The Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make When Self-Publishing a Book

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In twenty-five years I’ve written twelve books. The first ten were traditionally published. However, when the publisher of my book called Enchantment couldn’t fulfill an order for 500 ebook copies, I decided to self-publish my next book, What the Plus!

This experience taught me that self-publishing is a complex, idiosyncratic, and challenging endeavor—as Steve Jobs said, “There must be a better way. ” I wrote my latest book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, to simplify and optimize the self-publishing process for others.

Along this journey, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten mistakes that writers, myself included, make when self-publishing a book. Here they are so that you can at least make new mistakes— if not avoid mistakes altogether.

1. Writing for the wrong reason. The most common wrong reason to write a book is to make a lot of money. Statistically, you’re heading for disappointment. Instead, you should write a book for good reasons such as you have something valuable to say, you have a cause you want to further, or you want to meet the intellectual challenge of writing a book.

2. Not hiring a professional copyeditor. When I turned in the final copy of APE, I thought there were no mistakes in it. The copyeditor found 1,400—that’s right: one thousand four hundred. Writing and copyediting are two different skills—just like the best salesman doesn’t make the best sales manager nor the best player make the best coach.

3. Designing your own cover. The cover is one of the most important marketing pieces for your book, so hiring a great graphics designer is money well spent. The beauty pageant that is Amazon web pages displays fifteen to twenty covers at a time. With a graphic the size of a postage stamp, you need to entice people to click.

4. Not building your marketing platform in advance. Self-publishing is not a serial process where you can write a book and then worry about marketing it later. You need to start building a marketing platform as soon as you start writing because the process takes a year. You should already have thousands of followers on social media on the day that you ship.

5. Using a word processor other than Microsoft Word. Admittedly, Word is a beast, and you will need to wrestle it to the ground. There are cheaper and more elegant word processors, but nothing has the paragraph styles capability of Word nor the universal acceptance from the reviewers, testers, editors, designers, and resellers that you’ll use downstream.

6. Inadequately testing your ebook. Do not assume that if your ebook looks right on one platform that it will look right on all the others. You can’t even assume that if your book looks good on a Kindle tablet that it will look good on a Kindle app. The only way to truly know is to examine your book on each platform.

7. Selling only an ebook version. The ebook format is kicking butt in adult fiction. If you write for any other genre, you should still produce a paper version. The paper version of Enchantment, a non-fiction business book, outsells the ebook version by a factor of three to one.

8. Depending solely on social media and word of mouth. Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are powerful and inexpensive marketing methods, but old-fashioned PR is still necessary. There is no doubt in my mind that spending $10,000-15,000 on a PR campaign is a good investment.

9. Not tapping the crowd. The crowd is a beautiful thing—there are always people out there who know more than you do and who are willing to help for the intrinsic value of helping a fellow human being. I tap the crowd for feedback at three stages: outline, first draft, and final draft. The crowd has pointed out thousands of mistakes and suggested hundreds of improvements to APE.

10. Having only one plan. There are at least three plans to getting your book published: Plan A is to find a traditional publisher; Plan B is to self-publish; and Plan C is to implement Plan B in order to attract a traditional publisher and reinstate Plan A. There is no right and wrong; there is only what works for you and what doesn’t, so be flexible.

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

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Guy Kawasaki

About Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki is the author of APE, What the Plus!, Enchantment, and nine other books. He is also the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

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43 thoughts on “The Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make When Self-Publishing a Book

  1. There are are some good pointers here, but I have to take issue on a couple of your points.
    I can do all the formatting I need in (free) Open Office, and I can export files in Word format. I don’t see any need to buy expensive Word.
    And I have never met ANYONE who seriously thought they could make a load of money from writing books – or who thought it for longer than a couple of hours anyway!

  2. I know maybe two people who have $15k, or access to it on credit cards. Unfair to call not spending that kind of money when one doesn’t have it. It’s poor financial sense to overextend one’s finances considering the very long odds of earning it back.

  3. #5 is completely wrong. There are many programs out there that work just as well, if not better, than Word and can save in an accepted format without a problem. In fact, I know quite a few people for which Word has caused innumerable issues with its hidden formatting and \special features\. Simple is always better, especially when self-publishing. And if you’re not self-publishing, you probably don’t need all the special gadgets that Word provides anyway.

    As for #8, the concept is solid, but the claim that one should spend that much money to promote a book is absolutely ridiculous. It is an elitist viewpoint from someone who is thinking about a very small portion of the publishing population. Moving outside of social media = good. Expecting people to spend more than many make in a year on one book = bad.

    The other points are spot on. Some of those mistakes I had to learn the hard way and I’m still trying to correct years later.

    • Samantha,

      Have you tried to self-publish a book with pictures, captions, bulleted lists, numbered lists, and tables and “saved as” Word?

      For a book without such formatting, maybe any word processor will work, but I would disagree under other circumstances.

      Thanks,

      Guy

  4. I’ve self pubbed and help authors who have and this article is full of great advice. AuthorBuzz.com can really help authors – that’s why it was created – to help do professional marketing – to get the book seen and noticed in the same venues publishers use for their top titles.

  5. The PR issue – PR alone is a gamble – PR must be mixed with guaranteed placed marketing. And PR is not the right solution at all for every book that is not newsworthy. The $ amount is for serious writers – not someone with a first novel that only her mom and aunt read and loved. The advice is for people who expect to build real careers – not throw a mystery out there and see if anyone wants it.

  6. “There is no doubt in my mind that spending $10,000-15,000 on a PR campaign is a good investment.”

    Holy cow! No doubt? That’s quite an investment, and not one that many (starving) writers can make, I would guess. I understand what you’re saying, that writers need to invest in their product — and in promoting their product — just as any businessperson would, but I think writers need to think carefully about marketing and not just dump tens of thousands of dollars on a PR person. There are no guarantees, and there are lots of other ways to promote a book besides social media and hiring a publicity manager. Plus, they say the best way to sell your first book is to write your second. I’m hoping that’s true. Far less expensive. :) BTW, I just bought your book, APE, and look forward to reading it!

  7. You failed to mention writing the next book. And the next one. And the next one. This isn’t a sprint, nor should you focus all of your attention on one single output. It’s a business, a marathon. Write more, publish and move on… leave the marketing for when you have a strong stable of product to sell.

    Then you won’t need to spend 10-15k–you’ll be making it.

  8. LOL. As if most self-publishers have $20,000 for marketing, copyeditors, and cover artists. Maybe if they take out a small business loan.

  9. I’m selfpublishing – for the first time this. The first book in a series of 6 small books. I’ve hired a formatter, editor and cover designer. I’m doing my own marketing (I’ve been self-employed and marketing myself for years, just in other professions) for now, but I’m open to jobbing that out. Actually, what I’m in search of is a manager – not an agent. My books are nonfiction, so the marketing is different than for fiction. Actually, each book, though on the same theme, has a slightly different market. That makes my PR/marketing efforts less boring. ;)

    But…I don’t think of my overall marketing to necessarily be title-specific. I’m marketing myself as an author, as a business. That gives you a very different perspective than promoting one book at a time. It’s all a long-term investment in my business.

    • Thank you for the information you shared; it’s helpful. May I ask how you hired your formatter, editor, and cover designer? I need all of those, but I don’t know where to look, or how to know the difference between a reasonable price for those and an unreasonable one. I self-published a self-help book as a licensed psychotherapist, but it sells few copies. I now have a first draft of a Young Adult novel. I’d like to promote both, but the novel needs everything a first draft needs. Thanks!

    • You are quite amazing for your current track record.
      I will suggest that you trust you and take the steps as you see em’.

  10. Thanks for this Guy! I am in the process of reading APE (print version) right now and it has really opened my eyes to the self publishing industry. If I didn’t discover this book, I think I would have encountered a number of issues that I can now avoid because I am aware of them now.

  11. $10-15k? Seriously? My output for 3 books published from July-Oct 2012, including all pre-publishing work, copyrighting, ARC copies, postage and every other business expense including marketing was about $4500. My book sales have gone up every month, a few exponentially. This isn’t a sprint, and we don’t have to act like traditionally published authors and earn out our money in the first 6 mos. As I’m making money on the books I’m putting more into advertising, but even for all my 2013 books (and I have 4 movels and 4 non-fiction in the pipeline) it won’t be $15k.

    As another commentor said, writing more books is the best plan of all, which you didn’t mention (12 in 25 years??? Really??).

    Also, I have zero interest in a traditional publisher and never have. I consider myself in the business of writing, and, having owned businesses for a long time, have no need for a traditional publisher. Will I make some mistakes? Sure. So do they. Will I keep more of my money and all of the control? Yep. Read the recent surveys of authors, and the interesting thing you find is that the only people wanting traditional publishers are those who don’t have them. The majority of traditionally published authors want to self publish. What does that tell you?

    • This is much smarter advice than given in the column. I’ve published 19 books traditionally, and 4 original e-books, and I’ve learned that there are no certainties in either kind of publishing. So when an “expert” asserts that 10-15K is an essential expense for marketing/publicity, I have to laugh. There are no guarantees, and I keep hearing from fellow authors that the money they’ve spent an e-advertising and blog torus has been wasted, but the money they spend publishing more books is not.

  12. I have to disagree with the Word thing as well. If you’re not using Scrivener for the writing of your book, then you are letting the tools get in the way of the process. Any traditional word processor simply can’t give you the control over your writing that Scrivener does.

    Once you’ve got your text, then format it (and add pictures, styles etc) in something really professional – InDesign would be my choice. From your InDesign file you can then output ebooks and print versions from a consistent master text.

    If you’re self-publishing, you have to be as professional as the big boys. That means using the same tools.

    Otherwise, lots of good advice in here (though I too wish I had $10,000 to spend on PR!).

  13. I want to second a comment made above about self-publishing not being like traditional publishing. I got the rights back to a handful of my mysteries, gave them new covers, put them up. Ditto my first novel. I also launched some original e-books. The best advice I heard from veterans was to give it 2-3 years to see real growth. I’m seeing steadily rising sales after 18 months and I’m happy to wait, because e-book sales continue to grab more of the market, and I have new books coming. I’ve been publishing for over 20 years and am in this for the long haul.

  14. I’ve been publishing books for over twenty years and I agree, there are no guarantees. But I’d go further. I’d advise people against spending a lot on marketing and publicity. I’ve published with Doubleday at one end of the spectrum and Leapfrog at the other. I’ve never seen a bump of any kind when I’ve hired my own publicists or taken out my own ads. And with one of the books that’s earned me the most money, my memoir My Germany, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, I spent no money at all doing publicity to help the press, yet it’s been a big success for me. I carefully tracked departments of German and Jewish Studies programs and read up on various faculty and emailed probably several hundred individually crafted letters about the book, offering to have the publisher send a copy. The results were terrific: I’ve done about 60 events, almost all of those paid, in the U.S., Canada and Germany. I invested lots of time and very little money (I did have some German lessons). I had a blast everywhere I went, and though the book came out in 2009, and the paperback last year, I’m still doing events for it, with people contacting me about 2014. Does that mean my plan would work for everyone? No, but it does mean people can assess each book and see what’s reasonable, decide what they can invest and how.

  15. Wow, I guess it never occurred to you that plenty of indie authors aren’t rolling in money. Newsflash: We’re not rolling in money. I don’t even have $300 to spend on a graphic designer, let alone $15,000 for a PR campaign.

    I find it rather insulting that you would imply that indie/self-pubbed authors who don’t have the money to fling at promotion are somehow deficient. In fact, by NOT having the money, I work three times as hard for every bit of recognition I get. I think that says more about my commitment and work ethic than spending X amount of dollars.

  16. Overall good advice, although #5 (only MS Word) and #8 (invest $15000 in PR) have rightfully been criticized).

    I also wonder about #7 (don’t sell eBook only). I self-published the non-fiction story about my own adventure of a lifetime in Apple’s iBookstore. The book \Panamerican Peaks\ is written with free iBooks Author and is for iPads only. While this still represents a platform limitation, I can’t imagine the same experience in a traditional paper book. There are lots of color photos, videos, sound, interactive maps etc. which make the eBook a much more immersive experience. (In fact, I could not have produced this multimedia rich eBook using Word.)

    I echo Lev’s sentiment about contacting interest groups and doing events. I have done public presentations about the project on the West Coast and recently also in Europe after having translated the book to German. I spent lots of time and very little money. My sales are not where I want them to be, but I did have a blast writing, publishing and now promoting it.

  17. Hey, Guy,

    Haven’t read your writing since you were doing your Apple thing. I really enjoyed, and relied on your wisdom.

    I went down the self-publishing road some years ago, around 1996, and I’m pretty sure I made just about every mistake you mentioned. The Marketing piece is particularly tough. I was hammering reviewers at newspapers try to get a review and they wouldn’t touch a self-published book because you are seen as circumventing the traditional publishing method whereby a lot of people make their living.

    Anyway, it was a great experience, and in spite of the lack of success, it hasn’t deterred me from pushing on. Thanks for the great advice; I’m sure there are a lot of writers out there who will benefit from you words.

  18. I also disagree on Word -speaking as someone who used it. I wish it would work; Indesign, FrameMaker and Scrivener all have steep learning curves.

    The PR budget is not unrealistic if you have the money. Still, 10-15K from GK is very different than the same from any unknown.

    Me, I never spent a dime on PR or advertising, just blogging and word of mouth. It would pain me to spend that much. I already have an audience and it would grow for a new title holistically like my first one.

    Speaking of my first book, it has sold better than I ever possibly could have imagined (I thought it would be an embarrassing flop). My monthly net (on my one non-fiction book, self published) is 6K-7K. It’s a nice cushion so when launching a second book, there is no imperative for me to earn a big pile of money right off the bat. I don’t know what I’d do with it anyway so I feel no sense of urgency to flog it. I still have my core business (not publishing) which is very small but I enjoy it. Book income allows me to pick interesting projects whether the client has any money and of course, spend time mentoring young people in my field. As a former welfare mom from very challenging circumstances, I have no complaints and feel lucky everyday. Very lucky.

    • Wow — 6K-7K per month on a self-published, non-fiction book sounds really nice! I really wish I knew your name and book to check it out. That is so cool! I would be thrilled with a fraction of that. Are you sure you won’t “reveal” here? You’re an inspiration to us all who deserves full open credit!

  19. Lev, you sound great! I looked at your books on Amazon and I want to get some. I love the covers, too. I would never be so gauche as to ask, but let’s just say I’m curious when you say \My Germany\ has been \a big success\. As a relatively new author of books (as opposed to articles and columns), I’m curious about how much an author earns, particuarly through self-published novels. My revenue numbers for both the print and the e-book versions of my self-help book are very low — I know the genre is saturated, but I’m a licensed psychotherapist with over 20 years experience — and I just wonder how self-published authors make enough money to support themselves. I would be happy if my publishing paid for an annual vacation. How does one learn, without being impolite, how much an author can earn on annual book royalties?

  20. Could I borrow 10,000 dollars and the link to a paperback publishing service that doesn’t list your book at a ridiculous price?

    No?

    Okay then.

  21. Because everyone who wants to write a good story has an extra 10 Gs laying around? This advice is good for independently wealthy people who want to write a book, or those who know for sure they soon will be. But for regular people, you are not going to ever have 15,000 bucks for a marketing campaign, no matter how much you save.

    Sometimes, you have to go it alone. You might miss a mistake, but between spending tens of thousands on self publishing, or not publishing at all…I’ll take my chances with carefully checking own my own script, and doing my best to market it.

    Simply put, rich people should not be the only ones to publish books.

  22. Great content, But how will you get someone expert when you are a starter? Because you will need a start kapital to start with that the most people do not have! Can you give me some tips?

  23. I wish I had 10 to 15K to spend on a PR campaign so I have to try to go the social media route along with trying to get on some of the major networks. I’m hoping that my controversial topic will peak their interest. Look for my book Aug 2013- “Why Every Black Woman Should Marry A Jewish
    Man- A Book for All Women Looking for the Perfect “Alpha” Male”- blog page:
    Brownsugarmarriesjewishman.wordpress.com or Tweet @NazHinesStarr

  24. Many people are talking about Lithasa ! what is it? http://www.lithasa.com .
    I’ve see that some where a guy said that he liked the design. I myself went to the website and it is simple but good.
    But I would like to know is it perfect for new authors and upcoming authors?
    They do have a separate publishing model.

  25. I enjoy reading the comments from different ones. I write western novels. Ten in four years. I write bind, trim, publish the whole works. I bought a binding apparatus from Colorado called ‘Simplebind’ at a cost of $99.00. If I want my book hot glued I go into town at a printing place and for $0.75 my book is laminated, bound and trimmed. I can’t beat that. I love doing the work myself. I sell my books to people I come in contact with. Most of the time I use a five-minute epoxy glue for my book spines and the results are great. I have three main characters that I use in all my novels as I am working on a 20-30 book series. I am 82 years old so I had better get with it. Anyhow, it keeps me up and going. I love it. Someone asked me if I felt bad if I offer my book to a person and I response..’they don’t have to buy my book.’ I love to write and will keep on even if I just have two or three copies of each novel here in my library. Besides, here in Alabama there are about 5 million people and by the time I meet each one there will be another 5 million to take their place so I will never run out of good people to me and offer my boo. My novels average 170 pages, 5×7 and sell for $7.99 and I give a free country, gospel, cd for free. You see I don’t have to gouge people in order to sell. Happy trails gang!

  26. Great post, thanks. Some fantastic advice here. Having just self-published my first ebook I understand the enormity of the task. Huge task, but hugely satisfying too! Another mistake that I made was thinking (after reading several testimonials, which were probably out of date – my fault, should have checked first) that the most efficient way to self publish was converting the book to HTML. Only after I had painstakingly converted the whole thing did I discover that nowadays amazon and others accept word.docs that turn out without just as you want if they’re correctly formatted! Rookie mistake! DON’T DO THIS, 1st TIME SELF PUBLISHERS, it’s not necessary! :S I did design my own cover, though, which has got a lot of good feedback. I did it using hand drawn images and text, scanned in and reworked on photoshop. This MUST be done with continual consultation (via facebook and other social media where many helpful folk voted and left comments on countless drafts) so I would say it is a possibility. You can see the cover here: smarturl.it/daveynorthcott Let me know what you think …
    Thanks for the helpful post, anyway :)

  27. I literally hate when so-called bloggers list #1. People listen, you have a right to follow your dreams and expect to make a great living doing it. Don’t listen to these regurgitated, recycled, trite \tips.\ If you want to write for the money, then write for the money! You don’t have to listen to the naysayers and doom-dwellers.

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