If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can avoid costly mistakes by learning what mistakes to avoid when self-publishing from those who’ve tread the path before you – people like me. The only good thing about mistakes is that we can learn from them, but that’s only if we realise we’ve made a mistake, examine what we did wrong and make sure we don’t repeat the mistake, but it’s less costly in time, money and embarrasment if we avoid the mistakes entirely. So this post is designed to help you avoid common traps in self-publishing.
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My self-publishing story in a nutshell
My self-publishing journey began in 2010 with a short story that I published in ebook form while my agent was trying to find a publisher for Lethal Inheritance. I figured that I might as well have a go and see what happened while I was waiting for a bite. The story was called The Drorgon Slayer’s Secret and it’s no longer available. Why? Because it wasn’t all that good. It wasn’t terrible, either. It got a few decent reviews and sold more than I thought it would (at 99c), enough to make me think that even if my agent didn’t find a publisher for my book, perhaps I did have a future as an author. I removed the book from sale as soon as I realised that it wasn’t doing my career as an author any good. (Single short stories don’t sell these days, anyway, unless they’re permanently free.)
Over the next couple of years, I self-published my YA works (5 of them) and a book of short stories, which were later picked up by S&H Publishing, a small US publisher. At that point, I’d finished The Diamond Peak Series that had inspired me to become an author and editor and didn’t plan to write any more, but The Prunella Smith Series just popped into my head and demanded to be written. I realised that Worlds Within Worlds was just too ‘out of the box’ for the mainstream and that I’d better just publish it myself, so I added that and it’s sequel The Locksmith’s Secret (both magical realism) to my self-published credits. I also published a book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, and one on Meditation (which I unpublished last year).
After 9 books, I had the publishing business sorted, and I could look back and see what mistakes I’d made along the way and avoid making those same mistakes when publishing for other authors, something I started doing to help out my editing clients. But still I’m not immune to making mistakes. I made a big one recently, and I learned a hard lesson. See if you can guess which of the mistakes to avoid when self-publishing that I made recently. It’s the reason I wrote this post – to cement it into my brain.
Mistakes to Avoid When Self-publishing
1. Don’t think you can design your own cover:
I’m an artist as well as an author, so I have a pretty good eye for design, and I can use photoshop. In my early covers I made the mistake of thinking that, because of this, I could design my own cover and it would look professional. I could design it, of course, but my artistic media of expertise is masks, not graphic design, and certainly not book covers. My mistake was thinking that anything I designed would be good or look like a professional job.
I can’t find an image of my first cover to show you, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to because as time went on I realised just how bad it was. The important point is that at the time, I thought it was a great cover, and no one was kind enough to point out the problems with it – too busy, shoddy photoshop skills and common fonts. The cover wasn’t bad enough to do great damage to my career, but it didn’t do me any favours ether, and while I was so proud of it, anyone who knew anything about covers, would have been rolling their eyes at it.
Of course, it didn’t cost me a thing. That was why I did it myself. I didn’t have much money and I didn’t want to pay for a cover, especially because I had no idea whether or not the short story would sell – it takes a lot of 99c to pay for a $300 cover. If you’re in that situation, I recommend going to your local design school and see if you can get a student to do something for you cheaply. If you are a graphic designer or design student with professional level photoshop skills, then by all means do it yourself, but other than that, if you’re not prepared to put some money in for a professional cover, then you probably shouldn’t be publishing.
2. Don’t be in a hurry:
This is one mistake I didn’t make, but I saw many others make it. Keen to see their book in print, they rushed into publishing before the book was ready. I still see books that people submit to AIA Publishing thinking they’re ready for publication when they actually need a lot more work.
What held me back from making that mistake with my first book was submitting the book to publishers. During the 2 years that my agent canvassed publishers on my behalf, I further refined the book several times. The more rejections I got, the more I asked myself how I could make the book better, and it was that question that led me to research and do courses and workshops to develop editing skills that I then applied to my own work.
The important thing to note here is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re not sure if your book is ready for submission or publication, get a professional opinion, don’t just assume that your book is ready for publishing because you think it is. Book a manuscript appraisal.
3. Don’t self-publish just because you can:
The days of chucking an ebook into the market place just because it’s relatively easy to do so are over. Self-publishing is a business, and a highly competitive one these days; if you’re going to learn the skills you need to do it well, you need a strong motivation, and you need faith in your product. You need to believe that your book is worth publishing and be prepared to finance the project. Doing it because you can, just to see what happens, often leads to doing it badly, as with my first short story. It wasn’t my best work, not by a long shot, and really it wasn’t worth publishing. I only published it because I could.
These days, particularly knowing the money and effort it takes to actually publish well, I don’t publish unless I believe a book is truly worth it. I have three completed but unpublished novels on my computer that are simply not good enough – at least in their present state – to be published. And yet, other authors would publish them just because they can. Be fussy about the quality of your work and don’t publish anything that might get bad reviews. How do you know if that’s the case? Beta readers and editors doing manuscript appraisals will tell you – if the people are honest.
4. Don’t think you can produce a good book without comprehensive editing:
Comprehensive editing means all four kinds of editing: developmental, line, copy and proofing. Good beta readers – meaning they are authors or editors and ruthlessly honest – can take the place of a professional developmental edit, but unless you’re an experienced writer who knows how to write good active prose, your book will need a line edit as well as a copy edit, and a second editor to do your proofread. A lack of line edit shows in lack-lustre prose, clunky sentences, over or underwriting and unclear communication. Working with a line editor should (if they tell you why they make the changes they do) improve your writing ability such that your editing bill will decrease with each new book.
5. Don’t think your edit is also a proofread:
It’s incredibly tempting to think that one editor is sufficient to catch all the copy errors, and if we’re trying to save money, after having our work edited, we may baulk at the additional cost of a proofread. But no single editor ever catches everything, and the more editing they do, the less copy errors they’ll catch. If you’re focusing on line editing and there’s a lot of juggling to do with sentence structure and flow of ideas, it’s easy to miss copy errors, and even if you’re focusing on copy editing alone, you can still miss errors. Some editors will give you a price for all levels of editing, but after you’ve been through a manuscript once, when you go back over it to do a proofread, you already know it too well to be able to see all the errors. That’s why I always work with a different editor to do the proofreads for my clients. It’s less work for me, so less money, but it’s much better for the client. A good proofread can only come from someone who hasn’t read the book before, not someone who has worked on it at other levels of editing.
6. Beware of false economy and rip-offs:
Pay for the help you need, and pay for professionals. It will save you a lot of pain in the long run. The skills required for self-publishing well are not easy to attain. Time, research and study are required. Short cuts may be tempting but they won’t produce the best results.
No one wants to pay more than they need to for a service, but choosing the cheapest route does not always turn out to be the cheapest in the long run. Examples are cheap covers that you have to replace when you realise they just aren’t the kind of quality you need. You finally realise that you really do need to pay at least a couple of hundred dollars for a decent cover, and you end up paying that plus whatever you paid for the cheap one. Edits are the same. Some authors have some to me after paying a few hundred dollars for an editor and then discovered reviews complaining that the book needed an edit. Often all they paid for was a proofread to pick up obvious typos when the book needed a line and copy edit as well, and they ended up paying full professional rates as well as the extra for the cheap and dodgy job.
I actually made the false economy mistake recently when, in trying to save money for a client who had already paid money to another publisher, I thought we could do without a separate proofread. I only thought this because I assumed the book had been previously proofread by the former publisher, by the time I discovered that it actually hadn’t been previously proofed, a box of books was on its way to the author. I paid for a new bunch of books after the proofread, and had to redo all the ebook formating for free. To further compound the issue, we engaged a proofreader who was not my normal proofreader because he’d offered to do it cheap, but it had to be done again when I discovered that that proofreader still missed some things. It was a costly mistake in both time and money. I wish now that I had insisted on the proper proofread with my usual fully professional and highly reliable proofreader.
Rip offs are any service providers who promise a lot and deliver little – glossy self-publishing-service-providers’ websites do not necessarily mean you’ll get a good book if you take their services. Watch out for editors and self-publishing service providers who work at rates that are a lot cheaper than most, because something will be compromised. There’s a reason editing costs what it does – it simply takes a lot of time to do it well. Before engaging a service, google the name of the service along with the word ‘reviews’, and also the word ‘scam’. It can save you a lot of heart-ache. Joining the Alliance of Independent Authors is another way you can get advice on what service providers to avoid. Alliance partners such as myself may not all produce great work, but they are ethical, and the Alliance Facebook page is a great place to ask for advice.
7. Don’t expect to make big money:
You could hit the jackpot if you’ve written a book that meets mainstream market needs and have a plan and a budget for publicity, but don’t write in order to make money – very few authors ever do to any extent. Write because you love it, and if you make money, that’s a bonus, not the point or the aim. Some self-publishers make a living (usually modest) out of writing – though most of those who do very well found their readership back when there wasn’t as much competition – but though many self-publishers eventually do cover their costs, many never sell enough books to break even. The last stats I read on the matter indicated that it takes most self-published or hybrid-published authors around 5 books before they pay off their expenses, and it takes a lot of marketing efforts to do so.
We would all like to make money off our writing, but my advice is to treat it like a hobby that you want to be really good at rather than a way to make money, and if you do happen to make on your investiment into a good product, then consider it a bonus. A focus on money making might lead you make mistakes 1, 4, 5 & 6. And even if you’re young and your aim is to make a career out of writing, still focus on quality not on finanical returns, because quality, not shortcuts, is what will get your where you want to go – that and writing what the majority of the market wants to read.
When you can ignore this advice
All of this except number 7 can be ignored if you don’t care about quality. This advice is for authors who want to produce a book they can be proud of. When I started out, there wasn’t as much competition as there is today. Readers let a lot more go than they do now. Back then, few people left bad reviews; now days plenty do, and if your book isn’t up to scratch, your readers will tell you, either in reviews or in lack of sales. A bad cover, or even a boring one will make a reader skip your book, and copy errors in your blurb will do the same. My literary agent always used to say, “It’s a tough business.” I thought it an overly pesimistic refrain back then. Now I know she’s right.
If you’re an author check out my editing services.
You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
If you like stories with action, romance and a contemplative element, you’ll enjoy my fiction, so take a look in my bookshop before you go.
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millicent hughes says
In my writing group, it’s sometimes shocking to hear the amounts of money spent on editing and assistance. Those are the people making money and the writers are proud to boast that their picture book cost $10000 in startup costs! Really? Whose fault was that?
Another thing people should beware of: look at the specific bookstores where you plan to do events and sell before you make too many printing plans. One bookstore I counted on for sales does not accept books done on CreateSpace. Another main sales outlet possibility said they only bought from Baker and Taylor. So it pays to know where your book is going, not just where it came from.
Tahlia Newland says
Wow, that is a lot. The fault is that some businesses are greedy. They care more about raking in the money than providing a service, and it takes time for the author to research to make sure they don’t over pay. Some prefer to pay than take the time and energy necessary to do their research. I just hope that they get a good product for that kind of money. Full editing and a good publicity package should be included for such a price. But picture books have few words, so editing costs should be in the hundreds not thousands of dollars.
As for sales outlets, indie authors need to understand that though their book will appear on Amazon, they will not have their books in physical bookstores unless they can personally convince the owner to stock them. And if they want the store to order directly from the distributor then they’re safer with Ingram Spark than with Amazon because Ingram have a wider distribution network and it’s respected and trusted by booksellers.
Mike Betts says
Still working hard.
Regards, Mike Betts
Tahlia Newland says
Good on you. Stick with it.