Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #7… To Sell You Must Write What Is Hot

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

The Myth:

“To sell either to editors or readers, you must write what is hot.”

This myth stops thousands and thousands of book sales and destroys careers.

And it’s just stupid, even though the myth seems to have a logical base in publishing.

This myth spouts like a bad cold out of the mouths of top professionals all the time in one form or another, and usually with the best of intentions. And it has for as long as I have been in this business.

And beginning indie writers repeat this over and over like it’s a bad chant from a long lost tribe of magic aliens.

But lately, with the advent of the slush-reading lower-level agents and with the indie publishing revolution, this myth has taken on very, very deadly consequences for many writers.

Why? Because they believe it.

Hook, line, and sinker.

So as I do in these chapters, let me take a look at the origin of this myth first.

It Came From the Editors

Actually, the origin is simple. It came about back in the dark old days of traditional-only publishing because editors and agents and publishers want to make an easy sale.

Yes, editors sell books as well. They sell a book they love to their publisher, they sell the book to a sales force, and they ultimately are responsible for selling a book to readers. Books that are different, that don’t fit in what has been done before, are very, very difficult sales for editors and publishers and always have been.

And it has been proven that if a reader likes a certain type of book, they will look for that type of book.

Now remember, publishers need so many books per month in this churn of book lists, so they have to find books to buy, and when they can find an easy-sell book, it makes their job easier.

And it’s human nature to want to have your job be easier.

Of course, easy-sell books are usually pretty flat. (Not always, but usually.) They are often following a trend. The books tend to do little if anything new, which is why they are easy sells. And never remembered.

Another book bought by a more gutsy editor has already paved the way. Easy-sell books are also easy to promote. “If you liked ‘X Book’ you’re going to love ‘X Book Almost-The-Same.’”

Easy sell. Editors and publishers and corporate sales forces love them.

Now understand, I wrote a ton of easy-sell books. Media books such as Star Trek have a pretty set audience a publisher can depend on. So when Pocket Books came to me to write some Star Trek novels, they knew exactly what the book would sell and so did I. Easy, no thought on the publisher’s part.

What was a hard-sell book was Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. It took John Ordover years of fighting to get that series going and the fact that Pocket Books kept it going for ten years was not because of sales, but reasons of relationships with readers and Paramount.

Interestingly enough, over the history of publishing, the really monster books, the ones that people talk about and remember for decades, were not easy-sell books. Often they would have fifty or more rejections before finding an editor willing to work for the book and a publisher took a chance. Then (when the book became a hit) it was called new and fresh and readers loved it.

And hard-sell books are flat impossible to get through agents in this new world. Agents give up submitting books after four or five rejections and often drop clients who force them to submit books that are not easy-sell books. (Remember, these days agents work for publishers, not writers.)

And even worse, writers allow agents to have them rewrite their work to make it more of an easy-sell, thus killing any original work in the book.

And when somehow that fresh idea, fresh book does get through an editor and gets published, (In this new world, more than likely indie published first), it will spawn (like a bad horror movie) thousands of “easy sell” books.

But no one has made much of a long career writing only easy-sell books, because the target just keeps moving. One day one topic is hot, the next day the next topic is hot.

As a writer, if you try to chase that “hot-topic easy-sell” thinking, you might sell a few books, but you are lost in short order.

But then comes editors and agents sitting on panels at writer’s conferences telling new writers what they are looking for, what’s selling, what isn’t selling. In all honest truth, as an editor, I didn’t know what I wanted to buy until I read it.

And as an editor for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds for ten years, I constantly told writers I hated the character “Q” from Next Generation. But I always ended up buying a “Q” story because some writer wrote one so well, with such a fun twist, that I couldn’t not buy it.

Attempting to write what is hot isn’t a new trend. It has been around since the beginning of this business. And the myth that you need to write what is hot, what is selling is as deadly today as it was fifty years ago. Honest, even in the new world of indie publishing, this myth will just kill your career and the fun in your writing fairly quickly.

So why is this myth so deadly?

The answer to that question is back in the writer’s office. Each writer is different. Every chapter in this book I have been pounding that simple fact home.

Every writer is different.

Let me say that one more time:

Every Writer is Different!!!!

And what makes your books interesting to readers is YOU.

I have also warned about taking the YOU out of your work over and over in these chapters as well. You can’t see or hear your voice because to you it sounds dull because you hear it all the time. So when you rewrite something to death, you are taking the “you” out of your work.

And your ideas might seem dull because guess why???? They are yours!!!  Duh. They are as unique as you are, as how you write the ideas down.

But then you go trying to imitate some other writer, try to write what is “hot” because some editor or agent or writer’s board told you that is what is selling. So what do you do? You take the YOU out of your work and it becomes mundane and just like everything else and won’t sell.

Or if it does sell, it vanishes in the flood of sameness.

A SIMPLE RULE: In fiction, sameness and dullness do not sell.

Yet when a new writer hears an editor or agent or a bunch of writers on a writing board tell them what they “should” write to sell more, the young writer goes home and attempts to imitate the book everyone said they are looking for. They create nothing unique, nothing new, nothing of themselves. They write the same boring old crap that has already been done to death.

And this gets even worse in the circle-jerk thinking of places like online indie boards. You see talk about writing what is selling the most at the moment. That is the quickest way to writer death I have ever seen. It quickly forces a writer to get frustrated because “It was supposed to sell and make me millions, just like George R.R. Martin, but I only sold three copies last month.”

So How Do You Solve This Problem?

Simple: Kick all the editor and agent and online board voices out of your writing office and write what makes you passionate or angry or excited.

Or as Stephen King has said, “Write what scares hell out of you.”

Some basic guidelines on how to do this:

1) Never talk about your story with anyone ahead of time.

Their ideas, unless you are very experienced, will twist your original story into partially their story.

2) For heaven’s sake, never, ever let anyone read a work-in-progress.

Totally stupid on so many levels I can’t even begin to address. If you want to collaborate, make sure you have a collaboration agreement, otherwise, keep your work to yourself until finished.

And wow does this apply to workshops. Never show a work-in-progress. Ever. Trust yourself for heaven’s sake and learn how to be an artist.

3) Never think of markets or selling when writing.

Enjoy the process of writing and creating story. When the story is finished, then have someone read it and tell you what you wrote and then market it.

I get this question more than any other question. Should I write this to sell? Should I do this to have a career? And so on and so on. Folks, write what you want to write. Every writer is different and if you celebrate that difference, you will eventually find an audience.

4) Follow Heinlein’s Rules, especially #3 about never rewriting.

In other words, fix mistakes and then mail it and trust your own voice, your own work. Never rewrite to anyone’s suggestions, especially a workshop.

And never use the word “polish” in front of me. When you take a unique piece of work and polish it, you make it look like all the others. And that’s dull.

5) When an editor says they are looking for a certain type of book, ignore it.

They are just trying to be helpful to all the new writers looking for shortcuts to getting published. There are no shortcuts.

When agents say what they think will sell to editors, just laugh. I mean laugh really, really, really hard. They have less of a clue what will sell than anyone in the business, bar none. If agents really knew, they would write it themselves and keep all the millions.

I had an eye-opening moment one year when I asked a major agent what was the last book the agent read for pleasure. The agent couldn’t remember because it had been years. The agent only had time to read what his/her clients were sending. Yet I heard this same person sit on a panel in front of a large group of beginning writers and go on about what the trends in reading were and what was selling in publishing. And yet they hadn’t read a single book by anyone but their own clients. Yeah, trust that person’s opinion to really make a career. Head-shaking it is so stupid.

6) Get passionate and protective of what you write.

It’s your voice, your work, for heaven’s sake, grow a backbone and stand up for it.

Sure, in the first million words you are going to need all sorts of help with craft and storytelling issues. Go learn that and take it in and study and practice and get feedback. And never stop learning. Make learning a regular part of your writing life.

But don’t rewrite anything beyond fixing typos and mistakes. When you write a story or novel, trust yourself, trust your own art, and get it out to readers in one way or another.

Protect it from all who want you to write what they think you should have written.


So, in short, I am telling you flatly and bluntly to ignore any advice from any person about what is selling, what is hot, what you should write.

Write your own stories.

And if you do write your own stories, protect them from others, believe in them, and mail them to editors or get them up for readers to buy, you may be the next big thing and then thousands and thousands of writers will be trying to imitate you.

And they will fail, because there is only one of you.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Dennis Crow/Dreamstime

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