3 Keys to Self-Publishing from a Space Shuttle Engineer

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

authors, self-publishing, books, ebooks, editing, covers, proofreadingThe journey to writing and launching that first book is one of the most challenging things anyone can do in their professional career. You’re constantly out of your comfort zone, having to learn a myriad of new things, and must wear every hat in the business realm. It’s no wonder that as many as 80 percent of the books that hit the market fail to sell even 100 copies.

So how can a first-time author get into that 20 percent that sell? Based on my 20 years of experience in product development and marketing, and having run the gauntlet of self-publishing, I believe the following three tactics to be critical to success for a debut author.

Publish a Quality Book

This may sound like very basic advice—and it is—but it’s amazing how many self-published authors fail to understand the concept. The word “quality” is a very broad term. For a book, it can mean the caliber of the writing, the number of typos, the use of evocative vocabulary, the cover, or even the layout and fonts. The general perception is that self-published books are typically lower quality than their traditionally published counterparts, as they seemingly don’t go through the same editorial processes, proofreading and production. And in many cases, that’s true.

But it’s also true that many self-published authors put the time and effort in to deliver a top-quality product that rivals the best a publishing house can put on the market. The problem is that public perception can trump even the best product. All it takes is one typo to reinforce the perception of poor quality, and a reader may put a book down rather than risk suffering through more of the same.

Quality comes with a price, however: editors and proofreaders are expensive. Still, for a new author, it’s well worth paying. The developmental editor I engaged for my book, Casimir Bridge, ripped my original manuscript to shreds, forcing me into a year-long, cover-to-cover rewrite. While it was an extreme exercise to undertake, it took my novel from, as she put it, “an amateur manuscript to a professional quality draft.” It was the best thing I could have done for my book.

Proofreading is also critical, as typos are a common complaint against self-published books—they reinforce that perception of lack of quality. I proofed my manuscript at least a dozen times, had family members with publishing backgrounds do so another five, and there were still so many typos that I decided to engage a professional—twice! Even still, some made it through into the published version. It’s not that typos don’t make their way into traditionally published books—trust me, they do—it’s that readers expect to see them in self-published works and tend to treat them more derisively.

Covers Sell Books

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but most people in fact do. I recently conducted a survey in which I asked people to look at three book covers, and if that was all they had to go by, which they would choose to purchase. One of the covers was from a professionally published book and was brilliantly done. The second was decent—not great, not bad. The third was bad, and I mean really bad. For consistency, all covers had the same name.

For the second question, I added reviews to each, reversing the ratings against the quality of the cover, giving 3.5 stars to the excellent cover, 4 to the middle cover and 4.5 to the bad cover.

Lastly, I added the number of reviews to each, in addition to the rating. The excellent cover 3.5-star book had very few reviews. The middle cover 4-star book had a moderate amount, and the bad cover 4.5-star book had a lot. Take a look at the results:

book covers, cover design, books

As you’d expect, judging a book strictly by its cover meant that the best cover won—nearly three quarters of the people said they’d purchase the awesome cover just based on the visual. When ratings come into play, again, as you’d expect, the higher rated books made up some ground. But still, more than half of the people chose the better cover over the two with better ratings. Then you add in the number of reviews, and the bad cover makes up a lot of ground. But even with a low 3.5-star rating, and very low 12 reviews, the book with the best cover still wins over the 4.5-star book with more than 400 reviews: 41.5 percent to 34.1 percent!

If that doesn’t prove that a good cover is critical, I don’t know what does. Spend the time and money on a very strong cover, it will be well worth the cost.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

Tastes Great, Less Filling. Remember that marketing campaign for Lite Beer? Not to offend anyone who likes Lite Beer, but it doesn’t taste great. The less filling part works for me, primarily because I would never finish one. Yet the marketing campaign was hailed as one of the best of all time, and rightly so. It took a marginal product and made it sell.

The world is littered with failed products, not because they are poorly conceived, but rather because they weren’t marketed effectively. This is especially true of books. Many self-published authors think that they can drop a book on Amazon, get a few sales, word of mouth will take over, and the rest will take care of itself. That almost never happens—the best-written book can languish in obscurity if no one knows it exists.

One of my favorite book series is The Origin Mystery by A.G. Riddle. I use Riddle as an example quite a bit because he tends to do things right. His series has sold more than a million copies and garnered nearly 20,0000 reviews on Amazon. Yet I still see paid advertising for his books—he understands the need for effective marketing, and his books have been successes because of it.

Also, think about giving books away as a marketing ploy. It might seem counterintuitive to authors after they’ve spent so much time and effort to write and publish their novels, but there is a big sea of readers out there, and giving away some books is the equivalent of dropping chum in the water. It might feed a few fish, but it will draw in many more. Look at the graph below depicting my Kindle Unlimited sales before and after I did a very successful, four-day free promotion.

book promotion, sales, kindle

Don’t be afraid to spend on marketing, even if initially what it costs to market is more than you get from sales. Most products that hit the market lose money until they generate enough awareness that organic sales push them into profitability. So set a marketing budget and use it effectively. Poor quality products will sell thanks to great marketing. Great products will fail due to poor quality marketing.

No one ever said self-publishing was easy, but you can be successful by taking some common-sense steps. And if you focus on the important things, you will be well ahead of the game.

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5 thoughts on “3 Keys to Self-Publishing from a Space Shuttle Engineer

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Good advice, particularly about the importance of proofing. I also found your research about covers intriguing. I like seeing my prejudices about their importance confirmed.

    I’d add another suggestion. I’ve been doing covers for 17 years, so I feel comfortable with what I create. But many authors feel that must contract out that work. That’s fine, but keep in mind that cover design has fads like any other field. Today’s fad can result in a cover that quickly becomes dated. Five years from now you may still want to be selling a book but find the cover looks passe. Go for something classic and enduring.

    And spend a lot of time—a lot of time—coming up with a design that uniquely sums up your book. My latest is advice to hospital staff about reducing patient embarrassment (Embarrass Less). Thinking of its audience, I waded through hundreds of stock photos of doctors and nurses either lined up against a wall or at a bedside. All were a dreadful bore.

    Then I decided to jump the tracks. Who are the hospital patients who aren’t embarrassed by their stay, little kids of course. So I found a couple of delightful pictures of two kids playing doctor, one for the front and another for the back. That was perfect. It adds just the right touch of humor.

    And yes, don’t forget that you have two covers, front and back. Many online retailers will show both to potential customers. Make them work together.

    Also, if you’re publishing print on demand (Ingram Spark or CreateSpace), keep in mind that spine alignment can be a problem. Create a spine background that’ll still work if the alignment is off. In practice, that means having a common background color across the front, spine and back. Again, that’s a quality issue that, if not followed, will make your book look cheap.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (YA novel)

    1. willow madison

      Great advice about jackets/spines and thinking outside the box about stock images, Michael. I’d add that authors should consider the inside of books as well — creating unique chapter headings and breaks is a way to emphasize the overall theme and amp up the professional quality too.

      Websites like picmonkey.com make it easier (and even free in some cases!) to manipulate images/fonts without having to pay for a full Adobe suite that can be overwhelming (to me at least 🙂 I used this site recently for a few teasers and was impressed with the quality I could produce as an amateur.

      -Willow Madison, author of we were one once (adult suspense/dark romance) willowmadisonbooks.com

  2. Allen

    Good article all the way around.

    No doubt that cover quality matters, but I don’t think the cover is as decisive as you state. For instance, based on your data, if you have a “bad” cover and transition to a “medium” cover your sales will increase from 9.3% to 16.6%, which is a nice jump. On the other hand, if you kept your bad cover but manged to secure a 4.5 “star” review average, your sales will increase from 9.3% to 22.9%, which is even nicer. Other considerations, of course, include price, blurb, title, and author brand equity.

    Good to see the emphasis on marketing. Most writers loath to even thing about such things, but they have to if they want to get traffic to their book…without traffic, who cares what your cover looks like?

    I did my own cover on my first novel, and it is still selling very well after 15 months, but hard for me to prove it was just the cover or the other things I’ve done, unfortunately. 4.6 stars after 46 reviews helps. 🙂 See it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00V6WXVF2

  3. willow madison

    I saw a link to this article on the Amazon author community forums. Fab reminder about the importance of editing, cover design, and marketing, Darren.

    I mentioned in the forum that the KU Select promotions aren’t available for my chosen genre, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of other websites and blogs that offer that opportunity instead. Some even have a similar immediate positive impact on sales, while others are more the long-haul of consistent marketing paying off incrementally.

    I’d add one factor that you don’t address here in regards to marketing. It was advice I received early on from Trent Evans (author of “What She’s Looking For”). Build a backlist — It’s a point that I think new indie authors should consider in finding a balance between publishing new books and promoting what’s already on the marketing. As far as readers are concerned, we’re all only as good as our last published piece, and the best marketing campaigns aren’t going to help if an author isn’t publishing to keep up with the demands for new works.

    The ‘freebie promo’ tactic seems to be an ongoing debate amongst authors still. With my hands tied (pun intended) by the conservative nature of Amazon’s promo policies, offering a book as a freebie is one of the few venues open to me on that particular platform. I’d be a fool to not at least consider it in my arsenal of marketing strategies.

    Great article.

    – Willow Madison, willowmadisonbooks.com



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