Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Security

Welcome back to slaughtering a few sacred cows. This one came clear to me over the last few days from so many writers saying how stunned they are that Barry Eisler turned down such a large deal to self-publish his own books. So before I continue into the Think Like a Publisher series, let me hack at a sacred cow.

To start, let me be clear on the myth I’m talking about right up front.

Myth: Selling to Traditional Publishing Means Safety and Security.

As a person who has been a freelance writer for over 25 years and sold my first short story in 1975, that just makes me laugh. But sadly, I believed it early on, and then came to understand that there was no other choice but the crap game I call traditional publishing if I wanted to be a full-time writer.

But safety and security in traditional publishing?  Never.

Yet I discovered over and over the last few days as Barry Eisler turned down a half-million dollar deal and Amanda Hocking, a young writer, is thinking of taking a deal, that the myth of security and safety in traditional publishing is as strong as ever. And being played up big time by traditional publishers as one of their advantages over indie or small publishing.

Security in publishing is a huge myth, a very large sacred cow. Hang on, this could get bloody.

Corporate America

Traditional publishing companies are, by nature, large corporations. Some people call the entire mess the “Big Six” but honestly, that’s both correct and wrong. Publishing companies are stand-alone businesses, often traded on a major stock exchanges. But they are (at the same time) often owned (meaning majority shares) by a larger publishing company above them, and so on up and up and up until worldwide there are basically six big conglomerates that have fingers in most large traditional publishing companies. Not all, but most.

However, the publishing corporations at lower levels are stand-alone businesses and do bid against each other for authors, even though they are owned by the same conglomerate in Germany or England.

Now, as with any corporation in business, each publishing company is profit driven. Each imprint inside of each publishing company must turn a profit regularly or be shut down.

And every author’s book must turn a profit or be cut. And often a book series that is growing, but not growing fast enough, is cut as well.

Now shove that profit-driven corporation into a situation where change can only happen slowly, layoffs have cut staff down to the point that people are working sixty to seventy hours for a small salary, and you have a structure for disaster when things shift quickly, as they are now with electronic distribution.

The Way It Is for Writers Now in Traditional Publishing

Publishing in its strange wisdom has taken the suppliers of the business product (writers) and made it almost impossible for any of the suppliers to get to the publishers. They refuse to look at new products and outsource their research and development to a group of people (agents) who are untrained and have no rules or structure.

The only way editors can get past this corporate restriction is play games with the rules. I can’t begin to tell you how many times editors have written good letters to writers about a book on a corporate stationary that says “Will Not Read Without An Agent.” Yet it is clear from the letter they read the manuscript.

In other words, it’s a very hostile environment for writers trying to supply new product to traditional publishing. Traditional publishing’s attitude has become (over the last ten years) “If you don’t like it, I’ll find a writer who does. There are always more stupid writers to take your place.”

And on top of that, traditional publishers, because of the lack of education of most writers in business, have come to treat writers who do get in the door like they are babies who can’t think for themselves and need their diapers changed. And writers over the last twenty years have come to expect this “take care of me” treatment and then wonder why they were dropped by their publisher or agent.

So once in the door, writers want to be taken care of, and thus don’t bother to learn the business or what is even being done for them.

And when dropped, the writers don’t have a clue what to do next because they have spent no time learning the business while in it.

Most writers are so stupid about the business they think they sell stories. (We don’t, we license copyright.)

And, of course, I won’t even go into the scams on writers by some publishers, some agents, and any book doctor who can convince a writer the writer needs help with typos. And now, of course, there are the agents willing to put up writer’s books electronically as a publisher would do and take a percentage. That is the next huge scam coming down the road.

And writers have let this happen because, to be honest, it happened slowly and writers have no central point of information. And some writers just liked being taken care of. I have heard recently the “more time to write” argument than I care to think about.

I always say silently to myself when I hear that: “More time to get screwed.”

Along Comes Indie Publishing

Pushed by numbers of writers who had gotten tired of being treated like children by traditional publishers, Indie Publishing has become a real possible alternate route for writers to deliver books to readers.

Of course, this was caused by the twenty-year growing revolution of electronic reading devices. Traditional publishing, being slow and fairly short-sighted in their monopoly, let other companies like Amazon and Apple and Sony develop and own the devices instead of having traditional publishers owning and controlling them.

And Amazon and Apple and Sony don’t care who supplies the product.

That oversight by traditional publishers suddenly opened the distribution doors for everyone. And traditional publishing in just the last few years lost their monopoly on the distribution of books. And traditional publishing now has no way to regain it.

So the question becomes for writers: “What can traditional publishing still offer me that I can’t do on my own? Or hire done?”

The answers to that question have been laughable so far.

One response by traditional publishing has been, “Oh, we are the gatekeeper.”  My response: Of a gate sitting in the middle of a desert with no fence on either side.

Or the great response by traditional defenders: “We provide editorial oversight.” That one makes me snort. Editorial oversight from an overworked young assistant editor out of Vassar and a copyeditor that I can hire cheaper.

So far, up until some traditional defenders started trotting out the security argument, that was all they had.

And what does traditional publishing want in exchange?

—Traditional publishing wants contracts writers can’t get out of in their lifetimes.

—Traditional publishing wants control of the writer’s work and future work.

—Traditional publishing wants 75% of all electronic sales.

—Traditional publishing wants the ability to wait years to getting around to publishing the book while money sits on the table.

And, oh, yeah, if a traditional publisher says in the contract they are going to pay you on signing and on publication, expect the check three months after both dates, if you are lucky. And don’t forget to take out the 15% for your agent that traditional publishers forced you to get before you could even submit to them.  And, oh, yeah, traditional publishing now wants world rights, meaning everything, and a percentage of all other sales from movies and gaming and audio. And, oh yeah, try to get a readable royalty statement that makes clear sense. I dare you.

So my question is now: Why should any smart writer give traditional publishing all that?

The answer: Not a clue. But my wager is that fewer and fewer smart writers going into the future will.

But traditional publishing will continue just fine, supplied by the writers who want to be taken care of. Writers who need the feeling “security.” Because, honestly, the “security argument” is the one that will convince more writers than any other.

Myth of Security

When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers grew up dreaming that someday they would be published by a traditional publisher. There just was no other dream for writers other than the stigma of vanity press or having a university press take your book while you taught classes.

It has really only been two years, actually less than one year, since this new path for writers has really opened up. So the dreams of writers to be taken care of by a traditional publisher and an agent is still very, very real in most writer’s minds.

And honestly, the indie publishing path is not tested out yet. So there is no real evidence on the other side of the coin.

But for a moment, let me hack at the myth of security in traditional publishing.

Agent Security:

Most writers, as I discovered doing early chapters of Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, think that “getting an agent” is a career advancement. Not sure why that is, to be honest, anymore than any business hiring an employee is a business advancement, but young writers over the last ten years have turned hiring an agent into a major thing.

And agents have led them to believe that, as if the agents were the gold standard for something. What that something might be, I have no clue. But to many writers, having an agent adds to their feeling of security.

The belief is that an agent can be trusted with all the writer’s money and will take care of the writer against all the bad stuff of publishing.

Sadly, with most “beliefs,” there is little hard facts from history to back up the belief. But agents sell that belief to writers as good as any backwoods revival preacher in a tent trying to make enough to get to the next town.

—Truth? An agent will drop you the instant you are not making them any money.

—Truth? Agents mostly work for publishers and protect their interests with the publisher over your interests, so when something is happening to you, your agent will usually side with the publisher.

—Truth? An agent will push you to sign contracts not in your best interest as a writer because not only do they then get paid, but they don’t really even know you or care about you. But they do know the editor who is a best friend and who they have lunch with once a week.

—Truth? You are only one of thirty to fifty clients and there is always someone else to take your place if you start asking them to do too much for their 15% of your money off into the future.

There is no security just because you “got” an agent. Sorry.

Publisher Security:

Getting an offer from a traditional publisher on a book is a very large deal, actually, both in writer dreams and in business terms. In writer terms it means a major publishing business thinks your writing and storytelling will sell copies. In business terms, it means you have found a distributor to get your work to readers. So those “dream realizations” by a publisher are important to writers.

But now, with the alternative path of indie publishing, the second part, the distribution part of that equation, is starting to become less and less important.

And in this new world, the writer must take less money, less control, for the sense that “somebody really likes me, they like me” that the offer from traditional publishing gets them.

Honestly, most beginning writers will take a traditionally published deal just for that reason alone. It also shows their family that their “little hobby” is for real.

All valid and important reasons, actually, but not good business reasons.

But there is no security in the deal.

There are a ton of ways a publisher can cancel the contract, and if the writer does something wrong, even the advance, which is a loan, will need to be repaid. I have seen first books on a two-book deal published completely dead, meaning it was printed and not even put into a publisher catalog. In other words, they did a hundred copies and called it done and cancelled the second book in the contract. (Don’t believe me. It has happened to me and it happened to my wife and most other long-term professionals I know. For example, I wrote eight short novels for one publisher, got paid, and the books never came out. They just cancelled it all and then shut down the imprint and went away.

Yeah, that’s security.

Say your book is expected to sell 50,000 copies but only sells 45,000.  And your next book sells only 40,000 copies. Now, understand, you have a book series that is selling to 40,000 readers, but the publisher will drop you like you are scum and the editor will stop taking your calls and then your agent will drop you. I’ve seen this happen at much higher levels as well. Expectations of a publisher are everything and you have no idea what those are and have no control over them.

In the last part of 1990s, the American distribution system basically imploded for the second time in history and mass market paperbacks sales took a 20% drop across the board. So what happened to the writers who, through no fault of their own, had books out or coming out at that point? They were let go. Or what happened to the writers with September releases in 2001 when no one was reading. Those writers were dropped for the most part.

Truth: Publishing is a bottom-line business. If your book does not sell to someone’s set expectations in a profit-and-loss statement done before you sold the book to them, you are out. Cold and simple.

No security. None. Sorry.

So a writer takes a traditional publishing deal feeling they have security, that they have made it. And guess what? Truth: Very, very few writers actually make it past those first two or three books. Sadly.

There is no real security in traditional publishing. Only false feelings of security.

Indie Publishing Security

I have a hunch this security belief in indie publishing is as much of a myth as the traditional publishing security. Sure, writers have control and we make more money per sale and we need less sales to make more money, but indie publishing is difficult at best and I highly doubt anyone would go into it for security, at least not at this point of the game.

Far, far too many unknown factors to still play out.

Indie Publishing means learning a new set of skills to combine with your writing and that is uncomfortable at best. It means taking the time away from the writing or it means hiring the right people in the right way.

And success in Indie Publishing is very, very difficult to measure. With traditional publishing, success is the contract and then the book coming out a year later. And, then, with luck, some decent sales.

With indie writers, success must often be measured in slow sales over years.

Writers are not normally people who like doing math, so the five sales a month on Kindle looks like failure to those types of writers. So they quit writing because traditional publishing seems too hard and no one buys their work when they put it up themselves, not realizing that five sales a month on Kindle really isn’t that bad. It is an indicator that around the world the book is selling even more per month and that given time, that sales level will build into a decent sales record.

But that long-term-thinking attitude is difficult at best to keep in focus. And certainly will not help anyone looking for security.

Getting a traditional publisher to put a stamp on you with a contract and book publication will give you a sense of security for at least a year or so. Until the hard truth slams into you. Or you learn how to be a long-term survivor and keep climbing back into the ring.


When the poor people who worked for Enron found themselves on the sidewalk, I found myself very happy I didn’t have a corporate job. Sure, I don’t mind not having some security in my life, but I felt bad, very bad for the people in large corporations who needed the belief that they had a job and it would last. And now this last recession has trained an entire generation that even working for big corporations and governments isn’t real security.

I don’t know what to tell those of you that feel you need security for one reason or another. It isn’t in publishing, that I know, but I also don’t know where it might be.

Indie Publishing, because you work for yourself, shows some promise of some low levels of security down the road, but it is far too early to tell. Traditional publishing, even though they claim to give security, can’t and won’t. Not the way the system is set up. But now, outside of publishing there is no real security either.

So my suggestion is very simple and what has worked for me and Kris and other professionals for a long time.

Find security in knowledge.

When you learn business and understand how publishing really works, there is a sense of security because you can handle anything tossed at you. And you often know it’s coming.

Kris and I seldom get surprised anymore by the business. Very seldom. We know how the business works, how the cash flow works, and other elements that make a seemingly insecure job very secure.

We marvel at how one day nothing seems to be working and a week later we can do no wrong. That’s always a marvel, but not a surprise. Why? Because that kind of change and cycle is just part of the business.

We know the business well enough to know the signs when a publishing company is about to go under.

We know the signs when one of our series is about to be dropped.

We can read business reports as well as the next person in publishing and we spend the time to follow it.

Knowing the business is a form of security. It doesn’t come quickly, but it can be learned easily.

I was surprised at the sudden explosion of indie publishing. I did not see it coming to be honest, but Kris did.  I was willfully ignorant of the changes and proud of my luddite status, up until two friends two years ago smacked me with a salted-in-the-shell peanut over a meal one night and got me paying attention.

And then I went out and as fast as I could got caught up. Because for me, the security comes in the knowledge.

So don’t think that just because you are an indie publisher and in control of your own covers that you have security. You don’t.

And don’t think that just because you sold a big book deal to a traditional publisher you have security. You don’t.

So maybe get the security from learning the business and enjoying the writing. For me, doing a job I love is the real reward.

And I love both the writing and the business of publishing in all its insanity.


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


This is part of my writing income streams that help keep me secure. And, to be honest, it keeps me going on writing 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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46 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Security

  1. z says:

    I like this bit (quoted below) from your post. It basically says that traditional publishers are becoming the new vanity presses…

    “And in this new world, the writer must take less money, less control, for the sense that “somebody really likes me, they like me” that the offer from traditional publishing gets them.

    Honestly, most beginning writers will take a traditionally published deal just for that reason alone. It also shows their family that their “little hobby” is for real.”

    Thanks again for the posts, Dean.

    – z

  2. Great post, Dean. I really appreciate seeing these myths laid out in clear fashion. Considering I just went to writing fulltime, I’m both excited by the possibilities opening up and scared at the same time. LOL.

    I know there’s no security in traditional publishing. That is really hitting home. It’s frustrating when I know the sales of my books, especially in e-book format are doing well, but since mass market paperback sales are down all across the board, that’s the bottom line.

    At this point in my career, I plan to stay with my publisher, but expand into self-publishing as well. And if either of my series get cut, I’ll just continue with them, but publish them myself. I know my readers will be happy with that decision.

    A fascinating time in the industry!

  3. Linda Nagata says:

    Thanks again Dean for a great post. Since wading back into the world of writers and writing after a long, long recuperation from traditional publishing, I’ve been truly surprised at how many writers love their publishers. It’s not a feeling that I share. So despite the current lean income, there’s a lot of emotional security for me just in having control of my work. And as you’ve laid out here, all those things that publishers are supposed to do for you–well they can louse them up as easily as I can, so I might as well do it myself. At least that way I’ll have a chance to fix it!

    • dwsmith says:

      Actually, Linda, I agree. I also feel a ton more secure in indie publishing, even as new as it is. I love the control and traditional publishing was slowly grinding me down to the point where I was thinking of heading back to poker. But now I’m enjoying everything again and having a blast and still doing some traditional publishing. Speaking of which, I have a deadline to hit, so back to work for me tonight.

      One thing about traditional publishing. It does force you to hit deadlines. Even if it takes them months and months and months to pay you, they want the work NOW! (grin)

  4. Mark Jones says:

    “…so the five sales a month on Kindle looks like failure to those types of writers. So they quit writing because traditional publishing seems too hard and no one buys their work when they put it up themselves, not realizing that five sales a month on Kindle really isn’t that bad. It is an indicator that around the world the book is selling even more per month and that given time, that sales level will build into a decent sales record.”

    Yeah, thirty sales a month on my six self-published works doesn’t seem like all that much at first. But that’s just on Amazon. It doesn’t include Barnes & Noble, where I get a handful each month. It doesn’t include Smashwords either–and the Smashwords totals so far don’t include anything from the other sites they distribute to, and won’t for months. I’ve only been at this since early January; I won’t know the final, real totals for January or February for a while yet. But even so, every one of those sales is a sale I wouldn’t have if the story were still sitting on my hard drive.

    It’s not very impressive so far, but the final score isn’t in, and by the time it is, there’ll be more stories in the pipeline.

  5. John Walters says:

    Thanks for the post, Dean. I think you’re right that security is in knowledge, and right now your and Kris’s sites are some of the main sources of knowledge of the publishing industry for me. I follow the links you suggest to further that knowledge, but you two are the source.

    Even when I started out writing many years ago I don’t think I believed there was much security in the writing game. Some great writers had to struggle their entire lives to get by financially. Of course, they didn’t always handle their finances so well either. But I always figured that the main thing was to do the writing and get it before readers and then, well, if I managed food to eat and a roof over my head I was doing great. When I found my voice and started producing genuinely original stuff I didn’t even have that roof; I was on the road full time, hitching from place to place. All right, can’t do that anymore: I have a wife and five kids. I have to admit at the moment while I am working hard to get my books and stories up on line and POD I am thankful for my day job. It takes time, sure, but I am not ready to go it on writing alone, and I agree with you that indie publishing will take time to see results. I am willing to be patient to see those results but I need to feed the troops in the meantime. My impatience, if you can call it that, manifests itself now in the fact that I am steadily upping my daily word count. The main reason is that I realize I can write whatever I want and it’s just so much fun to have that liberating awareness. It gives me the ability to write faster and better.

  6. Just Passing Through says:

    Okay, so this is stuff I have to say and it might be long, but it has to be said.

    Thank you. To you and your wife. Thank you. Thank you. Thanka you!

    I first came here a few weeks ago because I thought that in the writing business I had to do things a certain way in order to make a living (which from all the articles that I had read up to that point made it adamant that I would not be making a living at it at all, but if I was real, real, real lucky I might make enough to buy some bologna and bread after ten years) so I was doing a search on articles on the business of writing and one of the links was for your article on the myth that you can’t make a living at writing. Changed my whole look! Told my best friend the next day about the whole baking a pie scenario and watched the light go on in his eyes as well.

    But I still held back because in the back of my mind was this little person screaming at me: I don’t want to give up all these slices of my pie. I shouldn’t have to. Why do I have to break my back sowing the seeds of my imagination and then give the fruits to someone who more than likely doesn’t even own land there. Then, you listed a post to your wife’s blog and I read about her thoughts on the new markets being opened up for Indie publishing. Eye opening again! Hugely eye opening. What. You mean I can publish myself nowadays like I’ve wanted to for the last two decades? And make a living at it? Who are you and what have you done with every other author whose book I’ve read on the business of writing!

    So then I came back here to see what other thoughts you had on the subject of writing and find this post. Eye opening this time? Nope. Simply because the things you have listed I have been thinking for the past two decades. The. Last. Two. Decades. And every time I would bring up, “Why can’t I do it myself AND make a living?” The reply of the words of Bruce Hornsby.

    I am in no way a writer. Haven’t published anything. Been told that I have talent but that talent don’t mean diddly squat in today’s world. Not sure I want to write novels, but like short stories, but have read that you can’t make money off of short stories, like the idea of being in control of my publishing but have read that that’s not the way it works in prose writing. Basically, right now I’ve been sitting on the fence trying to decide which side I want to jump down to, and part of that deciding is doing research on the job. The research I do leads to my first question about the business ever: Why do I have to bend over backwards to people that come across as if I am supposed to consider myself lucky letting them make money off of me and then not even buying me dinner (yep, read the article by the author of The Tao of Pooh).

    I never got it. The publishing business seemed like a scam to me. I bleed over the paper in the hopes of creating another act in the theater of the mind, then, if I am a beginner, I should be happy to get a contributor copy while they get audio rights, e rights and my third born son!

    So, seeing your thoughts on the subject sir has done my heart proud that I am not a wacko in my thinking that traditional publishing makes no sense. (And one of your other points really hit home about traditional publishing still carries weight in the real world. That has always been one of the things that would tug at me even though my brain was screaming: They don’t even respect you, why would you give them a pie that you baked all day and night. Because to be able to say that a publisher wanted to publish your story used to mean that you made it and that you could show your parents that you were not going to be a failure.) Now, here is a professional writer saying DON’T GIVE THEM THE PIE! You can do it on your own and it COUNTS!

    My only complaint? Where were you twenty years ago so that so much of my life would not have been wasted thinking that “I can’t do it this way. I have to do it there way.” (grin)

    I don’t know if I am going to be a writer, sir (from what I’ve been told and read they say its something that you are born to know and if you don’t know then you are not meant to be one) but I do know that reading you and your wife’s articles sure made it seem like I could if I wanted too.

    Thank you sir!

  7. Mike Zimmerman says:

    Loved the conclusion that knowledge is the best form of security. But I think it’s only one part of a trifecta that also includes work ethic and excellence. These three things don’t prevent you from being screwed, but they make recovering from that screwing much easier. Thanks again, Dean.

  8. Lots of good stuff to process here, but there were two statements that contrasted sharply enough that I wanted to ask for a followup (after you hit your deadline ;)):

    “So once in the door, writers want to be taken care of, and thus don’t bother to learn the business or what is even being done for them.”


    “Expectations of a publisher are everything and you have no idea what those are and have no control over them.”

    Yes. That’s the problem. It’s not a question of bother. Some of us want to bother. What about authors who want to learn the business, but have no way of getting the information? In my day job, I always know how the target sales level, what the publisher’s marketing plan is (and therefore where the gaps are that I have to fill), the break-even sales target (the point where the money is made back, and therefore the point I have to hit if I want to be allowed to proceed with the next project), and a breakdown of the sources for my sales.


    • dwsmith says:

      Kathleen, learning the business is so much more than just figuring out what the publisher might do with one book.

      Learning the business is learning copyright and what you are actually selling. Learning the business is getting with other writers who want to learn (tough to find these days) and sharing contracts and information. Learning the business is not being afraid to ask questions of your editor, your agent, and not stop until the information is clear. I have never once asked about target sales or anything along those lines because, to be honest, I could care less. Again, part of learning the business is knowing what your job is and how you fit. Learning the business is knowing when to stay in your job, but also knowing when your partner, your publisher, is screwing up. I could not care what a publisher’s marketing plan is unless it is part of the negotiation in the contract and is written into the contract. Then I care a lot because I need to make sure the contract is followed. But I know the signs clearly when a publisher has given up. (They are easy to see if your head is not buried in the sand. (grin))

      I know what ever term and ever sentence in any contract I signed means to me as a writer. I know the moment I can get my rights back and how to do it. I have learned how to read any royalty statement tossed at me because if it was mine and I didn’t understand it I was on the phone with someone who could explain it exactly to me.

      In other words, learning the business is an attitude, a way of life. Am I still learning? Yup. I had a writer send me a contract the other day to read and was stunned by a few clauses I wasn’t sure of, and a rights grab not only in the option clause, but in the warranty clauses, which is fairly new, or at least not something I have seen before.

      I teach workshops here to help young professionals keep learning, but interestingly enough, I learn from every workshop as well. For example, this summer and fall I’m teaching a workshop on how to do your own electronic books and be a publisher. I know for a fact I’m going to learn a ton from the suggestions of the other professionals here.

      Learning the business is, in other words, a hunger for knowledge about the business you make your living in. Can’t learn it all at once, just like food, you can’t eat a week’s worth or a year’s worth of food at once. But if you eat every day, focused, you eat a year’s worth of food by the time the year is done.

  9. R.E. McDermott says:

    Great post Dean! Actually, it’s not just publishing where the myth of security prevails. We’re all temps, whether we realize it or not. Ultimately, successful folks realize that and manage their affairs accordingly.

    I’ve been self-employed for many years, and I’ve failed at various ventures more often that I’ve succeeded. The important thing is that the successes more than made up for the failures. What I learned along the way is that success always comes in ventures where I had more control.

    Everyone is ultimately responsible for their own success or failure, so it only makes sense to position yourself to influence it as much as possible. Given the non-transparent nature of traditional publishing, one has to wonder how much even the most wildly successful authors are ‘taken care of’ and how much they’ve just been ‘taken.’

  10. I understand how important a sense of security is to people, but then I’m also a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy. That said, insecurity and the desire for it isn’t unique to publishing (as you point out). I believe we’re in a time where our future has an incredible range of options from the Apocalypse to a high tech nirvana. As the father of a 3-year-old, I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering “what skills and abilities can I give my son so he can thrive in *all* possible futures?”

    Knowledge is certainly one, but I think more basic than that is the ability to learn on his own and the ability to keep an open mind, both of which you allude to but don’t explicitly mention.

    They’ve done studies on people who survive disasters like plane crashes vs. those who don’t. After the random luck factor is played out, the top characteristic of survivors is that they immediately discarded their old “maps” of how “things are supposed to be” and dealt with understanding their new reality. They stopped thinking “oh, the authorities will save me” and set out to do it themselves, be it by walking hundreds of miles out of the jungle or cutting off their arm or eating their dead fellow passengers–all unthinkable with old “maps.”

    Another key skill is knowing how to find the balance between study and action. I.e., avoiding “analysis paralysis” on one end and “jumping too soon” on the other. I’ve seen both in the comments section here on other posts.

    The old Publishing “map” no longer reflects reality. The survivors are going to be the ones who say “so what’s the terrain really like?” and then move out in a reasonably timely fashion.

  11. Carradee says:

    I haven’t had an agent, but I’ve communicated with enough writers to believe that what you call true about agents isn’t necessarily true of every agent. Just a note.

    Otherwise, I pretty much agree. In the 3 years I was in the conventional workforce, I lost 3 jobs (2 lay-offs, 1 pressured into quitting).

    But I also started freelancing a few years before that. It frankly doesn’t seem any less secure to me than a conventional job.

    Maybe my freelancing experience is why the entire idea of this self-publishing thing doesn’t seem so difficult to me. I frankly started looking into doing it myself when I discovered that publishers were demanding 75% of e-book royalties. I don’t think so.

    Oh, self-publishing certainly takes work—I’m serializing a novel online right now and preparing it for release in e-book form—but it seems perfectly doable. And most of it’s stuff I’d have to do anyway even if I had a publishing contract. I just schedule some time to work on it each day, and that April 1st publishing date I’m aiming for seems perfectly doable.

    • dwsmith says:

      Carradee, oh, I’ve had three agents, I left all three, and all were great people and top agents. (Agents you would not recognize, more than likely, because they do their job and don’t care about publicity.) And what I said about agents is 100% true and logical. Their job, for all 50 of their clients is to keep great relationships with publishers. They would not be doing their job for all their clients if they let one client poison the well for them. Trust me, they care more about the well than one writer drinking from it. And that is how it should be, honestly. The key is, writers have to know that and get out of the myth that an agent will take care of them. Not the agent’s job. It might have been in 1950, but not in 2011.

      And I agree, if you are already an experienced freelancer, self-publishing is not scary at all.

  12. Nancy Beck says:

    And now this last recession has trained an entire generation that even working for big corporations and governments isn’t real security.


    There’s a guy in the office where I’m temping who lucked out, managing to dodge the downsizings, mergers, etc., in the telecom business to retire from his corporate job while still in his 50s. Put in his 25 years, all that.

    But he’s lucky.

    How many people are that fortunate?

    I was, for the longest time. But this recession taught me otherwise. How could I have been so short sighted?

    Well, I’ve had it with other people controlling things; such has been my corporate life. If I can at least control one the creative side of my life, I’m glad I’m alive at this point in time to give it an honest try.

    I do have some small business experience, in that I helped my hubby set up a business that managed to make a small profit for the three years it was in existence. (He folded it when he realized business was being syphoned away from similar stores nearby and internet sales.)

    For me, this is an exciting time to be writing, no matter what happens. :-)

  13. Eileen says:

    I think it is time you admitted that your “it’s great writer’s have a choice” comment is not how you feel. You clearly feel that there is only one choice for smart authors and that anyone who doesn’t choose your route is a looking for pats on the head and the need for false security and by implication not really that smart. I find your hard line stance as offensive as those who tell self pubbed authors that clearly they aren’t good enough for “real publishing” if they self pub.

    • dwsmith says:


      Well, then I must be looking for pats on the head as well, because I tell people to use both traditional and indie publishing and I also do both, as does my wife. In fact, she’s just turning in a new Diving into the Wreck novel that I read and is wonderful and she’s working to finish up a new Grayson novel next month for another traditional publisher. And I still write my series of thrillers under another name.

      So not sure what you think I am telling anyone, but to be smart and use both types of publishing.

  14. I went into indie publishing with the idea there was no security at all. I did, however, assume there was security in traditional publishing until I began to make friends with some traditionally published authors (a couple who had contracts with the big 6), and that’s when I learned that they didn’t have any more security than I did.

    I don’t like it when indie authors tell other writers that indie means they’ll make a lot of money because this is fales. There’s no way of telling if you’ll ever make a living or even continue to make a living if you do make it there. Every day, I assume the only thing I can do is write and publish more books and hope for the best because at any time, I might be looking at finding employment outside the house, which is also not 100% secure either.

    It seems to me that life doesn’t offer security. Period. 😀

  15. If anyone is looking for an extreme example of how there’s no security with traditional publishers, check out what is allegedly happening to some Dorchester writers.

  16. Ty Johnston says:

    Something occurred to me while reading this post. I was thinking back to all those “myths” about writing, mainly fiction writing, and I was wondering how they all got started.

    Then I remembered magazines that promoted those myths, the main one still around being Writer’s Digest. And all the books that Writer’s Digest, and similar publishers, have published that helped to spread all the myths.

    In the pre-Internet days, Writer’s Digest and its ilk were often the only source of information many beginning writers had, or at least felt they had. I’m not suggesting such publishers as the WD folks are totally to blame for the myths, but they sure as heck didn’t do much to de-mystify things, in my opinion.

  17. DavidRM says:

    I’m the only self-employed person most of my friends know. I’ve heard it severeal times over the past 12 years: “I couldn’t do what you do. I need my paycheck.” I’ve learned that they don’t want to hear, “Yes, you could, and, no, you don’t.” I just smile these days and say, “You get used to it.” :-)

    I considered “going indie” with my fiction as early as 2006, but I wasn’t convinced that people would buy electronic fiction. I had been selling software over the Web for 10 years at that point, but I didn’t see people buying fiction that way. Fast forward a few years and a couple Kindle versions and suddenly I saw how it could be done. In fact, publishing my first ebook in autumn 2010 I feel like some odd combination of johnny-come-lately and grizzled veteran. Indie publishing is still so new. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but still have a lot to learn. I feel proud of my meager sales, and yet frustrated that they’re still unimpressive by spectator standards. All I can do, though, is the same thing I did a decade or so ago when I went out on my own selling my own software from my own Web page: Keep costs down, learn useful marketing and promotion, improve as I go, try not to make the same mistake twice.

    At this point in my life, I don’t look for “security” in much of anything (certainly not in any form of corporate overlord). I just look for equity and control. :-)


  18. Megs says:

    “I think it is time you admitted that your “it’s great writer’s have a choice” comment is not how you feel. You clearly feel that there is only one choice for smart authors and that anyone who doesn’t choose your route is a looking for pats on the head and the need for false security and by implication not really that smart. I find your hard line stance as offensive as those who tell self pubbed authors that clearly they aren’t good enough for “real publishing” if they self pub.” — Eileen

    “Eileen, …So not sure what you think I am telling anyone, but to be smart and use both types of publishing.” — Dean

    And why to do it. Perhaps, Eileen, that’s what you’ve missed in all this: it’s about why to choose trad publishing and whether it will be effective in meeting those goals.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Megs. I’ve been trying to just get people’s eyes open and out of the myths. Again, I have zero issue with anyone, including Amanda Hocking, taking a traditional deal. I just want people to be eyes open and take the deal for the right reason. If you go into traditional publishing expecting people to take care of you, nothing but pain and disappointment will happen. If you go into traditional publishing to push career goals, and have a clear knowledge of the business, you will be fine, even if something doesn’t work.

  19. Jacqvern says:

    Excellent article, one of the best I’ve read. Thank you for writing it.

    I retweeted it :)

  20. In ten years of freelancing (as a producer, a writer, and a photographer/videographer), I’m running into something with self-pub that I never, never ran into before:

    A monthly paycheck.

    Sure, some months it’s $10 and some months it’s a few hundred bucks, which ain’t much, but it’s early days and I only have a handful of titles up. That’ll keep building over the next several years–but it really is amazing the psychological effect that the monthly paycheck has. Even at a pittance, it brightens my day and gives me one extra motivation to exceed my wordcount benchmarks and keep the pipeline fed.

    No, it’s not security with a capital “S,” but I don’t really give a damn. What it is, is fun–no, fuck that, it’s not fun, it’s spectacularly fun. Compared to every other aspect of Freelancing, this is INSTANT gratification. The *only* other freelance gigs that are this instantly rewarding are fine are photo shoots–but those are fun for a five-hour stint, with hours of work afterwards that aren’t nearly so fun. Here, the fun keeps coming.

    And there’s a monthly paycheck. When I was an employee, I viewed my paycheck as hush money. Working for someone else, even at a great job with people I enjoyed doing interesting work, was a grind. The paycheck made that grind swallowable, it made me less inclined to bitch at work and poison the well for people who were very suited to employeehood. I was getting paid, so I’d keep quiet–but the paycheck just reminded me of the perpetual feeling of handcuffs.

    But a monthly paycheck for doing my own business, where I take the risk, learn from my mistakes, and bear the responsibility? It’s icing on the dream–not to mix metaphors.

    And, did I mention….SO MUCH FUN.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yeah, feeling the same way, Daniel. Actually I’ve had a couple of traditional publishing deadlines and haven’t been able to get back to my challenge lately, and I’ve been sort of unhappy about that. I want to write the challenge stories because they are so much fun and instead I have to go write some book that people are paying me money to write. (grin) Yeah, I know, I know, tough damn life I have, huh? (grin)

  21. Thanks, Dean. Another great post. I’ve been learning from you since the Kris and Dean show swung through Utah about fifteen years ago and will always be grateful to Kris for buying my first pro story.

    After flunking out with the gatekeepers, having two different agents, a failed auction, and several other near misses, I finally started putting my own books out there now that self publishing is a viable option. I’m not making a mint, but my books are selling well and I’m earning a solid mid four figure royalty every month.

    One risk I see as people bypass the traditional gatekeepers is that I see a lot of newer writers succumbing to the temptation to publish their first drafts. There is nobody to tell them the book isn’t ready yet and they will, in fact, earn a few bucks. But they won’t be forced to confront deficiencies in their craft because nobody is sending them rejection letters. It is going to be painful lesson for some writers to learn.

  22. Just Passing Through,

    I hope you’re wrong about having to be born wanting to being a writer to make it. I sure didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be a submariner. I’ve been living that dream for a while now, and it’s good. Most days. But late last year I DECIDED to try to be a writer. I’d thought about it off and on for a few years, but it wasn’t a lifelong dream.

    Personally, I believe you can be anything you want to be, if you put the work in and keep at it. Yes, we all have varying talents, and not everyone can do everything to the same level of skill. But the notion of having a lifelong dream being a pre-requisite for success at anything sounds like just another myth to me.

    Just my $.02.

    • dwsmith says:

      Michael, I never said a writer had to be born wanting to be a writer. Hell, I couldn’t get through an English class in high school and went to college avoiding any kind of test that made me do an essay or a paper. I HATED writing that much, couldn’t spell, couldn’t put a sentence together to save my life, and didn’t understand that real people wrote books.

      And every long-term friend I have thinks it’s just weird I became a writer instead of a skier or a golf professional or a poker player. Or an Architect (I have a five year degree in that) or a lawyer (three years, no degree).

      I didn’t get serious until I was thirty-two. So no worry on that part at all.

  23. Eileen, I don’t think Dean is saying everyone who goes the traditional route is dumb. Not at all. What Dean is saying is that those who insist the traditional route is secure, or safe, or somehow immune from the white-capped waves of the marketplace, are essentially fooling themselves. Dean loves writers and is passionate about writers succeeding. But he’s rather worn out with writers carting around certain myths about the publishing industry, and the security myth is one of the bigger ones he hears all the time.

    Me? I freely admit to chasing a traditional publishing deal. With Baen specifically. I am looking at Baen the way I used to look at Analog: the number one, best fit for the kind of stories I like to tell. I made it with Analog, and that’s working out great. I hope to make it with Baen in the next two or three years, and hopefully that will work out great too. Baen certainly comes recommended from authors I trust to not be duped by the many myths Dean is prone to denounce in his blog pages.

    But this doesn’t mean I will be assuming that selling a couple of books to Baen means I am home-free. If anything, the stakes will go way up because while selling to a publisher is one thing, making money for that publisher is quite another. I’ll have to be selling enough to make Baen — or DAW or TOR — think it’s worth it for me to stay on the roster, and while Baen is a tighter, more forgiving publisher than some of the New York corporate houses, even Baen won’t support a losing effort forever.

    Which goes back to Dean’s great point that writers aren’t stuck anymore, relying solely on the old model for income or success.

    Novels that may not do well in trad pub, can do well in e-pub. Novels that editors in trad pub can’t fit into categories or easily market, can succeed in the blended waters of the Kindle and Nook world. Where readers care less about boundaries than ever before.

    And an author doesn’t have to fork out thousands of bucks and fill their garage with cartons of self-published books, trying to hand-sell the things at conventions or through a web storefront.

    It’s the new era of the zero-overhead or ultra-low-overhead, direct-to-market model. Something I think ought to be exciting to EVERY author even if they still cling to the myth that trad pub is a rock upon which to build a house, when in fact it’s just sand. Options are the thing most authors have craved for decades, and haven’t really had.

    Until now. Which makes me think that the years I spent unpublished weren’t so bad, because now I’m coming in at a time when there is choice that didn’t exist before. And what a wonderful thing that is for me.

    • dwsmith says:

      Brad, I did say a lot of smart writers are going to be adding in Indie Publishing and that traditional publishing will have no shortage of new, dumb writers. And I stand by that. (grin)

      But I think that smart writers will do both and make decisions project by project, as you said. Writers who refuse to learn business, which there are a startling number of well-published writers who are in that description, will stay where the myths in their minds put them, or the waves of luck have gotten them, not where good business decisions direct them.

  24. Dean,

    I’m actually not worried. At least not about that. :)

    I’ve heard that sentiment a lot from people though, and it always struck me as odd. Hey cool, if writing’s your lifelong dream, that’s great. But it almost seems for some as though it has to be this great calling, or it’s not doable. It sounds like that Passing Through person has gotten a lot of that too.

    Oh well, back to writing. Thanks for the great post, btw.


    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, Michael, sorry. I didn’t realize that person’s handle was “Just Passing Through” and that’s who you were talking to. (grin) Sorry about that. (slinking off now to take a lesson on reading again…)

  25. J.A. Marlow says:

    Corporations are obligated to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. When they had the monopoly on distribution, who could say much of anything, even if the writer was smart enough to see it for what it was?
    Yet, when I bring this up (they MUST make money) I get the constant refrain, “We’re all partners”, and “They want the ‘art’ of good writing, too.” Along with all the myths that go along with it, that this artistic bent to the industry somehow puts them under an umbrella of safety and security. No, Corporations want things that sell, and sell a lot, and sell at a great profit margin. ‘Art’ is way down on the list.
    But, like you said. Writers are some of the dumbest business people in the world. You wonder how some get dressed in the morning without help (sorry, that phrase popped to mind when you mentioned diapers. Heh.).
    By the way, I love how you ended this. Security in knowledge.
    Oh yes!

  26. It is true that learning the business takes a lot of time, but at some point it will run on automatic. The first few years of any new business are hard. There are many 14-18 hour days, and I work everyday. Where will I be in five years? The way things are in the industry, I might be one of the best writers in the world, and still not get picked up by a ‘reputable’ publisher.

    • dwsmith says:

      Louis, doesn’t work that way luckily. Unless you are just good at typing, at grammar, at spelling, all that stuff beginning writers think of as “writing.” You can be fantastic at that and never sell anything. But if you are a fantastic storyteller, you will sell unless you stop yourself, which is what most writers do. They stop themselves by not learning the business, not getting past the myths, and then by giving up.

      So if you mean being one of the best writers as best storytellers, you will sell if you keep pounding the doors. But good typing and grammar does nothing but make you a good proofreader, and that confusion over the word “writer” is where so many get lost.

  27. Just Passing Through says:


    That’s not my belief, the having to be born to be a writer, that’s just the one that I’ve seem to run into all these years (well, I guess I should say that it’s not fully my belief. I mean, it is rattling around up there. Like when you are reading or watching a television program and you think, “I should be writing now” and immediately the thought jumps to the front of the line and says: See! If you really were supposed to be a writer and wanted it badly you would be writing!). I do think that idea, the “if you don’t have the burning passion for it, you are not meant to do it” one is still out there and thriving well though. I’m not saying I believe that through and through (in fact one of the chinks in that belief’s chain that has helped dispel it to me is Robert Heinlein supposedly writing his first book when he was almost 40 and having no mention of before that time him expressing any dreams of being a writer). I’ll give you an example: Long time ago, back when you had to have 25 cents to make a phone call if you were out and about I was asking the question of how you know if you are born to do something. That you are HERE to do IT, so to speak, and a professional I respected very much said that if you have to question it you are not meant to do it. I thought, well, gee, that kind of stinks because I didn’t have the burning, flaming, climb all over others desire to be a writer in the prose term like some of the others do, I just thought it would be kind of fun to try (well, kind of fun but also something that I could do for a career- and as Chris Rock says, may we all have careers).

    I still think that is a idea out there, that if you haven’t thought about your “dream” since you were a little guy/gal then you are not supposed to do it, and maybe in the 21st century that will change. (Interestingly, the place that I see that idea the most is in writer’s books about writing: King, Brooks, the guy who wrote Rambo whose name escapes me at the moment all seem to say in their books that they knew that they wanted to be writers since they were knee high to a rooster.)

    I think the key word that you said, that not enough writers and other people who do things that you might like to do don’t say enough, is TRY. That you don’t have to be Yoda, it’s okay to simply give it a TRY.

    That’s just my $.01 (recession and all)

    Thanks for your reply.

    • dwsmith says:

      Just Passing Through, as many writers that started young are matched by those of us who sort of came to writing late. So many writers had very odd early-life jobs, and I am no exception. A lot of us sort of stumbled around and came to writing by accident. My wife always wanted to write since she was small, but thought she would be a reporter or a nonfiction writer.

  28. Just Passing Through says:

    “I didn’t get serious until I was thirty-two. So no worry on that part at all.”

    Sir, that line made me smile from ear to ear!

  29. ari says:

    storytelling trumps all. I have kids books I read to the kids, where they ask me to stop commenting on the terrible spelling, the awful sentence structure, the wretched reliance on pointless passive verbs, the….the….but the story is inventive, the characters worth caring about, and the plotline right-gob-smacking.

    there are books with pellucid sentence structure, vivid verbs, and NO STORY. you know the writer made A’s in school, b/c there isn’t anything out of school in the whole book, and the poor reader is flogged along for one chapter before giving up. there are kids books with no plot. these, the teacher can’t even sell to kindergarteners, who like to be read to.

    so, tell stories. the rest is just cosmetics.

  30. Tori Minard says:

    Just Passing Through, I’m one of those people who wanted to be a writer since I was knee high to a rooster. Lol. Love that. Anyway, contrary to what some writers seem to think, wanting something isn’t enough. Talent isn’t enough. You’ve got to have the courage to try even though you might fail, you’ve got to have enough persistence to for Pete’s sake actually finish something and then to mail it over and over and then when it’s rejected to keep going, keep writing. Those were traits I DIDN”T have. In fact I’m still working on some of them.

    It took me years to get over the silly fear of doing it “wrong” so I could finish a novel. And then I got so discouraged by the reality of the publishing industry that I quit for 10 years. I didn’t even read much fiction during that time. When I started again, I was about 42. I can’t remember the exact date. Now I’m self-publishing, although I might pursue NY some day.
    I think if you want to write, you should write no matter what your age. Even if you’re 80, you can still begin writing fiction.

    P.S. There’s a lot of bullshit in writing books. People pass off their opinions as objective fact.

  31. heteromeles says:

    Hi Dean,

    Great post. The only thing I’d touch on is that it might be good to start distinguishing between traditional publishing, BIG publishing, and independent publishing.

    I’m willing to bet that, within 2-3 years, the big publishers will include amazon, Apple, Google, and (perhaps) Barnes and Noble, and the slush pile will be available for sale online. The issue is simply that the traditional publishers aren’t adding enough value to the supply chain to support themselves.

    The problem with being an “independent” is that you’re not truly an independent. You’re actually a contract supplier for Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, etc., etc., etc. If they become the major game in town, I expect that they will become more coercive in their contracts as well.

    The real game changer will be when truly independent publishing takes off, and writers sell their stories straight out of their servers without any middleman. Until then, writers are merely producers, and others are fighting over who owns the links between writers and their readers.

    • dwsmith says:

      heteromeles, You are confusing publishers with distributors and bookstores. Just because a bookstore in your home town sells you book doesn’t make them a publisher. They are not.

      If you put your own book up for sale through a distributor (Baker and Taylor, CreateSpace) you are a publisher. You put your book into a bookstore (Amazon, B&N) you are a publisher.

      And let me simply say this: All big publishers must use distributors at this point as well. Very few books are sold directly from say Bantam. Bantam must use distributors and bookstores just as you do.

  32. Just Passing Through says:


    Nice to meet you, Tori. I’m one of those people that didn’t even think of wanting to be a writer until.. well, I’m still not sure to be honest. Storyteller, possibly. But writer, even if I was pinned down and tickled with brand new goose feathers I still couldn’t honestly say I want to be one.

    I agree with the TRY part, as I saw a long time ago a piece that talked about a man who opened up a successful hot dog stand and when asked what his secret was to his success the guy said that he simply gave himself permission to TRY. I like that. I think there are a lot of advice columns out there that say Do or Do Not and that can be kindof scary if you are just starting off. Whereas, TRY seems like a nice easy fit. Like sliding into your favorite pair of Levi’s instead of having to get fitted for a tuxedo. So, I lean on the TRY part more and more.

    As for the finishing, I really like what our host says about the Heinlein rules and just FINISHING. I’d like to see those rules updated someday for how they apply to self publishing (since you are not sending out anymore, though, I guess the sending out part would be the publishing part).

    I have learned some things by reading the writing books, mainly on how the authors grew up knowing they wanted to be writers and in the guy who wrote Rambo’s book (that name is still lost to me) about dealing with Hollywood and making sure to get put in your contract a clause that says you get some money if they make lunch boxes out of your character.

    Thanks for the reply.

  33. Love your posts, as always. They bring a lot of experience to the table, which is something I think all of us newb writers can benefit from. I’m not too interested in traditional publishing at the moment and want to try my hand first at self publishing. The thing I like is that you’re telling us that there’s options. I mean, come on, we as writers now have options! How awesome is that?

    Before I heard of self publishing, all I heard about was the draft, agent, publisher, rejection, and repeat process. No alternative (reputable or logical) options. Now that there are, I think it opens up a lot of opportunities for writers outside of the publishing norm.

    But on your actual topic, what you mentioned about Enron has a deep impact for me. I’m from Houston, where Enron was located, and knew kids whose parents lost everything–I mean everything. It was really bad, and they were so shocked that their security was, in fact, nothing but a house of cards. Since then, I’ve come to view all business that way, especially writing. I’m happy you touch on that and try to give us a kick back to reality.

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