Bruce Bethke & Stupefying stories

Horrortree – March 12, 2024

Bruce Bethke answers the question: What is the most profitable and easiest path for success? 


  1. Write to market. Really study the market. Find a niche market or subgenre that is hot right now—not five years ago, now—and learn all you can about it. Amazon provides a wealth of information, if you look at the book listings. Study the keywords and subgenre breakdowns. Then pick a category you like to read and think will be fun to work in, and figure out what you can do with it that is slightly different from what everyone else and their cat is already doing. 
  1. Learn the Lester Dent formula. Lester Dent was a pulp fiction writer who cranked out hundreds of novels and got filthy rich doing so. His universal plot formula was designed for 6,000-word short stories, but works just as well for short novels, with some adjustments. 
  1. Pick a pseudonym. Your name is your brand. Ideally you want to have an entire stable full of names, so that you can switch back and forth between identities as your brands and genre niches heat up and cool down. Remember, this isn’t you. You’re in the entertainment business now. Your pseudonym is a character, it’s your stage name, a role you perform for public consumption, a mask you put on before you go out in public in the morning and take off after you go home at night.  
  1. Before you start writing, figure out how your story ends. As Mickey Spillane said, it’s the beginning of your book that gets people interested in reading it, but it’s the ending that determines whether they want to read anything else by you. Give your readers an ending that rewards them for the time they spent getting there and makes them glad they read your book. 
  1. Write short novels. The day of the BFFB (Big Fat Fantasy Brick) is over. The optimum length in today’s market is 40K to 50K words. If you feel your story requires a 200,000-word epic, split it up into four installments. 
  1. Forget traditional publishing. Start with self-publishing directly to Kindle. It’s too hard to get in the door with the traditional publishers now and their support for new authors is next to nonexistent. Remember, if you’re successful at self-publishing, the traditional publishers will come to you, begging you to take their money.    
  1. Consider whether serialization is right for you. I’ve watched several writers launch really successful careers lately by serializing a novel on Kindle Vella or Royal Road first. If you can work that way—I can’t—it’s a great way to build your fan base. 
  1. Start an email list. No one else is going to do it for you. As your pseudonym, get a website. Build a mailing list. Start a blog. Interact with your fans, and make them feel that they are sharing in your success. Everyone loves the feeling of being able to say, “I was reading [name] before it was cool.” I’d skip Patreon. I know a few writers who are making enough money on Patreon to justify the work, but a lot more who aren’t. Likewise for crowd-funding. Crowd-funding only works if you have a crowd. Focus on building that email list! Put at least a quarter but no more than half of your working time into marketing your work. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your writing is if no one reads it! 
  1. Keep writing those books! If you come up with an idea that really clicks with readers, keep working it! Write a never-ending series! Don’t stop writing it until people stop buying it! Conversely, if you’ve gone three books without having a bestseller, kick that pseudonym to the curb, revise your formula, and start over as someone else. 

As you may have noticed, I did not put “Start out writing short stories” on this list. In today’s market it’s easier than ever to get your short stories placed and published, but almost impossible to make significant money doing so. And since the question was: 

What is the most profitable and easiest path for success? 

            I decided to focus on the “profitable” part of the question. Which brings us to: 

  1. There is no easy path to success. Success in this business requires talent, ambition, good craft skills and work habits, and a certain measure of luck. Taking ambition as a given, accepting that enormous gobs of dumb luck can sometimes trump all else, and knowing that there is no way to change your innate talent, focus on improving your craft skills and work habits. After forty years in the writing racket, I have seen that a modest amount of talent and good craft skills and work habits beats enormous amounts of talent and lousy work habits seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Don’t sit on your butt waiting for the Muse to whisper in your ear. If you want success as a writer, work for it!