On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Topic of the Night: Can’t vs Don’t

Can’t vs Don’t

Over the last month or so I’ve been seeing tons of writers talk about how they can’t do this or that aspect of publishing. All I have been doing is shaking my head and mostly turning away.

I kind of equate this to saying I wanted to be a professional fiction writer when I started in 1974, but I couldn’t mail a manuscript to an editor. Pretty much a terminal problem for a career when I started off.

So let me start off with giving you one thing you absolutely can’t do (in my opinion.) You can’t do your own copyediting. We writers just can’t see our own mistakes.

But past that one exception, there is nothing any person who really wants to be a writer and build a career in this new world can’t learn how to do.

But… But… But…

Before I get a ton of excuses, reasons, and other stuff like that, hold your anger and your critical voice and let me go on for a moment. Please?

First off, I need to explain what I see developing for a writer in this new world of publishing.

With discoverability difficult, with no real way to even manufacture or promote yourself into a bestseller anymore, the writer of today going forward is going to have to build a career slowly. And build it on quality storytelling and productivity.

In other words, the writing world has returned to what it used to be. When I came in, the standard was that if you were prolific and could keep learning and getting better and were persistent, you could start making a small living in ten years or so.

Now, with the indie road to sudden riches gone, writers must learn numbers of things to survive in this new world and start making a living with their writing.

— A writer must be prolific. Long gone are the one-book-a-year writers making decent money (past the crop of older traditional bestsellers still going.)

— A writer must be a good small-business person. Long gone are the days when you could have an agent take care of you.

— A writer must learn sales language and be able to understand sales. Long gone are the days when a sales department did all the work for you.

— A writer must learn how to do all their own production. Long gone are the days when you mailed off a manuscript and it came back a finished book a year later.

So now a writer must be a writer, publisher, production person, and a sales person, all balanced and wrapped together in tight, but separate spaces.

That’s the reality I see going forward for writers.

Can’t Do That…

So as I hear writer after writer utter the words…”I can’t…” I realize that they just cut their already tough chances of making a living with their writing down.

Way down.

The word “Can’t” is a negative word, mostly based out of fear of the unknown. It seldom has an reality past great rationalization of the person uttering the word.

So what are some of the many, many things I hear writers saying they can’t do? Here are the main ones.

— I can’t indie publish. (Add in all the fear reasons.)

— I can’t do my own covers.

— I can’t upload my books.

— I can’t put my books on anything but KU on Amazon. (You will not believe the rationalizations and short-term thinking with this one.)

— I can’t do a paperback edition.

— I can’t promote to and get my books into bookstores.

— I can’t write more than one book a year.

— I can’t learn business. (The reasons for this are the most funny ones.)

— I can’t write a short story (or novel… take your pick.)

— I can’t promote myself or my work. (Usually followed by, “I just don’t feel right about it.”)

And on and on. You might want to have your friends and family start writing down every time you say you can’t do something. Saying you can’t do something is a stunningly effective self-fulfilling way to keep you from doing something.

Unless anyone following this is more blind than I am, you can do all of the above with a belief system and some learning.

In other words, you DON’T do them because you believe you CAN’T. Just a belief system that you will defend like a religion when pressed.

Why is this Important?

For a few years, I believed that every writer needed to do everything but copyedit in this new world. Then for a while I went away from that and thought that hiring help might be a good idea.

Now I am back to believing that if a writer wants to succeed in this new world, AT FIRST they need to learn how to do everything.

Why have I gone back to that stance? Pretty simple and clear.

— Unless you know how to do a cover and have studied how to do them and studied covers in your genre, if you hire one done, you won’t know if it’s good or bad. I have seen so many really bad covers on indie books that the writer was proud to have paid hundreds of bucks to get.

— Unless you have learned business, you won’t know when someone is taking advantage of you. And trust me, you will get taken.

— 15 minutes per day writing 250 words is a 90,000 word novel a year. If you can’t manage more than 15 minutes a day writing, you shouldn’t be thinking of making your living with your writing.

— You can just keep believing the hype if you want about how only the magic dust of traditional publishers can get books into the bookstores, but you can do it as well if you are willing to learn how.

— Doing a paperback edition is simply learning how to lay out a book in InDesign. Lots of free or cheap tutorials out there on how to do that.

— Doing your own covers takes time and study, and you might need to get InDesign every month, or use PowerPoint. And study covers and take some tutorials out there on the web on how to do them.

You need to know how to do all of that before you can safely hire help. And then know that the work the help is doing is up to your standards.

So you can keep saying “I can’t do that. But I can hire it done.”

And I will look at you knowing you have just crippled your chance of success. Not counting that in the early days of any business, spending that kind of money is just a bad business decision.

But if you say, “I did my first twenty book covers and got them out before I hired help.” I will know you are on the right track.

(By the way, I did the first 200 books plus of WMG Publishing before we hired our first bit of help.)

So Can’t vs Don’t

A better way of stating this bluntly:

I want to be a professional fiction writer but I don’t want to spend the time and energy to learn how to do it in this new world.

The writers who are starting now who learn how to do everything themselves to start off with (before hiring help) will be the writers with the best odds of still publishing and making a living ten and twenty years from now.

Check in with your own excuses and give them a hard look.

Just might be what kicks you to the next level in this business.

And don’t forget to have fun. If you CAN’T have fun making stuff up and getting people to give you money for doing that, you are really, really in the wrong place.

So stated positively… Have fun.

Have fun with the writing.

Have fun with the learning.

Have fun with the production.

Have fun with the business.


  • Kate Pavelle

    I’d agree with that! I can now do everything (except audio, and I’m working on that.). That being said, after a cover that killed the sales, and a re-do that left my narrator so appalled that he sent me his own indie effort, I batted this one cover to a modestly-priced cover pro that came with good recommendations. Apparently, I’m like the NSA. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should 🙂 I could’ve written a novella in the time it took me to select the cover art and fuss with it two times over, and I could’ve paid a proof reader with the cover art licensing money. HOWEVER, had I not suffered through making many awful (and several decent) covers, I wouldn’t have realized that the current cover doesn’t work, and why. (The newly-made cover communicated the genre all right, but was too 1990’s, I’m told by a whelp who isn’t old enough to remember Fabio 🙂 ) So yes, learn to do covers. It’s fun.

  • Vera Soroka

    I think if you live in a I can’t world you will have a hard time getting anywhere in life because you will be stuck in your own bubble. You have to go outside of it and take chances. I think apart of it is fear of failure. We all have failure in our life. Some of us have more than others. The thing you have to do is learn from it and embrace it and move on. There is nothing wrong with failure. It makes you a stronger person.
    With writing in the indie world, there is a lot to learn as you’ve listed. Since I’m just starting out, I am doing everything myself, including the copyediting. I think it’s a good thing to learn to make your writing better and cleaner. I’m not saying you should never hire a copyeditor and proof reader. But when you are starting out and have no money, you learn those skills. I have just recently been approached by another writer who is interested in becoming a possible first reader and I’m excited about it and hope that it works out as it is nice to have a second set of eyes on your work. It’s nice to hear some sort of feedback. Especially when you are just starting out. We’ll see where it goes.
    I don’t know if I will ever make a living at this and there are no guarantees. Even if your book has the best cover and best blurb, you are still not guaranteed to make anything. A lot of the books that are making it big right now, are not the best written. (At least that is my opinion and by some of the reviews, I’m not alone). Some are even riddled with errors and such but they sale. Why? Because there is something there that grabs certain readers and they tell others and word of mouth spreads like wild fire. Plus they are prolific writers. They write fast and publish fast. They have locked into something and they are running with it. I don’t blame them. As one comment I read over on The Passive Voice said, it only takes one connection with a reader and they start the ball rolling. Of course to find that reader can be like trying to find a needle in the hay stack.
    But if you live in that I can’t world, you will never know what you can possibly have in your career if you don’t step outside and give it a shot because you just might find that reader hiding in the haystack.

  • Jason M

    You actually can do your own copyediting if you wait a few weeks after the final draft. It’ll feel like it was written by somebody else.

    Still, it’s easier to hire out.

    • dwsmith

      You will still never find what a copyeditor will find. Also, you can barter this with another person. So costs shouldn’t stop you.

      • Patrick R

        Hi Dean

        You mean just find some – whatever – way of having another person look it over, sort of like Kris does for you as first reader (and only reader?) before going ‘out to WMG….or does WMG then do copyedit?



        • dwsmith

          WMG has a copyeditor for me (and other projects) on payroll. And WMG also uses two freelance copyeditors at times.

    • Elise M. Stone

      I’m going to side with those who say it’s possible to be your own copyeditor, if necessary. For my first book, I followed all the advice about professional cover and professional copyedit. It took me about six months to realize the cover wasn’t very good. I paid for a new one when I was having the cover done for the second book. I got sample edits from six copyeditors before choosing one. Three of them made an egregious error and corrected something that wasn’t wrong. And those weren’t the cheapest ones.

      I learned a lot from the copyedit of that first book. Mostly I learned what my most common errors were so that I wouldn’t make them again. I’m not sorry I spent the money, but that book will never break even because I spent so much on it, and now it’s a permafree funnel to the rest of the series. The second book I used beta readers, but they didn’t find many copyedit-type errors. I ran the book through AutoCrit, which picked up some of my other bad habits. On the third book, I had a friend who used to be an editor before she retired volunteer to edit the book for free. You get what you pay for. I corrected more errors than she did when I went through the book again to put in her corrections.

      A few months ago, I came to generally the same conclusions that you state in this post. I have no more money to sink into production costs. My latest series, I’m bootstrapping. I learned how to use Gimp and design my own covers. I’ve always done my own formatting. (Scrivener makes this easy once you get over the learning curve.) I use every technique in the book to get a clean copy. I own and use the Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and The New Well-Tempered Sentence, among others. I still use AutoCrit as a check and, if I’m so inclined, I dump a copy into Word and see what it has to say. (But I know enough about grammar and usage to not trust all its recommendations.)

      Would I prefer to hire a copyeditor? Sure. If I could find one who didn’t cost an arm and a leg and still knew what they were doing. And if I had the money for it, which I don’t. I’m hoping this new series will earn enough to start doing that later this year.

      I found your series of posts on writing fiction sales copy last summer a revelation and review them before writing my book descriptions. I have print copies of my books in an indie book store on consignment. I’ll investigate more print distribution after I get more books written. That’s my priority for this year: write more books.

      Oh, and I’m one of those writers who can’t write short stories. I’ve written a very few, even sold a few copies. But I still freeze up when I think about writing short. In an attempt to motivate myself, I’ve signed up for a short story challenge in June so I have a deadline and accountability to someone other than myself.

      • Jason M

        Hey Elise, we do things roughly the same — but I’d advise using InDesign for covers. It’s worth the $30 a month, and you can do several in one month, then discontinue it, if you want to save money.

        If you want to exchange copyediting services, hit me up at jasonwriter1111@gmail.com. I’m a pro, and you sound like you’ve put a lot of effort into learning too.

  • Jeremy M

    Hi Dean,
    How many books and short stories should an indie writer be producing on a yearly basis to have a shot at a sustainable career these days? Assuming the writer is doing a competent job at publishing/sales/business.

    Thank you, as always, for telling it like it is.

    • dwsmith

      Honestly, Jeremy, I would say a solid base would be four major books a year, put out regularly, such as quarterly. Major book means novel or something large like that (and novels can be 40,000 words these days as well, so not major in length, just major in a product.) And it sure would not hurt to have a short story a month in between the major books, so you have something regular to talk about. That would be a good base in my opinion. Only my opinion.

      But like the old pulp days, these days the more you can produce, the better off you are in sales and discoverability, assuming other factors are done correctly as well.

      • Tom B

        Great stuff Dean. I check in with you periodically , knowing you will pimp “pulp” at some point. And it always re-energizes me when you challenge us to think CAN and DO. What we all would give to be 20 years younger!

        • dwsmith

          Hey, Tom, I started over at around 60 years old. You can do it too. Thanks for the kind comments.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    Tip: If your full time employers offers any business training, take it all! Mine has short online courses of 1-2 hours, and a continually updated library of books. This year, I’m taking marketing, risk management, sales, and problem solving. I also check out that library to see what’s new.

    It’s amazing in comparison to other writers and hearing what they say. On one list I’m on, the writers are all about promotion, but not writing. They’re just trying to promote the one book they finally eeked out and got up. On the other list I’m on, the writers are about writing, but mostly about revising and proud that they got 800 words for the week. They’re astounded at my productivity–one short story a week, work on novel (to be done by August 31 or sooner, I hope), and to get up to 20 ebooks published from my stock (I have 11 up). Mostly, those are waiting on the copy editor. And I still feel like I should be doing better than I am. I still have to do the hard cover versions, but there’s some skill gaps I’m dealing with, and I don’t want to let those hold up at least getting out ebooks. Then there’s audio books next … And I’m working on my time management skills, too.

    And meanwhile, there are writers bragging that their novel took 10 years to write …

    • dwsmith

      Linda, yeah, afraid the myths are still really strong out there. I’m starting to realize the myths give the writers who buy into them a sense of value and purpose, even though they don’t accomplish anything. So keep having fun and powering forward. Those people will soon just be in the class of “what ever happened to” writers. That class scares hell out of me. (grin)

  • Irina

    Right on the point. I was a “can’t” person, thanks to my sometimes crippling self-doubts.
    My creative brain got so fed up with Ms Moaning Critical that it started adding “… yet.”
    It was just one word, but it echoed very loudly. My inner monologue of misery became a fun dialog.
    “I can’t do that.”
    “I can’t do that yet. I have to put it on my “To study” list. Allot money and time from my education budget.”
    “What budget?”
    “The box into which I empty my coin purse every evening.”
    “Haha, that’s just change.”
    “Yeah… which is why I never touched it.”

    I counted. It was about 300 Euros in coins. Critical Brain, shut up! (Now I have a planned, dedicated education-budget. But that was my first step.

  • Teri

    Dean, this is probably the wrong place to ask the question, but I may as well ask it publicly instead of private email because (I don’t know why:)

    Anyway, is there a good reason to order the $99 ISBN from Createspace instead of the free, or $10. If you buy the $99, will bookstore owners identify it as Createspace/ Amazon (some of them dislike Amazon)

    • dwsmith


      No reason for the $99 ISBN package. But there is a good reason to do the $10 one. That allows you to put in your own publishing name on the record and not have CreateSpace be the publisher. Just use the $10.00 one.

  • David Haywood Young

    Dean, as is generally the case, I very much enjoyed your post. There are a couple of things I’d quibble about, but in both cases I’d rather believe you than not. So I won’t argue.

    But about the “can’t copyedit your own” notion…maybe it’s difficult for some people. I’ve been doing my own for a while now. Never received a single comment or review that mentioned what readers call “the editing” that wasn’t positive. And yes, I’ve received lots of favorable comments. And yes, I’ve read most of my reviews! (Not sure that was actually ever a good idea on my part, so I’ll move on quickly–maybe before you notice and laugh at me?)

    The copyediting is kind of simple: first, learn some rules. Spend a few years on that part, if necessary. Maybe also learn things like the difference between “diffuse” and “defuse” (for some reason that particular mistake seems to be becoming more common).

    Then print out a work to be edited, or at least put it in some brand-new-to-you format. Then go to the end, and look at each word in the final sentence. In reverse. Then read that final sentence. Mark or make any changes that seem necessary. Then move to the “next” sentence. Proceed to the beginning of the book. Do not ever read more than one sentence at a time. Do not read a sentence front-to-back until first examining every word and punctuoid. Yes, I made that word up, because I wanted one just like it and nobody stopped me.

    For my first novel I also read the whole thing aloud, from a printed copy, and made notes to myself as I went. I recorded all that, and then I listened to it, and made notes on a fresh printout as I went. I haven’t repeated that process with succeeding novels. Maybe I should? Or maybe not.

    Anyway. After I’m done with the above, I give the thing to beta readers, a couple of whom are of the “militant grammar Nazi” persuasion. They find very little.

    Again, no negative-type comments wrt editing. Maybe it could always have been better, with the right copyeditor. Beats me.

    But I’m sticking with my own experience here: it’s not at all -difficult-. It’s just freaking boring. It’s also not something I’m willing to trust to anyone but myself, so I’d just have to do it all again after someone else’s copyedit.

    Could every damn thing I’ve written be improved, in any number of ways? I’m sure of it. But I’ll just keep moving on to new projects instead, and not mess with what seems to be working for me.

    I think I’ve got a lot to learn, in many areas. I don’t think the copyediting process I’m using is turning off readers. But hey, maybe I’m nuts. OTOH I also spent a few decades writing software, and got kind of persnickety about typos in the process…