OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
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?
- 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 professional editor, and take their advice, your book will improve beyond anything you could imagine. I'll go further and say you need two editors when you're starting out – a developmental one for the structure of the book, and a copy-editor for the line detail and cleanup.
(3) Not getting professional book cover 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. Here's a list of book cover designers.
If you want to DIY, then there's a tutorial here on how to make your own cover on MS Word. But remember to compare your book to the Top 100 books in your chosen category and make sure yours is just as good.
(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.
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 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.
If you need help with self-publishing, then invest in Choosing a Self-Publishing Service by the Alliance of Independent Authors which will save you time, money and heartache on your journey.
(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. [Here's my tutorial for how you can build your own author website in 30 mins.]
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
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 a few 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 give it some time to work.
(7) Focusing everything into one book
When my first novel, Stone of Fire, 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. Fast forward a few years and I have a lot of books and the income is substantial. I'm now one of those (annoying) people who preach that the best marketing is writing another book!
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?
Michael Soward says
Wonderful work…you’ve been extremely helpful to me.
Life-ology 101 If All Else Fails, Smile (New Mini-Bio)
Jen Smith 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!
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.)
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. It will take another hour for the final version.
That’s about 3 hours (including communication) or 200 $US/180 Euro for 200 pages.
 I like to have a signed proof, call me old fashioned. (An electronic signature will do, call me bleeding edge.)
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.
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…
Steven M. Moore 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.
Joanna Penn 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.
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?
James Jean-Pierre says
Great article, I have no objections here. I learned something new today and I also learned I got the shiny object syndrome. 🙂
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
Nat Russo 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!
Steven M. Moore 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.
Sharon Whitewood says
Hi Joanna, thanks so much for all your fabulous information, anecdotes and guidance. I wish I had found your website and all before I self-published through Balboa Press. I am pretty happy with my printed book (yes definitely shiny new) and I don’t think I made too many mistakes and did learn a lot so the next one will be more an educated exercise. Bev Ryan put me onto your site and what assets you and she are. Mine is a self-help workbook (yes there are millions I know) and Bev has kindly done a blog spot for me – : http://bevryanpublish.com/wp/ .
So I am learning to social media and link up with groups etc, A challenge for me since facebook and all are alien space!
Marvin Fouty says
I’ve seen and read your material in Writer’s Digest. As an author (soon to be published), I’m still seeking a publisher and welcome all of your posted material.
carolina lovingood says
Hi, I jus wanted to say thank you, as a new author in the “bookworld” I appreciate all the details that so many concerned people share. Its so easy to become overwhelmed in this challenging career, especially when your computer knowledge is pretty much nil….yea, I feel I’m making progress. Slowly but surely, so again thanks, hope to one day do the same for others.
Tom Goymour says
Great advice, I’m certainly guilty of some of it, and trying to figure what I can do about it and what needs putting right immediately is the challenge.
I think point six is interesting, I’d never thought that such a massive amount of effort would be needed on each social media platform. I dabble . . . but have been guilty of trying to ‘spin plates’ with different soc. med. programmes and have now found that what I actually have in any given platform is just not solid enough.
So, I will be refining but concentrating my efforts. Now . . . where exactly to start ???
Ian Welch says
Many thanks for sharing your words of wisdom. I have found your comments and experiences very helpful. I constantly search for any publishing advise – I realise I have a step learning curve to climb. Sure I don’t act on everything I read, I pick through and make informed judgements. I will call them informed, others might disagree. I hope to learn from others experiences / mistakes but like everything one size does not fit all.
Randal Long says
I believe very strongly in the need for a professional editor. I especially like your idea of two, a developmental editor and a copy editor. My question is how does one go about seeking out a truly professional editor? Also, in general terms, what should one consider in spending money for a professional development and a copy editor?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Randal, lots of articles on editing that will answer your questions here: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/editors/
and also a list of editors you can hire at varying prices.
Thanks for your valuable suggestions Jonna. I am writing my Autobiography and its script is about to complete.
Definitely agree, especially with #6!