Monday, August 22, 2011

Self-publishing Screw-ups

Let's talk about self-publishing. I've done it all. Wrote a book. Handled all my self-editing. Hired a professional freelance copy-editor to "polish" the manuscript. Purchased a cover design program from Contracted for professional graphic arts. Negotiated bids for printing, selected the winning contract and worked closely with the printer to "design" the physical book. Along the way, I formed a publishing company, bought ISBN numbers, contracted with a national distribution company, established a publisher contract with Barnes & Noble. Also, purchased a local business license and got a reseller's permit from the California Board of Equalization. Heard enough yet?

Those are the things I did to publish my sci-fi novel, Space Chronicles: The Last Human War. I also made mistakes . . . lots of them . . . mistakes that could have been avoided if I had a good source of guidance along the way. Here are a few of my mistakes that good advice might have prevented:

Mistake #1: Self-publishing. I never sent a single query letter to any literary agent or even a direct submission publisher. Was this a mistake?

Mistake #2: Editing. I hired a freelance copy-editor to do the final edit. That doesn't sound like a bad idea, huh? Well, I "hired" her on a handshake, paid her in advance and established a general timeframe for her to complete the job. I'll give you a hint what happened . . . she gave me a full refund AFTER I had already paid $4,000 for the first 1000 books. How could I have handled this better?

Mistake #3: Rush to print. As soon as my "professional" copy-editor finished her "edit", I simply inserted her suggestions and rushed the book to the printer WITHOUT a final proof reading by yours truly. DUH!

Mistake #4: Cover art. I agreed to a certain basic design with a nationally known graphic artist. We agreed to a price, general specs and the delivery method. Then, he sent me his "contract" and I discovered some outrageous terms. I called him and he became indignant that I would request changes to his contract. We parted company and all that time and effort was wasted. Fortunately, I discovered a young up-and-coming graphics artist (in Denmark) who gave me exactly what I wanted for half the price, but I lost a lot of time and burned a bridge in the process. See the mistakes I made here?

Mistake #5: Constructing a book. My printer seemed wonderfully helpful. He suggested using higher grade paper, saying it would result in a more professional looking book and would have a nice heavy "feel" to it. He also helped me use Adobe In-Design to layout the actual printed pages, including page/book size, bleed, removing "widows and orphans" and properly numbering the table of contents based on final book specs. What went wrong? I listened to the printer! He's selling stuff, not necessarily interested in my bottom line. Everything he said sounded good, so I didn’t question his judgment. Result? The final weight was a full pound per book. Do you know how much it costs to ship 48 books per case to a wholesale distributor? Even the sale of individual copies cost $2.50 per book to ship USPS Media Mail. Also, the extra high quality paper made the book so stiff that the "tightness" of the perfect binding forced a reader to break the spine to be able to open the book comfortably. I’ll bet Marisa or Jo Ann at Literary Powerhouse Consulting would have offered better ideas.

Mistake #6: Website. Rookie mistakes on the website. I was excited about building a website that showed off my awesome graphics. I provided a "free" chapter to attract buyers and added some interesting back-story, trying to draw people into the book. It was a “show” website, not a “selling” website.  Initially, I did not even provide a mechanism for interested people to purchase directly from the publisher. I literally did not ask people to buy it! I figured a good show was all that was needed and the public would beat a path to the bookstore. DUH! Marketing advice would have been especially valuable at this point.

Mistake #7: Free books for promotion. I managed to make a profit on this book, mostly by direct author sales and book signings.  Word-of-mouth created by some "Centers-of-Influence" (people whose opinions influence others' buying decisions) saved the day. You may be wondering, if my promotions led to hundreds of sales, then where is the mistake? Taxes! When I had to report to the Franchise Tax Board the number of books I "distributed", they included promo books and forced me to pay taxes on the free books I gave to Centers-of-Influence. Then, my CPA informed me that special tax rules apply to the publishing industry. I could NOT write off my printing expenses in the year they were incurred. I was forced to write them off only against actual sales each year. I don't know what advice LPC could have given me on this matter, but at least I would not have been surprised when my $4,000 printing deduction was rejected.

Mistake #8: Marketing.  I overcame resistance from Barnes & Noble, when they agreed to carry my book. Whoopee! I thought I could now count on a steady stream of sales. Nope. They only order very small quantities from “small” publishers and toss them into a few test markets. If those first 20 books sell, they’ll order another 30 copies. Big whoop! And they don’t help you market.  There’s a concept called "wallpaper" in bookstores. It means that the only books that get substantial exposure (end-cap displays or "special" displays like the "New Releases" rack) are those from big publishing houses. All the rest of the books in the aisles are known as "wallpaper.” There are ways to overcome this limitation often called “guerilla” marketing techniques. Some of the guerilla marketing ideas are fun; like reverse shoplifting, piggy-back sales or borrowed prestige. Of course, the best way to make bookstore sales is with book-signings. Book-signing events are also an area where LPC can offer ideas to attract more customers/sales. A well-designed and advertised book signing is worth it’s weight in gold. I could have used such advice!

Mistake #9: Liability. My book is still out there. B&N still has some inventory along with a few other places. I recently decided to stop marketing The Last Human War in hope of attracting a traditional publisher that can re-publish and offer the kind of market penetration I need for substantial sales. The problem is those copies in current inventory are a liability that may come back to haunt me. Book stores and wholesale distributors have a contractual right to return any unsold copies for a full refund. That liability requires me to hold a cash “reserve” against unsold returns. Is this a “mistake”? Nope. It’s the way the industry works, but it came as a surprise to me, because I did not have the benefit of advice from a company like LPC to guide my decisions.

So, there you go. I could list more lessons that I learned the hard way, but I think I’ve already shown plenty of completely avoidable mistakes that could have been resolved with proper advice. Fortunately, Literary Powerhouse Consulting offers self-publishing authors such a resource to smooth out the bumps in the publishing road. Don’t learn the expensive way . . . like I did!


  1. This post sent shivers up and down my spine. It terrified me more than the books I write! I'm endeavoring the traditional route, but just in case I decide to take the scenic (longer) route, I'll definately keep your lessons in mind. I'm worn out just reading what you had to do to get self-published. I don't have the energy for that. Lazy, maybe? Or just opting for the trad route first before I attempt a project of that magnitude! Thanks for writing this!

  2. Wow Dean, where do I begin! I can't believe that you've gone through all of these things! I'm so happy that we found each other! Thank you for the kind words. If anyone wishes to follow up on your advice and contacts the Literary Powerhouse for consulting, we will give them a 10% discount. :) Thank you for posting!

    All the best,

  3. Dean,

    Valuable knowledge earned through dedication and experience. Someone serious about self-publishing would certainly benefit from what you've shared.


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