Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #1

This series of posts will turn into a book later this fall with an introduction. And then it will be followed by a book called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing.

But first I wanted to put each myth or “Sacred Cow” up here again as I promised.

This first Sacred Cow article was published here in 2010 and I redid it once since, but now it is completely redone for the world of 2013/2014.

On many of these posts it is amazing to me as I redo them how far my beliefs have changed in a few short years. And how far publishing has changed as well.

That’s the problem so many new fiction writers have these days. Who to listen to, who to agree with? These myths are in all of us. Some myths are very, very deep and based in old publishing and what your teachers in school believed decades ago.

The key is to just step back and think it through, decide what path, what method, is right for you. Very easy for me to say, very hard for all of us to do.




“That is the only way to do it.”

How often do writers in this business hear that phrase? Some writer or editor or agent telling the young writer to do something as if that something was set in stone. Nope.

The truth is that nothing in this business is set in stone.


And everything is changing so fast, what might have been true three years ago is very bad advice now.

For example, three years or so ago a wonderful new professional writer in one of the workshops here e-mailed a well-written query with ten sample pages and a synopsis of the novel off to an editor in New York from the workshop. The next morning she came out of her room smiling. Overnight, the editor had asked to see the entire book. So being am imp, I went to that publisher’s website and printed off the guidelines, which said in huge letters “No electronic submissions and absolutely no unagented submissions.”

Lucky for her she hadn’t bothered to look at the guidelines, or listen to all the people who said she needed an agent, or believed there was only one way to get her book read at that company.

Now, I would have asked here why she bothered even going to a traditional publisher.

Nothing in this business is set in stone. Nothing.

Of course, that little story about not looking at guidelines will cause massive anger to come at me I’m sure.

As will my question as to why she even bothered with a traditional publisher.

So before you go tossing bricks at my house because you need a rule to follow, let me back up and try to explain what I am saying here. And what I will be saying throughout this book. Then you can toss the brick.


Perfectly good advice for one writer will be flat wrong for the writer standing beside him.

Some writers feel for some reason that they need an agent. Some writers need the control of indie publishing, but for some other writer that control would scare them to death. Some writers know business, other writers need help figuring out how to balance a checkbook and wouldn’t understand cash flow in a flood of money.

So how do writers learn? And how can those of us who have walked this publishing road help out the newer professionals coming in? Carefully is my answer. But now let me try to expand on that.

How do writers learn?

1) Take every statement by any WRITER, including me, with your bull detector turned on. If it doesn’t sound right for some reason, ignore it. It may be right for the writer speaking and wrong for you. And for heaven’s sake, be extra, extra careful when you listen to any writer who is not a long distance down the publishing road ahead of you. Some of the stupidest advice I have ever heard has come from writers with three or four short story sales talking on some convention panel like they understand the publishing business and think that everything they say is a rule.

In fact, I get that all the time in e-mail. Honestly. Some beginning writer with a couple novels published is insistent that I am doing something wrong. I might be and I always keep an open mind and look at what they are saying. But most of the time it’s the writer telling me in no uncertain terms I need an agent or need to publish in traditional publishing as they did. (I guess they forgot to look at my bio with over a hundred traditionally published novels behind me.)

So, when some advice doesn’t feel right, check in with yourself and ask yourself where the concern is coming from. Is the concern that some advice isn’t right in conflict with something you learned in school from someone who wasn’t a writer? Or does the advice just not feel right for you. Check in with yourself on each thing you hear.

2) Take any statement by any EDITOR and run it through a very fine filter. Ask yourself why they are saying what they are saying, what corporate purpose does it fill, and can you use it to help you?

Remember, editors are not writers.

And they only know what they need in their one publishing house. Editors have the best of intentions to help writers. Honest, they do. But they often do not understand how writers make money, and most think that writers can’t make a living, since all they see are the small advances to writers they are paying. Just nod nicely when they start into that kind of stuff and move on.

And remember, they always have a corporate agenda. It’s the nature of their job and who they work for.

3) Take any statement from an AGENT with a giant salt shaker full of salt, then bury it with more salt. Then just ignore it. Agents are not writers, agents can’t help you rewrite, and they only know about six or seven editors and nothing at all about the new world of indie publishing.

In this modern world, agents work for publishers, not you. If any agent is flat telling you that you must do something, and it sounds completely wrong to you, my suggestion to you is RUN! Remember, agents have an agenda. It is not your agenda. It is their agenda.

The day of agents in publishing is dropping away, finally. They are working for publishers or becoming publishers. So careful when listening to what they are saying. There are many alternatives to needing an agent in this new world.

So how do writers learn?

—By going to lots and lots of conferences and listening to hundreds of writers and editors and taking only the information that seems right to you. This takes years. Think of it like going to college for four years. And after that the learning never stops.

—Read lots and lots of books by writers and only take what seems right for you.

—Read and follow lots of different publishing blogs, from Publisher’ to to writer blogs like Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog and Joe Konrath’s blog.  And then only take what information seems right to you.

—Learn business, basic business, and apply that to writing as well. Writing is a business, a very big business. Keep learning business and contracts and copyright as you go along.

—And keep writing and practicing and getting your work out to readers to get reader feedback.

How Can Professional Writers Help Newer Writers?

1) Professional writers, keep firmly in mind that your way, the way you broke in might be wrong for just about everyone else in the room listening to you. Especially today, when the world of publishing is shifting so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up. A story about your first sale in 1992 as a way to do it just won’t be relevant in any real way to a new writer in 2014. Be clear that you understand that.

And remember, slush piles are gone. Writers are going directly to readers these days more and more. And then editors find them and make them offers.

And remember, the contracts you saw in 1990 and 2000 don’t exist these days. Advances are much, much smaller and terms much, much worse. Don’t give contract advice unless you see the contract and understand what the young writers are seeing. You will be stunned at what publishers are offering young writers these days.

2) Keep abreast of what the newer writers are facing. I get angry at times because newer writers keep accusing me of having some advantage. I don’t, really. I have years more of practice, sure, and I have more work in inventory, and I understand business better than most, and I have a better work ethic than most writers on the planet.

But even with all that, I still have to get my work to readers in some fashion just as everyone else.

There is no secret road to selling to readers (or editors) just because you have done it before. I wish like hell there was, but alas, if it exists, I haven’t found the entrance ramp yet. So to help myself, I keep abreast of what newer writers are facing, I help teach them how to get through the starting gate and become better storytellers, so I also know how to do it with my work. Duh. I learn from newer writers as I teach them.

3) Stay informed as to the changes in publishing and don’t be afraid of the new technology.

Bragging that you belong to the Church of Luddite or that you won’t touch any Apple product or that you hate smart phones sure won’t install a lot of confidence in the newer writers who live with this modern publishing world and use the new technology. And wishing things would go back to the way they were just doesn’t help either.

And for heaven’s sake, understand sampling and indie publishing and cover design and blurb writing and apps and all the basic skills needed by writers these days.

Newer Writers Need Set Rules

Writers, especially newer writers are hungry for set rules.

This business is fluid and crazy most of the time, and the need for security screams out in most of us. So in the early years we writers search for “rules” to follow, shortcuts that will cut down the time involved, secret handshakes that will get us through doors. It is only after a lot of time that professional writers come to realize that the only rules are the ones we put on ourselves. In my early years I was no different.

Writers are people who sit alone in a room and make stuff up. The problem we have is that when we get insecure without rules, we make stuff up as well.

When we don’t understand something, we make something up to explain it. Then when someone comes along with a “this is how you do it” stated like a rule, you jump to the rule like a drowning man reaching for a rope. And when someone else says “Let go of the rope to make it to safety,” you get angry and won’t let go of that first safety line.

In all these chapters, that’s what I will be trying to tell tell you to do: Let go of the rope and trust your own talents and knowledge.

When I first wrote these chapters online over almost three years ago, my suggestions caused some very “interesting” letters from writers mad at me for challenging their lifeline rules.

The desire for safety and rules is one of the reasons that so many myths have grown up in this business.

Rule upon rule upon rule, all imposed from the outside. Most are just bad advice believed by the person giving the advice at the time.

The key is to let go of the rope, swim on your own, and find out what works for you.

If you believe you must rewrite, write a couple dozen stories and get them out to readers without rewrites to see what happens. If you are having no luck finding an agent, send it to editors instead. Or better yet, indie publish it.

If you think you can’t write more than 500 words a day, push a few days to double or triple that and see what happens. Push and experiment and find out what is right for you.

Will it scare you? Yes. But I sure don’t remember anyone telling me this profession was easy or not scary. Those two things are not myths just yet.

Okay, all that said, here are a few major areas where following rules blindly can be dangerous to writers. I will talk about these in coming chapters. But for the moment, I want to touch on them right here because they are major.

1) “You must rewrite.”

This is just silly, since writing comes out of the creative side of our brains and rewriting comes from the critical learned side.

Creative side is always a better writer. But again, this is different for every writer no matter what level. Some writers never rewrite other than to fix a few typos, others do a dozen drafts, and both sell. Those professionals have figured out what is best for them. But if a younger writer listens to someone who says you MUST rewrite everything, it could kill that writer’s voice. This rule is just flat destructive. Keep your guard up on this one. Experiment on both sides and then do what works for you, what sells for you.

2) “You must have an agent.”

This is such bad advice for such a large share of writers these days, it’s scary.

These days there are many ways of not using or needing an agent.

—Using an intellectual copyright attorney is one way. Cheap and you don’t have to pay them 15% of everything.

— Doing it yourself is fine as well.

— Indie publish it and let editors come to you.

3) “Editors don’t like (blank) so you shouldn’t write that way.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many thousand times I have answered questions like “Can I write in first person? Editor’s don’t like that.” No rules, just write your own story with passion and then figure out a path to get it to readers.

If the readers don’t like it, they simply won’t buy it. No big deal. Stop worrying about what editors or agents want and write what you want. And then let readers decide.

Be an artist. Protect your work and don’t let anyone in the middle of it.

Think for yourself, be yourself, write your own stuff. No rules.

4) “It’s a tight market so you need to do (blank).” or “I need to figure out a way to get my fiction noticed in the noise.”

You want a secret? It’s always been a tight market and there has always been noise.

Right now there are more books being published every year than ever before, more markets, more ways for writers to make money. This silly “tight market” statement always sounds so full of authority coming from some young agent or editor. And it will drive a new writer into doing a dozen rewrites on a novel for someone who really doesn’t know what they are talking about and couldn’t write a novel themselves if forced to at gunpoint.

Again, my suggestion is stop letting others into your work and get it to readers. Let readers find it.

Truth: Publishing and readers are always looking for good books and new writers. And it has always been tight in one way or another. And there has always been noise.

Focus on what you can control such as how much you write, the quality of your own work, and where and how you get it to the most readers.

A Brand New World

Right now publishing is going through some major changes, all rotating around distribution for the most part. Writers have been so shut out with the system in New York that they are turning more and more to taking control of various aspects of their own work with indie publishing. POD and electronic publishing is allowing authors to become both writer and publisher and electronic distribution is allowing readers to find more work from their favorite writers, often either new work, dangerous work, or work long out of print..

This new area of publishing is quickly becoming full of “rules” and future myths. For the longest time publishing your own work was looked down on by “the ruling class” (whoever they are). Now, except for a few holdouts in the basements of the Church of Luddite, writers are taking the new technologies and running with them.

Common sense: It takes a lot of practice to become a professional-level storyteller. You may think your first story or novel is brilliant because you rewrote it ten times and your workshop loved it, but alas, it might not be. In this new market, just as in the old one, the readers will judge. Let them, either through traditional channels or indie publishing. And then write the next book and the next and keep working to become better. Keep writing and learning.

It’s called “practice” which is a term most writers hate.


As I said above, writers tend to have this fantastic need for rules. We all want to make some sort of order out of this huge business. And actually, there is order if you know where to look and how to look. So instead of giving you rules, let me help you find order without myths and rules.

1) Publishing is a business. A large business run by large corporations in traditional publishing or your own home business when you are indie publishing. But it is always a business. If you remember that, learn basic business, understand corporation politics and thinking, learn copyrights, most everything that happens anywhere, from bookstores to distributors to traditional publishers, will make some sort of sense. Don’t take anything personally. It’s just business and that is the truth.

2) All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.

3) Learning and continuing to learn is critical. This business keeps changing and the only way to stay abreast of the changes is to go out and keep learning and talk with other writers and find advice that makes sense to you and your way. Go to workshops, conferences, conventions and anything else you can find to get bits of learning. Read everything you can find about the business and the craft of telling great stories.

My goal has always been to learn one thing new every week (at least). I’ve been doing that since my early days and it has worked for me, and kept me focused on learning. Find what works for you.

I know those three things don’t seem to give you any secrets, don’t really show you the path to selling and getting readers to really want your work. But actually, they do. And if you just keep them in mind and don’t allow yourself to get caught in strange rules and myths, you will move faster toward your goal, whatever that goal in writing may be.

It’s your writing, it’s your art. Stop looking for the secrets and stand up for your work.

Trust your own voice, your own methods of working. Get your work to editors who will buy it. Or indie publish it and let readers buy it. Or both.

And if your methods are not producing selling work that readers love, try something new.

Keep learning. Keep practicing your art.

The only right way in this business is your way.

Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Dennis Crow/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. 

I make my living with my writing, as I have said above. Sometimes I write these for fun, to entertain myself, sometimes I write them to help others.

Either way, 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. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal



  • Sondra Turnbull

    Thank you, Dean. It is only now that I am ready to hear what you are saying, so I’ve found you at the perfect time. But everything does happen at the perfect time, whether it’s a random snip of conversation that I overhear or a video popping up on my YouTube feed. I’ve heard your name and mentions of “Killing the Sacred Cows…”, but only now feel relaxed into myself enough to read your blog at a measured pace – which is progress for me as skimming seems to have been a way of life. So again, thank you for being generous with your knowledge. Know, that from my little corner of the world, it is appreciated.

  • Joel D Canfield

    In the far distant past (three years ago, probably) I stumbled on this series, glanced at the titles, and assured myself I already understood.

    Now that I’m in the maelstrom of realizing that my attempts at noir are far closer to chick lit, I’m settling in to read the entire series slowly and deliberately, so I can soak in as much help from the others as I’ve already gotten from this one.

    Big Takeaway: let readers decide what they like. (Is this because my readers all seem to be Superfans? I don’t know. Yet.)

  • TM O'Leary

    Hi Dean,

    Just found your website, thanks to Joanna Penn blog. Thank you for posting. I’m going to take your advice, “Truth: Publishing and readers are always looking for good books and new writers.” and paraphrase it to keep it in mind, “become a good storyteller and own the story”. That being said however, I am still trying to get my ‘Against Cosmic Odds’ story off the launch pad.