The Beginner Writer’s Guide to Becoming Fabulously Successful (or not)

Time to open the Action Force Mailbag. If you have any questions, comments, thoughts, limericks,  cookie recipes, whatever, feel free to send them my way at

“As a young writer who has just completed a detective novel, do you think I should try to get an agent, or build a reader base online, say on Substack, and self-publish? Thanks”

 I wrote a little about this already: How to Succeed in Publishing by Really, Really Trying Hard and Getting Lucky. I still stand by that, and what I write now will be basically a more specific digression on that same Write, Edit, Publish, Repeat philosophy.

Read that post first. If you’re still hungry for more opinions come here and read on:

It’s important to note that I can only offer the insight gleaned from my own limited experience. I’ve been writing, in one form or another, for thirty years now. I have experience, but a lot of that experience won’t count for much for people starting out now. I’ve been published almost two decades, which is long enough that I sent in my first manuscripts via snail mail, and I did a lot of conferring via phone call with my first editor. It might sound strange to the young’uns, but before the internet and e-mail the basic function of getting a book to a publisher and getting it noticed on the market was very different.

That’s okay. I’m not here to bemoan the changing system. It’s not all good, but neither was the old system, so we adjust as we must.

A big difference is the rise of self-publishing. It’s not that it didn’t exist back then, but it was more of a niche industry. Expensive, too. The technology was different. The way of getting a book to market was different. Everything was different, and self-pub wasn’t very viable.

There were always success stories, but it’s easy to find success stories. We gravitate toward those kinds of stories. Humans love finding the one-in-a-million tale of success and elevating into an inspirational story. It’s also where our attention naturally gravitates. Stories of earnest failure rarely get told.

In Rocky, Stallone plays a boxer who will never make it. He’s got heart, but that’s not enough. The entire story is about how he gives it his all, and that is what makes him worthy of following, not that he will be a champion. By Rocky 4, he’s not just a great boxer; he’s the guy who has to end the Cold War with his punching ability.

We love greatness. The publishing world is no different. While most authors struggle to find an audience the industry and media and even our fellow writers focus in on the successes like a laser. This creates a lot of static and false positives when it comes to doing this job, no matter how you choose to do it.

Another change is the rise of online retailers and markets, e-books and audio books. Physical bookstores still exist, and last I heard Barnes & Noble had managed to turn things around. Independent bookstores exist as well, and that’s always cool to see. Support your local independent bookstore. But let’s not fool ourselves. Amazon is king of the castle at the moment, for better or worse.

But onto more specifics:


A good agent is worth everything. They help you find opportunities, negotiate contracts, and smooth over bumps along the way. I have had a few agents. I parted amicably with a couple before I finally ended up with Sally Harding at The Cooke Agency. She’s been representing me a long time now, and she’s been a lifesaver.

On the flipside, I’ve known writers who ended up in relationships with bad agents. Not necessarily incompetent, but just not the right agent for you. Or just not in the right place in their career. Or, and it’s okay to admit this, also just bad.

There are online resources that can help with figuring that out. I don’t know them. I don’t use them, but it shouldn’t be too hard to google it.

I don’t think I’d be writing still if it wasn’t for the support of my agent. She’s smart and capable, brings me plenty of opportunities, and when things looked rotten, she comes through with something to keep me going. She can’t solve every problem, but I have a lot fewer problems because of her. More money, too.

I like the money.

I didn’t start with an agent. My first three books were agentless with TOR, and that process was fine. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the process of contract negotiation, and in a pinch, I could probably do it again. But why would I want to? Not only is it easier on me, but I always get a better deal with a knowledgeable agent in my corner.

But this will depend largely on whether you want to try traditional publishing or self-pub. In traditional, a good agent is a must. In self-pub, not so much. Which brings us to our second question:


I don’t know a lot about Substack. I did some rudimentary googling, and it looks okay. My instinct is that it is not a good place to build an audience or a good place to put your energy. But that might be an old man not “getting” it, so what I say next might be wrong:

You can’t really build an audience on the internet.

That sucks, but for every author catapulted to fame via the internet, there are countless others who will always dwell in obscurity. The great thing about the internet is that it gives more people a voice. The great thing about self-publishing is that it has allowed more people to share their voice. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t come without cost.

It’s harder than ever to stand out in the endless screaming cacophony of the world wide web. (Do they call it that anymore?) The appeal of skipping past the gatekeepers and reaching the audience directly is understandable, but I don’t know of any reliable way to do that.

It sometimes feels like kicking a hornets’ nest to talk about the pitfalls of self-publishing, especially as a traditionally published member of the old guard. I’m not trying to be down on self-pub, but I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion that it’s not really any sort of short cut. If you take away ONE thing from this entire post, it should be that anyone who makes you big promises is lying to you. They might also be lying to themselves. Converts make the best salespeople, after all.

I’ll admit that as a traditionally published author I have my own biases. I still think traditional publishing–including independent publishers to be clear–is the best path toward forging a career as an author, but that path is still fraught with discouragement, failure, and disappointment.

I heard Chuck Wendig say it once: We all forge our own path up the mountain, and when we get to the top, we burn the map. Not because we’re holding anyone back, but because we’re all trying to figure this shit out.

Let’s not end this on a negative note. If you want my honest opinion, self-pub has grown into an interesting option, and it will continue to grow. But last time I checked the odds were slightly better of building a career, reaching an audience, and maybe earning some money if you go the traditional route. Write your book, get an agent, find a publisher. Get lucky.

You’ve got to put in the time. There are almost no true overnight successes. Becoming a professional writer is a long process. Becoming a successful professional writer is even longer. Almost every writer I know, trad or self-pub, found their success after walking down a long, long road.

I can’t tell you what to expect on that long road. I can’t tell you how long it will take. I can’t tell you a surefire way to get noticed.

So this long post just ends with a resigned shrug.

Talk to me in another 30 years. Maybe I’ll have it figured out then.

Probably not.



One Reply to “The Beginner Writer’s Guide to Becoming Fabulously Successful (or not)”

  1. Love the perspective.

    It seems like the traditional publication model is to send your manuscript to twenty people who have a hundred manuscripts, and probably don’t have time for your crap.

    The self-publishing/internet route is to send your work to thousands of people who are choosing between millions of options, and probably don’t have time for your crap. The chance that some of them will notice and have time for your crap is higher, but then the payout is much less (just the price of few books).

    “You can’t really build an audience on the internet.” I concur. But I also think the internet is poorly built. This is a problem I working on with other creatives in Austin.

    One thing that stood out is the agent. I.E. someone who finds you opportunities. That’s what’s missing online. Theoretically, you could get it from an online group… but I haven’t seen one that actually works that way. Most groups are just spam.

    I would love to pick your brain some time!

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