Monthly archives for July, 2010

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Power of the Myths

I thought for this chapter I’d talk about myths in general, why they are so strong, why they are often designed to stop writers. And give a study plan to help past some of them.

So far I have done 26 chapters in this book for a total word count of around 80,000 words, with each chapter focused on one area. It’s been great fun, even with the angry letters. And numbers of people have told me that I have helped them again find the fun and joy in writing. That’s fantastic. Thanks!

I really had no agenda when I started this series eleven months ago. I was just angry at the stupidity of the myths and how young professionals coming into this business had no second opinion or logical business voice. So that’s what I tried to be, a second opinion, even in my angry chapters.

To start off, let me give you a summary of what has already been done in this book. Suggestions for future chapters are welcome please. The finished ones are listed in the order I wrote them in.

Just click on the links to go right to the chapter if you would like to read them again. And make sure you read all the comments. Great discussions in the comments.

In fact, I want to take this moment once again to thank everyone for the great comments and Laura Resnick for her fantastic perspective and clear comments. If you haven’t read some of the topics and discussions below, feel free to comment on them after this post. Or after the post itself.


(The chapters so far as of July 27, 2010)



Agents Sell Books



Book as Event

Writing is Hard

No Money in Writing Fiction

Agents Know Markets

Agent Agreements

Agents Care About Writers First

Agents Can Give Career Advice

You Don’t Need to Keep Learning

Agents and Your Money

Your Agent Sells Your Book Overseas

Follow the Rules to Get Published

Writers Don’t Need to Practice

Researching Fiction

Asking Your Agent Permission


Only 300 Writers Make a Living

Talent is a Myth

Agent and Contracts

Only One Way

The Agent 15% Myth

Agents need to Take Care of Writers

Okay, that’s a bunch of reading. Now on to the topic at hand.


Over this last year I have gotten my share of angry letters from new writers telling me how I don’t understand them. I talked about that a few chapters back. And among other angry letters, I got one attack publicly from an editor too afraid to show her face. If a person isn’t willing to stand openly behind their opinions, they sure aren’t worth much in my view. Both the opinion and the person. I have very little respect for fear and cowardice as you can tell.

So why did the chapters of this book stir up so much discussion? Let me see if I can name a few surface reasons.

1) I am going against what just about everyone else is saying. What you hear at writer’s conventions, and from both editors and agents is often exactly opposite of what I am saying. But if this was the only reason, I would be ignored, not attacked.

2) My opinions are based in real business thinking. Combine that with the first reason and my chapters start that faint “feeling of worry” in writer’s minds that maybe, just maybe, I might be right in some places. How dare I question belief systems, but that nagging worry that I might be right makes them mad.

I’ve started or worked in many businesses and been trained in both architecture and law. I even owned my own publishing company for seven years. I love business and the publishing business. So many things I kept hearing as I came in made no sense to me. Now thirty years later they make even less sense. So all the chapters above are based in one way or another in logical business sense. Thus I am telling people that stupidity exists in the business they want to work in. That also makes people angry in defense.

3) Writers as a group want someone to take care of them. We feel we are powerless alone and thus when we come in we must be taken care of. But every one of my chapters in this project push the fact that writers must take responsibility for their own careers.

That’s scary, especially to the generation that came up in the 1980s and 1990s who were trained that they deserved everything they wanted. The “Entitlement Generation” as some have called it. My generation raised that generation, so it’s my generation’s fault I’m afraid. Of course now with this big crash, that “Entitlement Generation” is learning that maybe, just maybe, they aren’t entitled to everything they want and have to work harder than they wanted to get the basics.

We have a long ways to go as a culture to get out of this entitlement mindset. And when I tell a writer they really shouldn’t allow anyone to take care of them, but to learn their business and do it themselves, they get angry at me. It is just not how they were raised.

4) Anger comes from money discussions. In the generation of some of the biggest money scams in history, writers get angry at me when I tell them two things: First, never let anyone touch your money before you do. Second, you can make a living writing fiction. Both seem so logical when looked at common sense business practice and the facts of the money in this business, yet all the chapters I did on those topics got me the most angry letters.


Besides the four major areas above, there is one very large human nature element that causes the myths of publishing to get to even sane people: We all want order.

And we are all trained to expect it. Every one of us, from moment one.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a wonderful analogy of how writers should act when writing. She says we need to revert back to our two-year-old selves. No rules, just pure joy and exploring. But when we were two, our parents kept putting rules on us. Don’t scream in restaurants, don’t run naked down the street, that sort of common sense thing.

Then we hit school and we were all put in rows, told where to go, when to show up, and what was required to move forward. And for twelve years of school and then on into college we were always told what to do that would move us forward.

Take these classes, get this degree, move on.

Very orderly. Mostly lock-step, sadly.

Then comes fiction writing. There is no school for fiction writers. Creative writing programs in universities are designed to crank out creative writing teachers. Not actual fiction writers. Yet all of us who want to be fiction writers need rules. We need someone to tell us the path to walk, where to sit, when to show up, and how to act. Maybe even what to wear.

But fiction writing does none of that.

Publishing is an international business that writers supply with product. It’s big business and it’s complex. And there is no set path to walk to get into it.

Is it any wonder a set of myths have built up around this business? For our entire lives we were trained to follow rules, then find ourselves in a business with no rules. And we think there should be, darn it.

Questions that challenge the RULES (MYTHS) of Publishing.

So, in the order of the chapters I wrote that are listed above, let me give you a few of the main questions asked in each chapter by people wanting rules and the thinking behind it.

Speed: “What do you mean that writing fast may be the best way to produce better product?” I always heard that writing slow was better.

Rewrite: “What do you mean I don’t have to rewrite unless I want to?” I always heard that rewriting was required, at least five drafts like I did in school.

Agents Sell Books. “What do you mean agents DON’T sell books?” Guidelines all say I can’t mail my own book to an editor.

Workshops: “What do you mean workshops can’t help me fix my story?” A dozen opinions of smarter people should always be better than just my own. RIGHT?

Self Promotion: “What do you mean that my ten book signings won’t help my New York publisher and might actually hurt my book?” I’ve always heard that you have to self-promote. That it is required.

And so on and so on through all 26 chapters so far. We all look for rules coming into this business because that’s the way we were trained.

Breaking that training is fantastically hard.

A Course of Study

So you want someone to tell you what to study? I can’t do that, because I don’t know each of you or your writing. Sorry. And if I tried, I’d be wrong. But I can give you a course of study on how to work against the myths every day and set up your own path into this business. Think of yourself as your own guidance counselor in college. Here is a suggested course of study.

1) Study regular business. Then any time any person in publishing suggests you go against a regular business principle, question it hard. For example: In regular business, anywhere, do you allow someone else outside of your boss to handle your paycheck? Or have a business where an accountant signs all your checks and you never see the money? Of course not! But that’s what you are doing with agents, folks. See all the agent chapters above.

2) Study how your own brain works. You know, the science of the brain. Understand how the creative brain functions, how critical brain functions, and then where your write from. Understand that your own voice will be invisible to you in your writing because it is the same as the voice in your head. Learn how your brain works because that’s where all this creative writing comes from. If you don’t understand how the brain works, you sure won’t understand why rewriting can be very damaging to your art.

3) Always go to writers to learn who are farther down the road than you are on a similar road you want to walk. Editors and agents can’t teach you how to be a writer. Ignore 99% of everything they say when it comes to how to write and how to manage your own business. And then ignore a lot of what writers ahead of you say as well, unless it makes sense TO YOU. Learn to listen to that little voice in the back of your head and question everything. But focus on continuing to learn from writers, both from books and writers’ workshops and conferences. Both craft and business.

4) Study the real lives of successful writers and their working methods. Ignore the hype like Hemingway telling writers they had to write standing up. But for example go find out how long it actually took Hemingway to write some of his classics, how long Dickens took to write some of his, and how long it takes many of our bestsellers to write their books today. Their public face will be one thing, but with some study, you can get behind the public story and to the truth. Every successful writer tells the truth about their methods once in a while.

5) Learn the true publishing business. Understand profit-and-loss statements, how editors actually buy a book today, what agents actually do in the system, what escalators are, what a good contract reversion clause is, and so on and so on. Yes, it’s a great deal to learn, but very possible if you learn it one detail at a time. Start now, with a hunger. It’s where you want to make your living, remember, and if you know more than others, you’ll know how to make more money than others.

6) Try everything once. At least. How do you know that your work isn’t selling because you keep rewriting it if you don’t try mailing out a first draft story or two? Call this course of study a lab class. Write fast, write slow, write a genre you don’t like. Try everything. Challenge yourself in every way you can think of. You might be startled to learn along the way what really works for you. Practice, practice, practice.

7) Stay up on current publishing and electronic changes. Even though a lot of writers and others are claiming the sky is falling and books as we know them are at the end, ignore that and just keep writing and learning. Your opportunity for a career might not be invented yet, or might be staring you in the face. This course could be called “current events.”

Okay, there you go, folks. A path, a course of study, seven simple areas, that will make you even more independent than you are now. I’ll bet your college counselor didn’t even boil it down that simply for you.

With knowledge comes understanding. Learn business, how your brain works, how publishing works, try it all, and stay current.

Okay, now that you have a course of study, here’s what’s ahead in this series so far. Again, I welcome suggestions.

I have shorter chapters on these upcoming myths:

—Bestsellers Can’t Write

—Writing Art

—Writing Media and Work for Hire or Romance is Actually Easy.

—Bestsellers Can Be Made Artificially by a Publisher

—Once you sell you have it made

—Rejections and What They Really Mean

—The Perfect Book.

—Publisher as Gatekeeper.

And, of course, more agent and money chapters to make people angry. Those are always fun and the agent myths just seem to be everywhere these days.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. 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: Writers Need to be Taken Care Of

The idea that writers need to be “taken care of” has become such a common phrase among agents, it has moved to being flat insulting for most of us out here.

I talked about this a little bit in another chapter, but lately I’ve been hearing this “justification” for frightening bad behavior on the part of agents. It just makes me angry, to be honest with you.

So for the second week in a row I’m writing a chapter of this book while angry and insulted. Stand back. If nothing else, this might be entertaining, as a number of people called my last chapter.

As I usually do in these chapters, let me start from some basics. And I’m going to number them to make sure I am very clear on my position.

Basic #1: Publishing is an international corporate business.

It is a business no matter how much you don’t want it to be, especially if you would like to have any decent number of readers for your work. Even writers who publish their own work are quickly learning just how much of a business this is.

And noticed I used the word “corporate.” Anyone who has worked in a large corporation understands the politics and the money-based drive that every employee deals with in corporations. Publishing is no different.

Basic #2: There are no secrets. It’s Just Business and Must Be Learned.

But as in any major profession, learning takes time. Mistakes are made. That is a natural part of the process. And it takes time to learn to write a professional level story.

As I have said over and over and over, when you want to be a local attorney, it takes seven years of school before you can even think of hanging out a shingle or going to work for a law firm. In a little local community. So why would you think that you need less learning, less training, less practice and time when working in an INTERNATIONAL business?

You need to learn the business you want to work in. It really is that simple.

(For a great free weekly business class, check out my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Guide.)

Basic #3: Writers are always in a hurry.

Spend all that time and effort on your first novel and you want it published NOW. That’s like saying “I just spent all my time and energy getting through my first year of college, I passed English 101 and History 101 and I want to be an attorney NOW.” Doesn’t work that way and it’s just as silly thinking in writing.

First books are called first books because they are the first book a writer published, not wrote. My first book was book number four written, and I didn’t sell five or six.

Now I bet a bunch of people are saying “But I’m different.” No, you’re not. Write your million words of crap, as Mystery Grandmaster John D. McDonald said, and you might get to your first publishable word. And in the process, learn the business. You can learn to write and learn the business at the same time. Honest you can.

Am I sounding discouraging? I suppose. I am saying it takes work, it takes time, it takes a focus on learning. If that is discouraging to you, you don’t belong in this profession. Find a profession that the learning sounds like fun, the enjoyment is in the work, the desire to learn it all sounds like a wonderful time. That’s a profession for you.

But if writing sounds like fun, is enjoyable for you, and you have a vast desire to learn everything in both craft and business, then you are in the right spot.

Basic #4: Writers Control This Business.

I know that will just seem wrong for those of you lost in the myths, but the truth of the matter is that without books, without product supplied by writers, no publisher would remain in business. There wouldn’t be a business. This business exists for the sole reason to move writers’ stories to readers. That simple.

The top writers control what publishers do, stock prices of publishers rise and fall on book releases. I know of some writers who have taken their editors with them from one house to the next when they moved. And they weren’t even bestsellers

Writers make the most money, writers control.

Where the Myth of Needing to Taken Care Of Comes From.

In short, the myth comes from writers who are in a hurry and lazy and think they are “artists.” That’s right, we writers (as a group) caused this myth, as we do with most of the myths.

The big international business of writing looks “scary” and unknown, a long, dark road we are afraid to walk. Imagine a women in a bad horror movie in high heals going into a cobweb-covered mansion. That’s what it feels like to all of us, thus we do what is human nature, we try to find someone who claims they will take us through the darkness and dangerous animals and guys with large axes and chainsaws safely to the other side. We willingly and without thought hand these “guide” people all our money, our very livelihood, our art, our self-respect, and then close our eyes and hope.

Just like in the bad movies, it seldom works. Just ask any of Bernie Madoff’s clients how well handing over all your money works.

But sadly, in publishing, it’s normal to do just what I am describing. Except the people we hand all our money to are often young agents. Very, very young, and not regulated in any way. Many of them are four or five years out of an Ivy League school, and their only claim to knowing anything is that they live with a few others in New York City and know other agents and have lunches with a few editors.

Now granted, some agents have been around for a long time, know the business, can get a book in at higher levels. But they are not writers. They do not understand at any deep level what you do as a writer. Or how you survive. So you start expecting them to take care of everything and guess what? Mistakes happen, only they are not your mistakes.

And then all the horror stories we have been talking about in all the comments after previous agent chapters happen.

The bottom line is that all the agent horror stories happen because WRITERS WANT TO BE TAKEN CARE OF.

Somehow along the way I lost this attitude, more than likely during my publishing days with Pulphouse. Or even more likely, I never had it from the start. It just seems odd to me that anyone SHOULD take care of me. I’ve been on my own, making my own way in the world since I turned eighteen. No one took care of me, and I sure didn’t expect anyone to do so. In any business or venture over all the decades.

My first agent never said she would take care of me. Not once. I sold my own books, called her and told her who would be calling and what I wanted and she did what I asked. I was in charge. I hired her for her agency and help on chasing money and nothing more.

So now comes the 2010 publishing world. We have reached a day in this business where young agents are reading slush and losing money, where the publishing business is going through one of its normal tightening phases, where new technology is slamming into publishing like an iceberg ramming into the Titanic. Exciting times, actually, for writers, with new opportunities opening up almost every day.

But one of the upshots of this new world is that these baby agents and some young editors are out spouting off about how they need to take care of their writers. And they are spouting this garbage in public.

They started off doing this, I’m sure, to try to sell themselves to writers. But then they started to believe their own hype, they started to actually believe that they knew better than writers what writers needed.

And over the last ten years, this has become, to my view, an ugly trend that I have even heard directed at me.

Some young agent who wasn’t born yet when I sold my first short story told me last year that if I went with her as a client, she would take care of me. Of course, she would have to read and approve everything I wrote before she sent it out.

She was SERIOUS!!!

The attitude of needing to take care of writers had become so ingrained in her mind that the system just worked that way for everyone. She didn’t know any other way. She somehow thought in her deepest ego that she was giving me something I wanted to hear.

I managed not to laugh in her face, or insult her, but to be honest, that has bothered me ever since and I have mentioned it a few times lately. I should have taken her to task, maybe snapped her out of it a little bit. But I was nice, stunned, to be honest.

She believed that she should take care of a seasoned professional and even worse, she believed that I needed to be taken care of by her.

In other words, she thought I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Oh, yeah, let’s forget the last twenty years or more where I did just fine taking care of myself and making nice money writing fiction. She believed I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Yes, I was insulted.

Let me make this clear, very clear about this myth.

Every time an agent or an editor says that they will “take care of you,” they are saying to you:

“You are too stupid to make it on your own.”

Insulted? Yeah, you should be. But what stuns me even more is that writers just nod and say, “Yup, I’m dumb-dumb and must be bottle fed…change my diapers please while you are at it.”

Writers let agents get away with this insulting behavior. Until this post, I’ve never heard anyone question this at all.

Well, as I said last chapter, it’s time for writers to wake up and question everything.


1) Understand you are learning the business and that the learning never stops.

I’m still learning this business every day, year after year. I find learning exciting and I love that I will never stop learning in this business, both on the writing craft side and on the business side. Sure, it’s scary at times. That’s part of the fun.

2) Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

No way to not make mistakes, but for heaven’s sake, make your own mistakes, and from those mistakes come learning and understanding. In publishing, nothing is fatal. Worse thing that happens is you change your pen name and move on.

3) Learn from those who are down the road you want to walk.

Other writers have walked ahead of you down the scary, fog-covered road to making a living at fiction writing. Learn from them, take lessons from them, take what works for you and toss the rest. Agents and editors are not writers. If you listen to their words as if they are gospel, you are doomed, just as surely as thinking you can learn how to create original fiction by sitting in a college creative writing class. Not going to happen.

4) In no fashion allow anyone to take care of you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t hire help, but for heaven’s sake, know what your help is doing and you approve everything. And never let them have your money before you see it. That stupidity has to be stopped quickly in this business.

5) Make it a rule to take care of yourself.

Sure, you might not know how to do something, so GO LEARN IT. Stop thinking that someone else will take care of it for you and learn what you need to know to get your work in front of editors, to understand what you are signing in a contract, to know how the business works. It will take time, but learn one thing a week or a day and eventually you’ll have it.

And the moment you catch yourself thinking that someone needs to take care of that for you, stop and do it yourself. Make that a way of life. Make it a rule in your writing life and business.


Writers, it is way past time we started questioning these myths. All of them that I have been talking about for twenty-five chapters now.


#1… You must learn and understand the business you want to work in.

#2… Learn from other writers on the same road, not editors or agents.

#3…It is fine to hire help, but never hand over responsibility.

#4…Never let anyone touch your money.

#5…In all decisions you are responsible for your own career.

You follow those five rules and you will be surprised at how many problems you avoid and how far those rules will take you.

Just remember, when some young agent says that they will take care of you, understand what they are thinking about you:

“Oh, I can take this writer’s money. They are a patsy.”


“This writer is too stupid to do it on their own.”

Get insulted, and if enough of us stop taking these insults and start questioning everything and taking responsibility for our own careers, maybe we can start the slow change it’s going to take to back out of this current mess.

I’m a dreamer I know, but that’s also my job description.

And I know what I’m doing. And if you just believed in yourself, you would too.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. 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: The 15% Myth.

It’s time to step back and ask some questions.

For decades writers using agents have just accepted the 15% fee amount without question. Before that it was 10% for five decades. And now there is talk of some agents starting to move to 20% because they can’t make enough money. And again, the writers who are buried solidly in all the agent myths will stand in line to get an agent at this new rate. And they will be happy when they do, without a single logical business thought in their mind.

Not one.

Perfectly sane humans who understand money and do fine in the real world of money will sign up at this rate. And never once question it or negotiate or look for another method that might be better or cheaper or have better value.

Not once.

Well, writers, snap out of it! It’s a new world.

The agency model is starting to fall apart, publishing is in a state of flux, electronic and POD publishing is growing at amazing speeds thanks to new technology. It’s time to stand back and question EVERYTHING. And one of the biggest questions a writer must ask is this: Are you getting your money’s worth from agents?

Are you getting value worth what you are paying?

Okay, to make sure we are all on the same page with the same information, I need to give some basics and history.

Fact #1: Agents are not anywhere in the normal publishing chain of Publisher/Writer/Distributor/Reader that has been in existence for hundreds of years. In fact, agents in the book business didn’t even become a normal writer employee until the 1940s and 1950s, even though a few existed earlier, mostly working for the theater or Hollywood. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it became completely common to have an agent.

Fact #2: Agents work for writers. It seems lately that they work for publishers. They clearly are self-employed or work for large agencies, but the real boss is always the writer.

Fact #3: The agent rate of 15% started out as 10% and changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s slowly, with the same kind of talk that is going on now about the 20% rate.

Fact #4: Agents are not signers on the contracts between publishers and writers. They are a third party assignment in the contract. Nothing more.

Fact #5: Agents have “standard working practices” which include getting all the money first and then sending it to the client when they get around to it minus their 15%. These standard practices also need to be challenged. Keep reading.

Fact #6: Up until just recently, another standard practice was that an agent was no longer involved with a book after the first basic contract was finished and the book was out of print. Many agencies have been trying to change this practice in agency agreements, claiming they should get their 15% after the first contract is finished even if the author sold the book years later on their own. Head-shaking change that writers are allowing in some agencies. Don’t ever sign an agency agreement. Period.

Okay, enough facts for the moment. Let me try to talk about “value” of an agent’s services. Where MIGHT an agent bring value to a writer?

Value #1: Experienced agents with larger agencies can get better contracts for the writer, including already negotiated boilerplate. (Lower level agents can’t help with this at all and will often make your contracts worse.) Sometimes these better contracts have value, sometimes they do not.

Value #2: Experienced agents with larger agencies can help with both Hollywood connections and overseas sales. Often they get in the way, but sometimes they can help. (Lower level agents can’t help with this at all even though they will claim they can.)

Value #3: When a check is late or you are mad about something your publisher has done, your agent can step in and help.

Value #4: A good agent in a larger agency can get your manuscript through doors that you may or may not be able to get through. They know and have worked with about ten editors in a certain area and those ten connections can sometimes help. (But see below on the limitations of this value. Lower level agents can’t help with this at all.)

Value #5: If you are up the bestseller charts and your publisher is pushing you to do tours, your agent will help with connections with the promotions department with the publisher and if you are a real wimp will even travel with you at the start.

That’s it for any real value for the percentage. And what is scary is that lower level agents can’t really help with any of that value. Only experienced agents or agents in larger agencies can really help a writer.

And remember, all the above only works if you and your agent are on the same page. Horror stories appear at all levels of agents when a writer wants one thing and an agent feels the writer should go another direction. Thousands of stories, all ugly, happen when that situation comes about, as it often does. Then all of the above “value” turns negative and career-killing. Agents kill a lot of careers. That is also a fact.

Yeah, I know, I know. But what about… and what about… and what about…. So time for more history and how this current “perceived” working model for agents has come about. And where the agents see the value and why it is failing.

History #1: Publishers have always had closed doors to writers, from the days when editors sat in offices in New York and writers brought manuscripts to them. These closed doors are designed to stop the writers that need to be stopped. They don’t stop the smarter level writers at all, but they are effective at turning away most of the trash produced by writers with one book and written in crayon. (Not kidding.)

History #2: For a number of decades, the door was “no unsolicited” manuscripts. Worked great until someone got the smart idea of switching it to “no unagented” manuscripts about ten to twelve years ago. Almost all publishers quickly switched to that door and it stopped even more trash by directing it to agents. Any form letter today says “No Unagented Manuscripts.” It means nothing beyond that your manuscript for one reason or another doesn’t fit in that imprint and you didn’t catch their attention enough for them to write you a personal letter.

History #3: With the moving of the slush pile to agents, lots of assistant editors no longer had jobs. And with the normal pulsing in and out of jobs in New York publishing, a number of younger editors got laid off, so many moved to agenting. These young editors-turned-agents like to get into manuscripts, as editors do. But now they weren’t editing for a line, they were just editing to their perceived idea of what was marketable. And they aren’t writers, so they have no idea how to tell a writer how to fix something. Especially a beginning writer who wouldn’t know how to fix something even if the agent was correct.

What Lower Level Agents are Claiming They Do for Value

1) They have to take care of their clients.

Young agents think they can take care of me. I am now officially insulted.

And I am embarrassed for all fiction writers in general because we, as a class, have let this kind of thinking go on.

Now, back when I was 15 (in the dark ages I know) I hated the idea of anyone “taking care of me.” And as I got older, that hatred sort of grew into a way of life and a way of looking at life. I like to stand on my own two feet. I paid my own way through college, and so on and so on.

When I decided I wanted to be an architect and got my degree, I had no belief system that someone would come in and take care of me in that profession. And when I went through law school I had no thought of being taken care of while being an attorney.

Yet writers (who claim they want to work in a multi-billion dollar international business) think it would be better for them to be taken care of by some young college graduate fresh out of Vassar who lives with three other agents and editors in New York. Why am I the only one who thinks that’s just stupid?

Now, excuse me, but it has always been my assumption that if a person wants to go into a business and make their living at that business, they must FIRST learn the business. Maybe that assumption is wrong, but I sure hope not. When I see a doctor, I hope the doctor has the knowledge I am paying them for. When I see an attorney, I hope the attorney knows what she is talking about.

Why are professional writers any different? And why do we let these young agents keep insulting us? And that is EXACTLY what they are doing when they say they “take care of their writers.”

2) Agents need to read slush

Uhh, no, they don’t. They can’t buy anything. No one ever said they had to read slush. In the past agents never read slush and made a ton more money. But now agents are saying that they need to read slush and they get no money from doing that (duh) so they now should start charging reading fees.

Sniff….sniff….do I smell scam? Yup, stinks just like a scam to take money from new writer’s dreams with promises the agents can’t keep. This reading fee scam has been around for a hundred years I’m afraid. Nothing new. And giving it to the agent’s wife for a fee is still a scam.

No agent needs to read slush. Period. It’s stupid, actually, and most top agents would never think of it.

—Agents must spend time helping their clients rewrite.

Excuse me, I am now INSULTED yet again. I’m the writer, I’ve been making my living at writing fiction for over 20 years. Yet one young agent I was talking with at a conference a year ago said she wouldn’t just mail my work, she would need to help me “fine tune it” as she said before she could send it out.

Somehow I managed to not laugh. I sold my first short story 12 years before she was born, sold my first novel the year she was born. I may not be as good a writer as I want to become yet, but I’m still learning and I’m fairly certain some young agent can’t help me. And I am INSULTED that these young agents have a working model that thinks they are better than ALL the writers who come to them. Writers as a class would be insulted if as a class we weren’t such sheep looking for the secret watering trough.


You know, I honestly don’t know anymore. And that’s the truth. I am so far away from ever using an agent again, all I can do is spout the party lines I did above to start this of what value they do give if they are top agents.

The downside of agents in writer’s lives has become so harsh, so career killing, so joy killing for so many writers, including me, that I’m not sure any amount of money can make up for how they come into your office and stop you from writing. I know of no professional writer who doesn’t think of their agent in one way or another when coming up with a project.

Those of us without agents write what we want.

After the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post, the fine folks making comments got into a mathematical discussion about how much real money you must get extra on just the advance to make the agent fee a win for the writer.

In that discussion there was no mathematical talk about the costs with other rights, or agents trying to make a control grab at the work forever, or the negative impact the agent has on a writer’s choice of projects because of a perceived market. None of that.

If you don’t understand copyright and your magic bakery, you really, really need to. Say five years after your book sold and you hired an agent to do the deal, you talk to someone at an audio company at a conference and make a sale for $10,000. Yup, you owe your agent $1,500 FOR DOING NOTHING.

The system that allows that, AND DEMANDS THAT, is broken. Period.

Yet writers without agents are free to write what we want. When we want. And sell it to who we want. And in this modern world we can even do electronic books and print on demand books and so many other ways of publishing. And we keep all the money. And the CONTROL.

So where exactly publishing is going into the future is beyond me? And anyone at this point in publishing who claims to know where publishing is going is just full of hot air.

But about agents, I can tell you this much about the current working model.

—Younger slush-reading agents will go and come because there is no money in the model. Spending all the time reading slush and rewriting writers leaves no time for the real money-making aspects of their jobs. The only way these types of agents will make it is if they get lucky with a writer.

—Tons of writers’ careers will be killed or stalled because of these younger agents. After three or four rewrites for an agent you got to just not feel much like writing anymore. And to be honest, I would hate this wonderful job if I had to do that. We are losing a generation of writers with this system and that’s sad.

—Publishers are madly trying to figure out a way to take back the slush, mostly with electronic experiments. But in the meantime, writers are taking control of their own careers by telling the publishers and agents to take their system and shove it and are moving to electronic and POD publishing at light speed. I have no idea what this trend will do, and I don’t think anyone does at this moment in time in the summer of 2010.

—Writers, being a class of sheep, for a time will still hope to have someone come in and take care of them because they are afraid of the learning curve, the years of making mistakes. So agents as a class will continue for another decade or so. But agents have also missed the ball with this electronic stuff and are in the rearview mirror now. I would bet just about anything that the agents in twenty years will not have the same working model as the agents of 2010.


— Mail a submission package yourself to editors. Just as has always been done in publishing. I will not tell you how to do that here. Figure it out or come to a marketing workshop in October or next spring here on the coast and Kris and I will spend a week training you how to write great proposals, query letters, and put a package together.

— If you get an offer, hire an intellectual properties attorney. Laura Resnick has put a list of good ones up here, NINC has a list of them on their site. They only charge for what you ask them to do and you get to keep all the money for the rest of your magic bakery life.

— If you get an offer, negotiate the contract yourself. Lots of books and stuff out there about this and it really isn’t rocket science. And since you negotiate with your editor anyhow and she wants to buy the book, it’s pretty nice negotiations.

— Publish the book yourself if you can’t find a home for it in major publishing. Again, give the larger world a try first, but no longer do you need to bend your work to fit anyone’s vision but your own. If they don’t like it, get it to readers yourself. Easy and cheap. (Just understand that if you do this you become not only the writer, but the publisher and thus take on those duties as well.)


With electronic publishing, the biggest worry of everyone is what is called “The Noise.” Of course, quality fiction will be found because of word-of-mouth and just a little author push. Bad fiction will sink unnoticed.

That’s all healthy.

But this electronic world gives writers something they haven’t had before, and that is a long-term front list and back list exposure. If I do this correctly, in a year or so, all of my short stories and all of my original published novels will be back in print and available for readers to find.

So in Hollywood, this is what is happening: An agent (called a packager or other names) in one method or another, finds a book or story they think they can put together and then sell. (They are scanning online constantly.) This agent contacts the writer and the two execute a Shopping Agreement where the agent pays the author a fee for the right to try to sell the book for a certain time.

This is common in Hollywood now. So imagine an agent setting this system up in New York. (Remember your history? New York book agents came out of the theater and Hollywood originally.)

Example: Agent sees a solid genre book she is certain she can sell. She offers the author $500 for the sole right to try to sell that book to major publishers for a time period of one year, with the right to renew for another $500 for a second year. If the agent succeeds, the fee is returned to the agent from the first advance, plus a standard 15% commission as done today. If the agent fails in selling the book, the author keeps the $500 fee. Fees could vary depending on the agreement and what the agent thinks the book might sell for.

Why does this make sense?

— If an agent has their own money behind a project, they are going to push that project all the way and not give up as they do now after eight rejections.

—Writer and agent share the risks of submissions.

— A new source of books are coming quickly into being, and that’s self-published books. Not many at the moment are going from self-published to New York publishers, but a few are. As it becomes easier for authors to do and much cheaper, it will start making more sense over the next number of years for some authors to self publish books. This will be a huge source of quality and tested material for an agent in this new model.

— Even more importantly, it will put agents back in the correct position with writers: A hired employee. And writers won’t lose money and time with dead books with agents. They will get paid at least a small token for the time it takes to market a book.

No rights would be sold, nothing at all in copyright would change hands. This would only be a shopping agreement, nothing more, giving the agent ONLY the right to shop the book. Nothing more.

Any writer/agent agreement would be agreed upon after the sale.

Again, just an idea that is starting to make more and more sense as more and more authors are headed to electronics and POD publishing on their own. I just wanted to toss that out since Kris and I have done a bunch of shopping agreements with Hollywood lately. It’s the first thing I have seen that would work as a new model in this new world for agents.

Of course agents now would laugh at that model because writers have been giving agents FREE OPTIONS on their work and because writers want to be taken care of in this huge business, they will continue to give free options until that model fails and is replaced by something else.

Is the 15% that agents charge a myth? Yes, because it is going unchallenged as any good myth does.

Do agents give you 15% of value? Overall, after listening to maybe a thousand stories about agents over the last ten years, I would say no. An honest, flat NO!

Let me repeat that. No. Agents do not give fair value for 15% in 2010.

And if you are a writer who wants his agent to take care of him in this international multi-billion dollar a year corporate business, expect your career to be short lived, expect your agent to steal from you at some point or another, expect your agent to suddenly not return your calls, expect your agent to screw up Hollywood deals because they aren’t big enough, and so on and so on. It will happen, maybe not in your first dozen novels, but it will happen.

And then you wake up one fine day in your writing office starting a new writing project and thinking, “My agent would hate this. I had better not write it.” So you put that project away and start writing the same book again that you wrote last time and the time before, because that’s what sells.

At that moment, just shovel the dirt in over the top of you. As a writer, you are dead until you can claw your way out of that hole.

15% is a myth. In my opinion, the need for an agent is also quickly becoming a myth.

Wake up, writers.

Question everything. It is 2010. Publishing is changing at lightspeed. It really is a wonderful new world and writers can take control again after decades of slowly losing control of our work.

I love this new world and for the first time in decades I actually go to my writing office with pure joy and excitement. Just as I used to do when I was starting out and had no thought of getting an agent.

And no way am I giving that joy up now. Not for 10%, 15% or 20%.

Not for anything.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. 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

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Class #11… Aug 8th … The Business of Writing
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#23... Paying the Price: A Working Writer's Mindset ... Dean Wesley Smith.... 10 videos... $50.00

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