Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Follow the Rules to Get Published.


Yup, the myth is that following rules will really help you get published or stay published. Actually, following rules might actually stop you in this current world.

Also let me start this by flat out by saying that editors and agents can’t help you learn much about being a writer. They know very little about being a writer on a day-to-day level or how a writer lives or even how a writer makes most of his or her money. What they do know is how to be an editor and what that job is. And good agents do know how to be agents and what that job deals with. And if you want to learn either of those jobs, listen to them.

But if you want to learn how to be a writer, stop trying to learn your business from editors and agents. Learn from other writers farther down a road you want to walk. And then do it your way.

There, I have said it. Don’t learn writing from editors or agents. Go ahead, scream, but before you pound the keys and call me names, allow me the chance to try to explain a little.

Kurt Busiek is flat out one of my all-time favorite writers. Period. He tends to focus on comics and I am a comic fan. I have owned not one, but two different comic stores over my lifetime and have worked for all three top comic book companies as well as a writer. I have never had the honor to meet Kurt along the way.

Kurt Busiek is a great writer and a writer is a writer is a writer and even though I write novels, I can learn from him. He also knows a ton about business and about how to freelance. He did a nifty post on his web site about some of the basic topics we have been talking about here in the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing chapters and comment sections. It’s called Breaking in Without Rules.

That sounds like the title for a Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing chapter, doesn’t it? Read his post now before you get angry with me about my opening statement, then come back here and keep reading this.

My flat out favorite quote from his article is: “If you need to have someone lay out a set of instructions for you, you probably don’t have the skills or imagination to be a freelance writer.”

I agree completely.

And you will note, that has been what I have been saying in many, many ways in these chapters and in the workshops I teach.

This last week I got attacked by some editor who doesn’t have the courage to show his or her face or real name. So I have been calling him/her “The Scared Editor.” (By the way, most top editors blog under their own name to promote their author’s books and I love reading their blogs. I have no problem with editors blogging, just agents blogging. I want to be clear on that.)

I got attacked by this scared editor because of my very first agent post where I told writers there was no need for an agent to sell a book. And the worst thing I said was that a form rejection often meant many things besides “We don’t take unagented submissions.”

The form rejection might mean what it says, sure, or it might mean your pitch or your book doesn’t fit their line, or you sent them your entire manuscript without asking first and they don’t want to read that many pages, or it just might mean your craft and skills are not to professional levels yet. That’s right, it could mean any of those things and maybe a few others. Just as all form rejections throughout history have meant many things, the biggest meaning is that for one reason or another your book just isn’t right for that editor.

This scared editor flat didn’t like what I was saying and attacked me for my credentials (90 plus published novels under a dozen pen names isn’t enough I guess) and the fact that I am on old-timer and don’t understand new writers at all. I was telling writers that it might be all right to break a rule. And what I found even more interesting was that new writer after new writer who followed this scared editor’s site got angry at me for daring to say that. I was saying to ignore a rule set down by a publisher, backed up by a sacred editor. Shock!

Yes, that’s what I was saying. Ignore the guidelines and the editors and do it your own way. Duh.

Back to what Kurt said so well in his post. “If you need to have someone lay out a set of instructions for you, you probably don’t have the skills or imagination to be a freelance writer.”

I also got attacked because I didn’t offer the golden “secret” to going around the rules. Actually, I did. But I didn’t give set rules, I didn’t lay down guidelines, because guess what, there are none. Back to Kurt’s quote. If you need rules, you might want to try working for a very large bank or corporation instead of freelancing.

This last week in a marketing workshop, I got over and over and over the almost pathological need to follow the publishing rules from the writers attending. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I got the question “But the publisher guidelines say…”

Back to Kurt’s quote one more time.

So, why learn how to to a professional writer and freelancer from a person who can’t write and doesn’t know your business? I’m talking about editors and agents, of course. Why learn from them? It makes no sense at all when you back up and look at it.

But many top editors and agents will do their best to help you learn the business, with the best of intentions. I have no problem with that at all, and I admire what they are trying to do. But in most cases, listening to them will just steer you down a wrong road. Listen more to other writers. Other successful writers who have walked a similar road than you want to walk.

So what can you learn from editors besides how to edit?

Editors are fantastic people. They love books, they love helping writers get books into print. They sometimes even enjoy working with writers, if the writer is sane. And they can fine-tune a book to make it more marketable FOR THEIR LINE of books. But do they have any idea at all how a writer makes most of their money? Of course not.

All they see is one contract and the advance on that contract. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have heard editors tell writers they can’t make a living at writing because most of their writers only write one book a year and get a twenty grand advance. That’s all the editor sees, so of course that’s what they think and that’s what they tell writers. Bad, bad advice not based on anything but just not knowing. (Want to get an idea how writers make money, read my magic bakery chapter right here.)

So, what can an editor teach you? They can teach you how to sell to their line of books, they can help you with some publishing questions like lay downs and print runs (sometimes) and maybe how the process works inside their office and where your book is at in the process. They can teach you what a page proof is and what an uncorrected proof looks like, and if you ask good questions, they might even open up some about the process of buying books that they go through.

But remember, their knowledge is only for that publisher, that editor, that office inside that publisher. Downstairs, in the same building, an editor might tell you something completely different to the same publishing question, and across town in another major corporation, of course everything will be done differently.

So some editor lectures to a group of writers about how they need to add this or that into their work. Is that editor right? Maybe, for that house, but maybe not right for that writer. Maybe that writer’s work just isn’t a good match with that editor.

How this works is like it works for reading books with all of us. For example, I buy every Clive Cussler book the moment it hits the stands and would some day love to write with him. I don’t even care which series the book is in, I read them all and buy them all in hardback. My wife isn’t fond of Cussler’s books. So if she saw his book as an editor, she would reject it because she just wouldn’t be the right editor for Cussler. If I was an editor I would buy it in a flash.

I am the same way with Regency romances. I can’t seem to even read one, while my wife loves them.

But say I am an editor who thinks I can help a Regency period writer become a better writer and start giving writing advice. I would ruin a good writer who might be a bestseller if that writer hadn’t listened to me.

Editors are super readers. They know what they love, they buy what they love, but if they don’t love your book, don’t listen to them. They can’t help you. It’s why Heinlein’s Rules say never to rewrite unless to editorial demand. Harlan Ellison added “And then only if you agree.” And I would add one more clause to that rule. “Only after they have bought your work.”

(Ahhh, see I’m quoting rules. But there are no rules. For me I adopted Heinlein’s Rules. For you, they might not work. See where this is going?)

Every editor is different, every book line is different, every publisher is different. What one editor will teach you will be just flat wrong with another editor.

So, when listening to one editor, learn about her methods, and then listen to another editor and learn her method, and so on and so on. Learn about their houses, their lines, their likes and dislikes. But for heaven’s sake, if they start telling you how to write, run away.

And if they start telling you anything about your business, run even faster. They work on a salary for a corporation. They have no clue how to freelance or how money comes in for freelance writers. Their intentions will be good, their advice horrid for the most part.

What can agents teach you besides how to be an agent?

Agents are closer to writers, the good ones sometimes understand cash flow for writers since they often see a large part of the cash flow. But go back and read all the agent posts. They know how to freelance in their own job. They know how to keep editors happy. They could care less about their writers.

But if you have a good relationship with your agent employee, you can ask them questions, learn things from them, especially about contracts, copyright, overseas rights, and so on. Areas they know and should understand. If they don’t or won’t answer questions, why did you hire them?

One side note: My agent once visited me on vacation and was stunned about how well we lived, stunned at our writing compound overlooking the ocean. My agent knew some of my money, since it went through the agency, but never thought to put it all together or understand I had a lot of other income streams that did not include an agent.

Agents as teachers in general is another matter all together. They try to give out rules, set guidelines writers should follow, areas of publishing that are selling at the moment, and so on and so on. Awful advice, for the most part.

Should you listen to them? Sure, why not, but take everything with a grain of salt. Actually, with agents, have your giant salt shaker with you and only take what makes sense to you and leave all the rest. And the moment any agent frames anything as a “rule” cover it with salt and ignore it.

Okay, since scared editor and her legion of fans wanted me to give out a “golden rule” of writing, besides Heinlein’s Rules (a writer of course) here is mine to all of you:

There are no rules.

Write what you want to write. Write at the speed you want to write. Rewrite or don’t rewrite as your heart desires. Mail your work to whomever you want when you want. Hire an agent or don’t hire an agent. Up to you. Self publish or only sell to major houses. Up to you.

You could even listen to and follow every word every editor or agent tells you. Fine by me. I honestly don’t care.

But my hope for these chapters and this book is that you will make EDUCATED decisions about your choices of which information to follow and which to ignore.

Myths are very, very powerful as I discovered once again this last week, both from scared editor and her fans and from students in the workshop here. If you knee-jerk a decision because that is what you’ve heard, a good chance you will be wrong. Not always, but often.

If you follow how editors tell you to run your freelance writing career because they are a powerful editor, sometimes you will be wrong. A lot of the time, actually, but not always.

If you hire a stranger blindly because they have the word “agent” after their name and give them control over all your money and listen to what they tell you to write, you might be in trouble more times than not. Not always, but often.

No rules. Just your rules. Just what works and sells for you. No writer ever does this business the same, and that’s what is so wonderful about it, actually.

Trust me, folks, you don’t want my career. Now granted, for an old comic book and science fiction fan like me, I’ve had a fantastic career and have had a blast and I’m still having fun every day. But it wouldn’t be right for many of you out there.

Make up your own rules from rational decisions and information. Learn from other writers, and create your own career that’s perfect for you. And when listening to anyone, including me, keep that giant salt shaker at hand to cover anything that doesn’t fit for you. Especially if an editor or agent gave it out as a rule.

Following the rules might get you a career. It might not.

But following your own rules gives you a lot better chance.

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Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
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This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (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, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean


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129 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Follow the Rules to Get Published.

  1. Raven says:

    Wow! This was a great post and discussion. I’m really enjoying this series, and I hope I have time to get through it all. It’s a lot of material, and it’s really good.

    Practice: yes! I’d definitely like more tips for practice, so I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the next post (an advantage of being so far behind on these). I’ve always known there has to be practice, but I always assumed that it was just writing something every day, like freewriting for awhile or whatever. I have, on my own, dissected one book, and that was very helpful. After reading these posts and also recently having realized that my current book is a lot like a book I read a few years ago, I plan to do the same with that other book.

    Quality and bestsellers: Personally, I don’t think that bestsellers=better writers than non-bestsellers. I think it means they are more popular, but I am not convinced that more popular=better. Do I want to know what they’re doing to connect to that many people? Sure. But just as I’m not going to let a copy-editor delete my voice, I’m not going to decide that I need to write exactly the way bestsellers do either. I have a strong dislike of Good vs. Evil in stories, and they tend to be more popular than stories where the protagonist is not Good. I have some Good protagonists, but I’m not going to give up on my morally ambivalent ones just because that’s not popular. I’m not convinced, yet, that it’s better. I have to write what matters to me, even if it’s unpopular, or I won’t do a good job.

    Criticizing Writers in public: Ooh, I hate this. I’ve been really lucky in the forums I usually spend my time at because they tend to have rules or expectations for not engaging in “I Hate Author X” threads. They just always leave a bad taste in my mouth. I do NaNoWriMo, and in the Fantasy forum, the “Bad Author” thread is usually the longest. I don’t know why fantasy writers hate fantasy authors so much, but it makes me wary of posting ANYTHING in that forum. Discussing specific aspects of a book that you didn’t like to determine why it didn’t work, and possibly getting opinions from others on what they liked or didn’t *might* be helpful, but broad generalizations are just awful.

    Grammar: I love grammar. I think it’s one of the most fun things to explore in a language, but I think one of the neatest things about grammar is that it’s a set of conventions that is supposed to help people understand each other better, NOT a prescriptive rulebook. What’s really interesting is that in certain situations, perfect grammar can actually stand out and make it LESS likely to be understood or it can cause people to not fit in with a group and seem snobby or standoffish. Being able to switch up grammar to address different audiences or communities is one of the highest skills of grammar there are, and I think it’s incredibly useful for writers, who then are no longer restricted to the group they grew up in or to bland 100% correct usage. So, I do think it’s necessary to pay attention to grammar and sentences, but only after the story is right. I agree about not worrying about it while actually writing, because it’s only a distraction from what really matters then.

  2. Raven says:

    I wanted to clarify something – I was very theoretical in my Quality vs. Bestseller thing up there: I do think all bestsellers are better writers than *I* am. I just don’t think they’re better than some other published writers who I’ve read, such as Patricia McKillip.

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