Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



On to the fifth rule.

Rule #5: You Must Keep It On the Market Until Sold.

“It” in the rule refers to your story or novel.

In 1947, when Heinlein wrote this rule, for the most part the only markets were pulp magazines. Paperbacks were just gaining strength and hardback publishers were very, very selective.

So all short stories and most novels were sold to pulp magazines, and the few digest magazines that were starting up, and maybe to the slick magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, if you were good and well-known as a writer.

But as with today, there were enough markets in 1947 to make this fifth rule a great business rule.

There are a million stories over the decades of how many times some book or story was rejected before being bought.

I had one story rejected over thirty times before finally selling it to a top market I had never thought of before.

I was following Heinlein’s Rules.


Indie Publishing

The new world of indie publishing causes this rule to change slightly to follow Heinlein’s intent.

If you put a story up for sale indie, the rule basically means leave it there.

I have heard of so many writers who, for some reason unknown to my way of thinking, gave up on a story or novel because it didn’t sell to some preconceived level and pulled the story down.

And never put the story or novel back up.

In the old traditional days, we used to have a saying: “No story sold while sitting in your top drawer.”

So these writers who pull down an indie-published story, give up on a story, usually out of fear, and put the story in a drawer. No reader will ever buy it.

Headshaking in this modern world of unlimited shelf space.

So this rule (in this new world) means get the story available to readers and leave it there.


Giving Up

The new world of indie publishing also causes another major problem with this rule that I see and hear about all the time.


It goes like this for short stories:

Writer: I’ve tried the short story at three markets. I’m going to indie publish it now.

Me: (Thinking) Dumb.

I never say that to any writer with my out-loud voice. But I think it.

For a short story, the advantages of selling to major magazines or top anthologies is far, far greater in both money and exposure and free advertising.

Sure, at some point you don’t want to go below a 5 cent per word market, but wow are there a lot of that level markets out there.


It goes like this for novels:

Writer: I’ve tried the novel at three agents for two years and rewritten it twice for agents. I’m going to indie publish it now.

Me: (Thinking) Dumb that you sent the novel there in the first place. You wasted all the years never putting it on the market.

I never say that to any writer with my out-loud voice. But I think it.

Oh, wow, do I think it.

Agents are not a market.

So the new world of indie publishing is causing, with Rule #5, writers to stay up on the business, to find top short fiction markets, to watch what is happening in the major book publishers, and to learn how to indie publish their own work.

That is all good, if you do it.


Boiling Rule #5 Down

Simple. Keep the story or novel on the market until it sells. For short stories, keep it going to the top short fiction magazines, for novels, get it indie published and then leave it alone for a few years.

And if you have to touch it after a few years, do a better cover, learn how to write better blurbs, and make sure your formatting is working on all devices.

But past that, leave it alone.

Don’t rewrite the story or novel because some reviewer said something. (Really the dumbest thing I have heard in this new world.)

Don’t give up on the short story just because it has a few rejections.

Don’t pull a story down from indie published because it only sold a few copies in a year.

Rule #5: You must keep it on the market.

For writers who have made it this far in the writing process, not following this rule will often swallow their work in self-doubt and wasted time.

Follow the rule. It’s a simple rule.

Don’t waste the time.



Robert A. Heinlein called these five rules “Business Habits.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Even though the first three talk about writing, they are firmly in how a writer manages his or her own business.

As Heinlein said, talking about the five business habits:

“… they are amazingly hard to follow — which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket!”

After following these rules since 1982 and making a living with my fiction writing since 1987, I can attest to how hard these five simple rules are to follow.

I would fall off, my writing would grind to a halt, I would realize I had slipped, and I would get back onto the rules.

Don’t be mad at yourself when you slip off these rules if you really want to follow them. Just keep going at it.


A Few Additions That Need to Be Made


First, you can follow the above rules like a perfect clock and they will do you no good if you don’t continue to learn how to be a better storyteller.

Learning is critical because the business rules are guidelines to practice.

Learn, then practice, then learn, then practice.

Learning how to be a better storyteller is critical to making these rules work for you.

And that learning never stops. Ever.

Second, there is no place in the five business rules that Heinlein talks about speed of typing or production or all the other favorite topics writers have these days.

You can follow these rules just fine if you only have ten minutes a day to write or if you have ten hours.

However, Heinlein’s Rules, if followed, will allow you to have far more fun with your writing, something I hear that many writers have lost lately.

Third, you must keep up with the business side of the industry. Heinlein called these his “Business habits.” You need to also make it a habit to understand the new world of publishing and follow the changes.

The advice I gave above is for 2016, the year this book was published. I have no idea if the indie world will look the same in 2018, or if traditional book publishing will collapse or start giving writers their real value and decent contracts.

But whatever happens, follow the publishing business, stay up with it as best you can.


I hope these five business rules from the great Robert A. Heinlein will help you with your own writing going forward.

I know I owe my entire career to them.

And I still follow them.

Have fun with your writing.