts are all rights for the life of the copyright and you never see your book again.

Indie publishing is just as bad as to knowing what to do as you come in. So much bad advice on how to go with Select, or how you have to spend a lot of money advertising your first novel and every novel. In fact, I think the indie myths are worse than the traditional ones these days. They are certainly more frightening because on top of the myths, the writer has to learn how to create a professional book. Back in my day all we had to know was how to type.

But the young writers, like the ones who won Writers of the Future, are getting buried under both sides of really bad myths, and no way to know what is good advice or bad on either side.

Indie publishing is already the dominant side, but in 10-15 more years it will be everything, and we will also be 10-15 years farther away from the traditional methods, so those myths will fade in time. The transition is and will happen. But that does not help the young writers stuck right here in the middle years of all this.

So my suggestion to any writer wanting to come in now, just do what feels right for you as far as the means of getting your work to readers.

But as that struggle plays out, do the following…

1… Focus on learning how to be a better writer. Focus on the craft.

2… Read a lot of writers who are above you in craft and if you like their book study it.

3… Learn licensing and new 2023 methods of getting your work to readers and then stay up on those new methods as more come along.

4… If someone says you “must” do something, ignore them.

5… Never quit. 49 years ago I sold my first couple of short stories and the reason I am still here and getting my work out to readers is because through it all, I never quit. Wanted to, tried to, but never did.

We are in a transition in the systems to get fiction to readers. The myths on both sides are brutal.

The myth that a traditional publisher can take care of you and do all the work and promotion and they care about you is so laughable it hurts.

But on the other side, the myth that it is easy to publish and distribute your own books is just as laughable. Maybe more confusing as well.

So as it has been a week since I got back from being at Writers of the Future awards event, my take away is that I feel bad for all new writers coming in right now. I have no way of knowing how they will all sort out the myths. My hope is that they all just put their had down and learn how to write and create a lot of great stories, no matter how they decide to get the stories to the readers.

And then just don’t stop.

Oh, one more thing. Keep the writing always fun.


  • Martin Barkawitz

    Great advice, Dean – especially the last sentence! I am writing novels for 26 years now – both the traditional way and indie – and I still have a blast when I sit down and begin to tell my current story.

  • Wynand

    Hi Dean

    Thank you for the great advice. I don’t write and publish in English, however your advice is universal.

    One thing that I am personally worried about is all the info products that sell this dream of making thousands of dollars through indie publishing. I know it is currently more shifted towards Non-Fiction but there are some fiction “courses” as well.

    What worries me is the flooding of books written by AI or cheap ghostwriters. How long before big channels like KDP just decide it is not worth the legal risk to keep their channels open for Indie-publishers?

    In such a scenario it is very possible that they will again revert to a sort of traditional model where only selected “publishers” will be allowed to upload books on their platforms to protect themselves.

    Not sure if my rant makes any sense. But I am concerned that the golden age of indie publishing might also be at risk.
    In any case, thank you again for all your wonderful insight and advice.

    • dwsmith

      The AI stuff will sort itself out, given a little time. The AI writers will be sent to the side or pushed out by readers. I know some writers think their AI generated stories work fine, but they do not. They are beginning writers who think only words matter when in fiction writing, words mean very little, actually.

      So it will be a problem and then sort itself out. The traditional publishers will have it just as bad as the indie, trust me, because they have no way of knowing. Their “gatekeepers” will not be able to recognize AI writing without a program to catch it. So I expect the AI phase in writing to hit both sides equally. And the writers who try to use it massively.

  • Linda Niehoff

    I love this – thank you. And I can’t wait to read all the comments that I know are coming. I’m one of the confused ones and find myself thinking I’m “missing out” because I’m not doing all this promoting – on my one book – and am instead focusing on releasing short stories, submitting stories to major markets, and putting together the next two books.

    I’m so SO thankful I have your teaching in my back pocket. And for Kris’s most recent blog post. I just keep asking myself WWDWSD? – What would Dean do? – whenever I get caught up thinking I need FB ads for my one lone book. LOL!

    So head down. I’m going to keep on practicing covers and sales copy, submitting my stories, eventually putting them up Indie, and taking every single class in my subscription. And yes. Trying to remember this is all (even covers and sales copy!) so FUN. I had a blast putting together my collection. Your classes have been a total game changer for me!

    • dwsmith

      Thank you, Linda. Hang on, over this next week in blog posts maybe I can give you even more clarity. Or at least I hope so as I continue this look at what never writers in publishing are facing in 2023.

      • Anitha Krishnan

        Linda, I’m going to copy your WWDWSD! Maybe I’ll truncate it to WWDD! Such a gem! Such an easy way to remember what to focus on. I’m exactly in the same boat as you. There’s that constant nagging thought that I should be doing ‘something else’ to make my books sell other than writing the next book and submitting the next short story and practising covers and sales copy. So asking WWDD will always show the way ahead! 😀

        Yes, Dean, thank you for this much-needed post! These are very confusing times indeed, and that becomes another excuse for critical voice to scream louder and interfere with the writing. Thank you, thank you for being a voice of patience and clarity!

  • C.E. Petit

    One general note, then a mild disagreement.

    The general note: Any activity that seems to “require” any of the following is an invitation to fraud:
    • Insider introductions
    • Middlecreatures (who do not have licenses) to participate
    • Treatment of compensation as a “trade secret”
    • An unclear path to beginning the activity
    • A lack of replicable (not necessarily numerical!) means of measuring “success”
    Writing and publishing — or anything else in entertainment — epitomizes this, but is far from unique (consider, for the moment, what “investing in The Stock Market” looked like in the 1920s). This is not to say that Dean’s comments are invalid; rather the opposite.

    I do, however, disagree with one aspect of #4. You must keep clear and adequate records. For yourself, for your own progression/learning process in the craft, for your business partners/associates, for your family and heirs… and for Mr Taxman (and that actually goes double if you have an IP holding entity, because it has to keep records or it can be forfeited and Mr Taxman will become even more interested). That said, there are certain minimum standards for how you keep those records — but whatever method you use that meets those standards is good enough, if that method gets you to actually keep those records.

    (And one of those records is a clear plan of succession and estate plan, but that’s not just for writing/publishing…)

    • dwsmith

      I agree completely, C.E. Especially on the records. And I really agree with your points. I love how you called agents middle creatures without licenses. And those are the creatures writers let handled all their money. Yup, always smart business path.

      Thank you for the great comments. I agree with all of them and I will continue this topic in more posts starting today. I decided to try to give new writers coming in a real look at both sides of the decisions they face.

      • C.E. Petit

        Writing is just one example of the kinds of things that get dragged down by one or more of those invitations to fraud. (Writing is certainly the activity that most visitors here will be concerned with… but you’re not alone. Unfortunately.)

        Most of the entertainment industry — competitive sport and all of the arts — has the same problems. It’s worthwhile entertinament and education to watch a film that’s now nearly three decades old and spot the parallels: Hoop Dreams. (If you can, watch the tenth anniversary edition and actually pay attention to the additional material.) So, too, does getting into academia “about” sport or the arts, especially music and film/TV.

  • S. H. Miah

    Hi Dean, long-time lurker here. I had a question unrelated to the topic but thought I’d ask it here since it’s the most recent post.

    I finished off a mystery short story today, writing into the dark and having a blast, but near the ‘big reveal’ moment I paused for a few minutes to figure out a way of tying the clues together into a logical explanation of the crime and why the perpetrator was Mr X.

    This is the first mystery I’ve written (typically I write thrillers or more contemporary fiction), so I was unsure of how the process of writing a mystery usually went when writing without a clue where it’s going.

    Does the figuring out count as part of the creative voice? Or am I using critical voice to find a way to solve the clues? If so, how do I tackle this?

    Love the work you do,
    S. H. Miah

    • dwsmith

      That was critical voice I’m afraid. Doesn’t mean it was wrong, but means you got afraid because of some belief that mystery or crime fiction is harder. It is not, actually.

      So get the story out to a market like Hitchcocks or Queen and write another one. And have fun.

      • S. H. Miah

        I think you’re right about the fear. Mystery elements in other stories usually tie together well without needing to pause and think of a solution. I think I let the novelty of writing a traditional mystery for the first time get to me.

        On with the next one. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Kerry

    I first came across your blog about 10 years ago, and it inspired me to start publishing my own translations of out of copyright works from the late 19th/early 20th century (US copyright is quite complex compared to almost everywhere else for works published in the early 20th century). A decade on I have published over 30 works of fiction and now five of non-fiction. I have not paid for any marketing, seeing this as a long term thing and wanting to focus on my craft and just building up the inventory (I have focused on specific authors who were untranslated and aimed at translating their entire ouvre) – relying on my day job to cover my costs. For the first time this year I have covered my direct publishing costs through a big uptick in sales with some works becoming regular sellers and am starting to think I should get more serious about this and not just look it as a hobby to carry through into retirement. I would like to really thank you Dean for your Myths series which got me started on this – your work was a great intro to publishing in print.