Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Can Help with Careers

Kris and I in workshop after workshop, in conference after conference, give the same advice over and over. WRITE WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT, THEN TRY TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SELL IT.

The myth: Agents can give good career advice to writers.

This chapter on agents to me is the most important of all the agent chapters. Agents thinking they can give career advice to writers is so wrong in so many ways, it’s going to hard to figure out where to start first. And it disgusts me in so many ways, I’m going to have a certain level of problem keeping balanced on this. Fair warning. I think this myth is flat dangerous to any artist working.

So let me start first with the “art” aspects of writing and work to the business.


Every long-term writer I know does their best with every project. We all put our hearts and souls into every story, into every novel, into every project. There are no exceptions. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we miss, sometimes we love what we wrote and can’t sell it, sometimes we love what we wrote, critics hate it. Sometimes we hate what we wrote, critics love it.

But, without fail, we always do our best at the time we were writing the project. That’s Given #1.

Given #2 is that every writer should write what makes them angry, what makes them passionate, or what they love. From the passion comes true art. (I have started two comic book stores and own over 100,000 comic books. When I got to write X-Men and Spider-Man, I was writing what I loved deeply and felt frightened and challenged to even have the chance.)

Given #3. No writer ever should think for one moment about a project selling either before or during the writing phase. Ever. You try writing to market, to fad, to trend, and you might as well find another job.

So, putting all three together, you come up with a very clear statement that I repeat over and over and over.

Write what you love, what you are passionate about, (or as King says, what scares you), then figure out how to sell it when you finish.

Let me repeat: SELL IT WHEN YOU FINISH!!!

So along comes the agent myth about helping a writer plan a career.

Now understand, I have said over and over and over again that I have no problem with a writer hiring an agent. But for heaven’s sake, do it with solid business practice in mind and a clear head. Clear out the myths. You might just very well end up with a an agent you can work with for a very long time.

So back to this myth about agents. Writer believes that some agent can help them plan their career and what to write next. They take advice blindly from an agent who doesn’t really know them or their work or what they love and hate, some agent who they have not even bothered to check out (see previous chapters and comments), a stranger who is more concerned with their own business than what is best for an artist.

Here is the problem. Some young writer gets excited, does all the work, learns the craft, and writes a book he is passionate about. And then starts following the myths.

Myth: Rewriting is good, so agent tells young writer how to “fix” the book, so young writer dumbs his passion in his work down to what some stranger (agent) thinks might sell. (Yes, rewriting is career advice because the agent always says something along the lines of “I think this will sell better if you do this and this.”)

Myth: Agent takes the book out to a bunch of editor friends and actually gets a small advance. Author is happy about the sale and ignores the fact that it’s not his book much anymore. It sold, that’s all that is important. Any thought of art is long gone at this point. His name is on the cover and he has made it. That’s where all the thinking is for the writer.

Myth: Agent now thinks they know what the young author needs to do, so tells them what to write next. Young writer hates it, thinks he has already written that book the first time, doesn’t want to write the same thing again, but does as agent says. Doesn’t like the final product because it has no passion, agent doesn’t like it, and off into rewrite myth they go.

What I have seen hundreds of times is that young writers stop their careers right there. Second book was no fun, third book was pure torture, why bother, sales were not that good anyway, and writer stops writing. I would to.

This myth kills artists.

This myth combined with all the aspects of the other agent and sales myths, force young artist after young artist to compromise, think about selling before they write a word, move away from passion into safe sales, and thus into losing the very reason and passion the writer was writing in the first place. And when you lose the reason to write, the love of writing, the passion to write, you soon just stop writing.

It takes a very, very powerful self-belief to stand up to these myths and just write what you want, at the speed you want, and mail to who you want after you are finished. Yet to be a true artist, a true long-term professional writer, you have to learn to stand up for your writing and your art.

Is all this easy to learn? No. Darned hard, actually.

But to be a true artist, write what you want. Never write to market.


Now, this is a fun area because when you look at it, this myth becomes just flat silly on the surface.

You live in Outback small town. You were raised by some combination of humans, have friends that makes up some combination of humans, believe in some combination of religious beliefs, have some combination of writing talents, and have a very certain combination of fears, passions, and likes and dislikes.

In other words, you are an individual, a one-of-a-kind writer. That’s what makes your voice unique and your writing different from everyone else.

The agent is also a unique person, with certain likes and dislikes and beliefs in what sells and what doesn’t and who will buy what and why and how every writer should follow the recent trend and have a vampire do something on page three.

So you, young writer, believe in this myth of career planning, trust some stranger to tell you what to write. The stranger has a different upbringing, a different set of values, and no idea at all who you really are as a person. They don’t know your voice or what makes you unique. In fact, to them, you need to be more like everyone else.

Yet you let the stranger tell you what to write. And then you wonder why you are not passionate about your writing anymore. Duh.

From the fact that each of us is different, each of us is unique, it should become clear that no writer should ever listen to anyone else, family, spouse, kids, workshop, or agent to tell them what to write next.

Just write your own book. That way lies success. Anything else is just a disaster or failure waiting to happen.


Agents flat don’t know a writer’s business. That is a truth. Some may think they do, but they don’t understand writer cash flow, don’t understand how writers make money, let alone how much time and effort it takes us to produce a product. They don’t know and shouldn’t be expected to know. (If you think all your writing money comes through your agent, wow do you have a lot to learn about the business of being a writer.)

But to an agent only concerned with their own business (which writers do not understand either), they want to sell books. And if there is a current trend, agents want their clients to write into that current trend, even though a trend is usually two years old by the time an agent catches a whiff of it.

I had an agent call me four years after the vampire craze started and ask if I had a vampire novel. Wow, that was a human ahead of the curve. Not. Another agent called me after the Titanic movie became a hit and said, “Didn’t you publish a book about the Titanic once?” I said I had a novel that partially set on the Titanic, but that was it, and it didn’t fit. Agent didn’t believe me and wanted to see it, so I sent it and then agent wrote me a snippy note asking why I thought that book would ever fit being reprinted. I just laughed and said nothing.

So, because the agent thinks it would be good business for you to sell another book just like your last one, or worse yet, just like the one they just sold for another client, they tell you to write that. And if that one sells, they tell you write it again. And again. And again, until finally it doesn’t sell anymore and they drop you.

Now understand, I am not talking about series characters, or writers who love to write just mysteries or just science fiction. Back to the top. Write what you love first and foremost, then worry about how to sell it. If you love mysteries, write them. If you love science fiction, write that. If you have a series character you love to spend time with, keep writing books with that character.

But if the only reason you are writing the next mystery is because your agent wanted you to write it when your passion has moved to romantic suspense, then you are in trouble.

To an agent’s business, it makes great sense to tell writers to write the same book over and over again.

To a writer’s business, it makes no sense to write anything they are not passionate about. To do anything else dooms the business.

Speed Advice from all three perspectives: Art, Personal, and Business.

Well, every agent I know will utter the phrase: “Slow down and take your time and do your best work.”

That is career advice shows ZERO understanding of how writing is done from the creative side of the brain, how each writer writes at their own natural speed, how slowing down and writing from a critical perspective usually creates complete crap. The statement shows no understanding at all of how art is created by great writers.

And, of course, it shows no understanding at all of you as a person. Or even your writing methods. You are unique and maybe the best advice to you would be speeding up, or cutting down on rewriting, or doing some rewriting. The agent doesn’t know. They just spout a myth at you like it’s good career advice, even though every writer is completely different.

To an agent’s business model of only needing one or so books a year from an author, it makes complete sense to say such stupidity.

But to a writer’s business model, where more product means more money, more chance of hitting it big, more chance of creating art, unnaturally slowing down is just stupid business advice.

Some projects write fast, some write slow, some art has been created quickly, some art took longer. Study the history of writers and how long it actually took artists in the past to write something to completely understand this.

But the key is, you are unique, write at your own speed what you want to write.


This is yet again the stupidest career advice ever given to a writer. Some agent will say, “Why don’t you put that book away and work on the next one.”

My response is “While I’m working on the next one, why don’t you quit looking for excuses to not work and mail the book to five more editors.”

But, of course, you would never say that because they would mail it dead, meaning they would kill it in their cover letters to editors just to prove themselves right. But what you do is fire them, take the book back and mail it yourself while you work on the next book. Duh.

Never let anyone tell you to shelve a book for any reason. ANY REASON. And reasons agents give that seem logical to young professionals are things like:

—“Your career isn’t ready for this book.” Huh?

—“This book clearly isn’t strong enough for you to break in with.” Says who?

—“We got five rejections and it’s not working. Write the next book and we’ll see what we can do.” Lazy SOB.

Let me say this again. NEVER let anyone tell you to NOT market a book. Not your spouse, not your workshop, and certainly not some stranger who has a business card that says agent on it. Put your work in front of people who can buy it and keep it there. That’s good business. Nothing short of that is.

Again, back to a point I have made over and over in the other agent chapters in this book. Agents are not trained in any fashion. They have no schooling for agents, no organization that polices them. They have not gone to any publishing business school. They have nothing but a business card and an opinion.

So it’s bad enough that we writers trust them with our money, with picking editors to mail something to, with trying to get our books into Hollywood or overseas.

But it gets worse when we let an agent step into our writing offices in any fashion and give career advice. They are not writers, so they wouldn’t know good career advice it it hit them. They are not interested in writer’s careers, only their own anyway. So any advice would just be focused on what was best for them, not for you.

And they don’t know you as a person.

In summary:

—Write what you love, what you are passionate about, what scares you, what you want.

—Never, ever write to market. Just go into your writing space or office and be an artist.

—Then, when the project is finished, worry about how to sell it.

—Never, ever let anyone tell you what to write. It will kill your writing and your career faster than anything ever will.

Trust your own skills, your own voice, keep learning, and enjoy the writing.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean