Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Can Help with Careers

Kris and I in workshop after workshop, in conference after conference, give the same advice over and over. WRITE WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT, THEN TRY TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SELL IT.

The myth: Agents can give good career advice to writers.

This chapter on agents to me is the most important of all the agent chapters. Agents thinking they can give career advice to writers is so wrong in so many ways, it’s going to hard to figure out where to start first. And it disgusts me in so many ways, I’m going to have a certain level of problem keeping balanced on this. Fair warning. I think this myth is flat dangerous to any artist working.

So let me start first with the “art” aspects of writing and work to the business.


Every long-term writer I know does their best with every project. We all put our hearts and souls into every story, into every novel, into every project. There are no exceptions. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we miss, sometimes we love what we wrote and can’t sell it, sometimes we love what we wrote, critics hate it. Sometimes we hate what we wrote, critics love it.

But, without fail, we always do our best at the time we were writing the project. That’s Given #1.

Given #2 is that every writer should write what makes them angry, what makes them passionate, or what they love. From the passion comes true art. (I have started two comic book stores and own over 100,000 comic books. When I got to write X-Men and Spider-Man, I was writing what I loved deeply and felt frightened and challenged to even have the chance.)

Given #3. No writer ever should think for one moment about a project selling either before or during the writing phase. Ever. You try writing to market, to fad, to trend, and you might as well find another job.

So, putting all three together, you come up with a very clear statement that I repeat over and over and over.

Write what you love, what you are passionate about, (or as King says, what scares you), then figure out how to sell it when you finish.

Let me repeat: SELL IT WHEN YOU FINISH!!!

So along comes the agent myth about helping a writer plan a career.

Now understand, I have said over and over and over again that I have no problem with a writer hiring an agent. But for heaven’s sake, do it with solid business practice in mind and a clear head. Clear out the myths. You might just very well end up with a an agent you can work with for a very long time.

So back to this myth about agents. Writer believes that some agent can help them plan their career and what to write next. They take advice blindly from an agent who doesn’t really know them or their work or what they love and hate, some agent who they have not even bothered to check out (see previous chapters and comments), a stranger who is more concerned with their own business than what is best for an artist.

Here is the problem. Some young writer gets excited, does all the work, learns the craft, and writes a book he is passionate about. And then starts following the myths.

Myth: Rewriting is good, so agent tells young writer how to “fix” the book, so young writer dumbs his passion in his work down to what some stranger (agent) thinks might sell. (Yes, rewriting is career advice because the agent always says something along the lines of “I think this will sell better if you do this and this.”)

Myth: Agent takes the book out to a bunch of editor friends and actually gets a small advance. Author is happy about the sale and ignores the fact that it’s not his book much anymore. It sold, that’s all that is important. Any thought of art is long gone at this point. His name is on the cover and he has made it. That’s where all the thinking is for the writer.

Myth: Agent now thinks they know what the young author needs to do, so tells them what to write next. Young writer hates it, thinks he has already written that book the first time, doesn’t want to write the same thing again, but does as agent says. Doesn’t like the final product because it has no passion, agent doesn’t like it, and off into rewrite myth they go.

What I have seen hundreds of times is that young writers stop their careers right there. Second book was no fun, third book was pure torture, why bother, sales were not that good anyway, and writer stops writing. I would to.

This myth kills artists.

This myth combined with all the aspects of the other agent and sales myths, force young artist after young artist to compromise, think about selling before they write a word, move away from passion into safe sales, and thus into losing the very reason and passion the writer was writing in the first place. And when you lose the reason to write, the love of writing, the passion to write, you soon just stop writing.

It takes a very, very powerful self-belief to stand up to these myths and just write what you want, at the speed you want, and mail to who you want after you are finished. Yet to be a true artist, a true long-term professional writer, you have to learn to stand up for your writing and your art.

Is all this easy to learn? No. Darned hard, actually.

But to be a true artist, write what you want. Never write to market.


Now, this is a fun area because when you look at it, this myth becomes just flat silly on the surface.

You live in Outback small town. You were raised by some combination of humans, have friends that makes up some combination of humans, believe in some combination of religious beliefs, have some combination of writing talents, and have a very certain combination of fears, passions, and likes and dislikes.

In other words, you are an individual, a one-of-a-kind writer. That’s what makes your voice unique and your writing different from everyone else.

The agent is also a unique person, with certain likes and dislikes and beliefs in what sells and what doesn’t and who will buy what and why and how every writer should follow the recent trend and have a vampire do something on page three.

So you, young writer, believe in this myth of career planning, trust some stranger to tell you what to write. The stranger has a different upbringing, a different set of values, and no idea at all who you really are as a person. They don’t know your voice or what makes you unique. In fact, to them, you need to be more like everyone else.

Yet you let the stranger tell you what to write. And then you wonder why you are not passionate about your writing anymore. Duh.

From the fact that each of us is different, each of us is unique, it should become clear that no writer should ever listen to anyone else, family, spouse, kids, workshop, or agent to tell them what to write next.

Just write your own book. That way lies success. Anything else is just a disaster or failure waiting to happen.


Agents flat don’t know a writer’s business. That is a truth. Some may think they do, but they don’t understand writer cash flow, don’t understand how writers make money, let alone how much time and effort it takes us to produce a product. They don’t know and shouldn’t be expected to know. (If you think all your writing money comes through your agent, wow do you have a lot to learn about the business of being a writer.)

But to an agent only concerned with their own business (which writers do not understand either), they want to sell books. And if there is a current trend, agents want their clients to write into that current trend, even though a trend is usually two years old by the time an agent catches a whiff of it.

I had an agent call me four years after the vampire craze started and ask if I had a vampire novel. Wow, that was a human ahead of the curve. Not. Another agent called me after the Titanic movie became a hit and said, “Didn’t you publish a book about the Titanic once?” I said I had a novel that partially set on the Titanic, but that was it, and it didn’t fit. Agent didn’t believe me and wanted to see it, so I sent it and then agent wrote me a snippy note asking why I thought that book would ever fit being reprinted. I just laughed and said nothing.

So, because the agent thinks it would be good business for you to sell another book just like your last one, or worse yet, just like the one they just sold for another client, they tell you to write that. And if that one sells, they tell you write it again. And again. And again, until finally it doesn’t sell anymore and they drop you.

Now understand, I am not talking about series characters, or writers who love to write just mysteries or just science fiction. Back to the top. Write what you love first and foremost, then worry about how to sell it. If you love mysteries, write them. If you love science fiction, write that. If you have a series character you love to spend time with, keep writing books with that character.

But if the only reason you are writing the next mystery is because your agent wanted you to write it when your passion has moved to romantic suspense, then you are in trouble.

To an agent’s business, it makes great sense to tell writers to write the same book over and over again.

To a writer’s business, it makes no sense to write anything they are not passionate about. To do anything else dooms the business.

Speed Advice from all three perspectives: Art, Personal, and Business.

Well, every agent I know will utter the phrase: “Slow down and take your time and do your best work.”

That is career advice shows ZERO understanding of how writing is done from the creative side of the brain, how each writer writes at their own natural speed, how slowing down and writing from a critical perspective usually creates complete crap. The statement shows no understanding at all of how art is created by great writers.

And, of course, it shows no understanding at all of you as a person. Or even your writing methods. You are unique and maybe the best advice to you would be speeding up, or cutting down on rewriting, or doing some rewriting. The agent doesn’t know. They just spout a myth at you like it’s good career advice, even though every writer is completely different.

To an agent’s business model of only needing one or so books a year from an author, it makes complete sense to say such stupidity.

But to a writer’s business model, where more product means more money, more chance of hitting it big, more chance of creating art, unnaturally slowing down is just stupid business advice.

Some projects write fast, some write slow, some art has been created quickly, some art took longer. Study the history of writers and how long it actually took artists in the past to write something to completely understand this.

But the key is, you are unique, write at your own speed what you want to write.


This is yet again the stupidest career advice ever given to a writer. Some agent will say, “Why don’t you put that book away and work on the next one.”

My response is “While I’m working on the next one, why don’t you quit looking for excuses to not work and mail the book to five more editors.”

But, of course, you would never say that because they would mail it dead, meaning they would kill it in their cover letters to editors just to prove themselves right. But what you do is fire them, take the book back and mail it yourself while you work on the next book. Duh.

Never let anyone tell you to shelve a book for any reason. ANY REASON. And reasons agents give that seem logical to young professionals are things like:

—“Your career isn’t ready for this book.” Huh?

—“This book clearly isn’t strong enough for you to break in with.” Says who?

—“We got five rejections and it’s not working. Write the next book and we’ll see what we can do.” Lazy SOB.

Let me say this again. NEVER let anyone tell you to NOT market a book. Not your spouse, not your workshop, and certainly not some stranger who has a business card that says agent on it. Put your work in front of people who can buy it and keep it there. That’s good business. Nothing short of that is.

Again, back to a point I have made over and over in the other agent chapters in this book. Agents are not trained in any fashion. They have no schooling for agents, no organization that polices them. They have not gone to any publishing business school. They have nothing but a business card and an opinion.

So it’s bad enough that we writers trust them with our money, with picking editors to mail something to, with trying to get our books into Hollywood or overseas.

But it gets worse when we let an agent step into our writing offices in any fashion and give career advice. They are not writers, so they wouldn’t know good career advice it it hit them. They are not interested in writer’s careers, only their own anyway. So any advice would just be focused on what was best for them, not for you.

And they don’t know you as a person.

In summary:

—Write what you love, what you are passionate about, what scares you, what you want.

—Never, ever write to market. Just go into your writing space or office and be an artist.

—Then, when the project is finished, worry about how to sell it.

—Never, ever let anyone tell you what to write. It will kill your writing and your career faster than anything ever will.

Trust your own skills, your own voice, keep learning, and enjoy the writing.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last 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. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article 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

This entry was posted in Misc, On Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

110 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Can Help with Careers

  1. L. M. May says:

    I just stumbled across an interesting bit of advice written by Isaac Asimov in HOW TO ENJOY WRITING that sort of fits in with the discussion:

    “My own system is to do everything myself. I have no assistants, no secretaries, no typists, no researchers, no agents, no business managers. My theory is that all such people waste your time. In the time it takes to explain what you want, to check what they do, to point out where they did it wrong–you can do at least three times as much by yourself.” — Isaac Asimov

    • dwsmith says:

      L.M., Yup, I am slowly discovering that same thing myself over the last few years. Of course, early on, no beginning writer will understand that or the time it takes, as Laura and I have detailed out, to deal with agents and how much, if you let them, they can hurt you.

      I’m agreeing with Hartwell and with Asimov. Anyone who knows me knows how really, really weird that is. But good advice is just flat good advice.

  2. I’ve some publishing credits — all non-fiction — from quite some time ago, but they’re not even remotely related to my interest in writing science fiction and fantasy. Some were articles published in a weekly magazine (which is still around), and some others were published online at a writer’s forum. I rather doubt that these could be included as part of my résumé in a cover letter to a fiction publisher, but I gather from all this that if I have professional short story credits then I should definitely include them in my cover letter.

    I will say, though, that, based on what I’ve seen in the magazines that I read regularly, short story sales seem to be a good means not only for additional income, but also for promoting a recently published novel or an upcoming novel, thus adding to one’s potential audience.

    • dwsmith says:

      I don’t agree about not putting in your credits, G.D., I’d put them in until you can replace them with other credits more appropriate. Any show to an editor that you can write and have done something like articles in a weekly magazine is a good thing. Book still has to stand alone, but it clearly puts the editor in the right frame of mind to read something from a professional.

      But I do agree that short stories can really, really help a writer. But don’t bother even trying if you don’t normally read short fiction and just love it.

  3. That’s good to know! Thanks, Dean. 😀

  4. “”My theory is that all such people waste your time. In the time it takes to explain what you want, to check what they do, to point out where they did it wrong–you can do at least three times as much by yourself.” — Isaac Asimov””

    Good point. This is exactly why I stopped having a webmaster. His work, his temperament, and his prices were all fine, but updating the site was always such a time-consuming process, for exactly the reasons Asimov cites, that when I decided I wanted to build an all-new site and retire the old one, I also decided it would be more efficient to learn some web software and just do it myself. That was five years ago and I still find that just doing it myself suits me best. I use Dreamweaver, which was actually a nuisance to learn, but I think the preponderance of writers doing their own websites now with WordPress (which I gather is a lot more user-friendly and something I should look into for my next overhaul) means that quite a few writers have decided that it’s less trouble just to do it themselves.

    Anyhow, I find it really interesting that Asimov says he eschews agents in a piece entitled HOW TO ENJOY WRITING. That highlights something which has been true for me, which is that working with an agent always wound up significantly diminishing my enjoyment of writing. And, as already discussed, I also lost BOATLOADS of time and energy when working with agents, due to the stress and distraction they caused me.

    In fact… in a perfect example of the TIME that such people cost me (as well as mental energy)… On one occasion, I found out that an editor of mine was leaving and I was being reassigned. This happens fairly often in publishing (and has happened a number of times to me), and you never know how it will go for the writer. (Once it went really well and led to many more books sales; once it meant I had to leave a house because my new editor went A YEAR without ever answering my emails or returning my calls; and so on.) I was philosophical about the news. I hadn’t heard great things about my new editor, but I also hadn’t had a great impression of the previous one. So I would wait and see how it went.

    My agent, OTOH, freaked out. Both my agent and the agent’s assistant spent the morning on the phone telling me that my new editor was a nightmare to deal with and this would be a disaster for me. So that afternoon, the agent and I talked about whether to request ADDITIONAL reassignment–but I didn’t know anyone else at the house, and the agent didn’t like anyone at the house, do we just dithered. So then we talked AGAIN toward the end of the day; still MORE dithering.

    I had by now spent a WHOLE DAY thinking and fretting about this… when, in fact, I’d pretty shrugged off the news, first thing that morning, with a “it happens” attitude. It was the -agent- who’d gotten me up in arms and wasting the whole day fretting about this. So now… as we’re talking, then agent asks to put me on hold for a moment to take another call. But instead of putting me on hold… the agent disconnects me. (Out of courtesy, I’ll assume it was an accident.) I wait by the phone a few minutes, assuming the agent will call be back. But no call comes. So I call the agent’s office; not there. So I call the agent’s cell; I get voice mail. So I email the agent.

    Well, 5 o’clock comes and goes. And it’s Friday. So now I spend the ENTIRE WEEKEND fretting about this editorial problem–which -I- hadn’t considered a problem until the agent whipped me into a frenzy about it, had 3-4 phone conversatinos with me about it… then disconnected me and NEVER CALLED BACK. So, yep, I waste AN ENTIRE WEEKEND fretting about this.

    I assume, of course, that the agent will phone me Monday morning, full of apologies and A Really Good Explanation for not phoning me back on Fri. After all, I have left an office-phone message, a cell phone message, AND an email.

    But no call ever comes. EVER. No response to the email, no acknowledgement that I was simply left HANGING in the middle of an interrupted conversation, wholly generated by the agent and the agent’s assistant, along the lines of, “This is a disaster for you, Laura! A disas–oh, can I put you on hold?”

    So finally, on Tues or Weds, -I- called and tried to re-open the discussion. The agent never acknowledged having hung up on me, never acknowledged ignoring my calls and messages… and now tried to backpedal and say that the reassignment to the new editor was no big deal and didn’t really matter, but if it wound up bothering me as much as I expected ( I? I??? =I= expected?), we could talk about it again then, but there probably wasn’t much we could do.

    So by now, I’ve wasted 4-5 days fretting anxiously about something -I- had seen as a standard event, which the -agent- then freaked me out by (rather hysterically) defining as a huge problem, and then further freaked me out by leaving me hanging mid-sentence for days, and THEN capped off by pretending was all -my- idea and one that should be shoved aside. Which led to me losing several MORE days in the stress of bewildered frustration, feeling ill-used, and wondering if I should fire the agent. (I eventually did fire the agent, but it was later and for other reasons.)

    • dwsmith says:

      Folks, I hate to say this, but Laura’s stories about agents wasting your time for no money are accurate and not only have they happened to me (guess I do have some agent horror stories) but I can’t begin to tell you how many writer friends I have heard these stories from. I now NEVER write unless I have money up front or a contract signed.

      And since I don’t have an agent in the middle of my career, I never spend one moment of time with those worries anymore. Now granted, I can make stuff up about business problems with the best of them, and often don’t need an agent to get me fretting about something. But that’s my doing, not something that comes in from the outside and hits me like agents can do to you.

      I have a friend who is, for some reason, convinced that an agent is necessary, even though there is no contract yet on a possible new project. So hours and hours of time and conversation have been spent on agent this or agent that. And I have no idea how much time this friend has spent as well.

      Sometimes this need for someone to validate us as writers is pathological and we turn to agents to do it, the worst thing we can do. Thus the reactions to these blog posts across the web and the push-back. I’m suggesting to writers that they act in a business fashion, with good business practice, to agents, and that causes writers no amount of problems because of this need to just be accepted.

      Thanks, Laura, for the stories of time and how agents can waste writers time. Asimov was right.

      Look at how much time I have spent on these posts about agents. (grin)

  5. Oh, and on ANOTHER occasion… an agent of mine called and placed before me the prospect of working with a (very, very, VERY) minor celebrity, more or less editing a novel she was working on. The agent thought this could be worth about $10,000 to me.

    Well, of course, if a publisher asks you to do that, they put money =on the table=. And if a (very, very, VERY) minor celebrity came to -me- for editorial help, I’d name a fee and wouldn’t start work until the first payment had cleared my account. (Well, in those days, when I needed money so badly, I would have. These days, I wouldn’t touch a situation like that with a ten foot pole.

    So I read the whole MS. And I write a constructive 2,000-word revision letter about the changes I recommend. And, as anyone who’s ever done something like this knows, reading a MS to evaluate it takes 2-3 times as long as just reading it, and writing a -constructive- revision letter takes about 10 times as long as just saying, “This is awful and needs a complete overhaul from page one.”

    So by the time I talk to the MS’s author, I’ve spent DAYS on this… And although we have a fairly friendly talk (since I’m a polite Midwesterner and she’s a nice person), she disagrees with my assessment, think the MS just needs a little but of work. MOre to the point, she clearly states that my agent must have misunderstoof the sitution, she never had any intention of paying anyone to help her with it. (And since she’s being very pleasant and polite, and has taken my negative “it needs a lot of work” reaction to her MS in pretty good stride, she’s making a good impression on me… and I think she may well be telling the truth about the -agent- being the only one here who ever brought up money, and only with -me-, never with -her-.) She thanks me nicely for my time and hangs up.

    Bewildered and wondering how I’m going to get paid for my time if -she- never intended to pay anyone, I call my agent. The agent simply shrugs it off as, “Oh, well, guess that won’t work out then.”

    And I have now wasted 4 full days and a lot of work on NOTHING… after hearing the agent tell me I could probably make $10,000. I realized then how naive I had been to do -anything- without a contract and money ON THE TABLE– and I felt totally played by my agent, who’d dangled this distracting carrot in front of me… probably in hopes of getting a publishable novel from a minor celebrity who couldn’t write. No skin off the agent’s nose that it didn’t work out… but =I= lost four full days to that nonsense.

  6. G. D. – what Dean said. My non-fiction publishing credits are over twenty years old (contributing editor at Byte magazine and a couple of freelance pieces for space magazines), so I know where you’re coming from. Putting those credits in your cover letter lets an editor know a few things up front beyond that you know how to write, namely that you know a bit about the business: deadlines, contracts, correcting proofs, etc. This suggests you will probably be easier to work with than J. Random Unknown.

    That may not be much of an edge, but every little bit helps.

  7. Here’s another example of an agent stealing TIME from a client. (And also causing a lot of stress.)

    A friend of mine delivered a MS to her editor, and another copy of it to her agent (since, unlike my agents, her agent actually read her work). They both read it. The editor then leaves a message for the agent on a Friday afternoon, saying simply, “We need to talk.”

    The agent FREAKS OUT. She interprets “we need to talk” as meaning the MS is a disaster. Although the agent had no problems with the MS when she read it, now -she- decides it’s a disaster. She contacts my friend and freaks HER out. They’ve only got THIS WEEKEND to save her career! They need to be able to tell the editor, when the agent talks to her on Monday, that they know what’s wrong with the book and the writer can fix it–indeed, has already STARTED fixing it. There is no reason for the editor to lose faith, cancel the contract, drop the writer, etc.!

    So the agent dumps a boatload of notes on my friend Friday night, who–in a frazzled, anguished, bewildered state of mind–commences emergency revisions on Saturday morning, as per the agent’s notes. When Monday comes, the editor is in meetings all day, so the writer keeps revising while awaiting news…

    When it finally comes, later in the week…. it turns out that the editor thinks the book is FINE and authorized the delivery-and-acceptance check for it. Her “we need to talk” message to the agent was a run-of-the-mill message meaning they needed to talk about scheduling, about the next contract for the writer, etc.

    So the writer had by now spent DAYS in fear and anxiety–and, more to the point–DAYS needlessly rewriting-for-the-agent a book that the editor had ACCEPTED and thought was fine.

    Obviously, -anyone- can waste a writer’s time (and energy). But since an agent =can’t even pay= the writer, it’s time that I tend to think of as PARTICULARLY wasted.

  8. One of the frustrating things, of course, is that in all of the three incidents that I described above, there was at least one (perhaps several) sensible businesslike way to handle the situation… but the agents in question didn’t.

    First Ex.: Say to the client, “I want to make sure your reassignment to this other editor goes smoothly, so I’ll put in a call to the editor next week to establish our constructive expectations and open a line of communication. And if you have any problems with the editor, let me know immediately. Or if there’s someone you’d rather work with, let me know.”

    Second Ex.: Say to the client, “There’s a minor celebrity working on a novel, and she’ll need a ton of help for it to have any chance of being publishable. If I negotiate a contract and remuneration with her for you, would you be interested in doing that work?”

    Third Ex.: Say NOTHING to the client AT ALL until you’ve had that talk with the editor and found out what’s what. Keep your unconfirmed fears to yourself, for goodness sake.

    One of the oddities (it has always seemed to me) of the publishing industry is that writers are supposedly unbusinesslike flakes, and agents are supposedly rational professionals who are businesslike. My own experience is that the reality is very different from that particular myth, though. Some agents are indeed very professional and businesslike (and some writers are indeed flakes). But a substantial percentage of agents are actually very UNbusinesslike, and this is one of the great rarely-mentioned truths of the profession, both in my personal experience and in the anecdotes I’ve heard from dozens and dozens of writers over the years.

    • dwsmith says:

      And Laura, what I find head-shaking is that we writers EXPECT them to be businesslike. That’s where the myth hits the hardest on this stuff. Agents, as I have said, have no training. Most graduated from an some college you would recognize the name with an English degree, worked for a few years, maybe as an editor, then switched to agenting. And with that background, we think they should understand small business, understand cash flow the the problems writers face, understand just the basic logic of business as you pointed out in your posts. They most often don’t.

      Of course, there are some who are smart in business, but as you have pointed out, most are not, and the problem is with writers that we expect them to be and are shocked and stunned when they are not.

  9. Dean & Laura, you two need to capture all of this and turn it into its own e-book on fiction writing and agents.

    Suggested titles:

    “Something Wicked This Way Comes: protecting your fiction business from poor agents.”


    “Swimming With Sharks: your fiction business in the era of agents run amuck.”


    “Caveat Scriptor: everything you need to know about the dos and do-nots of having a fiction agent.”


    “Dumb and Dumber: why agents think they run authors, and what you can do about it.”


    “Shooting your agent in the face (with a bazooka!) cautionary tales from the freelancer’s world.”


    “Taking It Back: how to repossess a fiction career derailed by agents.”


    “Writer as Boss: 20 reasons why not to let someone else tell you how to run your fiction business.”

    … And so on, and so forth.

  10. Thank you, Alastair. I’m a bit surprised to hear that credits even that old are considered relevant, but, regardless, it’s good to know.


  11. Amanda McCarter says:

    Well, Dean, Laura, you’ve done it. You convinced me. I sent out my novel on the 25th, unagented, to a publisher. I’ll worry about an agent (or a lawyer) later. I freaked out for about two or three days afterwards and then got over it. Big deal. What’s the worse that can happen? It gets rejected. Well, I’ve got a list. And after I do some research, I’m going to have a longer list. Know any good sites?

  12. Amanda,

    I’ll say it again, just for good measure: One good website is my Writers Resources Page. Go to and click on the Writers Resources link.

    Another, that someone showed me recently (which I’m going to add to my page) is an online index of SF/F publishers and editors. If you poke around it, you’ll see that it provides information about who’s working where (and who -has- worked where), who’s edited what, which houses have published what. Note that some of the editors listed are required, moved to another house, or dead; the listings say so, so be thorough about reading them, if interested in an editor or house. The page is at:

  13. Oh Damn, Laura, that is an EXCELLENT resource. Thank you!

  14. Laura, I’ll echo Brad’s comment on that resource. I’d started on my own such compilation, this is far better.

    It’s incomplete (I checked a couple of editors/publishers I know a bit about) but it’s a Wiki, people can add to it. The more the better.

  15. Michael Armstrong says:

    Dean, earlier you wrote, “One of the keys to writing to an assignment is to write your own story inside the assignment. Those are the ones that work. But unless you know how to write your own stuff, you’ll never be able to put your own voice and story inside a general area.”

    I agree. When asked to write for a theme anthology, I try to come up with an idea that’s contrary to the theme (but still within it) or stretches the theme. For example, in the Pulphouse anthology, “Rats in the Souffle” (Jon Gustafson’s anthology where every story began “There were rats in the souffle again”), I knew right off that I didn’t want to write anything about rats or souffles. “Rats” did suggest “rations,” which suggested the nonsense phrase could be a mnemonic for remembering critical things in case one were ever adrift in space in a spacesuit. Thus was “Catch the Wotan!” born.

    I also try to do something that will make a story stand out. Editors want that, of course. They want lots of voices and a diversity of ideas. I try to make my stories dramatically different, either in idea or setting. Establish a reputation for startling new ideas, all the while staying within a general assignment, and editors will keep inviting you to write for anthologies.

    “Writing inside the assignment” even works for assignments like newspaper or magazine articles. In my day job writing for the Homer News, I try to approach each assignment by coming up with a new approach or perspective. How can the story be told differently? Whose story hasn’t been told? Anything a writer can do to make a story fresh will grab reader interest and make the story fun to write. If I’m having fun writing, odds are the reader will have fun reading.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Michael for the great comments.

      And I had forgotten all about that Rats book. My story in there is about a kid talking to a ghost of an old librarian and a lesson learned in needing to take care of relationships to help them survive. (A long way from any actual rats.) It was in the very first “Rats” chapbook (frighteningly collectible since there were only 100 of them and they were sold for a buck at a convention.) A slightly redrafted version of it was in the second rats book as well as the third rats book. (I published the first chapbook back a marriage or two, Alan Newcomber at Hypatia Press did the second one, and Pulphouse with Jon Gustafson editing did the third one. Great fun.)

      Again, thanks, Michael.

  16. Rob says:

    I just wanted to reiterate how helpful these articles have been to pumping life back into my writing. A novel I had given up on because agents felt it wasn’t “big” or salable enough, has now been requested dircetly by two major publishers. Granted, these aren’t sales (yet) . But I never would have even considered getting the manuscript through the “transom” if I hadn’t come here and had the agent myths knocked out of me. This is two requests out of three queries so far. I’m only just starting to test the waters with submitting directly to editors. So the myth that you can’t submit without an agent is exactly that…a myth. I now have proof.

    Thanks, Dean!

    • dwsmith says:

      Rob, glad it’s working. Key is to remember that the “get an agent” form response is just the standard form letter. Doesn’t mean they didn’t look at it, just means it didn’t fit what they were looking for or didn’t catch them. Don’t let letters like that get you down.


  17. On this week’s Ninc blog, I explain why I no longer work with agents:

  18. I was just reading some of the posts by Moonrat (the EditorialAss) over at her site, and I came across her post on why an author should never submit without an agent. Here’s a link:

    I immediately wondered what people’s take would be on some of the things she’s written there. She is apparently an unnamed editor for an unnamed company, and therefore is more than likely just spouting out what she has to so she can make sure she doesn’t end up with a bunch of slush. She even goes so far as to say that.

    In several places, she spouts myths as discussed by Dean, and in others she discusses truths as discussed by Dean, Laura, Kris, et al.

    I thought this would be good fuel for further discussion, given that so many here are successful without agents for submitting.

    However, I should clarify, she says one should never SUBMIT without an agent. She says nothing at all about querying, which I suspect is the distinction.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeremy, comments when I get back. I hate typing on this silly laptop. But at least I sort of stay connected as long as I remember my passwords. (grin) Cheers, Dean

  19. Heh. I look forward to it, Dean. And I understand. I use a laptop, but I have a proper keyboard plugged to at at nearly all times.

    Laura, I read the post you made at Ninc. I thought it was a very well-written piece that ought to dispel the myth that you feel ALL writers should work without agents.

  20. Jeremy, “submitting” and “querying” are essentially the same thing. For reasons which elude me, though, writers “submit” to publishrs and “query” agents; we don’t “query” publishers and “submit” to agents. (No, I’ve no idea why. It’s just how it gets said.)

    I’ve no idea who “Moonrat” is, and–first of all–I don’t respect anonymous commentary. In my opinion, anyone not willing to put their NAME next to their opinions has no business opining in public.

    However, this individual’s self-description does clearly tell us one thing: “Editorial assistant.” That job title is at the very bottom rung of the publishing house ladder. An editorial assistant is an entry-level job in publishing, and it’s most often held by someone just out of college. It doesn’t involve acquiring books, editing book, working with writers, meeting with agents, or anything else that Moonrat is giving advice about in the blog.

    Editorial assistants aren’t editors, they’re assistants. And they have pretty much the same sort of functions that agents’ assistants have, which are pretty much the same sort of function that -most- office or white collar assistants have: They’re essentially secretaries or girl-Fridays. (Promising editorial assistants eventually get promoted to “assistant editor,” which is the job level at which one starts editing and acquiring. After that, there’s a dizzying array of ascending titles: editor, senior editor, supervising editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief, editorial director, etc. NOT managing editor, though; a managing editor deals with scheduling and production, not with acquiring and editing MSs. Yes, I think they could make these titles even MORE confusing, if they’d really put some effort into it; but, nooooo, they just let it happen by happy accident.)

    And with ANY advice, it’s always important to consider the source.

    Someone who has recently made a first-book sale, for example, is a good source for some insights into making a first-book sale; but that person is a lousy source of information on maintaining a longterm writing career. A bestselling science fiction writer can usually tell you a lot about the science fiction market; but in most cases, they’ll be a lousy source of information on the romance market. The best advice about pursuing success as a writer usually comes from successful writers, rather than from writers who haven’t sold a word in five years.

    And it’s well worth keeping in mind that holding a job in the publishing industry doesn’t necessarily make someone a reliable expert on the publishing industry. For one thing, the world is full of people who aren’t actually any good at their jobs, so that’s as true of publishing as it is of any other industry. Another thing to consider is that publishing has a lot of poorly-paid entry-level jobs with a high turnover rate; so, in particular, people filling -those- jobs don’t necessarily know much about the industry just because they’re working in it. So, just for a start, Moonrat’s anonymity makes it difficult to guess if this is anyone whose advice is worth even what you’re paying for it (nothing); but Moonrat’s job title suggests s/he is in an entry-level position–which further suggests Moonrat may not be very experienced or knowledgeable, and therefore not necessarily a great source.

    In any case, anyone who’s been reading these discussion can certainly take an educated guess at how silly I find Moonrat’s comments. (So silly that I couldn’t even get properly annoyed. It’s a little bit like when a small child tries to tell you how procreation works. It’s almost too amusing to want to correct with anything as mundane, oh, actual information.)

    I’m not going to go over it point by point, since we’ve already discussed here–at length, in detail, and with many specific examples–the many ways in which Moonrat’s comments are inaccurate.

  21. But I will add that the way Moonrat insists various “promises” she makes about agents are absolutely, always, and univerisally true, etc… suggests a level of naivety and inexperience in the real world that should be kept in mind, if one is tempted to follow this source’s advice about ANYTHING.


  22. I stand corrected! I gather that Moonrat was promoted to Assistant Editor at some point since starting his/her blog (but for some reason has not changed the bio self-descrip).

    This news doesn’t change how silly I find the advice/comments, but it does underscore a key problem with anonymity. The single most relevant (actually, I’d say the ONLY relevant) thing about this post is that Moonrat him/herself is clearly an editor to whom an unagented writer should not submit. That’s the piece of information in his/her post that’s useful or informative.

    Except that, er… Moonrat is writing anonymously. So, since we have no way of knowing WHO this is… it’s actually useless info, after all. (And since numerous editors blog under their real names, I’m puzzled about why Moonrat lurks beind anonymity. It is the usual reason–a desire to spout off in pubic without taking responsibility or experiencing consequences? Or am I missing some nobler motive here?)

    I also wanted to add, for anyone here made nervous by Moonrat’s comments, I’ve worked with a lot of editors, I’ve been rejected by a lot of editors, and I know a lot of editors socially… and in all that time, I’ve never met anyone who had any problem with my not having an agent, or a problem with numerous other writers whom I know either (a) not having an agent, or (b) doing most of their own business and then just having the agent wrap up the details. (Moreover, as discussed here previously, most mid-size and small press editors, as well as editors of short stories and articles, are ALL used to dealing directly with writers, because agents seldom get involved in such deals.) Anyhow, at major houses, I’ve never encountered anyone who had a problem with me or anyone else not having an agent.

    (In fact, over the years, and contrary to the universally and uniformly cozy picture Moonrat paints, various editors have told me what “idiots” or “jerks” they think certain agents are, or how unpleasant and difficult they find certain agents to deal with (and I know a number of anecdotes of agent behavior -preventing- deals, rather than securing them); and, over the years, at least three editors have =congratulated= me upon hearing I’ve left this-or-that reputable agent. One of my current publishers, a major house, jokes about how they have to remember not to say the “a” word in front of me, lest I foam at the mouth. They also, contrary to Moonrat’s predictions, pay me MORE than I got in my agented deals elsewhere, not less.)

    The anonymous Moonrat’s contemptuous attitude to writers (whom s/he portrays as ignorant, unbusinesslike, and inept) may be the result of his/her low-ranking position where s/he probably deals primarily with the slushpile and with first-timers who haven’t (as most don’t) educated themselves about the business and don’t know HOW to do business. This will necessarily color Moonrat’s view of writers, just as my having consistently bad agent experiences has necessarily colored my view of the agent-author business model; but, unlike Moonrat, I’m not naive or inexperienced enough to insist that one size fits all and always works out for the best for everyone.

  23. Good post today from John Scalzi, an award-winning and bestselling science fiction writer, pointing out that no one’s advice in this biz is ever 100% accurate or useful for anyone else, and that one should be wary of advice from anyone who insists that -their- advice -is- 100% useful and accurate. Scalzi recommends filtering anyone’s advice through your own knowledge and experience. And he links to a couple of other blogs by writers recommending pretty much the same thing:

    What I always say is: Take what you need and leave the rest.

  24. Wow. I used to think a lot of these things, and thought I must be crazy, because everyone else in the world and all the major writing organizations are saying “Get an agent. Do what they say. Because they are smarter than you are.”

    Thanks. I can fire my shrink now. I already fired my agents.

    Scott Nicholson

  25. Greg Osburn says:


    I was pointed to your blog yesterday and I’ve been pouring over your advice ever since. With a sigh of relief I have stopped worrying about ‘getting an agent’ as an integral part of building my career in writing. That said, I have a few clarifying questions for you:

    1. Should I completely ignore ‘no unsolicited submissions’ warnings from publishing houses?

    2. If I do ignore those warnings, do I just send in my query letter and first 50 pages? The entire MS? How did/do you do it?

    3. Some say they ‘prefer’ no simultaneous submissions. Heh. I ‘prefer’ to be paid in advance in six-to-ten digit amounts, but I’ll take what I can get. Do you ignore the no simultaneous submissions requests?


    • dwsmith says:

      First off, be very, very careful to keep the distinction between novels and short story markets clear. For short stories, you only mail one story to one market at a time. (Meaning your story “Title” can only be at one magazine at a time.)

      Novels, it is to your advantage to have it at least five publishers at the same time in case one makes an offer. As for your questions, #1 “No unsolicited submissions” was the last door, so 1990’s. (grin) Now the door is “No unagented submissions.” I’m going to answer the question with two questions back. “What’s the worst they can do to you?” “What’s the best that can happen?”

      Answer: Worst they can do is just say no. The best is that they buy your book.

      No right answer on #2. All of us tend to do it differently. I tend to do a cover letter, followed by 10-40 pages of the book to give the editor a sense of the writing and how it opens, and then a short synopsis of the novel after the pages to let them know the ending, then sometimes more of an author blub after that or reviews that might help on previous books. (I do put some of my general credits in my cover letter of course.)

      #3 was answered above.

      Hope that helps.

  26. Greg Osburn says:


    Fantastic. That was more or less what I expected, but it is nice to see it spelled out. Now that you’ve responded I have another question. I am a begining novelist. I literally have no ‘credits’ or ‘reviews’ or really anything that I feel isn’t fluff to add to my ‘author’s blurb’. Any advice for those of us who can’t put ‘Dear editor, please find my novel, and by the way, your publishing house has already published 30 of the 120 novels I have written’?

    Thanks again,

    • dwsmith says:

      Greg, friendly with just your voice showing while at the same time being professional. If you’ve liked a book from their line recently, mention that. That sort of thing if no credits. Or better yet, just great them and be friendly. Credits help but aren’t critical. Any credit remember, including nonfiction and short story credits help. Also job credits if your job is close to your topic. But again, not critical. Book must stand on its own and they will look if you make it sound interesting.

  27. Greg Osburn says:


    Thanks for the advice. I’ll be sending out four more submissions today!


  28. Matt Buchman says:

    Three book contract references on my shelf. All read once, though not yet thumbed with experience to be sure of their true usefulness:
    Richard Curtis -“How to be your own Literary Agent”
    Tonya & Susan Evans -“Literary Law Guide for Authors: Copyright, Trademark, and Contracts in Plain Language”
    Tonya Evans-Walls -“Contracts Companion for Writers”
    and of course:
    Nolo Press -“The Copyright Handbook” because if you don’t understand copyright, then you don’t know what you’re selling and how can you expect to understand the contract?

  29. Vanessa says:

    I loved reading your series about publishing. It is a very different view than from the publishing websites I have been reading, but all the things you are saying make sense to me.

    Your argument about agents not having the writer’s interests in mind, reminds me about the critisim about real estate agents in the book Freakonomics.

    Here is an article about it

    Cracking the Real Estate Code

    basically, like a real estate agent, an literary agent only makes a small percentage of the sale, so they have much less incentive than the author to bargain for a higher price.

    here is their example from the article

    So on the sale of your $300,000 house, her personal take of the $18,000 commission is $4,500. Still not bad, you say. But what if the house was worth more than $300,000? What if, with a little more effort and patience, she could have sold it for $310,000? After the commission, that puts an additional $9,400 in your pocket. Yet the agent’s additional share – her personal 1.5 percent – is a mere $150. So maybe your incentives aren’t aligned after all. Is the agent willing to put out all that extra time and energy for just $150?

    Of course a literary agent makes a higher percentage, so it is a little less stark, but still you can see how the numbers work.

    Here is my example,

    Suppose you are offered a 10,000 advance. If the agent is able to increase the advance 25% to 12,500, they will only get $375 added to their cut of $1,500. If it takes a week of work and lunches with editors and possibly getting a reputation for being difficult or burning bridges with editors, $375 is not that much money. If instead, the agent lets your book go for 10,000, and uses the week to sign two more new authors for 10,000 advances, they will earn $3,000 on top of $1,500 from your book.

    You can see the idea. It is in an agents best interest to have many writer clients, and sell their books quickly, with as little time and effort expended as possible.

  30. I’m working in my home office today, and my wife has an episode of Frasier on in the other room that just had an excellent example of agents helping with careers. I had to share it before I forget the gist of it.

    If you’re not familiar, Frasier Crane is a psychiatrist, who after leaving Boston (on Cheers), moved back to his home city of Seattle and became the host of a syndicated radio program. At some point during the series, he had an absolutely abysmal agent named Bebe, who made him miserable.

    Apparently, as of this episode, Bebe had left him to work with Dr. Phil McGraw, feeling him a far better client.

    In the scene that I just saw, Bebe came back to Frasier and Roz at their favorite coffee house to tell Frasier she’d left Dr. Phil, believing Frasier to be a more up-and-coming client. She then inflated his ego — easy with Frasier — and told him of all her grand visions of his career. Below is essentially the dialogue that followed (I didn’t record it or anything).


    Frasier: Well, Bebe, that’s outstanding! I’d love to have you back as my agent!

    Bebe: Very good, Frasier. But you should know, Dr. Phil paid me FIFTEEN percent.

    Frasier: I’d be happy to pay that for your skill! I just have to make a rather uncomfortable call to my current agent.

    Bebe: Already handled. I took the liberty of informing her myself.

    Frasier: Ah, excellent. Thank you, Bebe!

    Bebe: Oh, and one more thing. I also called Spokane and told them they were paying far too little for the rights to your show.

    Frasier: Excellent! So you got more money from them?

    Bebe: No, they declined, so you’re no longer on the air in Spokane!

    Roz: What? But isn’t that a step backward?

    Bebe: All the better to get a running start, my dear! Good day to you both, I have much work to do. (Exits)

    Frasier: Roz, I’m so excited to have Bebe back as my agent.

    Roz: Frasier, you’re paying her MORE money, and you’re now no longer on the air in Spokane.

    Frasier: Yes, but my future is FIRMLY in front of me.

    Roz: Isn’t the future ALWAYS in front of you?

    Frasier: Of course! But not FIRMLY. (End scene)

    Just had to point out such an obvious comedic illustration of the bad agent “helping” with one’s career. Exaggeration, I’m sure, but in order for exaggeration to have effect, it must be grounded in fact.

    We, of course, know better than to think this conversation is pure fiction. The conversation might even be reduced so it doesn’t play as over the top.

    Too funny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>