Monthly archives for May, 2010

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Talent is a Myth

The word “talent” has been used for a very long time to destroy writers. I have always believed that the word is the worst myth of them all in publishing, so here goes a chapter I’m sure will be annoying to some people, and should cause some interesting discussions if nothing else.

Okay, first to my trusty and well-worn Oxford American Dictionary for a standard definition.

Talent: Special or very great ability, people who have this.

That’s about it. Pretty straightforward. Notice the word “ability” and notice it says nothing about being “born with.” Just notice.

Okay, when it comes to writing, let me put my definition right out front here.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

As I have said before in a number of places, when I started writing, I was so untalented, it scared anyone who even tried to read something I wrote. In school I hated writing because I was so bad at it. If I had listened to all the people who told me I had no talent for writing, I would have quit three decades ago. No, make that five decades ago, because all my early report cards said I had no talent for writing.

Now, after millions and millions of words practiced, many books and stories published, I get comments all the time like, “You are a talented writer, of course you can do it.”

Or one I got the other day. “You have the talent to write fast.”

Well, when I started to get serious about fiction writing, it took me hours and hours to do one page. Then that page would be so poorly written and riddled with mistakes that it got tossed away more often than not. Yup, I was a “naturally talented” fast writer. NOT!

Thank heavens for me I came to the realization early on in my life that talent was only a measure of craft at a certain point in time and nothing more.

Yet, frighteningly, parents, teachers, and so many family and friends think that talent is FIXED. If you are talented when you are young in something, you should be for your entire life. Well, sadly, as many have discovered, it doesn’t work that way.

Yet parents and teachers early on are determined to saddle kids with the “talented” label or worse yet, push them away from things they don’t do very well at first because they have no “talent” for that. Just makes me angry every time I hear of it.

If you call a student talented, it’s an excuse for them to not work as hard. “It’s easy for them.” If you say they don’t have talent, you allow them to not try at all, or think something is impossible to do and then quit. In my opinion, talent is a deadly word to attach or even mention in front of any child.

Now, let’s look at writing. James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Nora Roberts and others at the top of the lists are the most talented writers we have working. Many readers don’t have a taste for a certain writer’s work, but doesn’t matter. The bestsellers are talented storytellers who sell millions of copies every time they put out a new book. The evidence is in the sales.

I’ll take myself at this moment as an example. Compared to a beginning writer, I have a vast talent for writing. Compared to King or Nora, not so much.

My talent AT THE MOMENT is a measure of my ability and craft. Right now. And it depends on who I am being compared to. I am not permanently FIXED at this talent level. I can keep learning, practicing, working hard, and get better. Become more “talented.”

And, of course, that measurement of my talent is also completely subjective to who is doing the looking. One new writer might think I’m talented, some other writer might wonder why I even get published at all, let alone make my living at it.

So how did I become so “talented?” And how do I hope to become as talented as King and Nora someday?

Again, practice and focused study. And then more practice, with the constant drive to learn and become a better writer with every story I write. As I improve my craft, sell more books, I will become more talented.


A proclamation of TALENT on a person depends on a number of factors.

1…Age of the person being judged.

Tiger Woods. As a kid, his father had him hitting golf balls. And his father was training him how to think like a golfer as a kid.

So he goes onto the Mike Douglas Show as a very young kid and manages to hit a golf ball into the air about fifty feet. WOW, he was talented. (For a kid his age.)

But compared to me at that time, if you just look at simple golf skills, no age factor at all, he was awful. At that moment in time when Tiger Woods was that kid on the Mike Douglas Show, I was a full-time professional golfer playing qualifying stops for the tour. I could fly a ball 300 yards and seldom was over par on any course. Compared to me in strict golf standards, Tiger Woods at that time had no talent at all. I could hit a ball backhanded, standing on one leg, blindfolded farther than he could hit one at that same moment in time.

Age of the person observed was the major factor in calling Tiger talented at that time.

So what made Tiger Woods into the most “talented” golfer on the planet from that kid who could barely hit a ball fifty paces? Practice and focused study and years and years of practice. He learned how to hit a ball farther than I could in my prime, he learned how to win, how to control his mind and his ability. He hit millions and millions of golf balls and played millions of holes of golf over a lot of years.

In other words, his craft improved as he got older.

As a kid, people called him talented, as an adult, they still call him talented. He managed to continue to increase his talent, his craft, his ability. He never once let the “talented” label go to his head. He was lucky and well-trained.

2…What scale are you comparing the talented person to?

For example, I hope to run a marathon next fall near my 6oth birthday. If I trudge along two weeks before my birthday, my age class will be 50-59 and I will suck compared to others. I will not be considered talented at all. But if I pick a marathon two weeks after my 60th birthday, my age class is 60-65 or 60-70, and you know, in that age class, my pounding and huffing along might be considered pretty darn good, even talented though I will have the same time either way.

A kid in high school English class might be able to write a paper better than his classmates because he’s spent time at home writing in a journal for five years. He has better craft because he has practiced and the others around him haven’t. So he gets called talented compared to the other people in his class. But now someone like me comes in, sits in that class, with my years of experience writing and I write a paper. I would be called the talented student now and the previous talented student would just fade into the pack.

Talent is relative to who you are comparing the person to.

So why do I consider the talented label as one of the worst myths in all of publishing, and the most destructive? Because I’ve seen it kill writer’s dreams so many times over the years.

Both sides of the coin are destructive. Talented or Untalented. Both judgments kill writers’ careers if the writer lets the judgment go in deep.

In my Clarion six week workshop, I was the least talented of the twenty-three writers who were there. No one was even close to how awful I was. And I got toasted every critique and rightfully so.

All the negative feedback just made me slightly angry because I knew they were right, and it made me want to work even harder. (Remember, I had been very, very good at two national sports before Clarion. And I had been accepted and made it through years of law school when no one thought I could do it. I knew that practice and hard work were the key. And when you want to play at a national level, you have to work harder and longer than everyone else in the country. I knew that. I was willing to do that.)

So what happened to the most talented person at my Clarion? When I was the publisher at Pulphouse ten years later, I bought his only short story sale, a story he had written at Clarion. He got so much acclaim in that workshop and from friends, he clearly thought writing was too easy and went on to other things that challenged him.

I’ve had “talented” friends get angry at me and become bitter. They think because they are talented they don’t have to work. Yet there I am, working my butt off and making sales and getting better, but because they think talent is a “fixed” thing, and since I had no talent, but am now selling, the system has to be broken in some way.

Or worse yet, I would get the comments, “He was lucky.”

As Kevin J. Anderson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Yup. And the harder I work, the more I practice, the more I want to learn, the more talented I become.

Comments like “He was lucky” often come from nothing more than thinking that talent is a fixed measure of a person. My old friends who saw some of those early stories would never think of me as talented. I’m fixed in their minds as hopeless and it’s head-shaking to them how I have gotten so lucky.

Tiger Woods for the first ten years on the tour was known for being the first one on the practice range in the morning and the last one to leave at night. He worked with golf coaches, pumped weights, and did everything he could to improve his game. Wonder why he is the most talented golfer on the planet? He worked harder than anyone else.

Why am I here? Because I worked harder than most people. In fact, I got angry once at a workshop of students who just shrugged off my success as nothing more than luck and me being me. I challenged them all that I could write more books in one year than all of them combined. That’s right, combined. Six young professional writers against me. And I beat them. I did more work, wrote more books, in one year than all of them combined. None of them ever questioned again why I was more successful.

So it might also be safe to say that talent is a measure of how hard a person works at their craft. The harder a writer works, the more talented a writer they become.

As I do with every chapter, I want to talk about solutions, but in this case, there aren’t many I’m afraid. At least not easy ones.

You have been labeled “talented.” And you believe it. Now what?

That’s the worst thing that can happen to you, actually, in writing, if that little voice in your head that drives you actually took that word in and believed it.

The symptoms will be some or all of the following if that has happened.

—Your work ethic has slowed down.

—You will be getting angry at rejections.

—You will believe that no one understands your work.

—Your ego will be so huge, you might think there is no point in going traditional publishing routes because that takes time and is rigged.

—You will start looking for shortcuts to becoming rich as someone with your “talent” should be.

You might even sell a couple of things, but alas, ten years from now we will be looking back asking that awful question: “What ever happened to…?”

How to fix this problem? Not a clue, actually, because I can’t help you with the ego. Chances are that if you have been given this label and believe it, deeply believe it, you are doomed. Tiger Woods got past this by his father pounding home day after day for decades a work ethic like no other. His father led him to believe he was the best, but to stay the best, he had to work harder and harder and harder.

And that is the truth. Once you stop working, stop trying to get better, you stop, fix your talent right there, and then stand and watch the rest of the world go past.

For example, if you think you are a talented writer, chances are my post about writing faster made you angry. You don’t need to work as hard or write as fast because you’re talented.

And my posts about agents and Laura Resnick’s wonderful comments following those posts made you angry because you’re talented and you don’t need to learn all that stuff. Someone will take care of you. That’s your right because you are “talented.”

If your little voice really thinks you are talented, if you think every story you write should be bought first time out, and are angry it isn’t, if you think that famous is only for the lucky and bestsellers are bad writers, you are doomed. You have to kill that voice somehow, some way, as quickly as you can.

The belief that you are talented locks you in and closes doors.

But killing that voice, letting go of that belief that you are talented and dropping back to the belief that you must work harder and harder to attain what you want is difficult at best. Why? Because of fear.

Inside, deep inside, you understand the truth, but fear uses the talented label as a shield.

Remember that talent is a measure of your craft at the moment which depends on who you are being compared to and your age. Best thing I can suggest is figure out where that “talented” label went in. And then kill that moment.

For example, your workshop kept telling you that you are talented, but no one in there was published, and yet you believed them and it went in. Oh, oh… Get away from that workshop, join a workshop (and keep your mouth shut) that has professional selling writers in it. If your “talented belief system” can survive being torn down and you can go back to wanting to learn and get better, you might have a hope.

Find the source and clean it out of your mind as quickly as you can. If you can. Get professional help if you need it, which with this problem, you more than likely will.

Besides all the things I mentioned already, how do you really know if you have this problem? You think that all you need to do is sit down and write that great idea you have and polish it until it’s perfect and your talent will be shown to the world. Problem is, you just can’t seem to find the time to write it. (Which is your deep mind saying, “Don’t try, you might fail. Better to believe you are talented than try to write and prove you are not.)

Truth: Thinking you are talented is an excuse to not work, to not write, to not drive forward. Thinking you are talented is a reason to be lazy.

So what happens when you really believe you have no talent, when that has gone in deep?

Almost as bad as the flip side, actually. Having a label of being bad at something gives us all an excuse to not do it, even though we want to. Back to the fear issues.

You think “If I am so bad at this and it’s impossible for me to learn because I have no ‘talent’ for it, why should I even bother?” Fear wins and you stop and never really try.

On this side of things, I had already lost my belief in the talent myth. So when I started into writing, all the pounding I took because of my poor craft just motivated me to learn and get better. I was told over and over, by everyone from my family to teachers that I had no talent for writing. “It just wasn’t me.”

I was talented at skiing, or golf, or math, or architecture. (Never was talented at the law.) Why didn’t I just stay with those?

But interestingly enough, I had the strength to stand up and say (in my own mind) “Only I know what’s right for me.”

In writing, only sales are the judge of quality writing, no matter what anyone says or how loudly someone proclaims themselves to be the judge. Readers purchasing your books and enjoying the read are all that matter.

And the only way to get more sales and to find more readers is to practice and learn and keep working harder than everyone around you.

So if you have been given the “untalented” label, (and you believe it) you have to somehow climb over the fear, tell everyone to go take a flying leap, and just keep pushing forward. Most won’t. Writing is hard enough just learning for the lucky ones that weren’t saddled with either side of this myth early on.

I have never believed I have talent. I have never believed I am untalented.

I have believed in my own ability to work hard, practice, and learn something I set my mind to learning.

And so far, that’s got me past a lot of proclamations by observers telling me that I have no talent or that I am talented. And these days, I hate to admit, those hit me in about equal measure all the time. And that just makes me laugh.

The real bottom line is that to get past this myth, you have to believe in yourself and ignore everyone else’s belief system about you. Learn from others, but ignore what they say about your “talent.” Because the moment you take that alien belief system into your own mind and believe it, either good or bad, you are doomed.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

In other words, TALENT CAN BE LEARNED.

It’s up to you to work hard, practice hard, learn everything you can learn, so that you also become a “talented” (meaning skilled) writer.

The myth of talent kills more writers careers than any myth in the business. Don’t let yourself fall to this one.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only 300 Writers Make a Living

This myth is so solid, I hear it repeated over and over again. And just today, a person I follow on Twitter repeated it yet again, sending all her followers to a web site that had some writer say simply “There are only about 200 or 300 writers making a living at fiction.” With nothing at all to back up the statement or even a second thought about what that statement meant if true.

The number is total and complete hogwash. I’m going to lay out some facts. And I will use math and other ugly arguments to show you that this number is a total and complete myth. And I hope to maybe dive a little into why this myth persists. Why beginning writers need it. So hang on. This myth is as ugly as it is stupid.

Before I go anywhere, there was an article in Publisher’s Weekly tracking the top book sales in 2009. For hardcover fiction, they list about 138 books down to 100,00 copies in hardback, for mass market the book had to sell above 500 thousand copies to even get mentioned, and trade paperbacks are added at certain levels. Go take a look at the article on Publisher’s Weekly and then read on.

Now, if you took a hard look at those numbers and authors, you would realize that even with the same author having more than one book on the lists, there are around 300 different names on those fiction lists. I am not on that list anywhere, neither is Kris or any number of writer friends who make their living writing fiction.

For the moment, let me leave that point and back up.

What is making a living?

For the longest time, I considered making a living at fiction at making more than $100,000 per year. Then in three or four workshops, I started talking to writers about reality. The writers’ reality and the amount it would take for them to “make a living.”

Most of the writers I talked to thought they would quit their day job if they were making fifty to sixty thousand a year with their writing. A number said that their spouse earned half their income, so they only needed thirty or forty thousand a years to make it happen.

After taking that poll for a number of workshops, I decided that six figures wasn’t required for “making a living” at fiction writing. Which just added in a lot more writers into the mix.

But for this discussion, lets just leave the number at one hundred thousand a year from your writing. Math is simpler. And besides, hard to argue with that number as a decent living in these recession times.

Right now, most new writers are saying, “Oh, I wish.” Yup, I would have to in my early days.

In the chapter FICTION WRITERS CAN’T MAKE A LIVING I talked about the Magic Bakery and talked about a theory where this 200 or 300 number comes from. So please right now go read that again and then come back, because now I’m going to jump off of some of those points. (And in the actual book this chapter will follow that chapter.)

Okay, now to that ugly math I promised above.

In the summary of book sales from 2009 in Publisher’s Weekly, the bottom book in Hardcover they listed had sold 100,099 copies.

So, the author makes on average 10% on each book sold (allowing for discount schedules and other contract things) and the book is priced at $25.00 (for easy math), the author makes $2.50 per book. 100,000 books equals $250,000. (Remember, that’s the very bottom PW figured was worth reporting.)

And it was for JUST THE HARDBACK. Now, if you went to the previous chapter on this topic and read about how a book or story works in the magic bakery, you will understand that this figures does not count any other income source for this one book. Paperback, audio, ePub, overseas sales to other countries, and so on and so on. And don’t even think about the money for possible movie options.

So bottom line, any author on that list from Publisher’s Weekly summary is making a LOT of money per book, far, far in excess of $100,000 per year.

On one book.

If you count all the different authors on those lists, which I did not exactly, but at a glance I can tell there are at least 300 different authors who made those lists. Some more than once. (See why the top brand name authors hit the Forbes Top Income Earners lists?)

Okay, so we’ve dealt now with the 300 top authors in fiction. But what about all the rest of us.

Or what about the fifty to one hundred writers who only sold between 80,000 and 100,000 hardbacks and didn’t make the list? Or what about those hundreds and hundreds of poor writers who only sold in the area of 30,000 copies in hardback and can only dream about that top list?

Let’s take one of them, shall we, and do that ugly math.

Same 10%, same $25 price, so author gets $2.50 per book. Author “ONLY” sells 30,000 copies in hardback, author only makes $75,000 in HARDBACK . Again, not counting all the other sales like paperback and overseas and so on. Again, we are back over six figures for that one book easily. Hundreds and hundreds more writers pile into the total number of writers who make a living.

I am still not included.

So, what about the writers who are more normal in publishing then the folks playing at the top levels? How do we make a living? How do us “working writers” do it who haven’t hit with any big books, or books that even sell 30,000 in hardback?

Actually, pretty simply. We write a lot more.

Back to the ugly math.

Say a writer does a small genre book. Books sells nicely at 20,000 copies in paperback actually sold. Writer got a $8,000 advance for the book. $6 book at 6% is .36 cents per book. Income is $7,200 so writer gets no more money than the advance, but publisher is happy and writer sells another book to them, or two or three.

So writer can do four books a year and makes $32,000 on just the advances from those books. (Now, remember that magic bakery?) Maybe not the second year at this pace, or the third, but at some point the author will have built up enough inventory that more things are popping. At four years, the author will have 16 novels finished. Overseas sales happen on a couple of them, audio sales happen every year on a couple of others, maybe a small option on one of them from Hollywood, rights reverted on two and the books are now selling on Kindle and other income sources directly to the writers.

And the pace just builds up. As each year goes by, more and more factors in the magic bakery kick in until at one point you find yourself doing just fine.

That’s the group I’m included in.

But understand I’m a lot faster than four books a year. I write across genres, I ghost novels for writers, I write a ton of short fiction as well. I make money on all of that as well with my little magic bakery.

Am I unusual? Oh, of course not. There are far more writers like me than writers on that big Publisher’s Weekly list. Or playing in the big books just under the list. In fact, the majority of writers who make their living at fiction seldom, if ever make that yearly list. Granted, those brand names on that list get all the press, but the thousands of us just working along do just fine and dandy.


Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 75,000 publishers.

Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 47,541 NEW books published through standard fiction publishers. (Not counting POD at all.)

Bowker reported last year (2009) that three were 29,438 new young adult books published.

(Get the full report here.)

That means that EVERY DAY through normal major publishers there were 213 regular fiction and young adult fiction novels published. (47,541 plus 29,438 divided by 365 days.)

Every day.

Let me repeat that one more time to let it sink in. 213 NEW FICTION TITLES EVERY DAY.

Ugly math: If a writer could manage four books a year, it would take OVER 19,000 writers doing four books a year just to fill what was published last year.

19,000 writers doing four books a year. Or 38,000 writers doing two books a year.

Yup, there are only 300 writers making a living writing fiction. SNORT! Anyone who repeats that number is just too stupid to do a simple Google search to find the real truth.

(And also Bowker announced there were about 250,000 POD books done as well in 2009, but they didn’t break then down as to how many were fiction.)

Still don’t believe the numbers? Want a test as to how many fiction writers there really are with your own two eyes?

Walk into a Barnes and Noble superstore and stand just inside the door and look around. Realize that most of those books you are seeing in that store will be replaced by the “turn” in less than a month. And the ones up front will change daily or weekly.

Now simply start picking up books and see if you recognize the author name. Up front you’ll find the brand names and the folks who are on that big list. But at the new release table how many names do you recognize?

Then walk the aisle of the romance section, the mystery section, the science fiction section, and then go to big section, the “fiction” section. Your eye will be drawn to the big names scattered in there, but look between them and the thousands of authors with books there THAT month. Most of their books will be replaced within the month by the same number of new books coming in by a different thousand authors.

And B&N can’t begin to carry every one of the six thousand new books in fiction being put out every month between adult fiction and young adult.

The truth: The publishing industry is a huge machine that needs product.

I have no clue how many thousands and thousands of fiction books a standard superstore holds, but if there were only 300 major authors making their living and writing one or two books a year, those shelves would be pretty empty, those stores soon out of business.

So, why do I think this silly number, this stupid myth gets repeated over and over?

My opinion only. (No math, no study behind this opinion.) Two reasons. First, I think it’s fear that causes this myth. And it works like this:

New Writer is afraid to actually take a chance and write and practice and put work out there in the real world. And if there are only 300 people making a living at writing, it is therefore impossible to do and so why should I even try.

In other words, those who hold that silly myth and repeat it need the excuse it gives them for there own lack of trying.

Second reason: Ego. New writer writes a book, sends it to an agent, no agent likes it, so therefore IT’S HARD to get published, and that has to be because there are only 300 people doing it. It CAN’T be the new writer’s fault, it can’t be because the writer can’t write well enough to even get into the 77,000 new fiction books being published in a year. It can’t be because no one who could actually publish the book has even seen it because of a myth the writer believes in with agents. It has to be someone else’s fault because the writer thinks their very first book is brilliant. Ego.

Well, no excuse. Over 200 new fiction books a day are put out by major publishers in JUST THIS COUNTRY alone. You stop making excuses and get past the myths and get your skill levels up and do four books a year, after a few years you are making a living. And if you write something that hits bigger for you and you end up on that Publisher’s Weekly list, you are pretty rich by most standards.

That only 300 people make a living at writing fiction is the stupidest and most destructive myth outside of the agent myths. Time to get past your fear and your own ego and chase your dream of making a living at fiction.

There are a very, very large number of us doing just that. After all, someone has to fill those shelves every month.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, having it made, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rejections

There are so many myths around rejections in publishing, I figured I might as well try to just bang into a bunch of them all at once and put some basic structure on the topic.

And right up front let me be clear. I am talking about rejections from editors. If you are getting rejections from agents, you need to go to the tab above titled Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and read every chapter with the word “agent” in the title.

Agents should never be rejecting anything you are doing. You are messing up in how to break into this business (or have an issue with your agent) if that is happening. Read those chapters and if still puzzled about that, ask in the comments.

And note, if you have an agent submit your novel to editors, get copies of the rejections for your files. And copies of the agent’s cover letters to the editors to check to see what they are saying about you and what the editor knows and doesn’t know.

Now, a word here about editors in general.

Fiction editors are people who love story, who love the written word, who work long hours and are underpaid to do their job. They often read for work on weekends and on trains and when traveling. They deserve every ounce of respect you can give them, even if you might not agree with their tastes or choices. And one thing to always remember: Their time is fantastically valuable to them. Time is everything to them. Keep that in mind as you go on with this chapter.

That said, I’m going to break down editor rejections into two main areas, because they are different. Short fiction rejections and novel rejections. Then I’ll talk about some myths surrounding rejections.


Form Rejections

Means nothing. At the same time it could mean any number of a thousand things that you can’t know. Basically it means that your story didn’t fit into the magazine and there was nothing to say about it to you. Every writer I know gets these from time to time. Yes, I do as well. You can’t tell what they mean beyond the story didn’t fit for that editor. Put the story back into the mail to a new editor and magazine. Then file the rejection with the story folder for tax purposes with a note on it for what story it was for and move on.

Form Rejection with Short Scribbled Note

This means the editor saw something in the manuscript that she liked and wanted to encourage you to send more. Story still does not fit with the magazine.

This takes some time to do so treat it as important. The story is still not right for that magazine, but chances are if you keep it in the mail, another editor will like it enough to buy it. Send the story on to a new market and then mail the original editor a new story thanking her for her nice comment in your cover letter with the new story.

Personal Letter Rejection

Holy smokes did you come close, and the editor liked it enough to more than likely read all the way through. Story is still not right for the magazine, but follow the advice above and really thank her in your next cover letter with your next story.

This is not a rewrite request or a suggestion that you rewrite the story. An editor will flat tell you when they want a rewrite. All the editor is doing if they make comments about the story is telling you how close you came and that you should please send another story. Treat this as a sign your writing is professional on a craft level and your storytelling is coming close to hitting this editor.

Bottom line, editors are fantastically busy. If an editor takes her all-important time to write you a personal letter, you know you are close to selling to that editor with a new story and she likes your work. Get her a new story.

Personal Letter Rejection with Rewrite Request.

Best rejection letter you can get without selling. Follow Heinlien’s Rules. Rewrite the story if you agree with her comments and send it back to her with a nice thank you letter. If you didn’t agree with all of her comments, just tell her what you did change. And THANK HER for her time.

With short fiction, always remember that form rejections are easy. Writing letters is hard. When you get a letter from a major editor at a major magazine, it’s a celebration point. You have done well. And keep that story in the mail, another editor will buy it.


Novel rejections from editors are different in many ways from short fiction rejections. To start off with, in short fiction (no matter what the guidelines say), never mail to more than one magazine at a time. But with novels, you can and should have your book out to a number of different editors at the same time.

Why? Short fiction editors can’t compete with each other on pay. Their rates and what they buy are locked in. Novel editors can and often do compete and nothing is locked in until the contract is signed.

Let me cover the types of novel rejections first, then I’ll jump into the myths.

Form Rejection

Form rejections for novels come in pretty much two standard flavors from company to company these days. Two things happen to let you know you have been “form” rejected.

1) No response. After six months to a year, if you haven’t heard a word, figure that manuscript was rejected and move on. No need to do anything. You have the manuscript out to a bunch of other editors anyhow, just add a new one into the mix. (Do not withdraw the book, just leave it alone.)

2) No unagented manuscripts. Now that is the standard form rejection these days for novels and it means any number of different things. But again, what it really means is that your book didn’t catch their attention. Sure, it could mean they don’t actually look at unagented manuscripts, but figure they did. (If you don’t understand this, read some of the earlier chapters in this book.)

So, in summary, a form or no response means the same thing. Your book and story didn’t fit or catch their attention.

Form Rejection With Note Scribbled On It.

Just as in magazines, editors scribble notes on form rejections. They will take a form off the pad that says, “No unagented manuscripts” and then write a note about your book and your writing on the bottom of the form and send it to you. Take this as a good sign, that your book at least got noticed in one way or another. Not right for the house, but it got noticed. Thank the editor for her time and response in the cover letter for your next book to that editor.

Letter From the Editor Asking to See the Entire Manuscript.

This is not a rejection, but a letter asking for more. It means the editor liked your submission package and wanted to see if your book fit the package you mailed and that your later chapters are as good as your first chapters. And that your manuscript matches your synopsis. (Note: never send a full novel to a book editor unless they ask you for it.)

To have your work seriously considered by an editor is all you can really ask for in publishing. Do as the editor requests in the letter.

Letter From Editor.

Remember how busy editors are? Well, if an editor, even an assistant editor, took the time to write you a personal letter, you got close. Many things could have happened at that point, mostly being that the editor didn’t love it enough to put her job on the line for it, or the sales force couldn’t see how to sell it. Things like that happen and you get a letter. Means your book is completely working in many ways and if you keep it on editor’s desks, it will likely sell to someone.

Rewrite Letter From an Editor.

Do if you agree, but no editor takes the time to have you rewrite anything ahead of a contract unless they think it is pretty good. Do it once. On a second rewrite request from the same editor, say no unless there is a contract. Rewriting for an editor without a contract is a bad cycle to go down. Caution.

Most editors if they love a book enough to do a rewrite will go ahead and buy the book and then have the author rewrite it after contract.


Let me take a stab at a few Sacred Cows of rejections next. These can be mixed together and altered depending on the imagination and fear level of a writer.

Myth: Editors will hate me if I send them a bad story or poorly written manuscript.

This myth is with us all at the beginning. And many writers take years and years to get completely past it. Those who do not get past this leave writing or never mail anything.

The truth: No editor remembers a manuscript or story that doesn’t work. Don’t believe me, here’s a test to prove it to yourself.

Take a stack of 20 short story anthologies with about 20 stories in them each. About 400 stories. (I used to get about a thousand manuscripts a month at Pulphouse for almost 7 straight years.) Stack the books up and then start from the top reading only the stories that catch your attention. YOUR GOAL IS TO GET THROUGH THEM AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE LOOKING FOR THE GOOD ONES THAT FIT. That’s how editor’s think.

If the story doesn’t interest you at once, jump to the next story. You have to get through these books and find the stories you would be willing to dig into your pocket and pay the author 10 cents a word for.

You can only buy 20 stories. That means you must reject 380 of them. (Lesson also learned here: Many stories you reject are perfectly good stories. They just don’t fit what you are looking for.)

When you get done with your first read, without looking at any notes or the books again, see if you can remember the 260th story you looked at, or the 20th story for that matter. You might remember the author names of the stories that you would want to buy and that hit you, but the ones you glanced at and skipped, no chance.

Now, imagine that month after month after month for over a thousand manuscripts per month. See why writing a bad story can’t hurt you with an editor? We don’t remember them. We remember if you insult us or do something stupid like threaten us. But just writing a bad story is no issue. We slap a form rejection on it and move on and never remember you. If your ego is bothered by that, find another career quickly.

Myth: Editors are stupid and don’t understand great art.

This myth comes from the belief of newer writers that everything they write is great art, and when someone doesn’t buy their story (often their first story or novel), then the fault can’t be their own. They are GREAT! Therefore the editor has to be stupid.

Truth: Editors are super readers. The know story better than 99.99% of all readers. I know most of you early stage writers don’t want to hear this, but there are patterns in fiction, and when you look at thousands and thousands of manuscripts year-after-year, you learn the patterns. When Kris was editing F&SF Magazine, she could tell the end of a beginning writer’s story by glancing at the first page. Can’t do that with professionals, of course, since we have all worked past the basic patterns into our own work. As John D. McDonald said, a writer has a million words of crap in them before they get to their first publishable word. That crap (as he calls it) is writers working through patterns of fiction and craft issues.

Editors see the boring and the mundane all the time. They look for something different, something well-written, a story well-told. If you have written just another standard fantasy or vampire, guess what? It won’t get bought. You haven’t reached your own voice, your own stories yet. Write more and quit blaming other people, especially editors.

Myth: Publishing is run by accountants, therefore my “art” isn’t selling.

A lot of newer writers use this like a mighty ego shield. These same writers often spout on and on about how poorly the bestsellers write.

The truth: Of course publishing is run by corporations with a focus on the bottom line. IT’S A BUSINESS and it has been for more than a century. If an editor, a super reader, doesn’t think your book will make them any money, then they will pass. Write a more commercial book or find a publisher more interested in selling a hundred copies of your art. Don’t blame the editors or the system because you can’t sell. It’s your fault. Become a better writer so your art can mix with a story someone will want to read.

And a second truth on this: Most writers studied today in schools were the bestsellers of their time. It takes audience to have art, and the more audience you can get, the more chance your work will be remembered and considered art after you are gone.

Myth: A rejection or two means my story isn’t any good and should be rewritten or retired.

Fear is the cause of this myth. And a lack of belief in your own work. And a giant, and I do mean giant desire to sabotage your own success.

Truth: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOUR STORY. Your story is what it is. Leave it alone. Publishing is full of stories about novels or stories that were accepted on the 20th or 30th time out. My record, meaning my longest number of submissions, is a sf story that was accepted after 37 rejections and I still got 10 cents per word for it. It ended up in a magazine I never would have thought to mail it in the first place.

Simple Solution: Follow Heinlein’s Rules. Rule #4 is mail your story or novel to an editor who will buy it. Rule #5 is keep it in the mail until someone buys it. And trust me, twenty rejections isn’t enough to take a story out of the mail. Just keep it out there.

And if you have an agent doing submissions on your novel and they give up after eight or ten rejections, take the book and mail it yourself. Trust your own voice, trust your own work. Take responsibility for your own work and just keep it out there for editors to read.

One last point. When looked at in the clear light of day, fear of rejection is just flat silly. In this business, no one can come to your house and shoot you if you do something wrong. All they do is send you a form rejection. The only cost to you is postage. There is nothing, and I repeat, nothing at all to be afraid of.

Rejection only means your story hasn’t found its correct home yet. Nothing more.

However, fear of success is a real issue for many people. And mailing stories means you are taking a chance of becoming successful. If you are afraid of that story sliding through the mail slot or hitting that send key on an electronic submission, maybe your problem is a fear of success, because rejections can’t hurt you.

The only real failure in this business is never mailing your work.

Never reject your own work. Let editors read it. They need new writers and new fiction.

Let editors do their job. Mail them your work and trust them.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, having it made, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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