Five Slightly Unexpected Tips For Self-Published Authors to Find Success

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Related: What Authors Want — Understanding Authors Priorities in the Self-Publishing Era

One thing I hear a lot these days is that “self-publishing” is a misnomer. The reason? There’s no way that one person can do everything necessary to properly and effectively publish a book. (Obviously there are a lot of qualifiers there, but you get the idea.)

Misnomer aside, there are many people out there trying to publish books without the aid of an established publishing company. Some of them gathered at the Tools of Change Author Revolution conference in New York today to share information, network and learn more about the craft of publishing.

Since so much of what you hear and read about self-publishing is common sense or things you’ve heard before, I decided to pick out five things from the programming that are slightly unexpected or things you may not have heard before.

1. Give content away. 

“Free is your best friend,” said founder of Wildfire Marketing (and DBW Expert Blogger) Rob Eagar. “Giving away part of your content or sometimes the whole book for free” is one of the best ways to generate book sales.

Eagar cited a client, Lysa TerKeurst, who had typically sold 10,000 to 15,000 copies of her books per year before engaging Eagar. Her new title Made to Crave (HarperCollins) was coming out and she wanted to do something to increase her sales for it. Along with Eagar and her publisher, she developed a new piece of content — the “Made to Crave 21-Day Challenge,” a daily challenge log with e-newsletter component — and gave it away for free as a way to tease the book. The book was on the New York Times best-seller list for 30 weeks and sold 220,000 copies in nine months, said Eagar.

If it doesn’t make sense to create a new piece of free content as a way to promote the book, Eagar suggests giving away copies of the book itself or parts of it.

It’s a strategy we at Digital Book World have recently used, though it’s too early to tell what effect it’s had, if any. We gave away almost 1,000 copies of our new ebook, Finding the Future of Digital Book Publishing. It’s currently on offer wherever fine ebooks are sold and we’ve sold some copies, though I’m not yet sure how many in aggregate. We’ll keep you updated on our progress.


2. Don’t go it alone. 

There are self-publishing advocates that will tell you that you can do it all yourself. That you should do it all yourself, especially if someone who might help you wants to charge you for the service.

According to agent Jason Allen Ashlock (head of Movable Type Management and also a DBW Expert Blogger), it’s not a good idea.

“None of us goes it alone,” he said. “Publishing is a team sport. Allies, alliances and partners are more vital than ever.”

It’s slightly self-serving, Ashlock being an agent, but he puts forward the idea that agents — the good ones — are mediators today. Mediators between authors and people and companies that can help authors do the things they need to do to successfully produce, distribute and market their books. He calls these people “radical mediator agents.”

For instance, an author might want to hire a public relations agency to help generate press for her book; or she might want to engage with a publisher in Germany to sell foreign rights; or she might want to hire a cover designer. Authors are, in general, good at writing, at formulating ideas. “Radical mediator agents” are theoretically good at arranging these kinds of services and relationships — and negotiating them favorably for authors.


3. Maintain a relationship with your audience. 

The old publishing cycle was: write, edit, produce, pre-sales and marketing, book release, big sales and marketing push, sales fade, repeat. The new publishing cycle is drawn out and never ends. Marketing starts the day the author gets her first Twitter follower. The sales and marketing cycle never ends.

In the old way of doing things, authors would go on book tour and get in front of readers for a set period of time and then likely wouldn’t be heard from much again until the next book. Today, authors — the marketing-savvy ones — are always communicating with their audience, building and cultivating it.


People like being a part of the writer’s life, of the writing and publishing process, according to Amanda Barbara, development director of PubSlush, a crowd-funding platform for books. Essentially, an author who maintains contact with her audience keeps them primed for new releases, new free content, new development, back-list sales pushes and more.

How should authors do it?

There’s the obvious:

— Facebook
— Twitter
— Other social media

The less obvious:

— Online video chats and meetups with technology like Shindig, Skype and more
— Serialized fiction
— Short pieces of content between larger works


4. Know your rights. 

Copyright is complicated. You can’t copyright an idea but you can copyright the expression of that idea. You can copyright a book, but not a book title. When you create a work, it automatically gets a copyright attached to it and here’s what that allows you to do:

— Reproduce the work
— Prepare derivative works
— Distribute the work
— Perform the work
— Display the work

If you have those rights on a work, you can sell or license them. And there are exceptions, defenses those who allegedly infringe on copyright can use:

— “Fair use” of the work for published criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including copies for classroom use), scholarship and research.
— First sale doctrine, which says that a user who buys a copy of a work can dispose of that copy as they wish, including sell it. They just can’t copy it. (The digital world complicates this.)

Copyrights last the life of the author plus 70 years.

“You don’t have to give notice [that you have produced a work and own a copyright], but it’s a good idea,” said attorney and literary agent Dana Newman.

Giving notice makes it easier to prove “willful infringement,” which comes with steeper penalties for those who would infringe on your copyright.

This is a complicated area and I would advise self-publishing authors to do a lot of research into copyright and how they can use it to their advantage — or, perhaps, have their “radical mediator agent” do it.


5. Be open minded. 

This wasn’t a tip that I heard at the show but it’s one I think is important. The publishing landscape is shifting and today it might be better for you to self-publish. Tomorrow it might be advantageous for you to take a publishing deal with an established publisher. And next week it might be better for you to do something in between.

What you should do may also depend on what kind of book you are publishing, what else you do for a living, what your goals are when publishing and so many more variables. So, keep an open mind when it comes to publishing decisions.

Beware of people who tell you that it’s absolutely wrong to use one self-publishing service or another; or someone who tells you you can’t do it without an established publisher; or that you shouldn’t do it with one.

Related: What Authors Want — Understanding Authors Priorities in the Self-Publishing Era

11 thoughts on “Five Slightly Unexpected Tips For Self-Published Authors to Find Success

  1. Pingback: Tools of Change – Author Revolution Day | Ebooks

  2. Kerry

    I’ve written a children’s book about our families 20 year Christmas tradition. I’ve packaged it in a gift set and had it manufactured in quantity, then I had to market The Christmas Web to young mothers and grandmothers. I divided my marketing efforts, which I call building consumer awareness, into five strategies. I find this to be the most challenging part of self publishing. I’d like to see more shared about how to crack the marketing egg. I feel that there are a group of people who have the ear of the consumer and if you can team with one or more of them as a participating partner the marketing will become easier. The difficulty is reaching these people. In my case it would be celerity moms, a picture of Jennifer Garner or Reese Witherspoone carrying my gift set would launch The Christmas Web.

  3. Cathie Whitmore

    I am a children’s author from Australia with three beautifully illustrated hardcover picture books on sale. My first book Twinkle the Christmas Star was sold in over 150 stores around the country but most of these stores were Angus & Robertson. I made the mistake of concentrating on one big name bookstore and not putting much effort in on the others. The demise of Angus and Robertson in early 2011 left a lot of people in the book industry feeling very uncertain of their future. I for one had lost the majority of my customers and when my second title \Hammie Goes to School,\ was released I had a really hard time getting stores to take it. Of course ‘self publishing’ has that stigma attached to it and stores often dismiss the work of a self published author, without even giving them a chance to present their work. With the release of my third title \Long Legs Daddy,\ I engaged the services of a distributor here in Australia, but find they don’t sell as many books as I
    was selling going it alone. The answer is definitely marketing, but where does the small time author get that type of money? I think it’s time us self published authors got together to create our own marketing group, pooling our resources to advertise. To spend $1,000 on advertising, is of little advantage, but Fifty thousand dollars spent on advertising would make a huge difference.Therefore getting together with other authors and pooling our resources makes sense.
    All I need now is another 49 people with ideas of how we can make this work.

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  5. Corey Feldman

    I agree with a lot of what was said here but have a couple points of contention. Some people can do it all on their own. Most of it isn’t rocket science. But you have to know your limitations. I am technical so I format all my own stuff and don’t use a Formatter or distribution service like smashwords. I have a great memory and I don’t need a content editor. I am dyslexic so I do need a copy editor. I can’t draw so for my children’s books I need an illustrator. Personally I think unless you care about traditional publishing agents are useless. Also while I agree you should be wary of someone who tells you you must use a specific self pub or POD company. I wouldn’t be so weary of those that steer you clear from particular ones. In fact that should make you more weary of the company.

  6. Saoirse O'Mara

    It’s an interesting article, and I do like that you stress the importance of getting help. Maybe it’s just a critical beta reader to get the story on track, or it’s a professional editor or cover designer to help shape and polish the final product. There are so many benefits of getting help, and I believe the greatest problem is that many authors don’t see where they need help (and who can help them best). We all probably know bad book covers. I bet many, if not the great majority of those authors, believe they can create good covers. Some of it may just be a question of style and preferences, but some book covers are flat out unprofessional.

    Just recently, though I had an example of an author willing to get help, and getting screwed. She had paid someone for editing. Afterwards, she had the feeling that the editor hadn’t done a good enough job on the punctuation, and she looked for a second opinion. She ended up hiring me for proofreading. Well, the manuscript didn’t have many spelling errors. It did have, though, incorrectly used words, typos that created a different word (properly spelled), lots of puncutation mistakes, style problems…in short, I got the feeling that the \editor\ had used a spellchecker and then had sent back the manuscript as \edited\. I felt for the author and smoothed out quite a few of the style issues on top of proofreading, without additional fee, while my anger at that \editor\ grew. There was someone pretending to help authors polish their babies just to make some quick money.

    So even those writers who know their weaknesses and seek help can end up trusting the wrong person (and might not even notice it). They will still take the brunt of angry readers for it even though they thought they did everything right….

  7. James H. Bird

    I have a completed manuscript except editing (not so much content but mechanical). I have started on my second. I write historical fiction. I have sent several publishers some earlier drafts, for the most part they all say the same thing, \your writing is excellent, characters developed well, good flow, blah, blah\ and so forth. I was a tech writer for over twenty years, a published son writer and much more – in college I made a little money writing term papers for other students, one professor/counselor told me, the only way you are going to graduate is by your writing.

    I’m disabled and on a fixed income, so that’s a hurdle. Been looking for funding. I stepped away from that for now to get back to what I love to do – write!

    Where do I go from here?
    Thank you.
    James H. Bird

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