Interview: Dean Wesley Smith

interview by Carl Slaughter

Most people who comment on the changing publishing landscape concentrate on the problems. Bestselling author and blue chip workshop instructor Dean Wesley Smith has a can-do make it happen attitude and concentrates on solutions. And unlike self proclaimed experts, he’s a proven success. The business model he blogs about on his website and teaches in his workshops isn’t theory. He sells books with that business model. Lots of books. At a profit. In this interview with Carl Slaughter, he plays myth buster for writers who have reservations about making the transition from print publishing to electronic publishing and from traditional publishing to self publishing. At, he dispels conventional wisdoms on a regular basis.


MYTH: How can an author sell books without the massive marketing apparatus of a publisher? It’s logistically impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. Nor can they afford advertising in national magazines.


FACT: Well, that’s a huge myth. Of course any indie publisher can get into bookstores and actually, it’s fairly easy and not very expensive. And no, it’s not impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. In fact, it’s easy. One way to even find out about how to do that is just go to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) website and you can download their bookstore lists state by state for free. And by joining the ABA as a publisher (about $300 per year) you can join into their programs such as the different box programs, get electronic proofs to bookstores and so much more. But of course, this takes doing print books as well as electronic. And Kobo will be going into all the indie stores with electronic books shortly. Also, you can get to the major chain stores as well, just takes a little more research. But first a publisher has to get past the myth that it’s impossible. It’s far from impossible.


MYTH: With a SmashWords type strategy, there are editors, no reviewers. No vetting or evaluation process. This means every author could post every one of their stories. With such a massive number of stories available, how can readers find my story, how can my story stand out among so many others?


FACT: It’s a bogus fear. In fact, it’s now easier to find books online than it ever was when readers had to go into bookstores. The key for writers is just to keep writing better and better stories and let the fans spread the word for you. The more quality stories you have available to readers, the more they will find you. But it takes time to build that kind of readership. If you expect it within a year or less, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.


MYTH: To sell books online, you have to use a credit card or PayPal. These services charge per sale. If one person buys 10 books, that’s not a comparatively steep service expense. But if 100 people buy one book each, you’re paying that fee 100 times. How does that factor into the ebook/self-publishing business model?


FACT: It’s called a “cost of doing business” and it’s very, very minor. And only comes into play if you are selling off your own web site, which most should not do at first.


MYTH: How much can you charge per customer for a short story? 50 cents? One dollar? At that rate, can you make as much as selling the same story to a magazine or anthology?


FACT: You get 65 to 70% of all money from any distributor like Amazon or B&N. And most of the people I know sell short fiction for $2.99 per story.


MYTH: All that time spent formatting your story is time spent clicking on a browser instead of time spent typing on a keyboard. All that time spent on bookkeeping is time spent tapping on a calculator instead of typing on a keyboard. A writer who isn’t typing is a writer who isn’t making money. How do you weigh routine maintenance time against the time spent writing 2, 3, 4 stories?


FACT: This is a serious question that all writers must deal with. Before the electronic world, there was always business time sending off manuscripts and dealing with editors and agents. But the key is always go back to writing when in doubt. My friend, Scott William Carter has a great test when he looks at doing production vs. writing. He calls it his WIBBOW test and he asks it about everything. (Would I Be Better Off Writing?) When you ask that, you tend to do the business and production stuff at odd hours when you wouldn’t be writing anyway.


MYTH: How much are customers willing to pay for an ebook if they know the production cost is only a fraction of print books?


FACT: What does production costs have to do with anything? If you sent a book to a publisher, they must pay overhead, they must pay editors, they must pay copyeditors, and production for the electronic and for the covers. The only production you are talking about is printing and shipping costs. Those are the only things that vary at all. A $15.99 trade paper should have about a $7.99 electronic book. That feels fair to readers and works fine for authors as well. And covers publisher’s costs just fine. It is a huge myth that there are no costs to electronic books. A huge myth. Costs are less, yes, but there are costs.


MYTH: Suppose the next electronic book display technology goes through a revolution and the Kindle type gadgets go the way of 45s, 78s, reel to reel, 8 track, and floppy? Then you’ve got to reformat all your stories for the new technology. If you ┬╣ve got a publisher, you just keep writing and let someone in New York handle format issues.


FACT: Even if there isn’t a formatting revolution in the near future that renders your current formatting obsolete, doesn’t every website and ever gadget have its own formatting requirements? This question would take an entire class to answer. It’s called staying up with the field of changes. Nature of the beast of being a professional writer. Things are going to change. If you don’t stay on top of the changes, you end up not selling and getting left behind. And also your question assumes that traditional publishers would stay up as well, and that has been proven false in the last three years.


MYTH: Suppose my name isn’t Dean Wesley Smith and I therefore don’t have an established reader base. How do I draw traffic to my site?


FACT: Why would you want to? I tell writers who come to workshops here to have a static web site and only change it when they have a new book or story to tell their fans. That’s all you need. Blogging and all that crap is far too much work.


CARL: Share some success stories. Writers who followed the advice from your blog, seminars, and books and became commercially successful.


DEAN: Oh, wow, I don’t take credit for anyone’s success. Success in this business comes from writing and keeping at it for a long time and working to keep learning. Anyone who got successful from anything I said was because they worked hard and wrote hard. My advice is just more of a suggestion to go in a direction. The writer must go and do that work. And no writer is the same, no career the same. So I would never, ever think of taking credit for anyone’s success.

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.