On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Topic of the Night: One Reader

ONE READER: New and Old World

I have been been just sort of thinking through different aspects of the new world of publishing compared to the old world. And adding in what is success in this new world and time and other factors.

It has been kind of fun and I hope to continue approaching this from different angles at times. Not all the time, just at times.

So for a moment here, I want to be clear on the summary of some of the clear differences between when I sold my first novel in 1987 (not first novel written) and the world now.

First, what was happening thirty years ago for me.

— For 13 years before 1987, I had been working on my writing and submitting my stories and a couple of novels. I knew it was going to take that long and I was fine with it most of the time.

(Note: I will be serializing my first novel sold coming up in Smith’s Monthly with only a couple of character names changed. Nothing rewritten at all. So anyone supporting me on Patreon or subscribing to Smith’s Monthly will get that novel to see how far I have come since 1987. (grin) It’s still a pretty fine book, which surprised me.)

— I sold my first novel to one reader in 1987. At that point Kris was the only other person who had read it. So on the day I got to go out and party after the editor called, it was because two people had read the book. No one else read the book for 14 months.

— In 1987 I gave no thought to readers. Not one thought. And I didn’t know until 1990 or so how many copies the first book had actually sold. And they were copies sold, not readers. Never occurred to me, not once, to think of those books sold as readers three years later. They were just copies sold on a royalty report. Just as I never think about the 17 million copies of my books I have in print as 17 million readers buying my books. I clearly have a disconnect that still comes from that old world.

— Over the years of the one hundred plus novels I sold in traditional publishing, I had, in my mind, 14 readers, meaning editors who bought those one hundred plus novels. That’s right, I sold and focused all my attention on 14 readers. Period. Over an entire twenty year period. (Sounds too strange to believe in this modern world, doesn’t it? But it was true.)

— We mostly all had agents back then, but they mostly never sold books for us. We sold our own books to editors, agents just got the coffee. And they were bill collectors when we were owed money. In other words, agents were nothing more than an employee we used when we needed something. Now, in this new world, agents are completely worthless and have god complexes that are head-shaking.

— It never once occurred to me to promote my books to readers or anywhere else for that matter. That was the publisher’s job. I’ll bet many of my long-term writer friends remember me saying that in the mid-nineties as the writer promotion phase started to kick in. I hated that, and clearly from the lack of book listings on this site, still have trouble with it. (grin) My job was to sell to my few editor readers and nothing else really mattered.

— Self-publishing back then was called “Vanity Publishing” and it was never considered by anyone who was serious. Now writers of all levels start their own presses and indie publish some if not all of their work.

— Reviews, unless in a major trade magazine, were to be ignored. No writer cared and no writer paid much attention to reviews. And readers gave reviews by asking a writer to sign a book at a convention. Or in a fanzine if they were dedicated inside a genre.

— Since I liked to write and wrote too much for one genre or one publisher, I used a lot of pen names and wrote a lot of media and some ghost novels. I had no choice if I wanted to write more than one book a year. I didn’t care about getting any recognition as long as the check cleared and I got to have fun writing. (Granted, writing Trek, Spider-Man, X-Men, Men in Black, and other fun stuff wasn’t the hardest job on the planet. (grin)) I often call myself one of the most read unknown writer around.


— One reader is great, but now we all focus on lots of readers and how to get readers to pick up our books and give them a chance. That’s all most of us ask, is that a reader give our book a few paragraphs of a chance and let us do the rest with our stories. But the focus is on the people who spend money for the book, not some editor. Success is having lots of fans and readers.

—Focus of Success in Old World… Selling to one person.
—Focus of Success in New World… Selling to lots of readers.

— Promotion to readers in some form or another is required of the writer. Newsletters, blogs, Facebook, and on and on. Some of us don’t do much, but try to do more. Others take it too far and let it get in the way of the writing. The modern world is all a balance on promotion.

—Focus of Promotion in Old World… Publisher does all promotion. Writers might do a tour if asked and it was paid for by the publisher.
—Focus of Promotion in New World… Writer does everything, even when traditionally published. And pays for everything. 

— Learning and expectations of success had time buffers. No one I knew coming into writing when I did thought it would be a one year thing. Or even five years. We all wanted to hit big, but even after selling a novel, we knew it would be years before it came out and we knew sales numbers. And making a living with your fiction writing was a dream in the far future.

—Focus of Time in Old World… Measured in decades.
—Focus of Time in New World… Measured by the latest book and the daily sales reports.

There are so many smeller differences as well now, some of which I have tried to go over. For example, in 1987 money came in large chunks six months or longer apart. Now money flows to writers like a paycheck every month. I am still not used to that change, but am not complaining.

Reviews matter in the strangest ways now, often to the ability to get into some promotion sites. And readers are doing the reviewing for the most part. At least the reviews that matter to other readers.

And pen names now are just damn silly unless you already have an established name or a personal reason for the pen name. All readers and sales look for author names. So now writers like me who don’t much care about recognition but want readers to find their work no matter what name is on the cover are forced to learn promotion, at least the basics, and move everything to just one or two names.


Simply because so much of this new world is governed by silly crap from the old world. And almost all the myths of writing come from that old world. (New myths are building, like the idea that every book must be in a series, but another topic.)

And also, the younger writers coming in now and thinking they can make a living at fiction writing in a year or two just don’t know any history or have respect for an international profession. (Granted, sometimes not knowing something is better, but in a major industry, not so much.)

And now different aspects of being a small business are important. All writers were always good at business if they lasted for a few decades, but now it is critical for even beginners.

And the myth of going to traditional publishing is better is still very, very strong. And agents still go out there trolling for the uniformed young writers, hoping to strike gold.

So to try to be clear here is why I revisit this topic regularly.

Honestly, I am trying to clear out my old thinking as well, and to do that, I ramble here.

I make more money than I ever did in traditional publishing, I get to write what I want when I want and not worry about one person liking it or not, but instead letting readers decide, as it should be.

And I am constantly learning and am constantly excited about learning. Both craft and business.

So now the thought of going back to the “good old days” of 1987 publishing makes me just shudder. I love this new world and want my thinking to be completely in this new world.

And to do that, there are a lot of myths, bad hangovers, and stupidity left from that old world that I need to clear out.

One more night of trying to clear it. (grin) Thanks for listening to me ramble.


  • Vera Soroka

    I’m so glad I started from the indie side from the get go. Coming out of traditional publishing into Indie publishing is just a mindset of carrying too much baggage over. Some can throw it away and start fresh and others like yourself have to come to terms with wrapping their mind around this new world. It’s interesting to see. You’re not the only one I’ve seen trying to figure it all out.
    When I started my blog, I wanted to attract readers from the start because eventually I hoped that some of them would be my stuff when I published. Being Indie was a huge learning curve and at the beginning I was hesitant if I could do it or not but now I know I can. Lots to learn still, that will never end but I’m learning. I like being in control of my own press. That makes me excited. Plus as you say I can write what I want and when I want.

    • dwsmith

      The idea that the only thing that will sell in this modern world is a myth. Series books are not a myth, just the silliness that a writer MUST writer series books to be successful is the myth.

      • Suz

        Sorry, I phrased my question wrong. I was changing baby’s nappy at the time, ha!

        I wanted to know why the necessity of books as a series is a myth. You have series books. I was thinking about writing a new suspense series. I love reading series books too. I think series books are very successful. Why do you think making books into a series isn’t needed for success?

        I’m a bit confused.

        • dwsmith

          Why, Suz, do you think writing in series IS NEEDED for success??? Where did you learn that to be successful, books must be in series?? And thus the myth of it all.

          Again, I write a lot of series, I write a lot of books that stand alone. Success comes from the book and the story. Series or not.

          • Suz

            Oh I see what you mean now. Not all books have to be in a series. That’s fine. Not all of my books are in a series. Just the ones that are! I write both series books and one off novels. I don’t believe that all books have to be in a series at all, I was just confused about why you said it was a myth. No worries. Thanks for clearing that up.

      • Michael Kingswood

        “Series books are not a myth, just the silliness that a writer MUST writer series books to be successful is the myth.”

        I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say this. I HAVE seen a lot of people report that series tend to make them more money, more easily, than standalones. From that people have come to the conclusion that you’ll have to work harder to make a bunch of standalones earn you a good income than you will with a series.

  • Harvey

    This topic was an UmYup for me. UmYup, they called writers who believed enough in themselves to start their own publishing company “vanity” publishing.

    But if a lawyer hung out his own shingle, it wasn’t called a “vanity” law firm. If a chef started his own restaurant, it wasn’t called a “vanity” restaurant.

    Annnnnnnnd that’s when I stopped paying attention to people who couldn’t form a capital letter A with two long sticks and a short one but insisted on criticizing everyone else. Yawn.

    Thanks for this post, Dean. Nostalgic and educational.

  • James Palmer

    Great points, as always.

    I think purely in terms of readers. Each sale I make is a sale to an individual reader. Especially since most of my titles only sell in the single digits. : )

    It’s important to know what outlooks to embrace and what old myths to get rid of in this new world of publishing.

    Also, please write up your take on the myth of series books at some point. As a writer of standalones, I need to read it. : )

  • Dane Tyler

    I’m sort of excited to hear you go into the whole “every book must be in series” thing. I’ve seen that so many times on the Internet, and it sort of makes me sad, because I only have one set of books I write in series. I just don’t get ideas that way, and don’t have other characters I love enough to do it with. Writing the same people over and over is tough for me. Or maybe I just am not creative enough.

    But I’m looking forward to that topic, if and when you address it. Should be eye-opening, and maybe offer me a hint of relief from the pressure I feel to write in series. 🙂

    Oh, and I also see a lot of good writers running on the hamster wheel of getting an agent to get to traditional publishers to be “real” authors. A lot of it.

  • Mary

    Please write the series myth, Dean. It just came up somewhere else I follow, with someone saying that if you want to earn money writing, you need a series of five or six books to breakthrough, then you basically need to stay in that little sub-genre niche. Called it “best practice”. I was thinking I should ask you (or Kris, since she writes in more genres than anyone I’ve ever seen) what you thought, since my gut reaction was that it was a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.

    • dwsmith

      That’s not a strategy, Mary. It’s just forcing your creative voice into places it might be bored with after one or two books. Letting sales win out over the writing.

      If you do such things naturally and love it, great. But listening to that kind of advice as “best practice” and taking it in can really hurt you at times. Example: Say you come up with a really nifty idea but from a distance it only looks like a stand-alone book, so you don’t write it, don’t explore what the book is saying, and it turns out to just be the first book of your major selling series. You believe in some other writer’s “best practice” when deciding what to write and all you can do is hurt yourself. Write for yourself. Not some silly myth or rule. Just my opinion.

  • Colleen

    Thanks for the “series” comment, Dean. As a reader, I find that series often frustrate me, and I’ve learned not to start them until they’re finished. Eventually, stand-alone books that are grouped as a series by virtue of common setting or a pool of characters work for me, and series where each book really does have an ending work for me. Books that are more “chapters” than “stories” just do NOT work at all for me, and I’m impatient with series that have an over-arching story line. (Well, for the most part. Let’s just say that Kris’ Anniversary Day story was an exception!) I find it sadly funny that so many indie writers are now doing to themselves what traditional publishers did to them before: limiting the type of stories available, which ultimately affects me, the reader!