On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Killing a Career

This myth just gets more and more annoying by the day. And finally, with all the new stuff about indie publishing, I figured it was time to take a hammer to the myth.

If you catch some hints of annoyance on my part in this, it’s because I think this is flat out the stupidest myth there is. It shows no understanding of the business of publishing, or the new business of indie publishing. So please be patient with me. I’ll try not to be grumpy.

The Myth: If I do “this or that,” I will kill my career.

Now, of course, 99.99999% of the time this is beginning writers saying this. You never hear a long-term professionals like me or Kris or anyone else who has gotten past a half dozen years making a living say this. Ever. Why? Because we know it’s just not possible. It really isn’t.

Professional writers don’t worry about mistakes killing careers, we worry about mistakes that will cost money or get us screwed.

Before anyone will believe me on that, let me point out what happened to one writer you all have heard about lately.

James Frey was on Oprah for the 3rd time just recently.

If getting screamed at by Oprah after lying to her in front of millions can’t kill a career, nothing can. He’s back with a new book and on the bestseller lists and has even made up with Oprah.

If faking an autobiography of Howard Hughes can’t kill a career, nothing can. And so on and so on. So many ugly things writers have done and yet if the writer kept writing, they just went right on proving the old saying that even bad publicity is good publicity.

But who can kill a career?

The writer who believes this myth can kill their own career simply by believing it. Sort of Zen, but true. Any writer that stops writing and just becomes an “author,” (a person who has written) will kill their own career. That’s how careers are killed. A writer stops writing.

What is a “Career.” My good old dictionary defines the term as “An occupation, a way of making a living.”

I  suppose by that definition it could be said I have a career. I write for a living, I sell books and stories, I indie publish, and for years I was a part-time editor. I have a reputation under this name and I have done so many things to this name, it’s stunning the name is still alive.

Kris has many pen names. Does Kris Nelscott and Kristine Grayson and Kristine Dexter have careers or are they all part of Kristine Kathryn Rusch?

I think all pen names are just part of the career of the writer. But on the other side, it can be thought that each pen name has a career. Your choice how you look at it.

I find it wonderful that I can get the income from five or ten other careers. That’s a very cool thing about writing. Just like Evan Hunter got all the money from Ed McBain’s career. Nifty how that works, huh?

And that writing under other names makes careers in writing impossible to destroy.

Why? Because even in the worst situations and after the worst mistakes, we can all just change our names and keep writing, that’s why. Unlike any other profession, we are free to just be as many people as we want to be.

A business person tied to a resume can kill a career with a bad action or choice. An actor can kill a career. A doctor can make a mistake and kill a career.

A writer can decide to stop writing, which kills a career eventually. But again, that’s self-inflicted.

But if the writer can clear out the ego and change names when sales drop or things go wrong, there is nothing to stop that writer from writing until the moment they die.

Writing careers can NOT be killed unless the writer stops writing.

Wait, let me say this one more time:

Writing careers can NOT be killed unless the writer stops writing.

But the belief that a career can be killed by a mistake is often terminal for a writer. This myth can be very dangerous if you believe it and will cause you to stop writing and kill your own career.

Let me give a couple of main examples and some minor ones of how this myth rears its ugly head these days.

Mail a Novel to an Editor Against Guidelines

Yup, I know that all guidelines say “Agented Submissions.” And for a decade before that all guidelines said “No Unsolicited Manuscripts.”

So? Who cares? (What are you all? Sheep?)

Editors need manuscripts, they are looking for good novels.

You send them a great few page sample of your novel with a good cover letter, a short synopsis and a SASE and they will look at it. They might send you their form letter saying “get an agent” but they will look at it for the most part. And if you are close, the editor will write you a letter, and if your book is good and it fits, they will buy it.

Over a dozen of the writers coming to workshops here have sold first novels recently without agents by simply mailing to editors. (And ten of them used IP attorneys instead of agents to negotiate the deal, but that’s another blog post.)

You all remember editors? The people who can buy books at publishing houses? Remember?

So sending a manuscript directly to an editor will not kill your career.


1) The editor won’t remember your book if they didn’t buy it.

I know many of you think you are the center of the universe, but honestly, the editors don’t remember manuscripts or authors they don’t read.

2) There is no such thing as a blacklist unless you threaten the editor with a gun.

3) Honestly, the editor can’t come to your house and yell at you. Honestly, they just won’t care if it doesn’t fit their line.

4) The worst they can do is just toss your manuscript away. You are out a few bucks postage. Shrug.

Yet I have heard hundreds of writers say “If I mail my book directly against guidelines to an editor, I will kill my career.”

You won’t!

But you might sell a book and actually start a career.

If I Publish a Bad Story I Will Kill My Career

I love this from new writers who think they actually know what makes a good story or a bad one. Of course they don’t.

And to be honest, when it comes to my own stories, I don’t know either. No writer is a good judge of their own work. None.

Any writer who thinks they are a good judge of their own work has far too much ego, or has spent far too much time in creative writing classes.

Professional writers can spot when another person’s story works or doesn’t work and why, but on our own stuff, we suck. Nature of how the brain works and again a topic for another post.

And indie publishing anything bad will not kill a career. It just will mean no one buys it.

Really is that simple.

You know… Trust the readers.

And if you are really afraid of a story, put it under a pen name and don’t tell anyone. Just let it sit there.

Publishing a story you think sucks won’t kill your career!!

It might make you a little money, however.

More Silly Thinking

Example… Kris got a letter the other day from a writer flat believing that if he self-published anything it would completely kill his career. Of course, he was a beginning writer, wasn’t selling anything, and thus had no career. But he was convinced.

Example… I have heard many, many times from writers that if you don’t have an agent, it will kill your career.

I haven’t had an agent for seven years. I keep selling and making money. Interestingly enough, it’s always beginning writers or someone with only one or two novels published that tell me this. We have talked about this myth already bunches of times in other comment sections, but it is always framed by “…if you don’t have an agent, it will kill your career.”

Truth: These days having an agent can do more damage to your income and long-term copyrights and income stream than not having one. Far, far more. Honest.

Example… I have received many letters over the last few years from writers afraid to negotiate contracts for fear it will kill their careers.

Kris and I have walked away from many, many contracts that had bad clauses that we just wouldn’t sign and we negotiate everything and we still make our living at this business of fiction writing.

In fact, if writers grew a pair among the hordes, we actually might get royalty rates for electronic publishing moved upward. But this fear of “killing a career” by negotiating a contract hurts us all.

And even worse, writers let agents do the negotiating, agents without legal degrees who can’t practice law but do so anyway, and who are more concerned about keeping the publisher happy then helping the writer. Yeah, that gets us good clauses.

Any wonder contracts have been getting worse and worse over the last five years? It’s all because writers are afraid of killing their careers. Most don’t even have careers in the first place because they aren’t making a living at their fiction.

And why aren’t they?

Because fear never gets you anywhere in business, folks.

I asked a few other professionals about other examples of where they hear this silly myth and I got hordes and hordes of stories, all funny to me and the other professionals, but all very real and believed by the young writers spouting the myth.

And these stories range all over the map.

Example… A writer who thought that if he didn’t rewrite a manuscript at least ten times, he would kill his career. Hadn’t sold anything yet for some reason. (grin)

Example… Another beginning writer was convinced that a bad cover on a book (he thought bad) would kill his career. His first novel and he thought he knew more than the art department in the publishing company and was trying to get another cover his friend drew to replace the cover. He did far more damage to his reputation than a hundred bad covers could have done. But he was convinced a bad cover would kill his career.

Folks, I have had more bad covers than I can count over the decades. I’m still making a living.

Example... Another writer swore that if he didn’t have at least three people proof his story or novel before he indie published it, it would could kill his career. He actually said he wanted his story perfect, to which the professional telling me the story laughed and said, “Yeah, as if there is ever a perfect story in publishing.”


There is only one way for a writer to kill a career: Stop writing.

It really is that simple.

But if you go into everything you do in publishing believing the myth that you can make a mistake and kill your career, you will make all your decisions from a position of fear. And you will make horrid decisions.

And if you don’t believe me on this, just ask any long-term professional writer, a writer who has been around for over twenty years, how many mistakes they have made. The professional will laugh and then more than likely ask which year? Or which dozen do you want first? Something like that.

And most beginning writers would tell me that writing a series like Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing would kill my career because I have said so many things that are against “common stupidity…I mean knowledge.”

Hah, fooled you. I’m still here and selling both in traditional publishing and in indie publishing and making a very nice living.

And some of my agent friends even still talk to me. Shocking I know.

If you never stop writing, gain some courage, and stop worrying about killing your career, you might be stunned at what you can manage in this business. You will be writing and enjoying the writing until the day you die.

And that’s a great reward.


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


You know, I had one young writer tell me one day that putting a donate button on my blogs would kill my career. Luckily, that was just as silly as everything else beginning writers believe about what can kill a career.

As a professional, this series is part of the income streams. And, to be honest, donations keeps me going on these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the 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 chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean