Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Need to be Taken Care Of

The idea that writers need to be “taken care of” has become such a common phrase among agents, it has moved to being flat insulting for most of us out here.

I talked about this a little bit in another chapter, but lately I’ve been hearing this “justification” for frightening bad behavior on the part of agents. It just makes me angry, to be honest with you.

So for the second week in a row I’m writing a chapter of this book while angry and insulted. Stand back. If nothing else, this might be entertaining, as a number of people called my last chapter.

As I usually do in these chapters, let me start from some basics. And I’m going to number them to make sure I am very clear on my position.

Basic #1: Publishing is an international corporate business.

It is a business no matter how much you don’t want it to be, especially if you would like to have any decent number of readers for your work. Even writers who publish their own work are quickly learning just how much of a business this is.

And noticed I used the word “corporate.” Anyone who has worked in a large corporation understands the politics and the money-based drive that every employee deals with in corporations. Publishing is no different.

Basic #2: There are no secrets. It’s Just Business and Must Be Learned.

But as in any major profession, learning takes time. Mistakes are made. That is a natural part of the process. And it takes time to learn to write a professional level story.

As I have said over and over and over, when you want to be a local attorney, it takes seven years of school before you can even think of hanging out a shingle or going to work for a law firm. In a little local community. So why would you think that you need less learning, less training, less practice and time when working in an INTERNATIONAL business?

You need to learn the business you want to work in. It really is that simple.

(For a great free weekly business class, check out my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Guide.)

Basic #3: Writers are always in a hurry.

Spend all that time and effort on your first novel and you want it published NOW. That’s like saying “I just spent all my time and energy getting through my first year of college, I passed English 101 and History 101 and I want to be an attorney NOW.” Doesn’t work that way and it’s just as silly thinking in writing.

First books are called first books because they are the first book a writer published, not wrote. My first book was book number four written, and I didn’t sell five or six.

Now I bet a bunch of people are saying “But I’m different.” No, you’re not. Write your million words of crap, as Mystery Grandmaster John D. McDonald said, and you might get to your first publishable word. And in the process, learn the business. You can learn to write and learn the business at the same time. Honest you can.

Am I sounding discouraging? I suppose. I am saying it takes work, it takes time, it takes a focus on learning. If that is discouraging to you, you don’t belong in this profession. Find a profession that the learning sounds like fun, the enjoyment is in the work, the desire to learn it all sounds like a wonderful time. That’s a profession for you.

But if writing sounds like fun, is enjoyable for you, and you have a vast desire to learn everything in both craft and business, then you are in the right spot.

Basic #4: Writers Control This Business.

I know that will just seem wrong for those of you lost in the myths, but the truth of the matter is that without books, without product supplied by writers, no publisher would remain in business. There wouldn’t be a business. This business exists for the sole reason to move writers’ stories to readers. That simple.

The top writers control what publishers do, stock prices of publishers rise and fall on book releases. I know of some writers who have taken their editors with them from one house to the next when they moved. And they weren’t even bestsellers

Writers make the most money, writers control.

Where the Myth of Needing to Taken Care Of Comes From.

In short, the myth comes from writers who are in a hurry and lazy and think they are “artists.” That’s right, we writers (as a group) caused this myth, as we do with most of the myths.

The big international business of writing looks “scary” and unknown, a long, dark road we are afraid to walk. Imagine a women in a bad horror movie in high heals going into a cobweb-covered mansion. That’s what it feels like to all of us, thus we do what is human nature, we try to find someone who claims they will take us through the darkness and dangerous animals and guys with large axes and chainsaws safely to the other side. We willingly and without thought hand these “guide” people all our money, our very livelihood, our art, our self-respect, and then close our eyes and hope.

Just like in the bad movies, it seldom works. Just ask any of Bernie Madoff’s clients how well handing over all your money works.

But sadly, in publishing, it’s normal to do just what I am describing. Except the people we hand all our money to are often young agents. Very, very young, and not regulated in any way. Many of them are four or five years out of an Ivy League school, and their only claim to knowing anything is that they live with a few others in New York City and know other agents and have lunches with a few editors.

Now granted, some agents have been around for a long time, know the business, can get a book in at higher levels. But they are not writers. They do not understand at any deep level what you do as a writer. Or how you survive. So you start expecting them to take care of everything and guess what? Mistakes happen, only they are not your mistakes.

And then all the horror stories we have been talking about in all the comments after previous agent chapters happen.

The bottom line is that all the agent horror stories happen because WRITERS WANT TO BE TAKEN CARE OF.

Somehow along the way I lost this attitude, more than likely during my publishing days with Pulphouse. Or even more likely, I never had it from the start. It just seems odd to me that anyone SHOULD take care of me. I’ve been on my own, making my own way in the world since I turned eighteen. No one took care of me, and I sure didn’t expect anyone to do so. In any business or venture over all the decades.

My first agent never said she would take care of me. Not once. I sold my own books, called her and told her who would be calling and what I wanted and she did what I asked. I was in charge. I hired her for her agency and help on chasing money and nothing more.

So now comes the 2010 publishing world. We have reached a day in this business where young agents are reading slush and losing money, where the publishing business is going through one of its normal tightening phases, where new technology is slamming into publishing like an iceberg ramming into the Titanic. Exciting times, actually, for writers, with new opportunities opening up almost every day.

But one of the upshots of this new world is that these baby agents and some young editors are out spouting off about how they need to take care of their writers. And they are spouting this garbage in public.

They started off doing this, I’m sure, to try to sell themselves to writers. But then they started to believe their own hype, they started to actually believe that they knew better than writers what writers needed.

And over the last ten years, this has become, to my view, an ugly trend that I have even heard directed at me.

Some young agent who wasn’t born yet when I sold my first short story told me last year that if I went with her as a client, she would take care of me. Of course, she would have to read and approve everything I wrote before she sent it out.

She was SERIOUS!!!

The attitude of needing to take care of writers had become so ingrained in her mind that the system just worked that way for everyone. She didn’t know any other way. She somehow thought in her deepest ego that she was giving me something I wanted to hear.

I managed not to laugh in her face, or insult her, but to be honest, that has bothered me ever since and I have mentioned it a few times lately. I should have taken her to task, maybe snapped her out of it a little bit. But I was nice, stunned, to be honest.

She believed that she should take care of a seasoned professional and even worse, she believed that I needed to be taken care of by her.

In other words, she thought I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Oh, yeah, let’s forget the last twenty years or more where I did just fine taking care of myself and making nice money writing fiction. She believed I was too stupid to make it on my own.

Yes, I was insulted.

Let me make this clear, very clear about this myth.

Every time an agent or an editor says that they will “take care of you,” they are saying to you:

“You are too stupid to make it on your own.”

Insulted? Yeah, you should be. But what stuns me even more is that writers just nod and say, “Yup, I’m dumb-dumb and must be bottle fed…change my diapers please while you are at it.”

Writers let agents get away with this insulting behavior. Until this post, I’ve never heard anyone question this at all.

Well, as I said last chapter, it’s time for writers to wake up and question everything.


1) Understand you are learning the business and that the learning never stops.

I’m still learning this business every day, year after year. I find learning exciting and I love that I will never stop learning in this business, both on the writing craft side and on the business side. Sure, it’s scary at times. That’s part of the fun.

2) Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

No way to not make mistakes, but for heaven’s sake, make your own mistakes, and from those mistakes come learning and understanding. In publishing, nothing is fatal. Worse thing that happens is you change your pen name and move on.

3) Learn from those who are down the road you want to walk.

Other writers have walked ahead of you down the scary, fog-covered road to making a living at fiction writing. Learn from them, take lessons from them, take what works for you and toss the rest. Agents and editors are not writers. If you listen to their words as if they are gospel, you are doomed, just as surely as thinking you can learn how to create original fiction by sitting in a college creative writing class. Not going to happen.

4) In no fashion allow anyone to take care of you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t hire help, but for heaven’s sake, know what your help is doing and you approve everything. And never let them have your money before you see it. That stupidity has to be stopped quickly in this business.

5) Make it a rule to take care of yourself.

Sure, you might not know how to do something, so GO LEARN IT. Stop thinking that someone else will take care of it for you and learn what you need to know to get your work in front of editors, to understand what you are signing in a contract, to know how the business works. It will take time, but learn one thing a week or a day and eventually you’ll have it.

And the moment you catch yourself thinking that someone needs to take care of that for you, stop and do it yourself. Make that a way of life. Make it a rule in your writing life and business.


Writers, it is way past time we started questioning these myths. All of them that I have been talking about for twenty-five chapters now.


#1… You must learn and understand the business you want to work in.

#2… Learn from other writers on the same road, not editors or agents.

#3…It is fine to hire help, but never hand over responsibility.

#4…Never let anyone touch your money.

#5…In all decisions you are responsible for your own career.

You follow those five rules and you will be surprised at how many problems you avoid and how far those rules will take you.

Just remember, when some young agent says that they will take care of you, understand what they are thinking about you:

“Oh, I can take this writer’s money. They are a patsy.”


“This writer is too stupid to do it on their own.”

Get insulted, and if enough of us stop taking these insults and start questioning everything and taking responsibility for our own careers, maybe we can start the slow change it’s going to take to back out of this current mess.

I’m a dreamer I know, but that’s also my job description.

And I know what I’m doing. And if you just believed in yourself, you would too.


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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111 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Need to be Taken Care Of

  1. Sam Lee says:

    Meant to finish by saying that those who get discouraged by the top names’ setbacks should indeed get out of the game and stop muddying things up for the rest of us, heh.

  2. “Beginning writers do this also by sending manuscripts to places that reject quickly. Excuse me? Who gives a rats you-know-what how fast they turn a story around. You are sending them the story FOR THEM TO BUY IT!!!!!”

    Yeah, this whole “I don’t want to wait for a response” thing among aspiring writers baffles me. Why NOT, for goodness sake? Of all the mistaken things to focus on–the waiting period? (shaking head)

  3. P.S. I waited for 11 months from a response from a major house when I started submitting. So what? The point is that they BOUGHT the book after 11 months, not that I waited 11 months. The point is ALSO that during those 11 months, I wrote 2.5 more books–because I was planning for success: Whether or not I sold that book, I was writing and sending out other books, too. My plan was to get a sale; preferably multiple sales (which I did). WAITING was a side effect of the plan, not the plan.

  4. Deborah says:

    Regarding publicity, a little clarification please 😀

    Ok, so Dean lists all the behind-the-scenes publicity that the author never seens unless s/he asks, and maybe not even then. But it is nonetheless happening because of course a publisher isn’t going to put money into a book and then *want* it to fail. Totally makes sense to me. Maybe I jumped to conclusion, but that sounded to me like saying publishers DO always do publicity.

    BUT (yes, has to be a “but” right? 😛 )

    But then Laura described how often that didn’t happen. And I’ve heard that from other writers as well.

    So I guess my question is, should writers “worry” about that aspect of it or not?

    • dwsmith says:


      No, no point in worrying about it. Sure, crap happens and you hear about it. But think business….. No publisher, for any reason, spends upwards of 100,000 total costs on a small genre book (and a ton more than that on higher books that get 20,000 advances and up) and purposely does no inhouse publicity. The intentions and profit and loss numbers are there to do the publicity. Mistakes happen, sure. It’s a big business. Write the next book.

      Writers have had ugly things happen in this area, sure. My wife, Kris, had one of the ugliest I have ever seen. A book titled Hitler’s Angel back in 1995 was sold under Kris Rusch to St. Martins. Editor scheduled it and a couple dozen other books he bought, sales force did a great job, it even got a full page review in the New York Book Review. All positive. Except the editor didn’t get the book into production along with dozens of others (and was fired when this was discovered…he’s now an agent…not kidding).

      Book was rescheduled and came out nine months later, but the stores in the early days of computers said, “We already ordered this and no copies sold. Why would we want more now?” And so the book sold about 500 copies and sank like a stone, along with the Kris Rusch name.

      Fast forward 15 Years. Out of a major mystery imprint in Great Britain, here comes Hitler’s Angel, same name, same author. Bestseller lists, huge and wonderful reviews, and will hit the States in January. And finally the book is getting the attention it deserves.

      If you understand the magic bakery and how it works, no writing is ever gone. You roll with the ups and downs of the mistakes in the big business and just keep going.

      The problem is that writers are such whiners these days that when their “baby” has something happen to it, they stop instead of understanding that things happen and just writing the next book.

      Writers are people who write. Publishing is a big business and mistakes happen. Just keep writing and it all levels out.

  5. Ty says:

    Having fallen into the frustration of it years ago, I think the “I don’t want to wait for a response” syndrome is brought about by the “you can only submit to one publisher at a time” syndrome. I don’t see it quite as often as I used to, but the guidelines for a number of book publishers used to stipulate something like they would only consider your work if it wasn’t currently sitting elsewhere. Considering it sometimes takes a publisher 6 months or longer to reply to submissions, under those rules it could take a writer years just to get his or her submission around to the top publishers.

    I don’t fall for that one anymore. I don’t blanket every publisher in the world with submissions when I have something new, but I don’t send them out one at a time and sit and wait for a year or two before sending out the next one.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ty, it’s perfectly fine to do as you are doing and send out to many BOOK publishers. Keep it one at a time for short fiction since there is no logical business reason to do otherwise. They can’t compete for your story and if two want it, you have made one angry.

      But book publishers can compete and it’s normal, so you want to have two book publishers wanting your work. That’s a good thing.

  6. L. M. May says:

    I think Laura just brought up another myth or two in writer’s heads.

    One of the “author power” issues Jenny often talks about, and which I completely agree with, is that the writer ALWAYS have the power to say “no;” it comes with consequences, but it’s a power we always have.

    Myth 1: The writer should never say “No” to a deal when starting out, no matter how awful the terms.

    Myth 2: Boilerplate publishing contracts, no matter how unspeakably bad, are non-negotiable.

    Hmm, as I’m writing this, I just realized these two are sub-myths that tie into the core myth that “Writers have no power.” Which ties in with why Jennifer Crusie was arguing that writers need to realize they ALWAYS have the power to say “NO.”

    • dwsmith says:

      Exactly, L.M. Exactly!!

      And you would be stunned at how much you will get by turning your back and walking away in negotiations. You have to meet in the middle and sometimes they don’t come after you, but when you know you can say no and walk, you take all the power and hold it. Exactly.

      • dwsmith says:

        And on saying no, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have said no to projects. I was offered last spring to write a novel for a major television show, but after talking with the young editor who had never worked with Hollywood and after hearing what Hollywood wanted, I knew the “hassle factor” was far, far too high for the money, so I politely said I couldn’t work it in and walked away.

        I learned a long, long time ago that you should never write anything you don’t want to write for terms you don’t want to write for. I’ve purposely and knowingly taken a lot of crappy contracts because I wanted to write for the project and didn’t care. And I’ve turned down great contracts because I didn’t want to write the project. When you put your writing first, it also adds power. You can walk away and just write something else. No big deal.

        Writers are people who write. When you keep coming back to that one truth, it solves a great deal of problems.

  7. Pati Nagle says:

    Laura wrote: Pati, the Comely Curmudgeon columns -were- collected, along with some of my SFWA columns, and RWR articles, in a book called REJECTION, ROMANCE, AND ROYALTIES: THE WACKY WORLD OF A WORKING WRITER (Jefferon Press, 2007) in trade paperback

    Ah, yes. I have that. Good book.

    But I love the title The Comely Curmudgeon. Maybe a blog?

  8. Ty says:

    Ha! Hadn’t thought of submissions from that angle, Dean. Thanks for the advice on magazines, ezines, etc., though I rarely submit blindly to any of them anymore. I don’t write much short fiction of late, and when I do it’s usually only because an editor/publisher has asked if I want to be a part of an anthology or something.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Dean wrote: “Except the editor didn’t get the book into production along with dozens of others (and was fired when this was discovered…he’s now an agent…not kidding). ”

    You need a beverage alert on this one. I almost sprayed my keyboard! LOL!

  10. “My wife, Kris, had one of the ugliest I have ever seen. A book titled Hitler’s Angel back in 1995 was sold under Kris Rusch to St. Martins. Editor scheduled it and a couple dozen other books he bought, sales force did a great job, it even got a full page review in the New York Book Review. All positive. Except the editor didn’t get the book into production along with dozens of others (and was fired when this was discovered…he’s now an agent…not kidding). ”

    1. Not at all surprised to hear that editor is now an agent. Alas, that’s where too many incompetent editors go: agenting.

    2. NOW I get it! A few years ago, I happened across a copy of that book. And I thought, “Whoa! Why haven’t I ever heard of this book?” It was by someone I know -and- it’s subject matter that I’m interested in, so I was surprised it had never even made a blip on my radar. I read it, and it’s a darned good book, very interesting and well-crafted. Which made me even MORE surprised that it had been out for years without my ever hearing about it. NOW I get it. AGH.

  11. “I love the title The Comely Curmudgeon. Maybe a blog?”

    Terey Daly Ramin gets the credit for that great title. When Evan Maxwell resigned from doing his NINK column after 5 years and they were looking for a replacement, Terey, who was NINK editor at the time, approached me and suggested that title to me. Great title (and perfect fit (wg)). I suggested it for the book, but it didn’t get used, since it was too non-descriptive (i.e. it doesn’t in any way tell you that the book is about writing professionally).

    When I became a NINK columnist again last year (I had resigned when I left for grad school, Jerusalem, etc.), I thought about using it again. But that was then, this is now, lots has changed, including NINK, Ninc, and me, so it seemed better to start fresh with a new title (now I’m “The Mad Scribbler”).

  12. heteromeles says:

    Hi Dean,

    Wow, you read a lot into my post about cows. I don’t assume that authors can’t think (nor do I assume that cows can’t think). I think you were responding mostly to your own assumptions, not to what I was saying. I probably believe less in the myth than you do, considering that I haven’t published anything yet and therefore have no investment in the existing publishing system in any form.

    What I do assume is that, like cows, yeast, fruit trees, musicians, inventors, college professors, and factory machines, authors are PRODUCERS.

    As with any other productive system, there are a couple of ways to make a living. One is to simply to produce it, and to use your product to trade for the services and materials you need but can’t make yourself. This is the way of the subsistence farmer, but it was really pioneered by bacteria, oh, about 3.5 billion years ago.

    Another way to make a living is to take what producers make, either through eating them, pirating their wares, or (ideally) doing a trade with them, exchanging services or materials. This is what agents do. Ideally, they provide services for the writers in a way that both benefit. In the real world…this is another ancient way of making a living.

    A third way is to aggregate producers and to make a little bit off of each of them. This is what dairy farmers do. Their cows are producing product. They keep the cows happy, then take the milk and market it. The parallels with publishing should be obvious, I hope, but I will point out that this ain’t new either.

    The first green algae scooped up some nice, happy photosynthesizing cyanobacteria around 400-600 million years ago, gave them an environment where they could reproduce, and held them up to the sun, so they could make carbs for themselves and their hosts. Today we call these early production aggregators plants, and they run the world, along with fungi and bacteria. The cyanobacteria inside plants are called chloroplasts. A big chunk of their genome now resides inside the plant nucleus, so a chloroplast is no longer a free producer, but a mere organelle. I’ll leave the metaphorical associations between this example and authors’ status to be worked out by anyone interested, but it’s worth pointing out that free-living cyanobacteria are some of the toughest organisms on the planet.

    The big point is that none of these strategies are new, and one can learn a lot about economics by studying simple things like plants and bacteria. They’ve been fiddling with this stuff for billions of years, after all.

    As for Amazon… Amazon works by shortening the supply chain, and when we get to the point where I sell my eBook to (or through) Amazon, I think arguing about whether they are a publisher or a distributor is a waste of time. The bigger problem is that they may become one of the only games in town, and that is disempowering for me as a producer. When my publisher/distributor starts trying to grow itself into a public utility with a legalized monopsony (as with power, water, or health care), that can be problematic for me, particularly if I want to influence that business to my own benefit.

  13. “The problem is that writers are such whiners these days that when their “baby” has something happen to it, they stop instead of understanding that things happen and just writing the next book.”

    I don’t believe that this is a “these days” phenomenon, just as I don’t believe that wanting to be taken care of is generational or new.

    I think that writers STOPPING because something goes wrong is one of the two top reasons that about half the people I met when I broke into the business are no longer around; something went wrong, and they didn’t regroup and keep going. They STOPPED.

    Similarly, not long after I sold my first book, I was invited to a PR luncheon where some popular romance authors gave casual talks and then mingled with attendees (readers). I still remember my stunned amazement as two of those authors talked at the podium about how they didn’t understand the business or care about it, they didn’t read their contracts, they didn’t know about sales or the market, they let their agents “handle all that,” because, “All I care about is writing my books.”

    Well, in a perfect world, that might make some sense. Just as, in a perfect world, I could eat whatever I want, lie on the couch all day, and yet have a well-toned size 10 figure. But we live in THIS world, ladies.

    At subsequent conferences, among PROFESSIONALS, I have ever since then met people who don’t understand their contracts, who don’t READ their contracts, who are “afraid” to ask their agents questions, who are “afraid” to ask their editors questions, who pak it in and quit the first time something goes wrong, or who keep submitting the same dead-subgenre for years without a sale because “it’s what I write,” etc., etc., etc. I’ve met formerly-published writers who’ve whined about how their careers were “destroyed” because, er, an editor rejected an option proposal. Or who talked about losing all confidence and quitting the biz because of how “badly” they were treated, i.e. the editor thought the book was a mess and requested extensive rewrites.

    And I’ve been encountering this steadily since my first few months in the biz, way back in 1988 when I made my first sale.

    In fact (and this is in my book RRR), very early on, I had a big relevation. After making my first sale, I was feeling very uneasy as a new writer about how often I came across old out-of-print books by writers whom I’d never heard of (including books with phrases like, “The incredible international bestseller! 34 weeks on the NYT list!” on the cover), and also by how many articles I found in back issues of publishing trade journals (ex. Romantic Times, Romance Writers Report, SFWA Bulletin, etc.) by writers who had completely disappeared since then. Where had all these writers gone? Why were so many writers disappearing?

    Then one day a friend introduced me to one of these writers. It was someone who’d had a good article in a HOW TO WRITE book that I’d read as an aspiring writer, who had since then completely disappeared–after selling only 2-3 books. We talked over lunch… and The Secret of where all these writers were going became apparent. This author had sent in an option book, her editor hadn’t liked it… and the author, DEEPLY embittered about that, never wrote or submitted anything else, at that house or anywhere else.

    And in the subsequent 22 years, I have come across that sort of scenario again and again and AGAIN and again and, indeed, again. Yes, it’s very common now. But in my experience, it was VERY common back in the 1980s, too.

    Just as writers who said, “I want my agent to take care of me, and my publisher to take care of me, and I don’t want to have to know anything or take responsibility for my career or my business” in any way were also, in my experience, every bit as common 20+ years ago as they are now.

  14. Oh, P.S. The other two two reasons? Most people simply STOP even WITHOUT something going wrong.

    Most people who talk about writing a book never get beyond JUST TALKING about it.

    Most people who start writing a book never finish it.

    Most people who write one book never sell it and never write another.

    And the thing that’s even RARER than actually -writing- and -selling- a book… is writing and selling book after book after book after book. Doing THAT is really the creme de la creme.

    One book sale is a huge hurdle. But statistically, it’s not what separates the women from the girls. It turns out that lots of people who had the endurance for one book… don’t have the endurance for two, or for three. And so they just… STOP. The well is empty, and it never refills.

    A writing career is about writing book after book after book. And it turns out that quite a few people who write one or two books–even one or two books that they manage to SELL… don’t have more books than that in them (or don’t have the stamina to keep writing the book ideas they may have).

    (And to be clear, I’m only relating information, not judging or denigrating people who stop writing after a book or two. By writing and selling a book or two, they’ve achieved something very challenging that VERY few people ever get beyond JUST TALKING about, and I respect that. I’m just saying that since a writing career is about writing book after book after book, this turned out not to be the career for them–and usually the difference between someone like this and a career writer is ONLY apparent when someone is indeed writing and selling their third, fourth, fifth, etc. novel. Mostly, you just find out by DOING, and editors just find out by waiting to see IF you do it.)

    Typical example, I read a first-time novel a couple of years ago that I really liked–original idea, fresh story, polished writing, witty, sexy, engaging, off-the-wall, good pacing. I bought several copies of it and gave them to friends, because I thought this new writer was such a find. But…. the copyright date on the book was already several years old, there were no other books available by this writer, and I couldn’t find anything about her or any upcoming books on the Web. The author had mentioend her editor on her Acks page, and I happened to be slightly acquainted with the editor–so I emailed the editor to say, Hey, LOVED this book, giving copies away to people I liked it so much, when will we see this author’s NEXT book?

    And the editor–a likeable and highly respected editor at a good major house (one that I always wanted to write for but never managed to sell to, and where several of my friends write and are very happy) wrote me back and said (I paraphrase): “Yes, isn’t it a terrific book? But the author disappeared on me. I’ve tried to keep in touch, I’ve asked what she’s working on… but she’s not working on anything else, so it looks like this was the one book she had in her. Oh, well.”

  15. “Having fallen into the frustration of it years ago, I think the “I don’t want to wait for a response” syndrome is brought about by the “you can only submit to one publisher at a time” syndrome. I don’t see it quite as often as I used to, but the guidelines for a number of book publishers used to stipulate something like they would only consider your work if it wasn’t currently sitting elsewhere.”

    Which is a little bit like someone saying, “You aren’t allowed to let anyone else look at your house until I’ve looked at it and decided whether to buy it, and I currently don’t know when I can get out there to look at it.”

    IOW, there is NO CHANCE of me cooperating with such an unreasonable expectation, and there never was. (The power to say “no.”)

    Also, well worth keeping in mind WHY some publishers had/have such a policy: They’ve had too many experiences where they’ve read a MS, liked it, called the beginning author to make an offer… and been told, “Oh, I already sold it elsewhere.” At which point, the publisher is (understandably) FURIOUS to realize it has TOTALLY WASTED ITS VALUABLE TIME in -reading- the MS (in most cases, -multiple- people had to read it for a first-time buy to be authorized), discussing it, running a profit-and-loss calculation on it, and putting together an offer.

    Rather than allow myself to be treated like some drooling nitwit incapable of conducting myself in a professional manner, I have always instead simply MADE IT CLEAR in my cover letters that I know what I’m doing, by using some version of this phrase: “Please be advised that this is not an exclusive submission [or query]. I will, of course, inform you immediately if there is an offer elsewhere, so that we can discuss what to do next.”

    In all the years I’ve been doing that, NO publisher has ever had a problem with it (nor has a publisher had a problem when, upon making an offer, I said, “I’m very interested, but can’t give you an answer just yet; I need to contact the other houses where this is in submission,” NOR has any publisher ever gotten snippy when I’ve said, “I have an offer on this project, so I’m contacting you to ask if you’d like a little more time to read it before making a decision–if so, do you think you’d be able to respond by next week?”).

    And in all the years I’ve been doing this, only ONE agent has ever had a problem with it… and that agent, in fact, APOLOGIZED to me about a year later, admitting he’d been out of line.

  16. P.S. I’m speaking about book submissions, not short stories. I know very little about short story submissions, having only gone through that process a couple of times. (I’ve sold about 60 short stories, but almost all of them were on commission.)

  17. Joe Cron says:

    Dean – and Laura and all others providing the invaluable insights in these posts and discussions:

    Just gotta say thanks. As a fledgling novelist, about to wrap up my first novel, I began investigating the business some months ago, to start to get a feel for what to do once the novel was finished (besides start the next one, a given). My instincts were along the lines of these terrific Sacred Cow posts, but I found myself swayed by the tidal wave of crap from the sheep, and assumed I’d be getting an agent.

    I found a reference to these articles in a fairly out-of-the-way place (a discussion board at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards Community page), but, my goodness, I’m glad I did. I am now invigorated to follow my instincts and pursue my own business endeavors with my MS. Hoping for success, of course, but excited about success, mistakes, learning from failures, exploring possibilities, whatever shapes my acumen and helps develop my skills, my power, and my fun, as the Source of Product. As someone who has written volumes of business and technical stuff for my nine-to-fives over the past thirty years, it’s thrilling to embark on this business. It is indeed a great time to be a writer!

  18. I’ve had a strange ongoing experience in the past few months.

    Before having my lawyer deal with problems involving two of my (four) former literary agents, I looked those agents up on their websites, to make sure all my contact info for them was still current. It was. The weird part was that I got totally SUCKED IN to their websites.

    Wow, what fabulous career-building agencies! What cool, savvy, pro-author agents! Hey, =I= want to be a part of these agencies! I want to work with these supercool agents!

    And then I remembered, er, oh, yeah… I DID that. And the upshot was that I fired them and fled, and now I was having to pay a LAWYER to deal with their messes, thanks.

    Indeed, my experiences as their client were so bad that if either of those agents came crawling to me now (which would never happen; but let’s go with this imagery for a moment), apologizing to me for their behavior, begging me to give them a second chance, and asking me to become a client again… I would CLUB them with a heavy object and run away as fast as possible.

    You probably think I’m kidding.

    And yet, even having been on that ride and feeling the way I feel about it, I found their websites incredibly seductive.

    After reflecting on this oddity for a while, I looked up the websites of my other two former agents, both of whom I would also club and run away from if they ever came anywhere near me again. And I had the same reaction again. (Actually, one of them is retired from agenting and now writes/lectures about writing and publishing. But my reaction was, “Wow! What a great agent this person must have been!” Etc.)

    And then I started looking up the websites of other agents, too. In particular, I looked at the websites of agents with bad reputations among writers I know, agents whom I’ve met and thought seemed foolish and poorly informed, agents whom my friends and aquaintances have fired, agents whom I have (when asked) advised writers to fire (or not to hire), agents whom former clients have advised -me- in the past not to hire, agents whom editors have said they don’t consider very good agents, a couple of agencies engaging in unethical practices, etc…

    And ALL of their websites were SO seductive. They ALL made me want to be a client at these agencies and work with these agents! (Until rational thoughts along the lines of “oh, wait, nine of my friends have fired this nudnik” entered my head.) And I speak as someone who DOESN’T EVEN WANT another agent!

    It was an eye-opening experience about the seductive appeal of, as Dean had dubbed it, the Agent Myth.

    • dwsmith says:

      Laura. Thanks for that! it is amazing, very amazing as you pointed out, the difference between reality and business with these agents and the myth.

      Last night in a wonderful discussion of the future of writing with a dozen professional writers who are here for a workshop and a couple from the local area stopping by for a chat, one of them asked me if I saw the future with agents and traditional publishing changing at all with the problems agents bring and the new electronic world allowing authors freedom.

      My answer: The myths are too powerful. 99.9% of all writers coming in will never question any of it until banged around, and even then would rather let their career die than question the myths. 99.9% of all writers will walk the traditional road, will believe in only writing under their own name is all that is valuable, will believe that agents and editors take care of them, will think that putting a book up electronically on their own is too much work and so on and so on. Laura and I and a number of others in the business are trying in one way or another to say “Hey, look, there are other ways.” And we will help a few writers jump to the next level. But that’s all we can hope for. 99.9% will stay in the seductive myths and never question anything.

  19. Edwin Mason says:

    Personally, I can’t fathom why anyone would be part of that 99.9%. These dead cows littering the internet are the most encouraging things I’ve ever found as a writer. Nothing is more liberating than the freedom to disbelieve lies.

    Thanks, Dean, and Laura, for resurrecting my hopes and dreams from a decade and more of believing what I was told.

    And don’t worry, I’m not looking at any agent’s website except for Sydney T. Cat’s.

  20. J.D. says:

    Your posts really make me hungry to get into this business. I really want to study copyright and fully understand the Magic Bakery like you’ve talked about before. I want to take full advantage of what writing as a business has to offer because I think that will lend itself to me writing more and more instead of the occasional chances I find myself with. The more I learn to conquer these myths, the more I’ll get to do what I really love to do.

    My ship is moving up to Washington at the end of this year. I think that might be the perfect time to take advantage of a workshop or two while I’m there. Even if I’m not yet fully ingrained into the business, at least I’ll be able to get a head start on it. And maybe end up on the right track instead of the wrong one.

    I remember a while back, when I read the book On Writing by Stephen King, he says he used to lock himself in a room with a typewriter and force out 2000 words a day even when he didn’t feel like it. I find it hard to develop that sort of focus in my writing, especially with everything going on around me. Life is happening and it doesn’t slow down just because I need to. And these days offer three times as many distractions from shiny metal objects to bright flashing lights. Netflix is only nine dollars a month and much easier than writing a book.

    I’d be curious to know what you do to stay focused on your writing, Dean.

    • dwsmith says:

      JD, my writing is not something I have to force myself to stay focused on. It’s just what I do. Period. Even when I was working day jobs, all my focus and attention was on my writing, the business of writing, how to get better at it. Never occurs to me to try to stay focused on the writing. It’s just so much a part of me it would be like asking “How do I stay focused on eating?”

      However, that said, no writer ever does enough writing in their own minds. We always feel we should do more. That’s a different question and one that the answer depends on the life around you to solve. But if you would rather watch NetFlix than write, you might want to think about doing something else for a living. Honest, the people around you should be forcing you at times to watch a movie instead of writing, not the other way around. That’s the kind of passion that it takes to become a full time writer.

  21. Steve Lewis says:

    Okay, this brings up something that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time but keep forgetting. First off, I love writing. It’s something that I love to do at the end of a long day to blow off steam and relax. Actually, if I go too long without writing or writing enough, I start to get irritable. This became particularly noticeable towards the end of my time at my old job because there was so much BS I got caught up in that I wasn’t writing. But when I got focused again and was writing at normal levels, my stress dropped. Weird.

    Anyway, something I don’t get (and this isn’t directed at JD, I think that his situation is different) is there are people who say that they want to be writers but they seem to totally hate writing. I’m not talking about struggling with a story concept or being frustrated that what’s on the paper doesn’t match what you see in your imagination, no, these people seem to absolutely HATE writing. I don’t get this. That would be like me going repelling every weekend. I don’t like it, I don’t do it. My dad on the other hand has freakin’ repelled down radio towers. So to each there own.

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, you sound like you are like a great deal of professional writers. We have an “addiction” to writing that actually comes across as an addiction. Kris has it far worse than I do and gets tough to be around after just a few days of not writing. But my addiction to it is there as well.

      Doesn’t mean the fear and the myths can’t overcome that addiction. For the longest time some of these myths made going to my computer and writing a “what’s the point?” exercise. And that made writing hard. Along the way all of us, no matter how addicted, and how much we love the process of making shit up, run into aspects of the business or a myth that makes it hard to actually just sit down and write.

      And at one point or a dozen points along the way, we all lose the “having fun” aspect of writing. Again usually caused by business or a myth. The key for most is just go have fun. Worry about the business and the myths later.

      But if a person just hates writing, and yet is still trying to become a writer, they are wrapped up in a very bad myth that concerns many of us who grew up lower middle class. We were taught that work was something to be hated and just do to make money so that we could have the weekends off and then retire. That is a very, very deep belief in a large segment of society and I was no exception to the rule early on. Then one day something sort of snapped in my and I asked myself “Why should I work at anything I hate?” And from that moment forward I quit any job I didn’t like. Period, no exceptions. But even with that, the old thinking sometimes crept in with writing.

      “How could writing be my job? It’s fun? Therefore it has no value.”

      That belief is very, very deep in many of us and hard to fight at times. Which is where comments like “I want to be a writer but hate writing” come from.

  22. izanobu says:

    There’s also a fairly common mentality (that I run into anyway) of “if you aren’t suffering, it isn’t art”. It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to feel unappreciated a lot and there seems to be an idea that if you aren’t struggling and suffering enough then clearly you aren’t really working and producing anything good. The MFA program I dropped out of was full of writers who seemed downright annoyed that I had fun writing my stories while they were agonizing over theirs. (Though I think some of that had to do with my getting over the rewriting myth around the same time while they were definitely still trapped in it).

    And sometimes, I do kinda hate writing. Sometimes nothing seems to be working out and the stuff on the page looks totally different from the stuff in my head etc… There are days when it is not fun and I’m slowly learning when to push through that (because honestly my writing doesn’t seem to really suffer in quality when I’m hating on it and I doubt I could tell you what chapters I wrote while annoyed and which I had a blast doing after a year or two) and when I should just take a break. That kind of knowledge about work habits comes with time I guess.

    I’ve also found that writing gets a lot more fun as I improve my writing/storytelling skills. Being able to see progress definitely helps…

  23. Steve Lewis says:

    Dean, thanks for the comment, it helped me look at things from another angle. I really appreciate the things that you and Kris do for new writers, and especially THIS new writer. You helped me see through a lot of myths with plain old common sense and I think helped me see the part that critical thinking plays in this industry (which a lot of writers see to lose somewhere along the way). You’ve definitely helped me get started building a firm foundation for a career.

    Not saying that I won’t make mistakes along the way, everyone does, but at least I’ll be less likely to make a career ending one.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Steve. Much appreciated.

      Hmmmm, think it might be time for me to do a post on mistakes. Kris has a wonderful Freelancer’s Guide chapter going up tomorrow on mistakes and I think maybe the Sacred Cows might want to tackle that as well. You see, no mistake can end your career. That also is one of the wonderful things about writing. The only thing that stops writers is the fact that they stop writing and mailing work.

      Yup, that needs to be a chapter… Thanks!

  24. Jeremy Jones says:

    This is completely off-topic, but I have to point out something I am finding comical about these comments.

    I use Google Reader, and I get notifications on my home page whenever new comments go up. Unfortunately, the comment title doesn’t always fit in the reader, so it gets truncated.

    For this post, the titles are shown as, “Comments on ‘Writers Need to be Taken….'”

    I just smile whenever I see it.

  25. I need to be taken! (swoon)

  26. The most consistent fun I ever had WRITING was back when I was an aspiring writer. Although I had professional intentions and ambitions, since I was aspiring, writing was at that time my hobby rather than my profession, and whatever time I spent writing was strictly voluntary. So that era was the period of the least amount of intersection that has ever existed for me between the creative aspects of writing and the business aspects of it.

    I wouldn’t want to go back to that–I LIKE being published and paid, and this was my goal from the very start, after all. But, as a friend of mine often says: Writing is like sex; the exchange of money alters the nature of the activity.

    Which is perhaps why one of the ways I’ve gotten myself out of a DESPERATELY frozen, blocked, stopped, dried-up creative place as a writer on more than one occasion is by writing stuff I don’t have any clear intention of ever submitting or showing to anyone. On such occasions, I write random scenes floating around in my head for which I have no story, no plot, no career plan, no title, no intentions. And doing so… manages to remind my lizard brain that this is essentially FUN, something I ENJOY, and a form of PLAY, which enables me to like it enough to get back to doing it on professional projects for which I -do- have story, plot, plans, and deadlines or a professional objective in mind.

    The most stifling element in my creativity as a professional has been (surprise, surprise) an agent. For a variety for reasons.

    One of the reasons being that this agent placed me with an editor who was a buddy of the agent’s, and it was far and away the worst, most stressful, most destructive editorial association of my entire career; but the agent repeatedly blockaded my requests for reassignment.

    Meanwhile, the agent who had placed me in that destructive association and then insisted on my staying there (despite my many, loud, and specific protests) had an additionally stifling effect on my writing with two key habits. One of these was to belittle and refuse to send out most of my new/other work. The other was to stop me in my tracks anytime I wrote, started writing, or pitched a new idea.The agent would demand I =justify= having written (or my plan to write) a project or proposal, with questions along the lines of, “How do you see this complimenting the books I’ve already placed for you? Do you really see yourself be able to write -well- if you attempt to do more than -just- the books I’ve already placed for you? Who do you imagine would be interested acquiring in material like this? What makes you think anyone would want to read it?”

    These are fairly energy-draining questions to get from one’s agent upon sending a new proposal or pitching a new idea (all the more so when I thought it was, er, the -agent- who was supposed to figure out who might be interested in acquiring a book from me); and it was even more shriveling when the agent dismissed, negated, or ridiculed all the answers I came up with, which was how these exchanges usually went.

    Thus, under the influence of an agent who I had seen (and still often see) widely described as “brilliant” and “prestigious” and “top level” and so on, my creativity withered–and I grew to HATE writing. So I decided to quit.

    That’s how bad a joyful process can when it winds up being pressed persistently beneath a negative weight.

    However, once I decided to quit… I became free. The main reason being that, having decided to quit, I no longer cared what this agent or the editor-pal thought or said or did, I regarded them in their proper perspective, I made my own decisions without reference to them or their reactions, and as soon as I could, I got them both out of my working life, regardless of the potential consequences of doing so (in fact, there were NO negative consequences; =every= consequence of my making these choices was 100% positive and productive, from my creativity, to my career, to my income, etc.).

    But even upon renewing creativity and my pleasure in writing, I must admit, it’s never been as much fun since my first sale as it was the the days when it was my hobby. No regrets. This is definitely what I sought and wanted, and I like having it. But I’ve never felt quite as free again, I guess, as I felt when writing was just my hobby and my ambition, rather than my work.

    • dwsmith says:

      Laura, I agree completely. For the first time in a very long time I am also feeling free with my writing. And I agree, not as free as when I wasn’t selling, but close, real close. I also had to walk up to the door of quitting a few times before I finally figured out where the mental weight was coming from. And it also was agents. And the system itself.

      My fiction has always been slightly off center. So this new world of electronic publishing has freed me back up completely to not care about the system. If I write a story that fits in a larger publisher’s magazine or line, I’ll send it, but if I write something that doesn’t, it goes to electronic through WMG Publishing. Total freedom for me again and I am enjoying writing again, having a blast. So for me it was giving myself permission to not have to deal with agents and to not have to deal with the system in general when I wanted that let me become free in my own head.

      Folks, I know a lot of this sounds silly. But trust me, writers work between our ears, and when something creeps in there and blocks the brain in any way, it sends us down roads we don’t want to walk.

  27. Steve Lewis says:

    @ Dean: In regards to writing slightly off center, it seems to me that back in the “good ol’ days ” a lot of SF writers wrote stuff that was slightly off center, or at least the ones I’ve read. That’s what I loved about them. Guys like Keith Laumer, Roger Zelazny ( who is quite possibly my favorite writer), Christpher Anvil, Michael Moorcock, etc. (Insert your own favorite author from back in the day). They seemed to be able to push the envelope and make you think and still be entertaining (I’m thinking of a Keith Laumer story that I think was called the Great Time Machine Hoax, actually I think the novel was the Great Time Machine Hoax and the short story was something else).

    What I’m hoping will happen is that with more authors turning to digital publishing, there will be lots more slightly off center writing in the future, because:

    1) I love to read it.
    2) I love to write it. :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, the writers you mentioned were off center and would never have found much of an audience, sadly, today. Editors, especially in science fiction, but in all publishing in general, can’t buy off center anymore and haven’t for decades outside of smaller presses. Kris and I started Pulphouse for this very reason in the late 1980’s and we published some fantastic stories, including While She Was Out by Ed Bryant that never would have found a home anywhere else. The editors and publishers in science fiction are still mostly older generation and believe that if has been done in 1958, you can’t do it again, and if doesn’t fit in the sales force idea of what will sell, no chance. So yes, with electronic publishing and authors taking back more control, you will find the off-center writers finding more outlets and more readers for their work. And this is a very good thing.

  28. Steve Lewis says:

    Thanks, Dean, that actually answered a question that I’ve had about why there aren’t very many writers like that these days (though I do think are still some excellant ones and some great publishers like Pyr who look for stuff like that). To clarify, is this a matter not enough people wanting to read this stuff anymore or is it just the editors? Sadly, it sounds like both.

    Also, you’ve got me thinking, how does a writer who is ‘slightly off center’ build a career these days? You’ve obviously done it Dean, so have Mike Resnick ( though Mike started out ages ago), Jeff Vanermeer, Jay Lake, etc. The reason I ask is that I want to be prepared ahead of time because I know that I can’t write to market, I’m not built that way. Not saying there’s anything wrong with it, just that my brain doesn’t work that way.

    I think one thing that might help, too, is that I’m not restricting myself to just SF; I’d like to publish in the mystery/suspense genres as well and most of the other genres. So I think that might help but who knows. Oh, and which workshop would be most likely to cover this type of info?


    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, even if you could, a writer should NEVER write to market. That way lies boredom and bad writing and dated work. Write your original work and then work to find a place to publish it, or build a company and publish it yourself if no one will look at it after a bunch of tries. But what is amazing is that writers don’t know their own work and many writers who think they write off center actually write down the middle of a genre and sell easily. Let the editors decide. Mail it to them. Write more. Only secret.

  29. Steve Lewis says:

    That makes sense, Dean. So I’ll just go back to what I was doing and go from there. Thanks.

  30. Silver Bowen says:

    Here is an off-topic question that some of you might be able to help me with: I listen to a lot of podcasts during my day job, and I find them a good way of learning. I really like Mike Stackpole’s Dragon Page podcast, but I am having trouble finding other ones to listen too. Anyone have any suggestions? Doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer’s podcast, just something that would help a new author. Thanks.

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