Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #6… Selling to a Big Publisher Insures Quality

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing will be out 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.

Very few of these chapters will deal 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.

And for this discussion, I’m just going to ignore the silliness of signing a bad contract with a traditional publisher. That’s for another discussion.

For the most part, even though writers hate to admit it, most of the problems in this business (either traditional or indie) are firmly planted on the writers’ side of the equation. You know, things like giving a perfect stranger (an agent) all your money and the paperwork with it and then wonder why you got screwed. Or things like signing a bad contract with any size publisher and then saying your publisher screwed you because they followed the terms of the contract that you signed. 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 chapter 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. And how this myth just causes really, really bad decisions at times.

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

Myth: 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 myth is so flat wrong in so many ways, I’m not sure where to begin. But wow do you hear this everywhere.

In fact, I have seen it even with successful indie-published writers. I have watched in horror as indie writers (making great money) have fallen for this myth by suddenly turning and selling to traditional publishers, even though they would make more money and get to more readers just by continuing on what they were doing.

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 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 Nora 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. Always has.

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 mystery 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. Julie was then and still is, one of the best writers I know.

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 as an editor.

Every editor is exactly the same way, and these days, the restrictions are even narrower because of sales departments and publishers not wanting to take a chance on anything different or unusual. At this point, if you don’t have something that is almost guaranteed to make money, publishers won’t look. They are that scared.

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 writers these days.)

— 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 don’t forget that process often takes years.

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. (Luckily, with indie publishing, things are quickly becoming equal.)

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.

In fact, I don’t know if many of you have noticed, but at this point in time, the traditionally published books are much worse in format and proofing than what indie publishers are doing. Much, much worse.

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.

An ugly secret: Very, very often the editor is the only person in a publishing company who has actually read the entire book.

Sorry, but true. The others have just read samples or pitches for the book the editor put together. Not kidding.

Another ugly secret… I know of a number of books that never got read at all by anyone in the publishing house, just sent in and published. (Yup, traditional publishers are great judges of work, especially when no one reads the book.)

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.

To be honest, 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. And that story would get published and I would have been the only person to read it. 

In the final result, all I was giving the story or 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.

With the state of traditional publishing at the moment, with the slush out-sourced, with editors tied by sales force demands, with companies barely holding on and trying to make changes to electronic sales, 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, but instead it’s the story that has the most marketability according to the opinion of a sales person. Who maybe only read a one page summary of the book.

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

Let me give you a personal example: I have exactly two-hundred-and-fifty (250) 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 almost all of those stories. But thankfully I never believed this part of this myth, or I wouldn’t have kept the stories out there in the mail and eventually sold them.

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 storytelling 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 past blog, I talked about writers just publishing their own book and then mailing the trade paper book 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 in trade paper, it has to be quality before they dare do that. Right?

Nope. Just publish the thing and move on.

But how do they know if it is quality?

And the circular logic goes around and around and around.


Short answer: They don’t. We 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 B&N and Smashwords and iBooks and Sony and Kobo and others and see how many people buy it.

In this new world, it is time to start trusting readers.

Why not do a POD version and use it as part of submission package to a traditional publisher if that is still your goal?

Why not?

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 years 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? 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.

But if you have a bunch of stories done, maybe a novel, and have been working at writing for a time, I think you are more than safe to let readers be the judge.

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. If you’ve been a reporter or worked nonfiction. 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 become a better storyteller? 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.

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.

But you want my honest opinion???

Put the story up and let the readers decide. Right from the first story.

Writers are always the worst judges of their own work.

And readers who pay money always trump any other source of feedback.

So grow a backbone and trust your work and get it out there, either to a traditional publisher or electronically and POD published.

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


No one buys your book, it sinks like a stone because it is a poor story, and eventually (in a couple of years), 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 storytellers. They are not working to become entertainers, but instead they just work on good sentences.  Beginning writers just forget about readers and how readers are the real judges.

There are no repercussions for publishing a book in electronic or POD format and it not selling.

Well, maybe your oversized ego gets bumped some because you believed that you could be as good as Stephen King with your first novel and didn’t have to do the decades of work and learning that King did. Get over it and get learning and practicing.

And what is even more frightening… If you publish a book that doesn’t work, 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.

You think people will notice, you think a bad book will ruin your career. Nope. You have no career to ruin as a new writer.

So what happens…

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, sell it for 99 cents because Locke or someone else without a real  belief in their own work did that, and still no one will buy it because they will look at the sample and think, “Nope this book isn’t for me.” And those readers will not buy it and they will not remember your name.

But if they like it…. Well, that’s another story.


1) Never stop writing and learning. Never think you know it all after a few sales. Never believe you are good enough. Learning in this business never, ever ends.

2) 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) Don’t be in a hurry. This is an international business. You can’t get there overnight. Put your work out for sale one way or another and then focus on the next book. Never look back. Leave the book up and alone. Have a five and ten year plan.

4) Grow a backbone. Believe in your own art without cutting off the learning. No writing is perfect and maybe a few people out there will think it works just fine and enjoy it. No book is perfect.

5) Never do anything that gets in the way of the writing. Stay away from stupid, time-wasting self-promotion beyond your own web site and tiny bit of social media, and just write the next story and the next book.  In other words, be a writer, a person who writes. And rewriting is not writing.

6) 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 on 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 for two 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 Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing.


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. Sometimes I write these for fun, to entertain myself, sometimes I write them to help others.

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  • Helge Mahrt

    What about first publishing rights? I’ve read from other writers that this is a big deal with traditional publishers, and that, if you can’t sell first publishing rights anymore, deals will be a lot worse.

    • dwsmith

      Helge, they are worse period. Contracts are bad these days. I wrote this post a while back and things have really changed for the worse with traditional publishing. And their quality has gotten even worse.

        • dwsmith

          Indie publish. With contracts such as they are these days, I could never recommend a new writer go begging to traditional publishing. If they come begging to you, then you and your attorney have some negotiation power. Otherwise, stick with indie is my recommendation now in the fall of 2015. Another two years, no telling. (grin)

          • Helge Mahrt

            Sorry, I got more doubts after all. 😀
            How do I know when traditional publishing contracts get better again? I mean, if I indie publish and never submit to them, I’ll never get an offer and see a contract. Is that information collected and published somewhere?

          • dwsmith

            Just need to follow different blogs out in the field. For example, I’ll shout here if I start seeing better contracts through authors. Also, the Author’s Guild is taking on these contract issues as well. Just sort of need to find a few sources and watch.

    • dwsmith

      Joel, so far, since I wrote this post, they have gotten worse by far. I now no longer see them getting better in my lifetime.