There are many good reasons to self-publish (more authorial control, a bigger piece of the financial pie, trying to put out a book in a niche market, etc.). And the perception of self-published books has changed a lot recently, making readers much more willing to give their time and money to these titles. However, self-publishing comes with unique pitfalls. The following list is based on the mistakes I’ve seen self-published authors make, listed in order of perceived severity (i.e., the closer to the top of the list, the more likely this pitfall is to affect your book sales and readers’ enjoyment).
- Publishing too quickly. Some authors self-publish because they are unwilling to wait. They get a handful of rejections, or they become frustrated with the tedious cycle of traditional publishing, and they end up putting out books themselves. Books that, unfortunately, read more like second drafts than fully polished manuscripts.
In the afterglow of the first (or second, or third) revision, it can become tempting to believe that your book needs to be in the hands of the reading public right now. You feel that your idea is so great that if it was just available in print (or eBook), the readers and the money would immediately start flooding in. So you publish—without a final revision, or a marketing plan (more on this later). The truth is that the manuscript probably needs to sit for a couple weeks so that you can look at again with less lovestruck eyes. And after you’ve done that and made the necessary rewrites, you need to hand it to someone else (e.g., writing mentor, critique partner, well-read friend), someone who will be honest with you (preferably someone who is neither related to, or in a romantic relationship with, you). Remember that writing isn’t about proving your unquestionable genius to the world, but about putting out a good book. And at some point, this will mean accepting (constructive) criticism and making more rewrites than you had originally planned for. Most good things take time.
- Accepting terrible covers. I cannot overstate this problem. I have watched books sink or swim on their covers. A cover is your first point of marketing. It will be the image readers associate with your book. It needs to be good. And not just in a sense that it appeals to you and your closest family members.
A cover has three jobs: to catch the reader’s eye; to suggest the tone, content, and genre of the book; and to be recognizable and clear at various sizes. Ideally, a cover feels both familiar and unique (“That looks like a baking-themed cozy-cottage mystery, but a baking-themed cozy-cottage mystery I haven’t read yet”) and will look just as good and as clear to readers shopping on their iPhones as it does to those browsing their local Barnes and Noble.
That’s a tall order, even for an experienced designer. And yet many authors think they can slap some clip-art and text onto a colored rectangle and call it a cover.
This is where to you need to put money. I am not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I can tell you that it’s not usually a compliment when a reader says your book “looks self-published.” What they generally mean is that it fits the stereotype of unprofessional looking covers that readers have come to associate with self-published books. (This is not purely a self-publishing problem; many small presses have the same issue.)
It feels cruel to pick out specific books as examples of bad covers, but try doing an Amazon search of nonsense genres, and then look at the results. At each cover, ask yourself, “Does this ‘look self-published’ to me? Why or why not?”
I attempted this with the phrase “fish romance”—partially because I thought it was a strange enough phrase that some self-published/small press books would show up on the first page of results, and partially because romance novels tend to have a distinct “look,” so it’s easier to compare their covers. The first page of my search results revealed entirely small press, self-published, and author co-operative novels. But my first impressions of the covers were very different. There were several nice covers from a single author who specialized in romance, and who obviously knew what she doing. The best covers also tended to let the reader know how “clean” the novel was or wasn’t going to be (ripped vs. unripped bodices). There was also a self-published romance title with a weird black bar taking up most of the cover and detracting from the interesting cover image. (‘Cause I always associate neon font on a black background with romance?) This was in combination with a painful use of mismatched fonts. It wasn’t a terrible cover, and people interested in its specific subgenre might pick it up anyway. But the chances are pretty good that, given a choice, readers will purchase a different book on the same topic with a more professional looking cover.
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Image description: Book cover--Barracuda Sequel to Free Fish Friday by Lee Stone
- Not researching the market, or book marketing in general. Even if you don’t self-publish, you will need to know about book marketing. But if are self-publishing, you will need to know more than the average bear. I feel like a hypocrite writing this because I hate marketing. But I’ve learned that what I hate even more is seeing good books languish because they haven’t reached their readership.
I specifically remember a book that a certain publisher I worked with was very excited about. It was beautifully constructed and met a need in the market. And yet. . .the publisher had the hardest time selling it. Everyone who bought a copy seemed to love it (heck, I loved it). But the author had more or less dropped it off at the publisher’s doorstop like a foundling and moved on to other projects. Without an author behind the book, willing to push it, it never met its potential. So before you publish, do your research. Learn who your readership is. Learn where they find their books, what social media platforms they use, what authors they follow (and why).
Before readers can love your book, they have to know it exists.
- Unprofessional interactions with readers. I’ve just mentioned using social media, but honestly, some authors need their Twitter accounts wrested from their twitchy little hands. It’s not that you can’t be strange and eccentric online; it’s that you have to pay attention to what you’re selling. If you’re writing about conspiracy theories, then you might be able to get away with long rants about the Illuminati. But if you’re writing Regency romances, it might be time to dial back on the “lizard-people-are-the-reason-for-contrails” posts. Or to deliberately separate your professional accounts from your personal ones. The point is that you don’t want to drive away readers who would enjoy your book even if the content of your Facebook fights isn’t for them. Also, I’m not going to tell you to never get into fights online, but please, please, please do not fight with reviewers (professional or otherwise). The author never emerges smelling sweet.
This advice extends into personal interactions with readers. I’ve watched people kill sales (and not just book sales) by breaking into completely unrelated side-rants during their sales pitch. In any semi-entrepreneurial setting, keep your conversation to general pleasantries and the topics addressed by your book. Assume that your readers have different opinions and life experiences than you do. And if the topic of your book is controversial, then present yourself as a thoughtful authority on topic. Readers are more likely to respect your work if you show that you can respect them first.
- No copyediting. This is last on the list because while editing is important, a misplaced comma isn’t going to make or break you. After content editing considerations are taken care of (see my earlier post on the different types of editing), the goal of copyediting is to make your meaning clear and create a text that looks professional and consistent. As a reader, I’ll generally forgive a couple typos and missing commas in a book, but if there’s a mistake in the back cover blurb or the opening paragraph, chances are pretty high that I’ll put the book back on the store shelf. My assumption is that if the author didn’t care enough to double-check the back cover or the first page, then maybe the author didn’t care enough to put in the work an interesting book requires. While readers will forgive a lot for the sake of a helpful informational text or a well-paced story, you will see a number of Amazon reviews along the lines of “After the third use of ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have,’ I just couldn’t keep reading.”
In other words: “Make your best possible book and make sure readers know about it.”
Bethany F. Brengan is a freelance writer and editor who reads too many comics. She is a contributing writer to Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman (McFarland Books). Her poetry has appeared in The 2015 Poet’s Market, Poetry Quarterly, and The Crucible. She can be found at www.brenganedits.com andwww.readingwritingraptures.