Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Need to be Taken Care Of

The idea that writers need to be “taken care of” has become such a common phrase among agents, it has moved to being flat insulting for most of us out here.

I talked about this a little bit in another chapter, but lately I’ve been hearing this “justification” for frightening bad behavior on the part of agents. It just makes me angry, to be honest with you.

So for the second week in a row I’m writing a chapter of this book while angry and insulted. Stand back. If nothing else, this might be entertaining, as a number of people called my last chapter.

As I usually do in these chapters, let me start from some basics. And I’m going to number them to make sure I am very clear on my position.

Basic #1: Publishing is an international corporate business.

It is a business no matter how much you don’t want it to be, especially if you would like to have any decent number of readers for your work. Even writers who publish their own work are quickly learning just how much of a business this is.

And noticed I used the word “corporate.” Anyone who has worked in a large corporation understands the politics and the money-based drive that every employee deals with in corporations. Publishing is no different.

Basic #2: There are no secrets. It’s Just Business and Must Be Learned.

But as in any major profession, learning takes time. Mistakes are made. That is a natural part of the process. And it takes time to learn to write a professional level story.

As I have said over and over and over, when you want to be a local attorney, it takes seven years of school before you can even think of hanging out a shingle or going to work for a law firm. In a little local community. So why would you think that you need less learning, less training, less practice and time when working in an INTERNATIONAL business?

You need to learn the business you want to work in. It really is that simple.

(For a great free weekly business class, check out my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Guide.)

Basic #3: Writers are always in a hurry.

Spend all that time and effort on your first novel and you want it published NOW. That’s like saying “I just spent all my time and energy getting through my first year of college, I passed English 101 and History 101 and I want to be an attorney NOW.” Doesn’t work that way and it’s just as silly thinking in writing.

First books are called first books because they are the first book a writer published, not wrote. My first book was book number four written, and I didn’t sell five or six.

Now I bet a bunch of people are saying “But I’m different.” No, you’re not. Write your million words of crap, as Mystery Grandmaster John D. McDonald said, and you might get to your first publishable word. And in the process, learn the business. You can learn to write and learn the business at the same time. Honest you can.

Am I sounding discouraging? I suppose. I am saying it takes work, it takes time, it takes a focus on learning. If that is discouraging to you, you don’t belong in this profession. Find a profession that the learning sounds like fun, the enjoyment is in the work, the desire to learn it all sounds like a wonderful time. That’s a profession for you.

But if writing sounds like fun, is enjoyable for you, and you have a vast desire to learn everything in both craft and business, then you are in the right spot.

Basic #4: Writers Control This Business.

I know that will just seem wrong for those of you lost in the myths, but the truth of the matter is that without books, without product supplied by writers, no publisher would remain in business. There wouldn’t be a business. This business exists for the sole reason to move writers’ stories to readers. That simple.

The top writers control what publishers do, stock prices of publishers rise and fall on book releases. I know of some writers who have taken their editors with them from one house to the next when they moved. And they weren’t even bestsellers

Writers make the most money, writers control.

Where the Myth of Needing to Taken Care Of Comes From.

In short, the myth comes from writers who are in a hurry and lazy and think they are “artists.” That’s right, we writers (as a group) caused this myth, as we do with most of the myths.

The big international business of writing looks “scary” and unknown, a long, dark road we are afraid to walk. Imagine a women in a bad horror movie in high heals going into a cobweb-covered mansion. That’s what it feels like to all of us, thus we do what is human nature, we try to find someone who claims they will take us through the darkness and dangerous animals and guys with large axes and chainsaws safely to the other side. We willingly and without thought hand these “guide” people all our money, our very livelihood, our art, our self-respect, and then close our eyes and hope.

Just like in the bad movies, it seldom works. Just ask any of Bernie Madoff’s clients how well handing over all your money works.

But sadly, in publishing, it’s normal to do just what I am describing. Except the people we hand all our money to are often young agents. Very, very young, and not regulated in any way. Many of them are four or five years out of an Ivy League school, and their only claim to knowing anything is that they live with a few others in New York City and know other agents and have lunches with a few editors.

Now granted, some agents have been around for a long time, know the business, can get a book in at higher levels. But they are not writers. They do not understand at any deep level what you do as a writer. Or how you survive. So you start expecting them to take care of everything and guess what? Mistakes happen, only they are not your mistakes.

And then all the horror stories we have been talking about in all the comments after previous agent chapters happen.

The bottom line is that all the agent horror stories happen because WRITERS WANT TO BE TAKEN CARE OF.

Somehow along the way I lost this attitude, more than likely during my publishing days with Pulphouse. Or even more likely, I never had it from the start. It just seems odd to me that anyone SHOULD take care of me. I’ve been on my own, making my own way in the world since I turned eighteen. No one took care of me, and I sure didn’t expect anyone to do so. In any business or venture over all the decades.

My first agent never said she would take care of me. Not once. I sold my own books, called her and told her who would be calling and what I wanted and she did what I asked. I was in charge. I hired her for her agency and help on chasing money and nothing more.

So now comes the 2010 publishing world. We have reached a day in this business where young agents are reading slush and losing money, where the publishing business is going through one of its normal tightening phases, where new technology is slamming into publishing like an iceberg ramming into the Titanic. Exciting times, actually, for writers, with new opportunities opening up almost every day.

But one of the upshots of this new world is that these baby agents and some young editors are out spouting off about how they need to take care of their writers. And they are spouting this garbage in public.

They started off doing this, I’m sure, to try to sell themselves to writers. But then they started to believe their own hype, they started to actually believe that they knew better than writers what writers needed.

And over the last ten years, this has become, to my view, an ugly trend that I have even heard directed at me.

Some young agent who wasn’t born yet when I sold my first short story told me last year that if I went with her as a client, she would take care of me. Of course, she would have to read and approve everything I wrote before she sent it out.

She was SERIOUS!!!

The attitude of needing to take care of writers had become so ingrained in her mind that the system just worked that way for everyone. She didn’t know any other way. She somehow thought in her deepest ego that she was giving me something I wanted to hear.

I managed not to laugh in her face, or insult her, but to be honest, that has bothered me ever since and I have mentioned it a few times lately. I should have taken her to task, maybe snapped her out of it a little bit. But I was nice, stunned, to be honest.

She believed that she should take care of a seasoned professional and even worse, she believed that I needed to be taken care of by her.

In other words, she thought I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Oh, yeah, let’s forget the last twenty years or more where I did just fine taking care of myself and making nice money writing fiction. She believed I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Yes, I was insulted.

Let me make this clear, very clear about this myth.

Every time an agent or an editor says that they will “take care of you,” they are saying to you:

“You are too stupid to make it on your own.”

Insulted? Yeah, you should be. But what stuns me even more is that writers just nod and say, “Yup, I’m dumb-dumb and must be bottle fed…change my diapers please while you are at it.”

Writers let agents get away with this insulting behavior. Until this post, I’ve never heard anyone question this at all.

Well, as I said last chapter, it’s time for writers to wake up and question everything.


1) Understand you are learning the business and that the learning never stops.

I’m still learning this business every day, year after year. I find learning exciting and I love that I will never stop learning in this business, both on the writing craft side and on the business side. Sure, it’s scary at times. That’s part of the fun.

2) Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

No way to not make mistakes, but for heaven’s sake, make your own mistakes, and from those mistakes come learning and understanding. In publishing, nothing is fatal. Worse thing that happens is you change your pen name and move on.

3) Learn from those who are down the road you want to walk.

Other writers have walked ahead of you down the scary, fog-covered road to making a living at fiction writing. Learn from them, take lessons from them, take what works for you and toss the rest. Agents and editors are not writers. If you listen to their words as if they are gospel, you are doomed, just as surely as thinking you can learn how to create original fiction by sitting in a college creative writing class. Not going to happen.

4) In no fashion allow anyone to take care of you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t hire help, but for heaven’s sake, know what your help is doing and you approve everything. And never let them have your money before you see it. That stupidity has to be stopped quickly in this business.

5) Make it a rule to take care of yourself.

Sure, you might not know how to do something, so GO LEARN IT. Stop thinking that someone else will take care of it for you and learn what you need to know to get your work in front of editors, to understand what you are signing in a contract, to know how the business works. It will take time, but learn one thing a week or a day and eventually you’ll have it.

And the moment you catch yourself thinking that someone needs to take care of that for you, stop and do it yourself. Make that a way of life. Make it a rule in your writing life and business.


Writers, it is way past time we started questioning these myths. All of them that I have been talking about for twenty-five chapters now.


#1… You must learn and understand the business you want to work in.

#2… Learn from other writers on the same road, not editors or agents.

#3…It is fine to hire help, but never hand over responsibility.

#4…Never let anyone touch your money.

#5…In all decisions you are responsible for your own career.

You follow those five rules and you will be surprised at how many problems you avoid and how far those rules will take you.

Just remember, when some young agent says that they will take care of you, understand what they are thinking about you:

“Oh, I can take this writer’s money. They are a patsy.”


“This writer is too stupid to do it on their own.”

Get insulted, and if enough of us stop taking these insults and start questioning everything and taking responsibility for our own careers, maybe we can start the slow change it’s going to take to back out of this current mess.

I’m a dreamer I know, but that’s also my job description.

And I know what I’m doing. And if you just believed in yourself, you would too.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This 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.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. 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!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter 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, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean