On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: New York Works as a Quality Filter

Very few of these chapters has dealt with the editor and publisher side of publishing. I know that in fiction publishing there are lots of problems with publishers, and right now picking on them just seems to be like kicking dirt onto a person who is struggling to even figure out how to stay alive. Besides, I have been an editor over the years and I know that stuff just flat goes wrong in publishing houses that is often no one’s fault.

But for the most part, even though writers hate to admit it, most of the problems in this business are firmly planted on the writers’ side of the equation. You know, things like giving a perfect stranger all your money and the paperwork with it and then wonder why you got screwed. Or things like signing a bad contract and then saying your publisher screwed you because they followed the terms of the contract. Or things like thinking that a hundred rewrites is the best way to create a piece of art that feels free and spontaneous and has voice.

So it may seem I am aiming this at traditional large publishing, but I am not. I am aiming this squarely at the writers once again, and the myths writers hold so dearly.

The myth I am hearing more and more lately because of electronic and POD publishing is:

Selling a novel to traditional publishing will guarantee the novel is quality.

Or conversely, not selling a novel to traditional publishing will mean the novel is not quality.

This is so flat wrong in so many ways, I’m not sure where to begin.

So let me outline how I will attack this myth before giving some history as I always do. Here are the three main areas of thinking this myth falls into.

1) Because a book is bought by a large traditional publisher the book is quality.

2) Because a book is not bought by a large traditional publisher, the book is not good enough to be published.

3) I am a new writer. How do I determine if my book is of “good enough” quality to be published?

Some History

Am I immune to this thinking of worrying about quality? Nope. I was raised to read and was in school just as most of us were. In school all books were things that had knowledge, were special, or (in the case of fiction I believed) were written by “gods” who took me to wonderful new places, strange planets, and fantastic spaceships. In fact, it never really dawned on me that real people wrote books until I owned a bookstore and started seeing so many thousands and thousands of books pour through. Some I liked, some I didn’t, and some I wondered why anyone would even publish it.

We all were raised to think that something in a book is “important.” And then as we got older we developed reading tastes. We discovered what kind of writing we liked, what our favorite genre was, and who our favorite writers were.

And we all bought books exactly the same as editors buy books. That’s right, exactly the same. We would walk into a bookstore, pick up a book that looks interesting, read the back cover, then maybe read the first few pages and then (horrors) actually flip to the back to see how the book ended before we plunked down our money. We still do that now with electronic books by glancing at the blurb and cover, then reading the sample before buying. Same as in a bookstore.

In large traditional publishing, an editor gets a novel manuscript that looks interesting, reads the first few pages, flips to the proposal to see what the book is about, then reads to the end to see how the book ends. And then if the editor likes the book, she fights for it through the system of sales and art departments and so on. But the key is she has to like the book, just as you have to like a book before you spend money on it.

We are all editors editing for our own personal reading lists.

You may personally think Clive Cussler or Daniel Steele or Noral Roberts are bad writers, but millions of other independent editors don’t agree with you. You buy for what you think is quality writing and storytelling and what you enjoy reading. And what you think will differ from what I think and what millions of others will think. And what most traditional publishing editors will think as well.

Thankfully, that’s the way it works.

The Limitations of Traditional Fiction Editors

Editors working for large traditional publishers are just people too. Heck, I’ve edited at times, remember. Editors have huge restrictions on them that have nothing to do with the quality of a story. For example, the best story I ever got in the ten years editing for Star Trek was by a wonderful new writer named Julie Hyzy. It was a story that I couldn’t buy. All these years later that story is as clear to me as the day it knocked me out of my chair when I read it. But because no traditional publisher could buy that story, does that mean it was low quality?

Of course not. I couldn’t buy it for reasons that had nothing to do with quality. Nothing at all. I couldn’t buy the story because it didn’t fit into the very narrow restrictions I had on what I could buy.

Every editor is exactly the same way, and these days, the restrictions are even narrower because of sales departments not wanting to take a chance on anything different or unusual. (You know, the next bestsellers and mega hits.)

So let me detail out the hurtles you have to jump through to get an editor to buy your book.

— You must mail it to an editor, or get it through an agent to an editor who might buy it. (This step stops most authors.)

— The editor must love the book, meaning it must fit into the editor’s taste area.

— The editor must think the book will fit in what the company publishes and what she can buy for her list.

— Editor must get someone in sales to think the book will sell.

— Editor must often get another editor to like the book

— Editor must get the publisher to sign off on the book in a corporate meeting.

Wow, are there a lot of slips between a writer finishing a book and an editor making an offer. And millions and millions of quality books, books that would find their share of readers if all things were equal are eliminated by this process.

So let me deal with the three major areas this myth hits that I outlined back at the beginning.

1) Because a novel is bought by a large traditional publisher the book is quality.

This part of this myth is very, very deep inside all of us. We all think that because a large traditional publisher spent money and time to publish a book it is automatically quality. I have heard this lately called “the stamp of approval” and “validation” by different writers.

The truth is that for the one house, the one editor, the book was quality. But I can’t begin to point out the millions of examples of novels published for one reason or another by a traditional publisher that just sucked, were poorly written, and worse yet, poorly proofed and typeset and laid out.

Thinking of all traditional fiction publishers as one large great judge of books is just flat wrong. A few people, sometimes less than two or three, are in charge of getting a traditionally published novel out to readers. Sure, there are others along the way, but only the editor, a sales person, and a publisher are the judges of quality of the book. And often one or two of them are missing in the equation.

When I learned this fact early on in my editing life, I actually was depressed. I had always believed that if a big traditional publisher put out a story, it was like the book was sent from some publishing god to the readers with some special secret stamp of approval. I hated the fact that I could pick a story as an editor and give that story some sort of special magical powers of sudden quality. All I was giving the book was very much like a reviewer gives a novel. I was saying I liked it. Nothing more.

Let me repeat that: NOTHING MORE.

Editors are humans who have likes and dislikes. Sure, we all try to pick the best stories, but they are always the stories we think are the best in our opinion. And trust me, we can all be wrong, very, very wrong. And often are.

2) Because a book is not bought by a large traditional publisher, the book is not good enough to be published.

If I was editing a line of books that allowed me to pick what I thought was quality and top story-telling and that I liked, I would be publishing at least eight of the twelve novels I saw in each of the last five novel workshops. I got to read at least forty novels I loved in those workshops. And others I would help the writer fine-tune enough to get to my tastes. And the publishing program would be a fantastic and very eclectic line of books across many genres.

How many of those fine, high-quality novels have sold so far? A couple.

With the state of traditional publishing at the moment, with the slush out-sourced, with editors tied by sales force demands, very few high-quality books with top stories are getting through. And it is often not the highest-quality story or novel that gets through, it’s the story that has the most marketability according to a sales person.

Thinking that a story isn’t quality if it doesn’t sell is just flat silly.

Let me give you a personal example: I have over one-hundred-and-fifty (150) rejections for different stories from five different editors of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. That’s right, from the very beginning of the magazine I was pounding on that door and not once did I sell a story to them. Not once. Should I think that all my stories are not quality because I can’t sell to that magazine and those five different editors over three decades? Nope. They just didn’t fit because my short stories tend to be slightly off of center, to put it mildly. I have later sold over a hundred of those one-hundred-and-fifty stories. But thankfully I never believed this part of this myth or I wouldn’t have kept the stories out there in the mail.

3) I am a new writer. How do I determine if my book is of “good enough” quality to be published?

This is the difficult subject to talk about because all new writers must go through a learning curve to get craft up to certain “levels” that will allow readers to follow your story and stay involved with your story. And trust me, for an experienced editor, it is easy to see at a glance a new writer who hasn’t written enough words and studied enough to get craft up to a level anyone but family is going to want to read. What tips us off? Oh, easy things like no setting, no voice, characters you can’t tell apart, walking from one part of the story to the other. All stuff that would make a reader put the book down and not buy it.

Notice I did not say sentence-by-sentence writing. At this point in history most everyone can write a decent sentence. Quality writing does not mean quality typing. It means quality storytelling.

The old method was to just write and submit and when your craft started climbing some of your stories started breaking through the editorial roadblocks and got to readers. That system was pretty clear for most, but wow did it fail writers with very unusual voices or stories that did not fit into certain genres. Those writers never did get through the system for the most part. Like I haven’t got through the system yet at Asimov’s.

But now we have a new world that writers can publish their own stuff, and in a recent chapter of The New World of Publishing I talked about writers just publishing their own book and then mailing it to traditional publishers as part of the submission package. I can’t begin to tell you how many letters I got asking the question “How do I know if my book is good enough to be published?”

Back to #1 category above, writers think that just because a book is published, it has to be quality. So if the new writer publishes their own book, it has to be quality before they dare do that. But how do they know if it is quality? And the circular logic goes around and around.


Short answer: They don’t.

Long answer: They don’t and never will, even if the story is published by a traditional publisher.

Being published by a traditional publisher means a book is liked by a few people. Put the book up on your own on Amazon and see how many people buy it. Why not?

Why not do a POD version and use it as part of submission package?

The answer of all this again comes down to writers and their belief systems. At this moment in history most writers and all newer writers have no backbone. Writers as a class do not believe that their work is their art. And they are not willing to defend it and keep learning from their mistakes and keep working to make their art better.

But, of course, my advice about “grow a backbone” has been ignored for a year now in many of these chapters, so let me see if I can give a few more concrete guidelines. But realize, these are just my opinion and I am only one person.

How Do I Know if My Book is “Good Enough” to be Published?

(Dean’s Opinion of What to Do)

1… How many words have you written in fiction since you started trying to write? If the answer is under a half million words, I’d hold off on putting anything into print. If you answer is over half a million, why not test it? Mystery Grand Master John D. McDonald used to say that all writers starting out had a million words of crap in them. I started selling stories just short of the million word mark and have sold some of my stories that I wrote between half-million and that first million. However, because of a house fire, I can’t look back on any of the words before that.

2… Realize that you may have paid your storytelling dues in other areas besides fiction. Say if you have written a couple dozen plays and had a couple produced, your storytelling skills are probably pretty good. Things like that. Lots of other areas transfer over into fiction writing. In that case you might be writing quality fiction right from the first hundred thousand words.

3… How much are you studying writing to get better? If you only have three how-to-write books on your shelf and have never even listened to a professional writer speak at a conference, you may be way ahead of yourself in thinking of publishing. Publishing and telling stories that readers want to read does take skill and craft and it takes some study to even learn the basics. For example, a couple of the writers who attended this last novel workshop brought first-written novels, and wow were they good. But the key is they had spent a lot of time writing other things and were avid learners, which is why they were here in the first place.

4… If you aren’t mailing your work to traditional publishers I wouldn’t bother to self-publish either. If you have been getting a steady stream of rejections on early novels or short stories, you might be ready for the problems associated with publishing your own work.

In other words, in short, what I am talking about is a learning period, and the learning must go hand-in-hand with the typing.  It’s called “practice” in any other art. In writing you need to practice as well.

So What Is The Downside of Self-Publishing Too Early?

Nothing. No one buys your book, it sinks like a stone because it is poorly written, and eventually as you keep learning, you pull it down and put it out of print.

Here is the problem that beginning writers have on this issue: Beginning writers are staring at their own navels.

What I mean by that is new beginning writers are so worried about sentences and pretty words and nifty grammar and pleasing their workshop that they forget they are story-tellers. And they forget about readers and how readers are the real judges.

There are no repercussions for publishing a book in electronic or POD format. No one will come to your house and shoot you, no one will blackball you from all of publishing, no one will even notice, which is even worse than the first two. At least on the first two someone noticed your book.

But you put up your own new book and it sucks, no one will buy it and no one will notice and it will sink without a trace. And you can promote it to your heart’s content and still no one will buy it because they will look at the sample and think, “Nope this book isn’t for me.” And not buy it and not remember your name.


1) Never stop writing and learning. Never think you know it all after a few sales. Never believe you are good enough.

2) Get rid of the early words,the first hundred thousand words. Then after that keep your work for sale somewhere, either on editor’s desks in New York or self-published or both. You are like an artist with your work hanging in an art gallery or a musician working a small bar. You are practicing and earning from your skill as it grows. It might not be much at first, but if you keep learning and practicing, the sales and the money will come with time.

3) Grow a backbone. Believe in your own art without cutting off the learning. So what if you self-published the book and some editor doesn’t like you sent her the full book. Who cares? Who cares if you put up a book or story that doesn’t quite work? No writing is perfect and maybe a few people out there will think it works just fine and enjoy it.

4) Never do anything that gets in the way of the writing. Stay away from stupid self-promotion beyond your own web site, and just write the next story and the next book.  In other words, be a writer, a person who writes.

5) And most of all, have fun. If you are not having fun while at the same time being scared to death, get off this roller coaster. The ride only gets more extreme and more fun the farther you go along the track.

Trust me, folks, you don’t want to put all your hopes and fears and beliefs that a work is quality by the judgement of an editor somewhere. Remember, I used to be an editor and my favorite writers are James Patterson and Clive Cussler. And I’ve tried over a hundred and fifty times to sell to Asimov’s. And my all-time favorite story that came into Star Trek: Strange New Worlds I couldn’t buy.

And worse yet, I’m writing a book called Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Yeah, go ahead, trust my judgement. I dare you.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I am not editing anything, so tossing money into the magic bakery tip jar can’t be a bribe to buy your story. But I hope this article helped some.

And 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. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean