Review: Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing
Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing by Dean Wesley Smith
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

If there’s only one thing to take away from this book it’s that Dean Wesley Smith has traditionally published over 100 novels. Seriously. He tells us this repeatedly in order to prove his bonafides. This makes sense when you remember these ten essays were originally published on his blog (and are still there, among others) so you weren’t getting them all at once. Might have been nice to reformat or go over the collection in advance of compiling them into a book, but one of the other bits of advice we get is (in other words) never look back – keep moving forward.

Okay… that may not be entirely fair. Smith has published a lot, has run his own publishing company and given breaks to a number of unknown writers. And there’s certainly some good stuff contained within these covers (I picked up the book as part of the NaNoWriMo 2014 Humble Bundle which had a number of interesting “how to” books included.). I like Dean Wesley Smith. I think he’s incredibly smart and quite clever. I also think the biggest problem with this series of essays comes in when Smith asserts (and correctly, I believe) that every writer is different and then proceeds to only use himself as an example, belittling any other way of doing things. When he tells you he wrote a story in 3 hours and it sold and is still selling and see it’s easy everyone can do it, he’s missing the point that not everyone can, and certainly not everyone can do it in 3 hours.

His bigger, more universal ideas, that it takes practice and you need to write more than one thing are good. But then he kinda blows it again by waiting until well into the series of essays to talk about getting a grounding and learning the craft. Instead, he starts off talking about writing and self-publishing everything you write, since you can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad – again, I tend to agree with this. What I don’t agree with is the notion that publishing everything you write is good for you. As someone who’s been doing it for 30 years and had some decent success, especially within the confines of “traditional publishing” (since self-publishing wasn’t the option it currently is) it makes sense for him. His takeaway, that if it’s not good, no one will notice and it won’t hurt you in the long run, is accurate up to a point. What he doesn’t take into account is ego (both good and bad) and improvement. You don’t get better if no one is telling you what you’re doing wrong. Merely having a reader fix your typos isn’t sufficient in all cases.

He quotes Algys Budris about “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still a steaming pile of crap.” This is all well and good, but what if it’s NOT a steaming pile and just needs a little touch up? Smith’s advice seems to be if it’s not salable in the first draft, chuck it and start over. And here again, this might be what works for him, but he never stops to consider there might be other ways of doing things… and I think that’s a huge disservice to writers.

All that said, once you get past his words on paper writing advice, his business advice seems to be pretty sound. His rage against agents seems a bit personal but it is what it is. His take on self-publishing makes sense. Even his thoughts on what to write all jibe with good business practice. So yeah, in the end the essays are worth reading (especially grabbing them from his website) just understand his advice that all writer’s are different and most writing teachers don’t know anything includes his words, too.

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