On Writing,  publishing

The Magic Bakery: Chapter One

Chapter One…

Digging down into all the vast areas of how writers sell books and the business of selling fiction, I figured the best way to start this would be on the surface, explaining some real logical, but forgotten (by writers), business concepts.

So an example: A young writer (not in age, but in experience) writes and finishes a first novel. And somehow manages to avoid all the traps of rewriting and letting a peer workshop kill the book. Fantastic!

This is a real event and once published should be celebrated. First novels are important to every writer. Get copies out to family, tell friends where the book can be bought, and then go back to writing the next book.

But sadly, the book sells almost no copies. A few to family and friends and nothing else. No one is reading it. And this is the problem of the new world of indie publishing.

Discouragement for no logical reason. You wrote a book your first readers like, why isn’t it selling? And pretty soon the young writer is so discouraged they quit.

Now there are lots of reasons that first novel might not be selling, actually. But the main one concerns the magic bakery. And basic business.


In the old days of traditional publishing only, over ten years ago now as I write this, there was only one path into publishing a book and getting it to readers to buy.

The path was simple: You somehow, through some form, got the book to an editor. This took time and often lots of rejections. Years and years of time.

So the advice back then was to mail the book to someone (editor, agent, subway rat who knew someone who could buy the book for a publisher) and then go back to writing the next book.

This process often took so long and was filled with so many rejections, a writer either quit (most) or kept writing and got better. My first sold novel was my third written novel.  And my fourth written novel never saw the light of day.

The time it took allowed writers with drive to improve skills and keep writing. The system forced it.


There is no system. No one forces a writer to wait to get a book out to readers and no writer should wait. That old system of gatekeepers was too stupid for words.

But now the young writer puts the book out there and there are no sales.

What could be wrong? Why doesn’t the book sell?

Clearing out some basic reasons first…

… Your cover sucks and looks like a beginner did it or the art.

… Your sales blurb is so long, so full of plot, and so passive it puts readers to sleep.

… Your opening is so thin, so full of action with no depth, no one would buy it.

… You don’t know genre and put the book on the wrong shelf in the electronic stores.

But sure, you might have those things wrong, you fix them, and your book still won’t sell.

Why not?

The Magic Bakery is why not.


In early 1977 I decided I wanted to start a used bookstore while I was going to college for a degree in architecture. And not an antiquarian bookstore, but a type of bookstore I had seen starting up in California when I was a golf professional. Basically a paperback exchange.

This was a fairly new concept in 1977 and it sounded like fun. But I had one major issue. I had maybe 400 books I wanted to part with in my collection. So the idea was sort of just a pipe dream until one day I was going up the escalator into my bank when I saw a small for-rent sign on a big metal door at the top of five stairs at the top of the escalator.

You turned right to go into the bank, the stairs went up to the left and to this big metal fire door. I went through the big door into a small lobby. An attorney had a large office ahead, a doctor to the left, and down a dark hallway was the For Rent sign.

An office smaller than most kid’s bedrooms. $75 per month. I was hooked.

My wife-at-the-time wanted nothing to do with the idea of starting a business. She was working on her masters. So I promised her I would keep the spending under $200 to start it. I rented the place for $100 for a month counting the deposit, bought about $50 in old pine lumber and built shelves to fill the place. Every wall and in the middle of the small room as well. I bought a used desk for $10 and then took up my 400 books. They looked really, really sad.

Almost the entire store was empty. Pathetic didn’t begin to describe it.

So I told my wife-at-the-time I needed to go buy some books and headed out that weekend to find books around the Pacific Northwest. I managed to bring home another thousand paperbacks.

I spent more than $200, but not part of our household funds. I had been playing on blackjack teams in Vegas for a number of years before I met my-then-wife and never told her I had money in cutout paperbacks in my book collections that I had been using to pay for college. The rule about my books was that if they were in a bag, no one touched them. No one bothered to ask me how I could get through college without a loan and only worked a few nights tending bar and driving school bus. Her parents paid for her expenses.

(I finally told her a few years ago. She is still a friend.)

So I took three hundred out of my own “college fund” and bought the books. They still looked very sad in the room full of empty shelves.

I hung out a sign. No one came at first. Nothing to come for.

So I kept searching for more books, garage sales, you name it, and slowly people started to find the little store down the hall. And I had enough books by that point to sell them or trade them something.

Eventually I grew out of that room, took over the big lawyer’s office and then a year later moved the store into its own building down on the street. All while finishing my masters in architecture and then starting law school.

Magic Bakery

The young writer has their one finished book. It is up for sale and no one is buying. Covers, blurbs, opening, and self problem fixed.

No one is buying the book.

Why not?

Imagine you are a customer and you see this great sign for a bakery. Makes your mouth water at the idea of getting something.

You go in. The bell on the door jingles and around you are massive empty shelves and display cases.

All empty except for up near the cash register is this one pie.

If you were the customer, what would you do? Be honest…

You would turn around and walk out, of course. No way are you going to buy from a bakery that only has one product sitting there all alone.

There is no magic to this concept. It is just a logical customer reaction.

You have no product yet.

But that can be fixed…

Now if you stay writing, creating, you will slowly fill the shelves and display cases.

And since in the magic bakery nothing spoils, eventually the shelves and the cases will be full. And as you do get more product, some people will stay and buy.

I have over 300 different products in my magic bakery. And many of the products are in different forms.

You know the business concept at play: Selection and flavors. Things to bring the customers to the register to buy.

This concept is not so magic. It is just logical business.

So if you are discouraged about your first or third novel not selling what you hoped, just think of that big empty bakery and go back to writing. Given enough time, you will fill it.

Or at least get enough product in the bakery so that people will start buying as they did in my little bookstore.


  • Sheila

    I’m working on filling my magic bakery. It can seem like such a slow process, glacially slow at times, but I know I need to keep at it. The more I publish, the more I sell.

    Thanks for starting these posts, Dean. I’m looking forward to them.

  • Linda Adams

    So true about why a book doesn’t sell. Several years back, I followed another writer on Twitter. He had 8,000 followers. You’d think that’d translate into some serious sales.


    One day he emailed me and asked for a review. At the time I was writing an action-adventure thriller. He said his story was an action-adventure thriller. I looked at a sample. The writing was pretty poor, and he’d not even paid a proofreader. I turned the review down flat after that first chapter, not because of the lack of editing–he had the wrong genre. He called it an action-adventure thriller because he had an action scene near the end. It was a fantasy/mystery. I tried to say it wasn’t for me, writer demanded more, so I told him it wasn’t the genre he said it was, and he had a meltdown. A few months later, he quit novels because, even with those 8K follows, he wasn’t selling anything. Last I heard he was trying short stories, but more likely, he’s not around any more.

    The worst is that a lot of writers don’t understand how much of a difference things like having basic copy editing, or identifying the correct genre can make.

  • John D. Payne

    The fourth novel you wrote never saw the light of day, huh? Well… Do you still have it? Because that sounds like the kind of problem that can be corrected easily in this new world of publishing. 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Nope, all gone. But I used the old idea from it and wrote the Ghost of a Chance series novels. So it had a life, just not in the form I wrote it. (grin)

  • Leah Cutter

    Just sent someone to this post this morning. British writer who had ONE BOOK and wanted the help of my publisher to make more sales. He’d done a bunch of book trailers, and still no sales.

    Gosh. Wonder why?

    Think post this might go on my permanent link list.