The New World of Publishing: Fear

For some time I have been considering going after the topic of fear in publishing. I know I talk about it all the time at workshops and in comments. And I have touched on the topic in a few blog posts some time in the past. But now, it seems the time is right to jump on this topic again.

Why now? Because this last week Scott William Carter and I worked with almost twenty professional writers during a four day workshop called “Think Like a Publisher.” During the four days I watched writer after writer sort of look up and say at one point or another, “This is easy.” In other words, they were afraid of doing something and after learning how, they didn’t know why they had been fearful of the process or thought it difficult in the first place.

As the weekend moved on, writer after writer slowly came to realize that the myth that publishing is hard (and only major traditional publishers can do it) is flat wrong. So now I figure it is the time to talk about this topic and (with luck) help a few more writers jump past the fear and get to more readers with their work.

Fear in publishing.

When a person steps back from writing and publishing and looks at this business with a cold, hard stare, there really is nothing to be afraid of. No one will take a gun and come to your house and shoot you if you type a bad sentence. No one will blacklist you and remove your computer from under your fingers if you mail them a manuscript that doesn’t work. And no one really, honestly cares if you indie publish or not.

In fact, one of the funniest sentences I hear coming from new writers is “I could kill my career if I do (that).”

Why is that funny to me? Because first off, new writers don’t have a career and wouldn’t really understand a writing career if it slapped them. And secondly, there is NOTHING that can kill a writing career. You might kill an author’s name if you are really, really stupid like some writers in the past have been. But unless they quit, those writers are still writing and selling under other names.


And fear will cause you to stop. It might be the biggest reason a writer stops, actually. And always that fear is unfounded or caused by a of lack of knowledge.

Granted, jobs and livelihoods are often on the line, which is an area full of fear. Real fear of not making enough to pay the bills, not having security in your old age, of having to get another job in a time when jobs are hard to come by. I understand all that.

Some bad decisions can certainly slow down cash flow or cause a writer to have to start over, sometimes with a new name. No argument on that. But nothing can kill a writing career except quitting writing.

So now, in this new world of publishing, writers have many choices to make. But when you make a decision out of fear alone, it is usually the wrong choice, at least for the long-term.

A decision made out of pride alone is usually a bad decision as well, but that’s the subject for a future post.

As I have done in a couple of posts lately, let me divide the major decisions a writer makes on both the traditional side of publishing and on the indie side of publishing and talk about the fear involved in those decisions.

 Traditional Publishing

What are some of the main decisions in traditional publishing that are often influenced by unfounded fear?

— Finishing a manuscript. (This is both indie and traditional, actually. But it is a belief that the manuscript isn’t good enough so more drafts are needed and thus you never have to finish.  Silly decision based on pure fear.)

—  Mailing a story or book to an editor. (The silly thinking goes like this: I could ruin my career if I mail this book to an editor. Or to a wrong editor. Safer to just not mail it because they may hate me if the story is bad. That belief shows a complete lack of knowledge of editing.)

— Going without an agent. (Everyone says you need an agent, so you are afraid to mail directly to editors for fear of them coming to your home and ripping your computer from your desk.  So you follow the silly myth that you must have an agent to sell a book and waste years, all because you don’t understand that agents don’t write checks and can’t buy books. Editors buy books. This is a fear caused by an ignorance of the publishing industry and how things have changed.)

— Negotiation in contracts. (If I ask for changes in the contract they might hate me and take away my sale. Or I might upset my editor and they will never buy another book from me. This fear comes from ignorance of contracts and how they are never set in stone. Get an IP attorney to help you past this fear or at least tell you what you are signing before you sign it.)

— Deciding to sign a bad contract that will take your rights forever and control your writing. (You are afraid if you don’t sign, they will come to your home and never let you write again and never sell to another publisher with more reasonable contract terms, so you sign away your work for life. Letting this fear win can cause years of problems. This fear-based mistake is often helped by agents who just don’t know any better and are only looking out for themselves and not you. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is doing blogs on deal breakers in contracts the last two weeks. Check them out.)

There are a ton more fears in traditional publishing, but those are the main areas that most fears branch from for traditional publishing.

And, of course, fear is very real in traditional publishing among writers. But none of it is really serious and most of it is made up in a writer’s head.

I have told people for years that working in traditional publishing is like crossing a two-lane road. If you are frozen in fear, you will never step off the curb. But if you know enough to look in both directions at what is happening on the road, have an understanding of speeds of cars and trucks, have the ability to put one foot in front of the other, and can move quickly when you need to, you’ll get to the other side of the road just fine.

And honestly, there is a ton more to fear when crossing a road than working in traditional publishing. Traditional publishing can’t kill you like a speeding car can, no matter what a writer believes.

Indie Publishing

What are some of the main decisions in indie publishing that are often influenced by unfounded fear?

— I can’t self-publish my own book. My friends will look down on me. (You are afraid of the old myth that lasted in publishing from 1945 until 2008 that vanity press publishing was a bad thing. And in many instances, that was correct during those years. But everything has changed, so this fear now is from lack of keeping up with the changes in the industry you want to work in. In other words, an ignorance fear.)

— I’m afraid I can’t format my story and put it up electronically. So I shouldn’t really try. (Seriously? So many writers have this fear it stuns me. Yet in the end publishing a book is simple. Scary simple, as I call it. I’ve talked about it in many posts and you can get help anywhere. In the free posts listed above under “Think Like a Publisher” you can get started. And learning how to do covers in PowerPoint or PhotoShop Essentials or some other program is easy. And often fun. You might not create a professional cover at first try, but who cares. Better than no story published. And even more interesting, every publishing site gives you help. This fear is exactly the same as the fear of stepping off a curb and a real fear of learning something new. Get over it if you want to add in the option of indie publishing to your writing career. Do some learning and then step off the curb. You might be surprised at how easy it really is.)

— My books don’t sell so I should lower the price. (Actually, there are a number of things I would do instead. I would raise the price up into the normal range of $4.99 to $7.99 for a novel in electronic form. I would look at my cover to see if it fits my genre. I would look to see if I put the book on the wrong shelf. I would look and see how passive my blurb is and if it tells about the novel instead of the plot of the novel. I would look at the opening of the book and see if it is confusing or just dull. Lowering price is a fear-based decision based in lack of faith in your own work. A better decision would be to check the easy stuff as I described and then write the next book. That shows courage and a faith in your own art and ability.)

— My books don’t sell so I should spend more time on Twitter and Facebook annoying my 300 friends. (Seriously???  How about taking a writing class from a professional writer instead to become a better storyteller? How about working on your openings to make them more interesting? How about just writing the next book? Turning to more promotion when something doesn’t sell is a fear-based decision based on ignorance of what sells books.)

— My books will never sell in paper so I’m not going to learn how to do that. (That’s correct, they won’t sell in paper, especially if you don’t put them in paper. But in this new world, getting your paper books into bookstores is getting easier by the day. This fear is not wanting to tackle the new learning curve of designing and putting your books into a paper edition. Too bad, because by being afraid of learning this new area, you also miss out on the real thrill of holding your own book in your hands. This is a fear based on lack of knowledge and still believing the old myth that it is hard to get a book (not done by a traditional publisher) into a bookstore.)

Just as in traditional publishing, there are a ton of fears around indie publishing, almost all of them based on lack of knowledge or the unwillingness to try something new. And just as in traditional publishing, most of the fears in indie writers are only real inside each writer’s head. There is no real threat actually doing the work.


My job description, any writer’s job description, is to sit alone in a room and make stuff up.

The fact that I make a ton of money doing that task is because I am really, really good at turning what I make up into stories that entertain in one fashion or another a lot of readers.

But also, the fact that I can shut off that skill (of making stuff up) when it comes to business is also why I make a lot of money.

I make up stuff when I need to create, then become cold and hard and clear-visioned when it comes to business. And that’s what most writers don’t do. They practice making stuff up in their stories, then continue to make up stuff when faced with business decisions. And that just creates fear that leads to bad business decisions.

And even worse, fear can paralyze you into inaction more times than not.

Learn business. Learn publishing.

Fear is a part of being human. But when you let it control you in publishing you are doomed to make silly mistake after silly mistake right up to the silly mistake of stopping writing.

When you are sitting at your writing or publishing computer and are afraid to do something for no reason, look up at the nearest door and ask yourself if a large goon sent by some editor will come though that door and smash your computer if you do what you are afraid of doing. If the answer is no, the stop being afraid and make the decision based on business and reality.

And remember to keep having fun. Enjoying the writing will also get you past a lot of the silly fears.

Trust me on that one.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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