The 7 Worst Mistakes Of Indie Authors And How To Fix Them

To be an independent author means taking your book project seriously. But most of us haven’t been in publishing for our whole careers, so it’s inevitable that we make mistakes along the way.

Mistakes aren’t bad either. They are the human way to improve and learn. But it helps if we can help each other!

I’m not perfect and I continue to learn along the writer’s journey but here are the worst mistakes I have made and seen others doing too. I’d love to hear from you in the comments about your mistakes as by sharing, we can all improve together.

(1) Not spending enough time learning about you, your book and your audience

You need to get to know yourself, as well as understand the goals for your book and the needs and expectations of your audience. If you don’t understand your goals, how will you know what path to follow and whether you are successful or not?

For example,

* Know yourself. If your dream is to have your book in every physical bookstore and airport, then you should be looking at traditional publishing. If you just want to reach readers, go ebook only with a low price or free. If you want to make income, make sure you have other products behind the book.

* Know your book and your genre. If you are writing historical romance, you should be reading that type of book and understanding what the audience look for and then making sure your book fits the niche – or look for another niche

* Know yourself. Are you in this for the long haul or is this one book everything to you?

There are lots more questions to ask yourself. The key is to spend time reflecting and writing around these topics which will really help shape your publishing decisions.

(2) Not getting a professional editor

The #1 criticism of self-published books is that they are not professional enough and I believe quality is in direct proportion to the amount of editing you have. Seriously.

I really think that every writer needs an editor.

If you get a pro editor, and take their advice, your book will improve beyond anything you could imagine. I’ll go further and say you need 2 editors – a developmental one for the structure of the book, and a copy-editor for the line detail and cleanup. Pentecost went through 3 editors in the end and I have just engaged a fourth to help me improve my writing further.

More on editors here.

(3) Not getting professional design

As above, we want our books to stand alongside traditionally published books and have the same level of quality. Unless you are already a designer specializing in books, then I recommend you hire someone. Check out Joel at The Book Designer or Derek Murphy’s CreativIndie book covers here.

If you really want to DIY, then read everything on including the Ebook Cover Design Awards so you can understand what works. You can also check out Ant Puttee at

After evaluating my sales numbers and deciding that I don’t want an amateur product, I have decided to pursue ebook only for my books going forward. Your book publishing choice is up to you, but just make sure it is professional.

(4) Doing a print run without having a distribution deal

This was one of my big mistakes and I still hear of people doing it. Consider carefully whether you really want to publish a print book. If you do, brilliant. For the best result, hire a book designer and go with print on demand as the first option. You can order a few copies at cost to give to people.

Me in 2008 with way too many print books

But do you need to do a print run locally and have thousands of books delivered to your door?

This is important as you will have to pay in advance for the printing. You’ll also have to store them and ship them if you sell from your website.

Yes, it works out cheaper per book if you sell them all but are you going to sell them all? Do you have a distribution channel in place? e.g. a speaking platform or a guaranteed bookstore?

See the picture on the right? That’s me in 2008 with way too many books that I didn’t sell, before I discovered print on demand. They mostly ended up the landfill. Don’t make this mistake.

Also, check out this infographic for some great comparisons of offset vs print on demand.

(5) Paying way too much for services you can do yourself with a little education

I still get emails from people who have paid $10,000 for an author services package and received 100 books as well as losing the rights. Or people who have paid $5000 for their author website without knowing how to update it themselves.

I know most authors aren’t that interested in technology, but it is worth a little short term pain to empower yourself with some knowledge and save yourself a lot of money in the process. For example, if you just have a plain text novel, pay $49 for Scrivener and do it yourself. Then you can change the files whenever you like.

It’s fine to pay professionals for a service but make sure you know:
a) why you need it
b) how things will work in the future e.g. changing things, which is 100% likely to happen
c) what your alternatives are

(Obviously I don’t mean you should scrimp on editing or cover design but shop around and get the best deal for you and the right person for the job!)

(6) Doing no marketing at all, or getting shiny object syndrome

Me at Channel 9, Australia

When I launched my first book, I only knew about offline marketing and mainstream media. I made it onto Australian national TV and radio and still sold no books. That’s when I decided to learn about online marketing. Life has been a lot better since!

Many authors think marketing involves bookmarks or book signings but these are probably the least effective forms of marketing.

Other people get into blogging, then Twitter, then Pinterest, Facebook, podcasting, video etc all in the same week and then burn out with exhaustion and decide that marketing doesn’t work. This is shiny object syndrome – jumping onto the newest, latest thing without giving the last thing a chance to work.

My advice here is to give something a try for 6 months of concerted effort before you expand. I started with a year of blogging, then moved into Twitter and podcasting, later I went with Facebook and video. These are my core marketing and platform building activities but they all took time to build.

Find what you enjoy and stick at it.

(7) Focusing everything into one book

When my first novel Pentecost came out, I was entirely focused on marketing it and making my new fiction career work. I heard the pros say you need more than one book but I was sure I could make it successful.

I put everything into the launch and utilized the large network I had build up over years online, but my initial sales weren’t enough to really launch any kind of career. Two years later, I have 3 ARKANE thrillers that have sold over 50,000 copies and they sell better together than one novel did alone, and I do a lot less marketing.

I definitely believe that you need to do some marketing to get the sales rolling, to gain initial reviews and build your platform for the long-term, but you also need to get writing.

The long haul career of a pro-writer involves always working on the next book. Celebrating the last, but getting on with the next. This is our passion, but also our job. Obsessing over marketing one book isn’t as important as getting on with the next.

I hope my mistakes stop you from making the same ones!

I’d love to hear your comments. Do you agree with these mistakes and what else can you add?

Want to know the secrets to successful independent/ self-publishing? Check out my multimedia online course ProWriter: Secrets of Self Publishing Success.

Image: Flickr CC Opensourceway

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    Hi Joanna,
    I have bookmarked this page for further study, as I’ve decided to take the next few months away from writing. I’ve written 8 books over the past 5 years, and subsequently decided to put more work into the first three.
    I desperately needed to read your pointers, finding them helpful and sensible.
    Writers write books for others to read. My main buyers are friends and their friends, which has given me a niche, but a very small one.
    With the knowledge you share, I plan to spread my net a lot further.
    Kindest regards,
    Richard de Meath

  2. says

    I totally agree with all your points, although I didn’t know about book runs, since everything seems to be POD.
    In promoting my children’s book, The Leopard and The Mouse, I have found that posting comments on internet sites, or similar interest websites has yielded interest in the book and increased sales.

  3. JayDannenberg says

    A friend ” really” of mine told me he spent a total of $16,000 with Hillcrest Media to publish his upcoming book. I know nothing about publishing but thought this cost was excessive even with exposure . Your thoughts much appreciated.

  4. says

    Great advice, Joanna!

    One thing I’d add, though certainly not for everyone: If you’re in it for the long haul, consider publishing an anthology of other writers. I learned the ropes publishing an anthology of 75 Alabama women writers, plus I had 75 eager promoters. When I published my own book, everything was in place. BTW, I didn’t start out with all this in mind – I just thought there were a lot of underappreciated women writers, and I wanted to help them get in print!

    The title of our anthology is Ordinary and Sacred As Blood: Alabama women writers. It’s out of print now, but I’m looking into putting it out as a e-book. Will let you know when that happens!

    Thanks again for a very informative and helpful post!


  5. Christian Schade says

    Hi Joanna

    Interesting blog. I have just signed up for your newsletter/posts on writing and I started reading when I came as far as this sentence at the beginning:

    ‘If you want to make income, make sure you have other products behind the book’.

    Can you talk a little more about that subject?

    I am danish, living in Denmark. English is my second language. I am a journalist and I have been writing in Danish for over 25 years. Now I have written my first book. The Danish market is to small (5 mio. people) so I had it translated into English. To be honest: It did not turn out that well, but that is another story.

    Do you know americans who specialise in helping foreign writers to publish in the US. In my experience Danes dont care much about foreign writers. My guess is the same goes for Americans. Americans want americans (-: But with a penname that could be changed. Anyway, any comment on the topic would be highly appreciated…


  6. Darren Freebury-Jones says

    This is a superb article. Just started following you on Twitter and I’m trying to promote my new novel, CINNAMON TWIGS. So far I’ve been using social networking as a promotion tool and have, well, fifty more sales than I did yesterday. Still have much to learn I believe. Your Twitter profile will be remarkably helpful. A follow back would be grand: DarrenF_Jones

    Many thanks,
    Darren Freebury-Jones.

  7. says

    Excellent article Joanna. You’ll be pleased to hear I heard about it virally.
    I read about John Locke who sold 1 million ebooks on kindle. His advice was the same as yours. One book takes a lot more effort to market than more books. For him, he decided to write 5 novels and launch them together at 99c each. I notice they are up around $3-5 each now that his reputation has grown but it was a genius way to get the numbers in. Don’t underestimate building numbers before profit. People follow the buzz.

  8. says

    Thank you, Joanna! Extremely helpful advice. I’m in the process of completing my first novel and looking heavily into Indie vs Traditional. Each point you’ve made has touched on the many questions shooting through my mind. What I value most is that you’ve experienced every step along the way. If I can learn from example, I will.

    BTW…love the name “The Creative Penn”

  9. Shennon Doah says

    Thank you for taking the time to write about and share your “mistakes”. I find myself, at this very moment, doing the same things. I self-published my first novel in May. Even though the rough draft to the sequel is nearly completed, I have spent more time trying to promote this first book than finishing up the second and beginning the editing process on it. So thank you so much for reminding me to be patient with sales, and to continue whole-heartedly with what I really love – to write!

  10. says

    I am going through the self publishing hoop and am having 100 copies of my first book Ywnwab! delivered tomorrow. It has been quite an interesting learning experience. I think for the future I will probably do the same without ending up as you did with books for landfill, or another friend with a garage full of books he is going to use for insulating his home. The main marketing thrust will be on e books. An e version of Ywnwab! is planned for October. I had Ywnwab! checked for grammar spelling and punctuation. I also had 100,000 words of a long book professionally edited twice in 2011 to make sure I was on a sure footing to write more. Thanks for the comments on your site all very useful.

  11. says

    Thanks for the great info. I paid $600 for book formatting and
    it was done all wrong! There were no indents for the paragraphs, all
    the text was to the left and when I asked the company to fix it they
    asked me to pay more money!! I found another person that formatted
    my book perfectly for $35. Be careful out there folks!

    • says

      Jen, $600 is not too much to pay for book formatting. Of course, I’m not sure how long the book was, or how complex. $35 is ridiculously low … slave labour in fact. Depending on the book, paragraph indents may not be necessary. Novels usually have paragraph indents and fully justified text (with no spaces between paragraphs). Non-fiction books frequently use no indents, but use paragraph space (not double returns though) after the paragraph. And left-ranged text is common for books with a lot of graphic elements. In fact I prefer it because you get better word and letter spacing.

      These things should have been discussed with the typesetter/designer before work proceeded, and a sample should have been provided so that you could give your OK to the style. If you approve the sample, then change your mind later (I’m not suggesting that’s what you did), you should expect to pay more.

      My experience has been that many, if not most, self-publishing authors have no idea what constitutes professional typesetting. I’m a book designer and typesetter with 20 years experience, by the way, and while I believe there are few (if any) absolute rights and wrongs about typesetting, there are certainly procedures which make the book easier to read and comprehend. However, personal taste also plays a part. In the end, clients are entitled to have a book look the way they want it, but it is the professional’s job to advise if that would make it look ‘amateur’. (Most Kindle and ePub ebooks, in my opinion, look amateur … though that is as much the fault of the available software as the producer of the book.)

      • Andreas says

        I have to agree with you.

        For $35 you can barely print the formatted book for proofing.
        Or spend 2.5 hours at the computer for minimum wage.

        $600 is reasonable for a 400 to 600 page book, depending on the target format (epub / pdf) and quality of the source.

        Last week I spend about an hour on the rough formatting of a 200 page text.
        (It was a typical “The author does not know how to operate a word processor” text.)
        The result is not ready for printing. It is in the “Please look at the proof and make changes now” state[1]. It will take another hour for the final version.

        That’s about 3 hours (including communication) or 200 $US/180 Euro for 200 pages.

        [1] I like to have a signed proof, call me old fashioned. (An electronic signature will do, call me bleeding edge.)

  12. Miranda says

    About your “know what your readers expect,” what got me inspired to turn my ametuer screenplays into novels was that it’s sometimes good to let it flow and not get caught up on what the readers want all the time. Do it for you or if your writing horror, write what scares yourself. But good tips. : ) Lol.

  13. blueday says

    Great stuff! I’d add: stay professional at all times, especially with regards to things you say under your published name. Don’t, for example, review a popular self-publishing marketing book (*cough cough* looking at you Penn), giving it one star declaring it ‘useless’ and how you followed the advice and it didn’t work. And, do it using your self-published name. Then, have spelling and grammatical errors on your author page. And, a big rant about how much trouble you’ve had uploading to Amazon. And, request your readers also contact Amazon to demand justice.

    My mind is still boggled over that one…

    • says

      I’ve found most of this thread amusing for its lack of knowledge of scientific statistics. In other words, it’s full of anecdotal evidence. As a reviewer as well as a writer, I can present anecdotal evidence too: I’ve seen many examples of bad copy editing where either the writer or copy editor (not an “exclusive or” by any means these days) didn’t know what he was doing. But copy editing and later proof reading are only a small, albeit necessary, part of the editorial process. What about content editing?
      Back to the stats: to make a sound decision on the prevalence of editing errors and why they occur, people shouldn’t work off anecdotal evidence. One needs a large sample size taken across many indie writers. You can’t conclude anything on the basis of anecdotes–at least anything I care about.
      But here’s my own anecdote: I don’t trust editors. In particular, I don’t trust them with content editing because too much of said editing is stylistic (it’s your book, not the editor’s) so that should be part of my writing process (or what’s a word processor for?). I don’t even trust them with copy editing because I’m the best person to know my own quirks and what to look for. In my last book, my beta reader caught a few “confusing things” that might be classified as content editing (I use a beta reader precisely to avoid possible confusions a reader might have), but her list was less than a page.
      So, I would add a rule to the list here. If you’re a writer, you SHOULD KNOW your quirks and at least eliminate all those before sending your book to an editor. In my case, and in all modesty, I’ve found I’m a better editor than anyone I could possibly hire.
      And please, no more anecdotal evidence. Yeah, there’s crap out there, but the percentage still isn’t as high as Sturgeon’s law would seem to indicate.

      • says

        Hi Steve –
        My whole blog is anecdotal – it is based on my journey in publishing and my opinions – so can only ever be anecdotal. That’s the nature of blogging…

        On the importance of the editor, every pair of eyes that improves the book before someone buys it is important to me. I’m thrilled with how my editor and proofreader and beta readers help me improve. One of the best things about being a writer is learning something new every day.

  14. E. Solomon says

    I am reeling here! Print On Demand is something I am researching, but EBMs don’t publish books with colored interiors. Do you have any suggestions about P.O.D.? Is it a good way to go?

  15. Carla Waluck says

    Many thanks for the info, I am about a third of the way through my first novel and I am pretty sure I made the mistake of not thinking about my next one. I was so focused on the marketing and publishing the thought never crossed my mind. I will need to take a step back and think some more. Cheers

  16. says

    Joanna, thank you so much for writing this. To quote you:

    “Obsessing over marketing one book isn’t as important as getting on with the next.”

    I really needed to hear this today. I’m three months behind on my publication schedule because I’ve been stressing over marketing a single book. I think it’s time to stop worrying and move on to the next!

  17. says

    @Joanna, while you’re right that blogs are anecdotal, my point was that you take anecdotes and turn them into actions at your own risk. Adding a bit of common sense always helps, even with professionally sampled poll results because of hidden biases. In particular, what works for one author might be a disaster for another.
    @Nat, no matter what you do, it seems that old-fashioned word-of-mouth is still very valuable (today that could be not so old-fashioned, as East Coast X emails West Coast Y here in the States to tell Y, “Hey, I’ve found this great author!”). A recent poll, albeit limited (I saw it somewhere in my capacity as lurker in many internet discussion groups–I apologize to the author, but short-term memory goes first), seemed to confirm this–only genre (an automatic), and an author’s blog (!), articles, and comments, beat out word-of-mouth (called “recommendations” in the survey) in the all-elusive “author discovery” category (people just learning you exist as a writer). If a person can also add, “…and he’s coming out with a new book too,” any praise should be automatically magnified–readers rule, and if they like an author’s prose, they’ll want more. You are your opus in this very competitive business.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *