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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Agents Sell Books



Book as Event

Writing is Hard

No Money in Writing Fiction

Agents Know Markets

Agent Agreements

Agents Care About Writers First

Agents Can Give Career Advice

You Don’t Need to Keep Learning

Agents and Your Money

Your Agent Sells Your Book Overseas

Follow the Rules to Get Published

Writers Don’t Need to Practice

Researching Fiction

Asking Your Agent Permission


Only 300 Writers Make a Living

Talent is a Myth

Agent and Contracts

Only One Way

The Agent 15% Myth

Agents need to Take Care of Writers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Take these classes, get this degree, move on.

Very orderly. Mostly lock-step, sadly.

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

But fiction writing does none of that.

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

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

Questions that challenge the RULES (MYTHS) of Publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking that training is fantastically hard.

A Course of Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have shorter chapters on these upcoming myths:

—Bestsellers Can’t Write

—Writing Art

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

—Bestsellers Can Be Made Artificially by a Publisher

—Once you sell you have it made

—Rejections and What They Really Mean

—The Perfect Book.

—Publisher as Gatekeeper.

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


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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79 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Power of the Myths

  1. This is a wonderful series. I’m referring my blog readers here immediately.

    I am happy to hear from Laura Resnick that we should write at least a book a year. I can’t seem to keep myself from getting these bouts of optimism and writing yet another book. Agents, however, have told me that I should not send them the next proposal/query package on the day after they’ve rejected the last one I sent them, because “that looks too desperate” or “you write too much.” So the agent mentality has changed–Writer’s Digest in the 70s-80s-90s used to say that you should turn right around and query with your new book, as long as it’s polished and ready. They are telling me to wait a few months before trying them again with the next query for the next book–and, yes, I make sure they do rep that genre before ever querying. It takes forever to hear back from them in the first place, so this adds even more time.

    I am also zonked that someone was brave enough to say they hate the round-robin critique sessions that are endless and boring and repetitive! I had a good workshop experience a few weeks ago where the leader actually made sense and many critiques were illuminating, but I’ll never forget the one led by a Famous Editor here in Dallas where my work was saved for last and was savaged . . . beginning with the editor asking, “Why did you choose this title?” and when I answered, I got, “That’s not good enough. You have to choose a GOOD title.” Of course I thought it was a perfectly normal title, but I wasn’t married to it. I tried to pour oil on the waters by saying, “I’m open to changing it, and have heard that very often your working title is changed–consider this a working title,” but then she set the water afire by shouting that this was the first indication of just what she hated, that I didn’t CARE enough and didn’t give things enough THOUGHT, etc. She then proceeded to read off all my sins on every page of the submission. Instead of being quiet and listening the way other workshops were run, she would stop and look at me and say, “Well?” after every nit she picked. I felt like a bobble-head, but I called on my Southern Lady upbringing and just said, “Yes, yes.” Even this did not mollify the tiger, who went on to point out that “runaways don’t act like that and wouldn’t talk that way” (when I had done my research and, yes, my neighbor’s daughter had done exactly what I described with much the same results.) It wasn’t very helpful. But it did make me more vigilant about being compassionate in the way I would make suggestions for anyone I’m helping with ANYthing in the future.

    Everyone who had greeted me at the workshop door and had said, “I can’t wait to read the rest of your work,” immediately averted their eyes and I was a pariah from then on; if this one person With The Power hated me, then they must have been wrong to like my work and they immediately marked me off the list to ever talk to again. Most of them trashed the markups they’d made instead of passing them down to me, thinking they’d been wrong (and they probably were not.) A harrowing experience indeed. I don’t know how these things help people, and whenever I see the “next draft” from these writers, I always feel that it has been processed and packaged. The original voice and charm have been replaced with whatever the workshop told the writer was “right,” and the story has turned into just the same old thing you see everywhere. I think you should only take what really works and just thank them for the rest. You should trust yourself and your own instincts. Otherwise we might as well just build a software machine that generates and spews out best-sellers in the no-style style and with a vocabulary that doesn’t pull anybody out of the story. Who needs writers?

  2. cindie says:

    Yup, I’ve heard the one bad book equals death bit, though I heard it meant the death of that name, not career. I’ve also heard much about the evil computers and how if your sell through drops it’s the beginning of the end. As in it’s better to have a high sell through of 10,000 books than a low sell through of 100,000 even if the actual number of units sold is lower with the former. I have no idea what’s myth and what’s not, but I’ve heard both these many times.

    I love what you said about not recognizing one’s own voice. That finally makes sense to me in a way I can explain!

    I also like the discussion of pros complaining about not selling when they weren’t writing or submitting. Beat me with the dumb stick but I’ve been believeing the pros. When I’ve met someone further along the path than I am and they used their own careers as example of what was wrong with the industry, I believed them.

    Which leads me to the bit that might get me yelled at. You mention some really good reasons why people buy into the myths, but I think you’re missiong one. Some of us in the entitlement generation watched our parents get burned by the idea of putting in your time with a company and retire. We saw, before we ever entered the work force, the fact that a job — any job — isn’t there to take care of us, regardless of what the CEO says. We grew up knowing we are the only ones who care about our careers. We grew up thinking the arts are just as viable as say being a doctor for making a living, so long as we were willing to learn and work and learn some more. We also learned college doesn’t hold a monopoly on knowledge and we were encouraged to question authority and to be cynical about anyone who has a financial stake in their opinions.

    Which leaves us searching for information in a field filled with opinions, examples and defensiveness. It is damn hard to sift through all the information for the nuggets of truth when we don’t have our own experience to draw on. I haven’t sold a novel. Some of the stuff that is obvious to someone with your credentials isn’t always obvious to someone like me who is trying to figure out if you’re offering the inside info or just spouting more self-aggrandizing BS wrapped in “experience.” I also don’t learn easily.

    Now, I know you’re the real deal because I took Master Class and watched my own beliefs change under the undeniable gravity of experience – my experience. Carefully and elegantly designed by you and Kris, but still my experience. I don’t believe I can write a short story overnight because you told me I could; I believe it because I did it. And I don’t know when I would’ve learned it without MC but I’m pretty sure it would’ve taken me awhile. I have many examples of stuff like that from MC. Hell, that whole last lecture pretty much changed everything about me, from my writing to my personal relationships.

    I guess this is a long way of saying some of us learn in different ways. We may not be buying into myths; we might just still be questioning and separating the wheat from the chaffe. I’m sure it is frustrating to be offering much-needed advice and watching people just not get it. I appreciate beyond words your willngness to do it, especially since I know you’re not doing it for financial gain. I just wanted to offer a POV that might make it a little less frustrating.

    Without personal experience, the majority experience carries weight — until we learn discernmnet. Then again, yeah, a lot of us want the magic potion.

    • dwsmith says:

      Cindie, well said and thanks. I do think you are onto another reason the myths catch all of us and are so powerful.

      And yes, experience is everything. Until you prove something to yourself one way or another, then just knowing something has little weight. Which is why Laura and I have said numbers of times here that if you just keep going, you gain the experience, you find what works for you, and what was myth. My hope with these chapters and this book is just to help a writer question everything. The writer may still go the same direction, but at least then they will go with knowledge and some experience from the questioning. And sometimes that’s enough.

  3. “” “Agents, however, have told me that I should not send them the next proposal/query package on the day after they’ve rejected the last one I sent them, because “that looks too desperate” or “you write too much.” “”

    For the love of god, Shalana, do NOT write things like this without a warning first! I laughed while swallowing decaf, and have been coughing for the past 3 minutes. I blame YOU.

    I LOVE that. “You write too much.” Yes, indeed, god forbid you should exercise, oh, a WORK ETHIC as a writer. Or be, you know, PRODUCTIVE.

    I think the upside of this is that, if we run out of stand-up comedians, we can entertain people by going onstage and quoting literary agents, though they were speaking in all seriousness when they said things like this.

  4. Rich Porr says:

    Great stuff, Dean. I wanted to share the following quote that is in the beginning of a book I’ve got almost done:

    “The greatest enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
    – John F. Kennedy

    Keep the posts coming.

  5. I know it’s a bit late, but I’d like to come in on the ‘character change’ issue. I remember reading a great comment on one of the many craft books I’ve read, can’t recall which though (sorry), to the effect that characters should not simply ‘change’ at the end of a story.
    Instead, they should change on every page.
    Or at least, every time they appear. And this, to my mind is true, because life is changing all the time. I’m not the same person now that I was ten minutes ago. Neither are you. Life flows.
    A story is about that process of changing, and of course it’s neat and artificial, so it wraps things up and presents an overall change at the end. It doesn’t have to be formulaic, though. And you don’t need a big flip-flop at the end where the coward becomes suddenly brave or whatever. But constant change, because things are happening – now that sounds like story.

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