On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Compete With Each Other.

This myth in the old days (meaning more than three years ago) used to get knocked out of young writers early on in their careers, so it had little or no impact on writing careers as young writers came into the field and got help along the way from older, more experienced professionals. In fact, for the longest time in publishing, the apprentice system was a main way in. I know I got fantastic help coming in from major superstars of fiction writing and I feel fantastically lucky they spent the time to give me advice and help. So I’ve tried to do the same now that I’ve somehow managed to survive for twenty-plus years of professional writing.

And not once in any of that time did I feel any writer I was helping was in competition with me. Or that I was in competition with any writer who helped me. Not once. Never occurred to me to even think that thought.

Then along comes electronic publishing with the open doors of the new distribution system and writers able to publish their own books. And right with the indie-publishing revolution comes this myth of competition rearing its ugly head over and over and over, all spouted by new writers.

So, time to knock this thing down again because, to be honest, I think it’s dangerous.

The myth is simply that writers compete.

Of course, this is so far wrong, it shouldn’t be even talked about, but alas it’s still out there and going strong. In fact, I recently made the mistake of wondering over onto the Kindle boards and wasted a bunch of hours before I came to my senses. By the time I was finished with those hours, I knew I had to talk about this, since new writer after new writer talked about how they had to compete with all the other writers to get their books read. And a large number of them feel it is them against traditional publishers who have the gall after hundreds of years of publishing to actually price their books at a decent price.

In the course of the last six months I have heard newer writers say they are competing against 1) other writers, 2) other books, 3) traditional publishers, and 4) the noise, meaning the crowding of so many books.

So, to the reality of publishing.

Each Book Stands Alone

An old saying in publishing: “You are only as good as your last book.”

Yup. Pretty much. And under that saying is the truth of publishing: Every Book Stands Alone.

Every book is different. Sure, they are all packaged in similar manner either in hardback, trade, mass market, electronic, or audio. But that’s where the similarity stops.

Let me narrow this down just a little farther by taking a sub-genre. Say Legal Thrillers. Now there are dozens and dozens and dozens of writers writing legal thrillers. A fan might say they love legal thrillers, but would never read a Grisham, but love Turow. Or say they hated the last Grisham, but loved his previous book.

Even inside a small sub-genre, each book by even the same author must stand on its own. The cover must be good, the blurbs catching, the opening a hook that won’t let you stop reading. If not a reader will put it down.

Let me illustrate this in a sort of cumbersome analogy. In grocery stores you have a cereal aisle with a limited amount of products, and even more-limited amount of types of cereal. But when someone buys a box of Brand Flakes, there is another box of Brand Flakes exactly the same for the next buyer to buy, and then the next and so on. Month-after-month, year-after-year. Same thing, same brand that can be bought by the same person over and over and over for years. Now imagine that each book (each title) was a brand like Brand Flakes. So that means say fifty thousand new books were published this month, so that’s like having fifty thousand different brands of very different cereal came out this month and then pulled and replaced next month with another fifty thousand different brands, and the month after another fifty thousand, all different and new each month. If you can imagine that, you can imagine the problem publishing has.

And worse yet, publishing tries to have writers become brands, but say a “brand” like Stephen King brings out a box of Shredded Wheat as his next book. So a reader going back to the “brand” will expect Shredded Wheat again with the next book, but with the King brand, they may get Frosted Flakes instead. Even inside publishing brands, each book is different.

Yeah, Yeah, I’ve Heard That Before

The new writer worry: “But I want to make my book stand out.”

That silly saying is like a national anthem for new and indie-published writers. And what’s funny is that is exactly what all editors and sales force people in traditional publishers worry about every day for the books they buy from writers.

Here’s What You Can Do to Make Your Book Stand Out.

1) Write a great book with a great opening hook in the first chapter.

(That is what also catches and is critical for traditional publishing editors.)

2) Put a great professional cover on it. Not just professional artwork. That sometimes doesn’t help. A professional cover these days is something that can be read and understood at postage stamp size.

(Traditional publishers understand this now and covers are changing to fit the times. This is so important they have entire art departments doing covers.)

3) Write an active voice, exciting blurb that would make someone want to read that book in one paragraph. (Most new writers wouldn’t understand a passive verb if it slapped them and pointed at itself.)

(In traditional publishing, trained people do this, people who know what kind of blurb will sell a book, and it is vetted and worked over by the sales force.)

4) Make sure you book has decent sampling on it so readers can get a taste of the book before buying.

(For traditional publishers, back to point #1. They won’t buy it if it starts slow because they know readers won’t buy it either.)

5) Announce the book occasionally to your readers on your site and on social networks.

(Traditional publishers don’t do much more than this except on the top sellers. They announce it in their catalog so book buyers at stores see it. And they list it on their web sites. That’s about it for 99% of all traditionally published books because that’s all that is needed.)

6) Have more than one product up, so if they find one they like, the readers will find the others.

(Traditional publishers have lists every month of similar products for readers to buy.)

7) Write the next book and talk about what’s coming.

(For traditional publishers, see all the points above. They put out upwards of 8 books per month per list.)

That’s it. If you wrote a good book that readers want to read, they will slowly come to it, word of mouth will pick up speed as will your sales.

If your book isn’t selling, try a new cover. If that doesn’t help, try writing a better blurb. If that doesn’t work, maybe your book’s opening in the sample is dull and passive and not exciting. Learn now to write a better story on the next book.

NOTE: Not once did I say go out and fight against other writers or other books. If your book sucks, your story is dull, your cover bad and unreadable, it isn’t another writer’s fault. That is your fault.

NOTE: This is exactly the same as trying to sell to New York editors. If your book sucks, your story is dull, your cover letter and proposal unreadable, no editor will buy it. And that isn’t New York’s fault. That is your fault. Stop blaming traditional publishers for their good taste.


So, let me take a hard look at the reality of fiction writing by dealing with the four things I heard new indie writers say over and over.

Indie writers think they are competing against 1) other writers, 2) other books, 3) traditional publishers, and 4) the noise (meaning the crowding of so many books.)

1) Are indie writers competing against other writers? Answer: Of course not. I’m sitting here alone in my office typing. There is absolutely nothing that I am doing that is bothering or holding down any other writer on the planet. And why would any writer want to do that to another writer? This one is so silly, I find it hard to even imagine some of the indie writers thinking like that. But they do. I honestly think this one is a need to blame someone else for their own crappy writing.

2) Are books competing against other books? Of course not. That’s clear just by how Amazon does its helpful suggestions. “If you liked this….”  So Billie Jean wrote a romance and a reader liked it and under her book Amazon isn’t putting you into competition with your similar romance. Nope, they are telling the readers about your book. Now imagine if writers’ books actually were in competition. The book would have to go through some merit test to even be listed and put up. Your book stands all by itself and must sink or swim on its own merits. No other book can pull it down. However, other books can help it a great deal. And your book can help other books. A win-win for the writers. And for the readers.

3) For some silly reason indie writers think they are in competition with the big evil publishing empire of traditional publishing. For them it seems there is one person back there giving directions and fighting to hold down all indie writers. Truth: Traditional publishing is a vast number of different-size corporations with real people running them and just doing their best to get out the best books they can get out. There is no one big evil, no force holding down some poor writer’s book. Total hogwash. And to be really honest, no one back there cares. They are too busy with getting out the books on their lists. Indie writers are so small as to not even be noticed, except when a book explodes and then they hope they can give the author a ton of money and publish the book themselves.

And for some reason indie writers are proud of their “control” factor. They think nothing of giving over control of their book to Amazon or B&N but at the same time talk down about publishers taking control. Uh, no, a writer only gives control over what they want to give control over and what is in the contract they signed. No one makes anyone sign a contract or hire a scam agent or a good agent. My chapters here have been shouting about writers just taking the control they already have instead of giving it away for nothing because of some myth. There is no control issue with traditional publishing. That’s a myth as well as any made-up fight with traditional publishers.

4) Competing in the Noise. This is the hardest to get new writers to understand. If they wrote a great book with a great cover and a great active blurb, and get it out there, readers will slowly find it and if the book is worth talking about, the readers will start passing the word and the book will gain speed in sales. If you wrote a crappy book, with a bad cover and a passive blurb and opening sample, no amount of shouting into the noise will help your book sell.

But when a new writer gets in a hurry and doesn’t allow a book to gain speed, then they start screwing with it, changing covers, changing prices, and even start giving it away. Leave the book alone, folks. Give your poor baby a chance to grow up. Write the next one.

It always comes down to the book.

A good book will clear out the noise and generate buzz and its own noise all on its own. Beyond writing a great book, which is EXACTLY the same as it takes to get a book sold in traditional publishing, there is no way to fight the noise.

Now understand that traditional publishers have had this same problem for the entire history of publishing. This is nothing new. And trust me, they’ve tried to create bestsellers with ads and hype and lots of promotion, only to have the crappy book sit in huge stacks and never sell.

The hard truth: Readers are very, very sharp.

So What Can A Writer Compete Against?

Themselves. That simple.

1) Write and publish more work.

2) Learn how to Produce Better Covers, not arty ones, but ones that work on electronic sites.

3) Learn How to Write Better Blurbs.

4) Learn How to Open a Book to Catch a Reader

5) Learn How to Write Cliffhangers and What Makes a Cliffhanger Work to hold readers to the end.

In other words, keep writing and working on becoming a better writer. And no matter if the book goes to traditional publishing or electronic publishing, write the next book and work to make it better, and then the next and the next and the next.

And when you hear yourself think you are competing against anything in publishing, stop the thought and direct it back to yourself.

As writers, we live in our heads. We sit alone in rooms and make stuff up. Stop making stuff up about competition with anyone or anything. Believe that other writers and other readers and other publishers want you to make it, that in many cases, they actually want to help you make it. Believe that the larger traditional publishers really do want you to make it because they make money when you do, and they want to help you do it.

Fight with yourself to learn how to write better and better books, to keep learning, to keep writing every spare minute you have.

Change the attitude from nasty competition to open arms helping and you might be surprised what comes back to you.

Writers are people who write. Not compete in any way.

And I hope this and all the other Sacred Cows chapters helped another writer or two become successful, because honestly, that’s the point of all this.


Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.

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. 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