Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Killing a Career

This myth just gets more and more annoying by the day. And finally, with all the new stuff about indie publishing, I figured it was time to take a hammer to the myth.

If you catch some hints of annoyance on my part in this, it’s because I think this is flat out the stupidest myth there is. It shows no understanding of the business of publishing, or the new business of indie publishing. So please be patient with me. I’ll try not to be grumpy.

The Myth: If I do “this or that,” I will kill my career.

Now, of course, 99.99999% of the time this is beginning writers saying this. You never hear a long-term professionals like me or Kris or anyone else who has gotten past a half dozen years making a living say this. Ever. Why? Because we know it’s just not possible. It really isn’t.

Professional writers don’t worry about mistakes killing careers, we worry about mistakes that will cost money or get us screwed.

Before anyone will believe me on that, let me point out what happened to one writer you all have heard about lately.

James Frey was on Oprah for the 3rd time just recently.

If getting screamed at by Oprah after lying to her in front of millions can’t kill a career, nothing can. He’s back with a new book and on the bestseller lists and has even made up with Oprah.

If faking an autobiography of Howard Hughes can’t kill a career, nothing can. And so on and so on. So many ugly things writers have done and yet if the writer kept writing, they just went right on proving the old saying that even bad publicity is good publicity.

But who can kill a career?

The writer who believes this myth can kill their own career simply by believing it. Sort of Zen, but true. Any writer that stops writing and just becomes an “author,” (a person who has written) will kill their own career. That’s how careers are killed. A writer stops writing.

What is a “Career.” My good old dictionary defines the term as “An occupation, a way of making a living.”

I  suppose by that definition it could be said I have a career. I write for a living, I sell books and stories, I indie publish, and for years I was a part-time editor. I have a reputation under this name and I have done so many things to this name, it’s stunning the name is still alive.

Kris has many pen names. Does Kris Nelscott and Kristine Grayson and Kristine Dexter have careers or are they all part of Kristine Kathryn Rusch?

I think all pen names are just part of the career of the writer. But on the other side, it can be thought that each pen name has a career. Your choice how you look at it.

I find it wonderful that I can get the income from five or ten other careers. That’s a very cool thing about writing. Just like Evan Hunter got all the money from Ed McBain’s career. Nifty how that works, huh?

And that writing under other names makes careers in writing impossible to destroy.

Why? Because even in the worst situations and after the worst mistakes, we can all just change our names and keep writing, that’s why. Unlike any other profession, we are free to just be as many people as we want to be.

A business person tied to a resume can kill a career with a bad action or choice. An actor can kill a career. A doctor can make a mistake and kill a career.

A writer can decide to stop writing, which kills a career eventually. But again, that’s self-inflicted.

But if the writer can clear out the ego and change names when sales drop or things go wrong, there is nothing to stop that writer from writing until the moment they die.

Writing careers can NOT be killed unless the writer stops writing.

Wait, let me say this one more time:

Writing careers can NOT be killed unless the writer stops writing.

But the belief that a career can be killed by a mistake is often terminal for a writer. This myth can be very dangerous if you believe it and will cause you to stop writing and kill your own career.

Let me give a couple of main examples and some minor ones of how this myth rears its ugly head these days.

Mail a Novel to an Editor Against Guidelines

Yup, I know that all guidelines say “Agented Submissions.” And for a decade before that all guidelines said “No Unsolicited Manuscripts.”

So? Who cares? (What are you all? Sheep?)

Editors need manuscripts, they are looking for good novels.

You send them a great few page sample of your novel with a good cover letter, a short synopsis and a SASE and they will look at it. They might send you their form letter saying “get an agent” but they will look at it for the most part. And if you are close, the editor will write you a letter, and if your book is good and it fits, they will buy it.

Over a dozen of the writers coming to workshops here have sold first novels recently without agents by simply mailing to editors. (And ten of them used IP attorneys instead of agents to negotiate the deal, but that’s another blog post.)

You all remember editors? The people who can buy books at publishing houses? Remember?

So sending a manuscript directly to an editor will not kill your career.


1) The editor won’t remember your book if they didn’t buy it.

I know many of you think you are the center of the universe, but honestly, the editors don’t remember manuscripts or authors they don’t read.

2) There is no such thing as a blacklist unless you threaten the editor with a gun.

3) Honestly, the editor can’t come to your house and yell at you. Honestly, they just won’t care if it doesn’t fit their line.

4) The worst they can do is just toss your manuscript away. You are out a few bucks postage. Shrug.

Yet I have heard hundreds of writers say “If I mail my book directly against guidelines to an editor, I will kill my career.”

You won’t!

But you might sell a book and actually start a career.

If I Publish a Bad Story I Will Kill My Career

I love this from new writers who think they actually know what makes a good story or a bad one. Of course they don’t.

And to be honest, when it comes to my own stories, I don’t know either. No writer is a good judge of their own work. None.

Any writer who thinks they are a good judge of their own work has far too much ego, or has spent far too much time in creative writing classes.

Professional writers can spot when another person’s story works or doesn’t work and why, but on our own stuff, we suck. Nature of how the brain works and again a topic for another post.

And indie publishing anything bad will not kill a career. It just will mean no one buys it.

Really is that simple.

You know… Trust the readers.

And if you are really afraid of a story, put it under a pen name and don’t tell anyone. Just let it sit there.

Publishing a story you think sucks won’t kill your career!!

It might make you a little money, however.

More Silly Thinking

Example… Kris got a letter the other day from a writer flat believing that if he self-published anything it would completely kill his career. Of course, he was a beginning writer, wasn’t selling anything, and thus had no career. But he was convinced.

Example… I have heard many, many times from writers that if you don’t have an agent, it will kill your career.

I haven’t had an agent for seven years. I keep selling and making money. Interestingly enough, it’s always beginning writers or someone with only one or two novels published that tell me this. We have talked about this myth already bunches of times in other comment sections, but it is always framed by “…if you don’t have an agent, it will kill your career.”

Truth: These days having an agent can do more damage to your income and long-term copyrights and income stream than not having one. Far, far more. Honest.

Example… I have received many letters over the last few years from writers afraid to negotiate contracts for fear it will kill their careers.

Kris and I have walked away from many, many contracts that had bad clauses that we just wouldn’t sign and we negotiate everything and we still make our living at this business of fiction writing.

In fact, if writers grew a pair among the hordes, we actually might get royalty rates for electronic publishing moved upward. But this fear of “killing a career” by negotiating a contract hurts us all.

And even worse, writers let agents do the negotiating, agents without legal degrees who can’t practice law but do so anyway, and who are more concerned about keeping the publisher happy then helping the writer. Yeah, that gets us good clauses.

Any wonder contracts have been getting worse and worse over the last five years? It’s all because writers are afraid of killing their careers. Most don’t even have careers in the first place because they aren’t making a living at their fiction.

And why aren’t they?

Because fear never gets you anywhere in business, folks.

I asked a few other professionals about other examples of where they hear this silly myth and I got hordes and hordes of stories, all funny to me and the other professionals, but all very real and believed by the young writers spouting the myth.

And these stories range all over the map.

Example… A writer who thought that if he didn’t rewrite a manuscript at least ten times, he would kill his career. Hadn’t sold anything yet for some reason. (grin)

Example… Another beginning writer was convinced that a bad cover on a book (he thought bad) would kill his career. His first novel and he thought he knew more than the art department in the publishing company and was trying to get another cover his friend drew to replace the cover. He did far more damage to his reputation than a hundred bad covers could have done. But he was convinced a bad cover would kill his career.

Folks, I have had more bad covers than I can count over the decades. I’m still making a living.

Example... Another writer swore that if he didn’t have at least three people proof his story or novel before he indie published it, it would could kill his career. He actually said he wanted his story perfect, to which the professional telling me the story laughed and said, “Yeah, as if there is ever a perfect story in publishing.”


There is only one way for a writer to kill a career: Stop writing.

It really is that simple.

But if you go into everything you do in publishing believing the myth that you can make a mistake and kill your career, you will make all your decisions from a position of fear. And you will make horrid decisions.

And if you don’t believe me on this, just ask any long-term professional writer, a writer who has been around for over twenty years, how many mistakes they have made. The professional will laugh and then more than likely ask which year? Or which dozen do you want first? Something like that.

And most beginning writers would tell me that writing a series like Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing would kill my career because I have said so many things that are against “common stupidity…I mean knowledge.”

Hah, fooled you. I’m still here and selling both in traditional publishing and in indie publishing and making a very nice living.

And some of my agent friends even still talk to me. Shocking I know.

If you never stop writing, gain some courage, and stop worrying about killing your career, you might be stunned at what you can manage in this business. You will be writing and enjoying the writing until the day you die.

And that’s a great reward.


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


You know, I had one young writer tell me one day that putting a donate button on my blogs would kill my career. Luckily, that was just as silly as everything else beginning writers believe about what can kill a career.

As a professional, this series is part of the income streams. And, to be honest, donations keeps me going on these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter 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.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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52 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Killing a Career

  1. Very timely, Dean, at least for me. Particularly the part about fearing to publish a bad story. I finished my first novel-length work a couple weeks ago (WOOHOO!). I emailed the MS to a bunch of people I know and respect for feedback and proofreading. I heard from the first guy a week ago. He didn’t say it was bad per say, but he felt I didn’t do the story’s concept justice. Needless to say I was a bit dejected at that. After a little reflection on his part, he wrote me back, saying that he realized he wasn’t really evaluating my story based on what I did, but rather based on what HE WOULD HAVE DONE had he written it. From the get go he enjoyed the tale, but he let his own biases filter the input he gave me. At the same time, he’s stopped himself from writing anything because he thinks his ideas too cliche. Not that this invalidates his viewpoint, but learning that made me question his input. Still, for a little while there I actually started to wonder if I’d blown it. Maybe I need to revamp it, change this and that, do all the things you say not to do. I’ve since heard from a couple others who read it and had much better reactions. They gave some good feedback, both in grammar/spelling and in content, but I’ve gotten over the initial dejection. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? No one buys the damn thing. Oh well, I’m no worse off than I am now, am I? So at this point I’ve corrected some spelling and grammar issues, and I’m waiting to see what my cover guy comes up with. I think I’ll have it through post production and up for sale on the various sites middle of next month or so. But I almost psyched myself out, based on just one data point.

  2. Ty Johnston says:

    This post actually made me smile. So many writers are afraid to take chances … with anything.

    To succeed at a business, which is what writing is (even for those who don’t want to admit it), one has to be willing to take chances. The truth is, I find writing a far more forgiving business than others I’ve been a part of over the years.

  3. Leslie says:

    Thanks for this post- I have been dragging my feet on a recently completed story afraid that it wasn’t as good as the others and if I published it, no one would buy anything else I ever wrote. Silly me- thank you for smacking on the head.

  4. So true.

    My career went into suspended animation a couple of times, and life support nearly failed once.

    Indie-publishing has been my writing’s defribrillator. With this new lease on life, I’m in for the long haul.

  5. Carradee says:

    It’s sad how long it’s taken me to realize this—and I probably still wouldn’t have, if not for you and your wife and the Passive Guy—so much jargon means one thing to a lot of writers, and another thing to everyone else.

    Which is weird, when you consider how many writers write “on the side.”

    The “starving artist” stereotype seems like it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Novelists get an agent, go through publishers, expecting unfavorable terms in the contract. And expecting to need a lot of clout to be able to wiggle at all.

    Writers in general are unwilling to walk away from even the possibility of publication. The results are never good when you sign a contract out of desperation.

  6. At RWA in San Francisco a few years ago, a well-known agent talked about the Zen of publishing and I’ve never forgotten it.

    He talked about a writer’s unlimited at-bats. That we were in a unique position, (he compared us to actors), to try and fail as many times as we wanted. Until we got a hit.

    Or as you said, the only way to fail is to quit. Love it. Thanks for another push.

  7. You said it earlier Dean – “Dare to be Bad!”

    I love that. The only thing that will kill a career is –
    Not writing
    Not finishing what you write
    Not submitting (or in our case, not publishing) what you write
    Not doing the whole process over again


    Write on… my friend


  8. I was a slush reader for a small press, as well as for a magazine a few years ago. I remember a few. Two because they were almost there, but really still had some basic writing issues. And two because of how incredibly bad they were. Really, really bad. The kind of bad that lets you serve as an example to others.

    So, to be fair, if you are really bad, you’ll be remembered forever. You have to try hard to be that bad, though 😀

  9. K. W. Jeter says:

    Dean Wesley Smith doesn’t need any verifying from me regarding the realities of publishing, but here it is anyway –

    I’ve made most if not all of the mistakes Dean describes in his post at, and he’s absolutely right; the only “mistake” that halted my writing career was halting my writing. Period. The literary paradigm is that of the writer Reardon in George Gissing’s novel NEW GRUB STREET, who hits a seriously bad patch and decides to “become reasonable” by giving up his writing — and a couple chapters later he’s frickin’ dead.

    (NEW GRUB STREET has the reputation in some circles as the best novel ever written about writers. Many years ago I recommended it to Barry Malzberg on that basis; he read it and said, “It’s all there.”)

    In this regard, we should dog-Latinize Cicero’s motto Dum spiro, spero — “While I breathe, I hope” — to Dum scribo, spero — “While I write, I hope.”

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, K.W., very much appreciated. And I’ve got to find that book.

      And yup, Dum scribo, spero. “While I write, I hope.” Wonderful!

  10. Loren says:

    Ditto KW.

    Dean told me a story years ago of his having “quit” writing several times. Not quit for good, obviously, though at the time it may have felt that way.

    I never thought i’d give up writing. And I haven’t. Not really. But I stopped writing for a time, which halted my career. But if I hadn’t done that, I think I’d be miserable right now in my writing. I was going down a path I was finished with, and partly out of self defense I went and found something else creative to do for a time.

    The only person to ever stop me has been me. Did I have an agent in my way for a time? Sure. Who let him stay in my way for two years or more? Me.

    Did I get “trapped” (okay, let’s say lost instead) in media writing too long. Possibly. No one’s choice but my own.

    I’ve had publishers stop paying me, editors lose the last 10 chapters of my book (and publish it anyway), agents stop my material from going out, and plenty of other issues. Fortunately, for my own piece of mind, I can’t ever remember a time when I pointed at someone else and said it was their fault.

    the only person to stop you from writing is yourself. No one can take that away from you.

    Thanks again for the reminder, Dean.

    • dwsmith says:

      More than welcome, Loren. And welcome back.

      I did quit numbers of times along the way. I stopped the first time after my house burnt down. Just couldn’t seem to get back at it for almost a year because I had lost everything I had written. I stopped to become a publisher just as you have done, didn’t write much for a period in there. Then I got disgusted at myself and my path ten years later and quit and went and played poker for a living for a time. Oh, and then there was the year I had a wild dream about the Senior’s Tour and didn’t work at it even a fraction as hard as I should have because I really didn’t want to do that either. But I have always come back to writing every time.

      As you said, sometimes the stopping allows you to change course. That worked for me as well. Quitting writing is the only thing that can stop a career. But sometimes we do all have to hit a pause button. And those of us who come back are the ones who are real writers.

      Welcome back Loren. Welcome back K.W. Wonderful to have two great writers back in the groove.

  11. Dayle says:

    “Mail a Novel to an Editor Against Guidelines”

    Yup, I did that. Got back a nice handwritten note asking for some tweaks to the ms and if I did those, I was welcome to resubmit.

    It was written on the form letter that said “We don’t accept unagented submissions.”

    My biggest delay in getting the ms back to the editor was because I was laughing so hard!

  12. K. W. Jeter says:

    Don’t trust me on the Latin. Find a Jesuit priest and check with him before using it in public.

    • dwsmith says:

      K.W., oh, exact doesn’t matter. It’s the idea that counts. (grin) I had a lot of Latin in law school and every-so-often make up a Latin word just to mess with Kris’s mind. (grin)

  13. Scott W. Clark says:

    That’s one of the reasons I was on the re-writing wheel and couldn’t get off. When I finished another pass through I had to go back through again because I thought there was a word in there somewhere that would ruin any career I might want.

    How stupid is that?

    I haven’t gone cold turkey yet but I am a whole lot better and won’t spend any time going back through to chase a phantom word again.

    There is a lot of bad advice out there. I followed the blog of an editor at a small press who said that you had to get the manuscript as perfect as you could before you’d get someone in publishing to look at it. She suggested hiring an editor to have a pass at it before you submitted.

    Then Dean comes along and says there’s no such thing as a perfect book. I knew this. I’ve read books my whole life and I knew this. It instantly made sense though it took awhile to get the rest of me on board.

    So many fears in this business that have no basis in fact.

    I think it was Montaigne who said, “My life has been filled with serious misfortunes, most of which have never happened.”

    Good post as always. Thanks again Dean.

  14. Mark Fassett says:

    I now have three commandments on my desktop wallpaper.

    1. Write every day
    2. Publish what you write
    3. Repeat

    The only thing that’s ever killed any of my dreams has been quitting on them. Not this time.

  15. Eric says:

    A little point I would like to add, in the indie publishing section:

    Not only editors don’t remember “averagely bad” stories, readers don’t either.

    Theoretically, publishing five good stories and five bad stories under a given pen name, should hurt the sales for that name. But it doesn’t. Readers read a bad story and forget you. Then they follow the mythical pathways to your other stories a couple of months down the road and – having already forgotten you – buy one of the good ones.

    As Mr. Smith said, the worst case scenario is that a story does not sell (disregarding law suits for libel and plagiatism :-P).

  16. Just Passing Through says:

    In regards to your “So? Who cares? (What are you all? Sheep?)” comment: Long ago I read a book at the library about breaking into the wonderful world of fiction and happened upon something by an old time Golden Age writer (whose name has escaped me for decades) that said to the effect, “I don’t send a SASE. Why should I give the editor an excuse to reject me.” The other line that stayed with me from that book was: “When I send in a story I always put in the cover letter: Dear Editor, if you have any comments on the story, please write them on the back of a check.”

    Thanks for the space sir.

    • dwsmith says:

      Just Passing Through, I heard those as well from old pulp writers, and I took to heart the one about comments on the back of a check. The other one about SASE isn’t a rule, just being nice to the editor. But I have pretty much lived with the second rule about comments because I live by Heinlein’s Rules and always have. The only comments worth listening to about any story of mine are from an editor after they have written me a check. Very, very good advice. Thanks!

      AJ, no rules on pen names. I know many writers who just put one name on anything and let their fans sort it out. But for me, my personal tastes are that if one story will disturb a fan of mine, then I switch names. So if I am writing sweet romance and write an erotica, I switch names. Best example is Kris. She writes gritty, bloody fantasy series The Fey under Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Her wonderful, comic fantasy series about the greek gods without any sex or violence in it is written under Kristine Grayson. Both are fantasy, but a fan of one would be disappointed by the other. That’s why pen names exist for the most part. Doctors and other professionals often write under pen names to avoid any conflict issues. And some of us write under well-hidden pen names for yet other reasons.

  17. In the dark future where we all have Google Neural Net implants and our Facebook ID attached to our thoughts, there is a bright spot.

    Every bit of advice will come with a widget displaying how many stories the advice-giver has published and sold.

  18. The “not quitting” is really general advice. I can count on one hand the number of things I a) wanted so badly it hurt, b) worked my ass off to get, and c) still failed to get. Not bad at 43 years old.

    The big secret, I found, was to watch out for the constraints. Fex: “I want to be published” is a different goal than “I want to be published by a big NY Publishing Company this year” (which has two constraints–when and how). I learned to cut all constraints that weren’t truly critical to achieving what I wanted Another example, “I have to have an agent” is a constraint. Is it critical to the goal?

    Also, outside of writing, my observation is that you can’t kill a career if you’re earnestly working your ass off and trying to get along with other people. Being unpleasant to work with can get you blackballed. Anything else… there’s a slot somewhere that will fit and it’s just a matter of finding it. Most people will try to help.

  19. camille says:

    Hope, schmope. Hope implies you’re waiting for something else.

    Dum spiro, scribo.

    While I breathe, I write.

    • dwsmith says:

      LOL, Camille. And spot on.

      Joyce, as I often repeat to myself, the past doesn’t matter, just today and the future. Face forward. (grin)

      Thanks Brandon and Alastair and Teresa. Appreciated.

      Bob, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks!!

  20. Joyce Reynolds-Ward says:

    The only reason to stop writing is because your brain is fried. Period. And even then, poking at it might not hurt.

    Thanks, Dean. I made the mistake of stopping writing back in the 90s, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Now I’m making up ground I should have already put well behind me. Oh well, c’est la vie.

  21. Brandon Wood says:

    I first e-published under a pen name, but after I made my first sale I thought, “Wait, if it was good enough to buy, then I want my name attached to it.” haha Plus, I don’t think that you need to use pen names in e-publishing: when people find your stories, it’s because they were searching for certain terms that your story fit, not because they found your Smashwords or Kindle page and are searching through all of your stories. Now, maybe once they’ve bought a story from you they’ll go to your page and look for more stuff of yours, but having stories out there can’t hurt. At least, that’s how I search for fiction and that’s all this is: normal people buying other people’s writing.

    Great addition to an informative series!

  22. New Grub Street was published in 1891, it’s well out of copyright and available from Project Gutenberg here: Got it loaded onto my Kindle now.

    Good stuff about only quitting can kill your career. I’m reminded of the line from Sun Tzu about how “defeat occurs in the mind” — you’re not beaten until you think you are. Same goes for writing.

  23. I adore this blog! I want to print it out and leave it hanging over my computer until it turns yellow with age :)

  24. Bob Mayer says:

    I preach the three rules of rule-breaking we used in Special Operations:
    1. Know the rule (breaking a rule you don’t know is called stupid).
    2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule.
    3. Take responsibility for breaking the rule.

    I catch a lot of grief when I tell writers to submit to EVERYONE with the SAME thing, just changing the name in the title and salutation. People say that will piss agents off and I say: Who cares? All they can do is ignore you.

    I got published initially way back in the dark ages by submitting to the “wrong” place.

    The next time I see another tweet from an agent bitching about their slush pile, I’m going to remind them it’s called a job for a reason.

    The difference between aggressive and obnoxious: the aggressive person has a great manuscript, the obnoxious a bad one. Unfortunately, 99% fall in the latter.

    There are no sacred cows.

  25. I was never really worried about the myths you’ve outlined in this post. But since I have what some might consider to be unpopular opinions on subjects that are Serious™ and since I have been rather loud about them, I have been concerned that my big mouth might cost me a writing career or any future job, for that matter. That perhaps someday if I get popular enough I’ll tweak off the wrong interest group or person and they will start a national boycott against me or something. It’s silly.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this post has helped me realize that first of all, the worst thing that could happen for spouting my opinions at the wrong time and place is that I lose some money in the short run and have to use a pen name for awhile, and that the best thing that could happen is for the national boycott fantasy to come true, because despite everyone thinking I’m a terrible person I’d end up very rich for all the people who bought my books just to see what all the fuss was about (I want to say this has some historical precedent but I can’t remember whom it happened to).

    Secondly, it’s silly because this fantasy is so laughably self-important. As if I’d ever warrant the attention. It’s a character I’m working to fix.

    Anyone else feel like their opinions might someday get their careers into trouble and what have you done about it?

  26. That should be character flaw* that I’m working to fix. Ugh.

  27. Frank Hood says:

    Dean, I’m going to have to pin up a paraphrase of your post, “The only way to kill your writing career is to quit writing.”

    Camille, Dum spiro, scribo–I love it!

    I have had the honor to talk personally to many of the great SF writers via Cons. They had a lot of wisdom to dispense. I’m not sure you can get that any more from the Cons.

    RAH I never met, but you mention his rules which I recommend highly, even if submit doesn’t mean the same thing any more.

    Harlan Ellison taught me to not be afraid of negotiating contracts. He even noted that some changes he added to his contracts and sent back, the publisher didn’t even bother to change, and you know Harlan insisted on enforcing them! Yes, I know you lawyers are horrified, but having a reputation that you’re willing to sue is 9 tenths of the law :)

    Ted Sturgeon gave me the best advice I ever heard on a career as a writer. I was at my first Con, TusCon IV, which was held at a dusty motel by the side of the road if I remember correctly. Mr. Sturgeon found out I wanted to be a writer, and he said, “I have a guaranteed method to make you a published writer.” So of course I asked. “Write 50 stories in a year,” he said, “By the end of that year I guarantee you’ll be a published writer.” It took me longer than a year to write 50, but I sold the 32nd story. And Dean, I’ve read clunker stories from all the greats, but I don’t care if they can also produce stories I remember forever.

    If anybody still wants to go to publishers who say they don’t accept unagented submissions, here’s what I recommend. My wife and I have different last names, so when I was shopping her novel, I looked up the editor’s name, called the switchboard, asked to speak to the editor, and said, “My name is Frank Hood. I represent S. T. Gaffney. She’s written a thriller that I’d like to send you. Would you like to see the complete manuscript or just sample chapters?” I didn’t have to lie, and I never got turned down. Do you really think an agent has a personal relationship with 50 editors? They’re doing exactly what I did, if they’re any good and aren’t just wasting your time using your manuscript to prop up their coffee.

  28. John Walters says:

    Thanks for another great post Dean.

    One of the great things about indie publishing is the ability to make all the decisions ourselves. Have a pen name or don’t have a pen name. Rewrite or leave as-is. Write in this genre or that genre or cross-genre. It’s all wide open. We are only limited by our lack of imagination, or pacing around in old ruts because we lack the courage or insight to step out of them. There is really nothing we can’t attempt in writing in this great new world. I love it. How could anyone think of quitting at a time like this?

  29. J.A. Marlow says:

    There’s so many things to love about this post. It’s all about fear and not seeing the fear for what it is. People wrap up the ‘fear’ in so many pretty packages of external excuses that they forget what is inside. And until they deal with what is inside, they won’t be able to move forward.

    And then “There is only one way for a writer to kill a career: Stop writing.”

    LOVE it.

    Bad me, as I was reading I kept mentally asking the anonymous writers, “Shouldn’t you wait until you actually make the first step into a career before worrying about killing it?” It’s similar to the newbies who are worried someone is going to steal their ideas, and so go to elaborate lengths to protect their golden writing before even finishing their projects, much less submitting them. Putting the cart before the horse.

  30. Just Passing Through says:

    J.A. – I think that sometimes it’s good to put the cart before the horse (especially if it’s not a horse but a centaur and he can help push the cart!) By that I mean: I am totally just starting out as a writer, in fact, I just recently decided that I wanted to be a writer (like just decided this week after long, long thoughts), so I am starting out more than likely way back at the starting line while everyone else here has already passed their first mile, however, one thing I thought of right off the bat was the future of my not yet career. For example: I believed a lot of the myths before I found Sensei Smith’s blog here and so I was looking at publishing short stories with various magazines and ezines because my understanding was that was how you got started (being paid less than a panhandler for sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, waiting to sweat blood and then creating theater for the mind while everyone else and their Aunt Chippy got rich from you). I would read the rights that they bought and most of them would say that they not only wanted the e rights but also things like the audio rights. Well, the first thing that went through my head was: Wait a minute. So, if I sell the audio rights for 1/2 cent a word to these guys and then my story gets popular and they decide to do a audio drama of it and it gets put on iTunes and gets popular, I get… nothing because I sold them the rights for 1/2 cent a word. So, for me personally, I consider it a good thing that I put the cart before the horse because after I read Sensei Smith talk about the pies, I realized that every piece is important for the writer.
    Hmm, just typing that last bit there kind of gave me a breakthrough about how we must all accept our warts and all in this existence because there is a purpose for what we sometimes wish we would be able to shed.
    Mr. Smith has an almost Oprah moment on his blog from one of his studio audience.

  31. James A. Ritchie says:

    I’m a firm believer in Heinlein’s Rule, too. They don’t guarantee success if you have zero talent and zero business sense, I suppose, but if they do not work, nothing will.

    One thing I tell new writers is that when it comes to our own writing, none of us really knows a good story from a bad one. Several years ago, I wrote a story that I thought sucked dead bunny fur, and I couldn’t see how to make it better. But following Heinlein’s Rules, I submitted it. It sold first time out, and reprint rights sold several times. Readers flat loved it.

    I also have a story that I think is one of the best things I’ve ever written. I love everything about it. It will not sell. It’s up to, I think, twenty-nine rejections, and counting. I almost never receive a form rejection, primarily because editors are generally more considerate when you have a decent publishing history, but this story has received form after form.

    Go figure. I simply can’t tell good from bad with my own writing, so I simply write them, and then submit them. What I think of them is not reflected in the acceptance record.

    On the killing your career aspect, well, it’s amazing how those people who have no career believe all of this, isn’t it? But what amazes me is how many believe it who should know better.

    I know a writer who sold a book to a major publisher. While waiting for it to be published, she wrote a sequel. The first book did not sell well at all, and the publisher rightfully said they did not want a sequel. So she never wrote another novel.

    She blames poor sales for killing her career. But, as I said, she never wrote another book. And she never tried to find another publisher, believing firmly that since one publisher “dropped” her, no other would ever want her. That was almost ten years ago, and she still blames poor sales of that first novel for killing her career.

    Worse, she spends a lot of time telling new writers that they must write a first novel that sells very well, or their careers will also die as quickly as hers did.

    Hmmm, I wrote my first novel decades ago, and it still hasn’t paid back the advance. Neither did my second novel.

    This writer is probably an extreme example, but a real one, and it’s frightening.

    On the other side of this tarnished coin, I know another writer, a spanking new writer at that, who mailed a query and some sample pages to an editor at one of the largest publishers out there, one that supposedly never even looks at unagented submissions. This editor looked, liked, asked for the complete manuscript. He has now asked for some revisions, and wants to read it again as soon as the revisions are made.

    Not a sale yet, but certainly a good example of how submitting to a top publisher without an agent is not the disaster many make it out to be.

  32. Scott Pinzon says:

    So THAT’s how I killed my career… I stopped writing fiction. :-)
    The only thing more empowering than your entry, Dean, is realizing: if you start writing again, you can resurrect your dead career.

    I don’t know if that makes me a wizard, a shaman, or a zombie master, but: time to get my living dead aspirations back into action. Thanks for the nudge!

  33. Robin Brande says:

    Love this post to pieces, Dean. Thank you.

  34. J.A. Marlow says:

    Just Passing Through – What I was trying to get across was that new writers should not be starting from a position of fear. There is a need to be a little fearless right at first. So that the first steps towards a career can be made in the first place.

    Fear blinds a person to realities. Take the blinders off and approach this with eyes wide open.

    Keeping the fear means they are making decisions that may prevent them from having a career in the first place.

  35. Randy says:

    Pen names.

    The ultimate do-over.

  36. DeAnna says:

    Just Passing Through – That would be Kyoshi, not Sensei.

    Dean – It’s probably good that this was not your first Killing Sacred Cows post; I wouldn’t have believed it. It has been the painful unwinding of individual falsities and the flat out work of writing and surviving the submission process that has made it seem even remotely possible.

  37. Z says:

    Just another anecdote to back up some of what Dean talked about:

    Last year, after completing my first novel, I went ahead and sent email pitches directly to editors (I did read some of Dean’s older posts on the topic). I had already thought through the scenario of ‘what’s the worst that can happen’, and I figured the worst would be you’d be ignored.

    Last month I got a reply to one of those emails. It was from the Editor-In-Chief (yes, I figured if I’m breaking the rules, I may as go right to the top…) of the flagship imprint of a major publisher (one whose website says (in bold type) to not send them anything directly).

    Anyway, it took him a while (my email was dated July 1, 2010; he replied to me on April 26, 2011…), but the point is his reply was a simple “If I’m not too late to say so, I’d be delighted to take a look at the full manuscript.”

    Cheers Dean.

  38. Just Passing Through says:

    DeAnna- actually, Sensei was the right word.

    J.A.- I would say that what you say is not only something for new writers, but human beings as well: Don’t let the fear stop you. Hear, hear!

  39. ari says:

    on pen names: yes, please, do. consider each pen name a sort of brand. as a reader, I’ve only got a short attention span as I’m shopping for books. and, I don’t want something in my head that needs to get washed out with lysol. and, I don’t want to be irritated while shopping. I don’t pick up moldy fruit or bruised lettuce- why would I pick up something that might have an off flavor in writing?

    The best example I can think of is a kindle author who had two titles- one about dating single, with a reference to vibrators, and a second book, a historical fiction about a virgin, with promised philosophical debate. Now, either the vibrator/single woman book is funny and raunchy, as promised, or it’s irritatingly obtuse, like being stuck at a bar sipping margaritas with the secretary on her first date in ten years, or the virgin/philosopher book reads like an inept freshman philosophy seminar, without the benefit of a clued in professor. She might be genius, and good at both, but I can’t tell. She’d have done better to have two separate names, so that I know that she knows that they are two entirely separate genres, with entirely separate concerns, standards, vocabulary, flourishes, the works….

    Good writing is good writing, pretty much whatever and whereever. But good reading- that’s dependent on circumstances. Make it easy for the reader to have a good reading experience. that includes obvious covers, specific names, decent taglines…..and then deliver the goods. I really do want fabio or somebody half naked on my romance covers. if they aren’t there, I know I’m looking at a romance involving someone in publishing, and there will be lots of phonecalls about the state of whatever. If it’s black, it’s either pretentious, or vampire or sci-fi. If it hasn’t an illustration, its’ a big think piece. If its red, white and blue, it’s a lobbying political piece. If it’s got snips of oil paintings, it’s a historical piece. if it’s the “dummies” type, I know the layout is piecey, and that I can’t read it, but that other people can. If someone is glaring at me- it’s a self-help book. if it’s a watercolor of house or craft stuff, it’s a women’s fiction. that requires research, b/c that’s all over the map. so I usually skip it. Honestly, if that’s your genre, please have a website, so I know what authorial voice I might be getting. It’s very, very, very unneven. and frankly, that’s the genre that has delivered more of the lysol moments than I care to have. Or- erotic stuff- please, nakedness and jewelry, so I know that’s what I’m picking up. It totally has a place. I like looking at my husband after I put on romance/erotica goggles. He feels happier after beer. Same intoxicated sort of thing. If it’s outside pictures- that’s a book from a guys’ point of view. Might be good, have to investigate. And, oddly enough, yellow covers seem to go with short chapters- perfect for new moms who can’t think. I have no idea why this is true. But it worked for me, and it works for other new moms.

    a passionate reader’s response.

    and, yes, pen names. I hadn’t realized how much of dws and kris rusch’s ouevre I had read, over the past few years. i just thought there was a uniformly high quality of writing, across all sorts of stories. I’ve sort of despaired being able to reach that level of clean, champagne exhilarating prose. and then I found out it was simply two prolific authors.

  40. Howard Collins says:

    How I finally got the message of this post:

    I had an extremely valuable–for me, anyway–email exchange with Dean recently about his challenge stories and whether it would be a good exercise for a newbie writer. He picked up something in my language: I reasoned that if I wound up with 50 terrible stories in 50 weeks it was okay, because it was still 50 terrible stories’ worth of practice. Dean correctly called me out on my attitude, telling me that if he didn’t know if his own stories were any good after decades of writing, there was no way that a newbie could have any idea about his own stories. Fair cop.

    This opened up some other ideas, and I re-read a bunch of his older posts about over-editing, endless rewriting, and all the other things that trip up beginning writers like myself, and they all boil down to fear. More specifically, they boil down to the fear outlined in this post about killing a career by making a mistake. And now I get it on a visceral level. What the hell do I know about killing a career that I don’t have and have never had?

    Then I picked up a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing after listening to a podcast where Dean mentioned Ray Bradbury turning him around, and that clicked as well. I remembered the reason I decided to write in the first place, and why all those stupid myths and fears were killing it. Maybe I still don’t know much about creative voice, but I know where it comes from and to get the hell out of its way.

    So now when I re-read the “Killing a Career” entry from the perspective of a newbie, it boils down to this:

    Q: If I do X, will it kill my career?

    A: Go write more, get a career, and then you’ll know why that’s a silly question.

    Thanks, Dean.

    • dwsmith says:

      You are more than welcome, Howard. Welcome to the professional writing world. You just took a huge step out of the early stages. Congrats!

  41. James A. Ritchie says:

    God bless Ray Bradbury for writing “Zen in the Art of Writing”. A wonderful book. I’m also extremely fond of King’s “On Writing.”

    But Bradbury is the man.

  42. Dean,

    It’s been a while since I have lurked around your web site. I’ve been busy self-publishing two novels. Silly me! I decided to do it all—both e-books for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords and POD. Of course, I took on Adobe InDesign and Photoshop as well and learned a ton from per your suggestion. The e-book format was a little bit trickier than I thought and every distributor had a different idea about what they wanted and how they wanted it, but I figured it out.

    InDesign was a completely different ballgame, but I learned it and my printed novels –look stunning. I did the covers too (e-books in Photoshop and print covers in InDesign).

    Lightning Source was a bit of a challenge. I spent a lot of time on their site trying to figure out things for myself so I didn’t have to ask stupid questions of my representatives. Two weeks of 20-hour workdays produced a 366-page novel 6 X 9 which only required two proofs before I accepted it. It looks great. With the second novel, I just approved my hard copy proof today as a 5.5″ X 8.5″ at 344 pages.

    All done with InDesign and I did the covers. LSI has been great to work with. They had my first POD up with online retailer websites within three days of my approving the proof (as a publisher I approved it with my little company.) The books are priced at $4.99 each, as e-books. See? I learned it all from you!!!!! Thank you, Dean! I’ve sold 30 copies already as e-books. Still waiting for the report on print version sold report. I priced this one at $15.99 taking in consideration your price range for the longer novel and the my own understanding of the women’s fiction demographic.

    The point of all of this is you gave the directions and I just followed them pretty much to the letter. I was close to signing with an agent, but had already decided that I was going to turn her down when she came back from the London Book Fair and turned me down. (She had asked me to change the last chapter which I did; then, returned from London and said the book “just wasn’t right for her”. Whatever. Instead of feeling despondent about it, I just felt relieved.”

    Thank you, Dean!!!!

    Katherine Owen
    Author of “Not To Us” and “Seeing Julia”
    contemporary women’s fiction

    • dwsmith says:

      Katherine, fantastic!! And honestly, once through the learning curves of InDesign and doing covers, it gets just scary easy. The learning curve up front is the tough part and you’ve gone through that just fine. Well done. Keep me posted on how it goes and remember to be patient on the sales and just let them grow. And keep writing.

  43. John Barnes says:

    An amen for Brother Dean.

    I’ve done pretty much every obnoxious thing a writer can do to piss off editors and publishers with the possible exceptions of

    1) being one of the half dozen people more irritating than myself, 2) urinating on a publisher’s shoes,
    3) That. (Whatever you just thought of).

    And in years of bad, really bad, behavior, I did acquire a list of people who wouldn’t work with me again (some of whom I regret). But …. I kept selling books. Was never without a contract (on which I was usually late and delivering not what they wanted — but by god they gave me another one, the loons).

    BUT …. in late 2002/early 2003, I finished a couple big projects and slid into a very deep depression, for reasons I’m still not sure of except it was depression time. Didn’t really emerge until somewhere in late 2006, when I quite abruptly finished TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND and began writing again. And during that about four-year hiatus, my career went deader than a proverbial mackerel* (even though I had a couple books and some short stories come out).

    Nothing else ever killed my career — not even me, and god knows if anyone could have, I’d have been it — but stopping writing sure did.

    *The proverbial mackerel is generally more like the jack mackerel than like the chub mackerel, but is unlike either in that its natural state is dead.

    • dwsmith says:

      Hey, John, we’ve all had those years. I burnt myself out on one project, said the hell with writing, and went and played poker. But those of us who are writers tend to always come back. Might take a year or four, but we come back, and that’s why you and I and many of our friends are still here, pounding the keys. Thanks!!

  44. Steve Lewis says:

    For anyone who’s interested, horror/suspense master Richard Laymon wrote a book called A Writer’s Tale that traces his carrer up to about 1998.

    It’s relevent to this discussion because Laymon’s US career fell apart after some bad decisions on the part of his publisher but he kept on writing and selling books to the UK. Even though his US career never completely recovered, he still kept writing and publishing books.

    Almost every long-term pro has stories like this.

    Essentially, as long as we keep doing the work-grinding it out so to speak-we can’t lose. I, for one, am ecstatic about that. =)

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