On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night


Topic of the Night: Perspective

This is just a thought a friend had about why so many great writers are getting discouraged and quitting. He thinks it might have something to do with perspective, and I think he might have a point.

The system when he and I came into publishing worked like this in general: You expected to spend five or so years learning your craft, getting rejections, then eight or ten years into the process you would sell a novel which would take a couple years to come out.

Then, if you wrote regularly a couple books a year, in ten years you might be able to make a living at your fiction if all things went well.

Our perspective was ten to fifteen or more years to making a living. At least.

We hoped it would be faster, but we understood it would not be, and that it might be longer. (It took me 13 years to sell my first novel.)

Then the indie movement hit with the Kindle Christmas of 2008 and then again in 2009 and the gold rush was on. Writers who started or got wrapped up into that period suddenly had success quickly, without regard to writing ability or years of practice, but instead focused on how fast they could mine the gold of the gold rush. What mattered was how many books and what trend could be chased down like a half-dead rabbit.

The perspective of earning a living with your writing went from a 15 to 20 years horizon for success to expecting it in a year.

Expecting it.

That was the key. These new writers expected it and were discouraged when it didn’t happen.

Of course, with any gold rush, all good things must end and now the indie world is a more stable place, with readers no longer buying anything they can load to their new device, but instead looking for good stories presented well, and often in niches.

Indie books now sit side-by-side with traditional books and must be, in many respects better to be noticed.

Earning a living with your fiction has become much, much harder and the time frame has moved back outward to the ten year or beyond levels of expectations. It takes that long to learn how to tell great stories lots of readers will want to buy.

And it takes that long to build a solid, stable small business, which is what writing is these days.

And so many writers, thinking because their sales are low for one year (with no perspective on those sales at all), give up.

When trained to think that success is going to be quick, I can understand why it is almost impossible to move to the ten to fifteen year perspective.

I can’t begin to tell you how many writers I have listened to or heard of who thought they would quit their day job for a year and make a living by the end of it. In the gold rush, some made it for a short time. Now, I doubt that would be possible, yet writer after writer goes after it with the expectation of success in one year.

Let me repeat that: The expectation of success in one year.

When those of us came in under the old system, that one year to success expectation would have been so laughable as to be sad. It is back to being sad today as well.

Perspective… it takes four years just to get an undergrad degree. This is an international profession, yet these writers think one year is enough to conquer it. Head-shakingly silly, yet considering the gold rush years, understandable.

So many of us older writers are comfortable with slow builds, with longer time windows for success. Still doesn’t make it easy, but at least at a deep level we understand it. And we are building our indie businesses on that attitude.

So I think my friend is right, this complete lack of perspective that comes with this indie world is taking a major toll on writers who, if they had had a different starting perspective, might have made it.


Time for indie writers to start thinking about a ten to fifteen year time frame for building a good solid business and storytelling skills. Shift the expectations and thus the chance of success for the long run.


  • Harvey

    Absolutely spot on. And tying into your “little topic” last night, those dreams of making a living quickly with your writing also ascribe great importance to each novel, and it is therefore harder to write in the first place. I’m glad I quickly got over all that nonsense and just settled in to the joy of telling stories. With my age, history and health issues, I’ve already decided if anyone “makes a living” from my writing it will be my children and grandchildren. And that’s fine with me. I get to have the fun of telling the stories.Thirteen novels and well over 100 short stories behind me, and if I meet my goals this year the novels will at least double and the short stories will increase by sixty or so. Thanks to Heinlein’s Rules, writing off into the dark, and understanding the individual story, regardless of length, is not “important.” Thanks Dean.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    I saw the same attitude back when print on demand first came out. I think a lot of it is the internet culture. People can get things a lot faster, so they expect success to be faster, too. Just look at the diet ads on TV. “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days.” People are too busy racing from one thing to another to take the time to do things right. They just want the shortcut, or the secret.

    The craft books and magazines sell this fantasy. I saw way too many articles that were like diet ads: “The 10 Things You Need to Do to Get Published,” and it was often basic beginner level techniques (i.e., eliminate adverbs). It’s a lot easier to say, “Eliminate this” than it is to “Push yourself to learn how to write this better.”

  • Vera Soroka

    Thanks for this reminder. I just uploaded a collection of short stories and I was wondering when I was uploading if anyone would notice them. I have to focus on getting my stuff that I have wrote out and never mind the sales. Right now there is none anyway. I have had absolutely nothing but I don’t have much out and I haven’t gotten into a regular publishing schedule yet. It takes patience and time to build a career. We live too much in a now world and this Indie world of publishing lives in the now world. Everything has to happen in an instant. Somehow as writers we have to get out of that mind set. Thanks for the reminder again.

  • Cora

    Interesting post Dean. Thanks. And even more interesting that you talk about a 4 year undergrad degree. Here in town we’ve got two major universities, and every year the news is filled with stories about recent graduates bemoaning the fact they weren’t immediately snapped up for a six-figure salary. Expectations again. In that sense, writing is really no different than any other career you might choose. You train/study, steadily improve your skills while in the workplace, and then have to continue to work towards reaching the immense success that everyone wants to have. But not everyone wants to put in the time and the effort to get there.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Cora. And yeah, I didn’t want to add in that four year degree problem with getting out and flipping hamburgers.

      When I was tending bar, the last job I had was an interesting mix. We had three bartenders and all of us had higher degrees. And of the seven people working as waitress/waiters in the bar, five had higher degrees and every one had a four year degree. It was an amazing crew and fun. We were all there on the way to doing something else.

      • Prasenjeet

        Hi Dean. Ten-fifteen years is the norm in any profession whether you are an attorney or a writer or an actor. Hell, this much amount of time is needed even for your investments to compound. 🙂

  • Dane Tyler

    As someone who’s always wanted things immediately, and never quite figuring out why I was wired that way, I can completely understand how this would be disappointing or discouraging. I faced similar things when I realized because I wasn’t prolific enough, or didn’t have good enough covers, or didn’t have good enough sales copy, or , I missed the Gold Rush of KDP.

    I later realized I missed the KU 1.0 Gold Rush too. And that made me sick.

    So I climbed back on the writing horse and started writing again. Still having trouble with that, but the way I look at it is, if I don’t follow Heinlein’s Rules, nothing is going to happen, ever. I have to swallow that pill and decide whether I’m doing this for money (if I recall, you compared this to playing the lottery) or if I’m doing it because I want to do this.

    I have to make that decision every time I sit down to write. And I guess for me, the best mentality with the least disappointment is going to be to write for love of writing, and publish for the sake of publishing, doing the best I can to produce a quality product for the entertainment of others. It’s a good mindset for me, because it takes pressure off the writing. (And it stops me worry about the “when? when? when?” part.)

    Ten to fifteen years seems like a reasonable amount of time to invest in a long-term career. But there’s so much insight and wisdom to what you and your friend identify as the perspective problem. Or maybe it should be The Perspective Problem. 🙂

  • Kate Pavelle

    So my 5-year plan isn’t conservative enough. Good to know, actually. I’m not expecting a big breakthrough novel or anything like that, but seeing a slow build is exciting in its own way. And now off to the other computer, so I can put some words down before I tackle a new book cover! Thank you for the perspective, as always.

  • Cynthia Gilbert

    I used to be a professional belly dancer and a part-time dance teacher. In the middle eastern dance world, there are dozens of people who expect to be able to perform professionally in under a year, sometimes after just a few months. It is not unheard of at all for someone to take a few months or even a few weeks worth of lessons and then go out into the world and set themselves up as qualified teachers.

    So someone expecting to make a living from an indie writing career after only a year or thereabouts doesn’t surprise me at all.

    I don’t have a business plan yet. I have only written two novels and some short stories. I’m still learning about my own abilities (and having a great time, btw). I’ve been averaging about 1300 words a day despite the fact that I am a working Mom. This is something that I never ever thought I would be able to accomplish back when I was a silly and pretentious English Major. So I guess my plan is to work at it everyday, have a helluva lot of fun and find out what I can do – then make a business plan.

    I expect it to take years. And that’s okay because it wouldn’t be as rewarding if it didn’t take a long time and if I didn’t still have a lot to learn.

  • Chuck Litka

    Hi Dean, I’m not in the publishing/writing business, so you know far more about it than me. Still, it strikes me that perhaps the writers leaving the field are indeed thinking long term. The barriers to self-publishing are so low that almost anyone can publish. Which is great, but with the flood gates wide open, the flood of new writers and ebooks seem to be swamping the more slowly expanding readership. When supply outpaces demand, prices fall, and in the case of ebooks, I think they’ll fall to free, or close enough to free to make writing for money a very foolhardy business decision. With tens of thousands of free books already available, and many more likely to appear as competition increases and writers struggle to remain visible, free or low priced/no profit bundles will become the norm. Moreover, the Apple/Android app store experience suggests people grow reluctant to pay for a product if similar products are available for free. If readers find free books good enough, they may well decide that any ebook with a price over free is overpriced.
    I’ve seen it suggested that one should write more books a year to counteract fading sales, but this only contributes to the flood, and likely burns out readers faster. I’ve seen the opposite advice as well – go for quality instead of quantity. But quality is subjective and not reliably apparent in a listing or price, assuming anyone gets past the free books. And then there’s that great unspoken secret in the publishing industry – most readers are not really all that fussy. Pedestrian writing, familiar, formula-driven plots, and cardboard characters are readily accepted – it’s just entertainment, after all. There’s 150 plus years of publishing penny dreadfuls, pulps, comic books, paperback originals, and now ebooks to back this up.
    Writing fiction has always been an iffy way of making money, and with rare exceptions, not a lot of it, either. From my perspective, the vastness of the rapidly expanding ebook marketplace will make it downright hopeless. I suspect that writers with success in the gold fields of the early years of self-publishing, are looking at their sales and beginning to read the handwriting on the wall – it’s getting time to strike the tents and push on for the next Klondike.
    Traditional publishing might still follow the old patterns that you recall. But from everything I read, including your wife’s blog, that seems to be a case of being careful what you wish for – wishes sometimes come true. No matter which route a writer takes, there’s not going to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You just have to write for the love of it.

    • dwsmith

      Chuck, as you said, you are on the outside and what you suggested is a myth that assumes a reader will be interested in everything put out. What you suggest is called a zero sum gain and it doesn’t apply in the slightest in publishing and reading. When a reader finds a writer they like, they want more, not less.

      And with search engines, finding any writer is a thousand, no maybe a hundred thousand times easier than it was twenty years ago. Now a reader doesn’t have to haunt used book stores and hope to find a book the moment it arrives, which is what happened in the old system.

      Your premise assumes all readers are stupid and that is far from the case. Readers easily scan past poor books. Readers just never see them.

      So not sure how a few thousand or a few hundred thousand extra books on Amazon can crowd out my book? See how silly that sounds.

      So, sorry, maybe some writers are leaving because of this kind of thinking, but it is false thinking.

      • Frank Powers

        Not only are readers not stupid but most of us have very limited free time. A free book might sound like a good idea but if it stinks it cost me my valuable free time.

        Personally, I don’t even look at free books and I only buy .99 books if I know the author or a book I have been on the fence about goes on sale. I don’t have a lot of time to read so I’m willing to pay. That’s not to say 2.99 or 5.99 equals a good book but it at least shows me the author values their work. If they don’t value it, why would I?

        I may have missed some great authors because of this and I have bought some books I wish I hadn’t. But for the most part it’s served me well as a reader. My time is worth more than a bad free book.

        • dwsmith

          Frank, wow, never heard it put that way, but I also agree as a reader. Thank you. I have no reason to value a book as a reader unless the writer also values the book.

          However, when a book is normally $5.99 and I can get it for a day sale for $2.99, I would go for that. Value is still there in perception.

      • Irina

        I’m pretty sure I read a lot more than most, if not all, human beings can write. If I find an author who entertains me – god, yes, I want more, more, more. Furthermore, I bet there are more readers than writers. Most may not be as voracious as I am, but then again, most writers don’t publish at pulp speed. Furthermore: tastes vary.
        There are successful books that don’t speak to me – but obviously to a whole lot of other people. There are books I love, but my friends’ eyes glaze over, when they try to read it. I can’t be the only one with a different taste out there, or a different resonance.
        Simple math tells me, there can’t be “too much” books out there.

      • Chuck LItka

        Hi Dean, Not to go on and on, but since people don’t have unlimited to read, it can, indeed, be a zero sum game. Casual readers may have time to read each new story from their favorite authors. Avid readers may not.

        The technology that allows readers to easily find a specific author’s books also allows them to discover all sorts of similar books, together with readers’ reviews and sample pages. Heck, there’s suggestions for other books right on your book’s product page. More options for discovery, little or no additional time to read, it’s not hard to imagine many authors will be sharing their customers’ reading time with more and more authors. A zero sum game.

        Yes, readers aren’t stupid. They know what they like. But they may like many different writers, and be curious to discover new ones as well. (That, at least, is what the new writers you’re speaking to, are hoping they are willing to do.) And they can be fickle. You can’t assume they’ll be still buying your books five years down the road.

        Price is a friction point in a purchase, more so for some than others, but still a point to be crossed. There are hundreds of free ebooks in every ebook store in most categories, and thousands under $1, many of which have good reviews. If these competing products are good, it’s hard to beat free, or, on the other hand, hard to make money from free.

        The old system limited the number of books published, and published authors to support prices. That’s no longer the case. Thousands of new writers each year, eager to get their stories to readers and in control of their prices and distribution, are introducing heightened completion for readers’ time and money. It’s never been easy to make money writing, and it’s only going to get harder under the new system.

        And yes, I’m looking at the future of the trade from the outside, but I’m also looking at it without any emotionally or financially investment in selling books. I understand why you might see things differently. That said, I’m merely offering new writers a slightly different take on your thoughts. By all means, write. And get good at it. And don’t expect immediate success or get discouraged by the slowness with which it arrives. I’m not trying to discourage people from writing. The more people who write and publish, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Tell your stories. I’m merely suggesting that anyone getting into the field with the idea of making a living off out it, should take a hard look at what writing fiction has paid in the past and then consider the how this new, wide open marketplace will play out. It’ll work for some, for a while, but then again, so do lottery tickets. But hey, if you enjoy writing, you don’t need to make money doing it – that’s what day jobs are for.

        Thanks for taking time to reply and the chance to share my thoughts. I’ll leave it at this. I enjoy stopping by to reading what you have to say each day.

        • dwsmith

          Thankfully, Chuck, a hundred different studies in the publishing industry have proven you to be flat wrong on this being a zero sum gain. The fact that it isn’t a zero sum gain is why so many older professional writers like me help out new writers. New writers can sell their books and I can sell my books and we don’t compete, especially now that shelf space is unlimited.

          And I disagree that it will get harder under this new system. But it won’t get easier than the old limited gatekeeper system either. And that is where so many new writers get in a fix. The point of my entire perspective blog. It isn’t easier these days.

          Making a living is very possible in fiction writing and thousands and thousands of writers do just that, but it takes time and work and skill, as would and should be expected from an international profession.

  • Michael Kingswood

    “So many of us older writers are comfortable with slow builds, with longer time windows for success.”

    Playing a bit of devil’s advocate, and really meaning no offense here, but maybe that’s causing you to project a bit? Like you said, you were comfortable with the slower pace, then the new world with its fast pace came in and you had to adjust to something that wasn’t quite so comfy. Now it’s slowed down a bit, and you’re back to feeling comfortable again?

    Or maybe not. Like I said, devil’s advocate.

    Still, I’m not entirely sure your point is completely valid. Sure, for someone like me who literally started from scratch right when Indie started kicking off (I had pretty much never written a story before I decided to start writing in December 2010) it’ll take longer. But for someone who already had been writing for a while (just not published) or who, for whatever reason, was good at it, there’s no reason to think it has to take a long time to have success in today’s world. There have been far too many examples of indies going from zero to amazing careers in just the last couple years to just write it off so readily.

    I know, I know. Come talk to you in 10 years, if they’re still around. Got it. But still…

    Clearly, it requires writing chops; always has and always will. But if the chops, the work ethic to produce regularly and quickly, and the ability to analyze the market to determine how to position one’s work to best effect are there, it can happen relatively quickly, and has for a lot of people. Doesn’t mean it will. But it can. And if it can, I’m not sure why that isn’t what one should shoot for.

    Of course, assuming it happens, then one has to sustain, and constantly learn and improve, which are their own hurdles.

    *shrug* Dunno, but I rather think the (very) limited success I’ve seen so far would have been much greater had I gotten off my duff more the last couple years instead of reassuring myself that I was playing the long game. This year I’m going to test that by really hunkering down and hitting the keys like never before.

    I guess we’ll see.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s always appreciated, and there’s always a lot to learn from you.


    • dwsmith

      Michael, not sure how writing more product has anything to do with this. That was the same back in the old day as well. The more you wrote, the more chance you had of making a living. Nothing about that has changed. So I hope you do spend the time and the push to really go after it. That will increase your chances because it is practice and if you combine learning (as you do) with practice, you get better and write better stories and readers like them more and thus more sales.

      So nothing different there. And yes, there have been a lot of examples of indies going from zero to making a living and now are falling away in droves. That was my point.

      Short term is easy. A couple years is easy. Five years is easy. Long term is another matter. Kris and I teach long term, always have, always will. And wow have we taken a bunch of crap for that over the last few years from those in a hurry and who know they are the exception and just know that chasing a trend will make them forever rich and famous. Makes people angry what we teach. Shrug.

      • Robert Gregory Browne

        So true. Back in the “old” days, it wasn’t until I got out of the one book a year habit and started writing several books for various publishers under various pen names that I was able to make a good living. Unless you hit the literary lottery (and most don’t), it was impossible to make a good living on just one book a year. So nothing has really changed in that regard.

  • Frank Powers

    I think there is even more at play.

    You tell us it takes a decade or more to become successful, which is daunting enough, but at least it gives us a goal. Most writing advice tells us not to ever expect to make money at writing. Writing is a business. Can you imagine going into a bank with your business plan and showing a lending officer a plan that says “I’m not planning on making any money, ever”? They’d be telling your story at the company picnics for years.

    I think you’re right about perspective but I think there is more to it than just the ebook gold rush. Not only do writers have unrealistic expectations of quick success, they are being constantly told success isn’t really possible. And that’s not even touching on what success even means.

    For me, success would mean being able to pay my bills doing something I love. While the idea of a decade to reach that goal is daunting it doesn’t put it out of reach. It doesn’t tell me to quit because there is no point. I enjoy writing but I also enjoy eating. Without the idea of success, even long term, I wouldn’t bother considering publishing it.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly Frank. And actually, a decade is about the same time it would take, with a lot less expense, to be making money as a local attorney. Perspective is a tough thing for so many people. Thanks!

  • Linsey Lanier

    Just catching up on this excellent series of posts. Once again Dean and Kris have earned my gratitude (but then they always do).

    I’d like to mention to Frank and others of the same buying mindset, “First in Free” is a marketing strategy for some writers. If you see a free book, I would suggest you check if it’s followed by a series, how many books are in the series, and how many/what kind of reviews the other books have. The prices of those books will show you whether the writer values their work.

    I also want to add that in my house we have a saying: You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too many books. 🙂