Eight Reasons Self-Publishers Fail—and How to Avoid These Pitfalls
by Peter Bowerman
Common, easy-to-avoid mistakes. Self-publishers make them all the time and, as a result, make the publishing process far more difficult than it needs to be. No, steering clear of these blunders won’t guarantee riches beyond your wildest imaginings, but it’ll clear some of the more typical stumbling blocks from your path.
Mistake #1: You wrote an unnecessary book. Harsh? Perhaps. But be honest. If we’re talking nonfiction (fiction is different), what if there are already 20 titles on your subject? Does the world really need a 21st? If so, how is yours different? Put another way: Write a book people will want to read. If there are no books on your subject, that might be a really good thing, or it could be a sign that the market doesn’t exist, is too expensive to reach, or otherwise won’t support the title well enough to make it profitable.
Mistake #2: You have a bad book cover. It is categorically impossible to overstate the importance of a good cover. More than 190,000 books are published every year. Those who wholesale, distribute, stock, and review books are constantly looking for reasons to cull the herd. A cover is the easiest place to start. I’ve always been mystified by self-publishers who invest copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears in their books and then settle for a crummy-looking cover.
A safe strategy: Until you know differently for a fact, assume that you, as an author, wouldn’t know good design if it walked up and bopped you one. Hire a graphic design pro or, ideally, a full-time cover designer, not your cousin who’s artistic, and not your printer’s in-house graphic designer.
Got a bookstore in the neighborhood? Visit it—with your designer if possible—and study the books on the shelves where yours would be. When cover designs catch your eye, figure out why they appeal to you and think about how to capture what works. If your designer can’t go to the bookstore with you, make notes about the covers you like and send the designer links to Amazon or bn.com. Yes, getting a professional cover will cost you more, but if you’re in this game for the long haul and to make some bucks, it’ll be a pittance.
Mistake #3: Your title is lame. Or weak, nondescript, confusing, boring, or bizarre. Any of which can hobble a book’s chances. If you’ve written a how-to book, make your title a promise: show what’s in it for the reader (e.g., The Well-Fed Writer, The One-Minute Manager, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fix-It-and-Forget-It Cookbook). Entice the reader. If you’re just not creative in terms of titles, hire someone who is, like a professional copywriter.
Mistake #4: You didn’t hire an editor and a proofreader. I don’t care how sure you are that your book is clean as a whistle, a good editor and a good proofreader (sometimes one and the same person) will find lots of glitches you missed and will offer tons of constructive suggestions that never occurred to you. I promise.
You may be a wonderful writer and have great things to say, but if your book is full of typos or grammatical errors, no one will read long enough to know that.
Mistake #5: You think small (Part One). Since I began my self-publishing adventure in 1999, I’ve read or heard countless accounts of self-publishing “success” in newsletters and at meetings and conferences. Often, the “coup” was getting an independent bookstore to carry a few copies of a book or convincing a library to stock the title or landing a review in some minor publication. Nothing wrong with any of that.
But I say that celebrating any validation from the larger world, no matter how modest, is thinking small. Like all you deserve is the scraps. Lose that mindset. You have every right to commercial success. If that’s your goal, though, you don’t just need to think big, you need to be smart about it and craft a campaign that effectively reaches your target audience. Speaking of which . . .
Mistake #6: You promote the old-fashioned way. The standard book marketing/promotion template calls for hitting up mainstream media to land reviews, articles, radio/TV appearances, and so forth. That may make sense as part of a marketing campaign for a mainstream book. But if yours is a niche book, then here’s the truth: the average media pro doesn’t care about you.
Even if you do have a mainstream book, but you’re an unknown author, chances are still excellent they don’t care about you. An unknown author of a niche book? Fuhgedaboudit.
The better way is targeting via the Internet. In a nutshell, identify your target audiences, figure out where they hang out online, contact the gatekeepers of those sites, and work hard to land reviews, blurbs, interviews, green lights to write articles, and so on. And then repeat. Over and over again. Speaking of which . . .
Mistake #7: You think small (Part Two). You’re not going to make your book a commercial success by sending out a few dozen copies for reviews, publicity, and promotion. You need to think big numbers: 350 to 400 and up.
Send out that many with carefully crafted materials to an intelligently targeted list, follow up diligently, and something’s gonna happen. Yes, 350 to 400 sounds daunting (When am I going to have a life? you wail), but keep in mind three things: (1) you’ll be sending these books out over a period of three or four years; (2) you can easily get one-third to one-half that number out in the first few months; and, most important, (3) you can do what I did and hire an intern to handle the marketing grunt work.
I simply set my intern up with standard cut-and-paste email pitches, a list of people to contact, and guidelines for pursuing prospects. All for about $9 an hour. It worked out well.
In that same vein . . .
Mistake #8: You forgot that you have just ONE job. I know it’s called self-publishing, but that doesn’t mean everything falls to you. I say, as a self-publisher you have one job: Build demand for your book. Yes, you need to oversee the book-production process (hiring creative pros to handle editing, layout, cover design, indexing, and printing), but once that’s done, most if not all tasks not specifically related to marketing (i.e., to building demand) should be delegated to someone else. That can mean Web design, warehousing, fulfillment, accounting, and more. You’ll be saner, have more fun, and boost your bottom line.
Peter Bowerman is a professional copywriter, self-publishing coach, and the self-published author of the Well-Fed Writer titles (50,000 copies in print, and a full-time living for more than five years). He chronicled his self-publishing success in the award-winning 2007 title, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living. For more details, visit www.wellfedsp.com.