How NOT to Self-Publish: 12 Things for New Indies to Avoid

Self-publishing has lost its stigma, and it’s the publishing path of choice for a lot of writers these days.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Or that everybody who self-publishes will succeed.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of writers dive in head first without having a clue what they’re doing. Even long-time trad-pubbed authors who think they know the ropes can make fatal errors because self-publishing has a different set of rules. One of them lamented his fate in an article in Salon recently.  

But the poor guy had an amateurish cover (not-to-do #3)  and a dismal Amazon buy page (#4). He also tried to market an ebook like a trad-pubbed book (#7). Most of all he seems to think self-publishing means “second-class,” so he presented his book as a second-class product.

Full disclosure here: I'm not self-published. I'm "indie" in the old fashioned sense—I publish with a small, independent press. But I belong to lots of indie groups where the vast majority of authors are self-published. Quite a few are doing very well for themselves—better than the average mid-lister with a big publisher—but many more aren't.

Unlike Tolstoy's happy families, most happy indies are not alike. Successful indies seem to follow quirky, personal paths. But the less successful ones seem to make similar mistakes.

If you want to launch a career as a professional, self-published author, here are some things it's better not to do.

1) Publish your first novel before you’ve written a second. 

The most popular way of marketing a self-published book right now is giving away a lot of free copies. But this only works if you have other books for the customer to actually pay for.

You should write at least two novels before you try to publish—whether you’re hopping on the query-go-round or self-publishing. Marketing takes a whole lot of time, and once you’re doing it, writing novel #2 is going to be really tough. Give yourself at least two novels worth of time before you jump into becoming an author-publisher.

2) Think you don’t have to follow “writing rules” because you’re not dealing with agents and publishers. 

A lot of those "agent rules" are based on stuff that’s hardwired to the human brain. If you’re boring or self-indulgent, you’ll get bad reviews, disgruntled customers and dismal sales.

Some agent rules can be ignored, like "no prologues", "never use the word 'was',"  and “if you’re not writing YA Steampunk Zombiepocalyptic dystopian romance, go die."

But things like, “start with an inciting incident, not 49 pages of musing”…that’s going to be a good rule no matter how you publish.

And yeah, you need a plot. Successful self-publishers are almost all genre writers. Literary musings probably aren't going to sell to an online audience—and successful indies make most of their sales online.

Also, you still have to learn basic spelling and grammar rules. They are the tools of your trade.

3) DYI editing, cover design and formatting 

Some of the early Kindle pioneers got away with amateurish presentation. There weren’t so many ebooks to choose from in 2009 and 2010. Now, there are 1000s of new indie titles coming out every day. You gotta have a professional-looking product or you’re not going to sell.

4) Amateurish buy page 

Lots of indies neglect their buy pages on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc. Make sure you take advantage of the "editorial reviews" section if it's offered, and include quotes from good blog reviews. Check to see if the “peek inside” feature is working, and write a snappy product description.

Here's some great advice on how to write a compelling product description in a guest blogpost from indie superstar Mark Edwards.

5) Market exclusively to other authors

Unless you have a nonfic book for authors like HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE (had to get a plug in there), other authors aren't your market.

Bloghops are a fun way to get to know other authors, but they don't sell a lot of books

And guilt-tripping and spamming author sites that are meant for mutual support and exchange of information is going to backfire. There are some authors I'm much LESS likely to read because they’ve hijacked author info sites with “tweet and share and make my book the most successful in history and screw you if you have a book to sell too because I’m going to bump my posts up the thread every 15 minutes…it's all about me, me, ME!!”

You want to make FRIENDS with other authors, not get to the top of their list of "A**hats to Avoid."

Successful indie authors know their audience and market to that niche. As indie publishing guru Orna Ross said, "to succeed as an indie you need to go where your readers are, which means understanding your place within the reading ecosystem."

6) Solicit a bunch of phony rave reviews 

Getting Aunt Susie and the gals in her garden club to all write glowing reviews of your opus can backfire, big time. Buying fake reviews is even worse. Ditto manipulating other authors into positive review exchanges. Some writers have even written themselves dozens of  rave reviews under various aliases. All this stuff erupted in a big review scandal last September.

Amazon responded by removing 1000s of reviews and banning some writers from Amazon for life. You may not love the Mighty Zon, but it still sells more ebooks than any other site. You’d miss them.

And don't bully your readers into reviewing. It's fine to ask for reviews from time to time, but readers are starting to get fed up with all the begging, spammy newsletters. An angry reader vented on the subject in the HuffPo recently.

7) Expect a lot of sales right away

Self-publishing works on the principle of slow building. It doesn’t work like traditional publishing with a big splash, push for about a month, then a slow petering of sales, followed by returns, pulping the leftovers and rinse, wash, repeat. Self-publishers sell mostly ebooks, and ebooks are forever.

A title can sell nothing for months—or even years—then suddenly take off once you’ve built an audience with other books.

8) Put on an expensive book launch party 

If you want an excuse for a fun get-together with your friends who haven’t seen you all those years you’ve been in your writing cave—fabulous. You deserve a celebration.

But as a marketing tool, it doesn’t make much sense. A real-world book launch is expensive. Even if you can get it in the local paper, you’re not likely to make enough money back to pay for it unless you have a very large, wealthy, extended family who have all pledged to buy copies in bulk.

9) Treat other authors in your genre as rivals instead of colleagues

It’s not a zero-sum game. The rising tide raises all boats. If your genre is hot, more people will read it.

One of the most disappointing things in the review scandal last fall was discovering that some authors were actually writing fake 1-star reviews for other authors in their genre, in some misguided hope they’d push their “rivals” off the bestseller lists.

That’s not the way it works. If you can get interest in your genre, all the authors in it will sell more. Teaming with more successful authors can do nothing but help your own sales. Patrice Fitzgerald did this with Hugh Howey—getting his permission to write a novella in his Wool series—and her career took off.  So who knows, you might actually be able to collaborate with the star in your genre some day, the way so many authors do with James Patterson.

Appearing in anthologies with big sellers can also really boost your sales. So don’t fight them, join them!

10) Publish through a vanity press 

“Oh, sure. I know that,” sez you. "I’d never get duped by a scammy outfit like PublishAmerica. I’m going with a big name publisher: Simon and Schuster. I'm using their self-publishing wing, Archway."

Sorry. Archway is run by AuthorSolutions, a notorious vanity publisher (even though AS is now owned by Penguin.) A lot of people thought the Penguin buy was a bad move, and the lawsuits suggest that’s the case. Unfortunately a lot of other traditional publishers are teaming up with AuthorSolutions too, like Hay House's Balboa Press, Thomas Nelson's West Bow Press, and Harlequin's Horizons. Don't go there.

For more on vanity presses and how to avoid them, see David Gaughran's Blog or  Writer Beware.

You don’t want to publish with a vanity press because they make money off the author, not book sales. They often charge 10 times what the normal self- publishing route would cost and the books are so overpriced you can’t make a profit selling them.

There is a tried and true method of self publishing that almost all self publishers use. Don’t self-publish without reading this from Sarah Woodbury. There are a whole lot of books out there on self-publishing. Probably too many, as Porter Anderson lamented in Writing on the Ether this week. The one I see most highly recommended by successful indies is David Gaughran's, Let's Get Digital. (on sale for 99c this week. No. Mr. Gaughran doesn't give me kickbacks, alas.)

The indie’s best friend, Mark Coker of Smashwords, has lots of great information on his site for free. Or  if you need affordable help with the tech side of self-publishing, try BookBaby or Draft2Digital. Smashwords, BookBaby and Draft2Digital help you with formatting and post to retail sites for you, but they are not publishers or vanity presses. BookBaby provides ebooks and pbooks (paper).

The two biggest pbook printing companies are CreateSpace (owned by Amazon) and LightingSource (owned by Ingram, the biggest distributor to bookstores in the US) Lulu is good too, but beware their more expensive packages—those have gone over to the Author Solutions dark side, too

11) Believe there is one formula for publishing success 

What worked in the past may have been overworked since then. And what sells books in one genre may not work in another. Every book and every marketing plan has to be different.
Pay attention to your own sales and what seems to boost them. Do more of that. And be patient. Very patient. And go write another book. That’s the only proven way to increase sales.

12) And the biggest no-no of all? Dissing a reviewer who doesn’t like your book

Somebody is going to hate your book. I guarantee it. And they may be snarky about it. Especially if the book is self-published. But trad-pubbed books get nasty reviews, too. Look at the nearly 150 one star reviews of The Great Gatsby. Or some of the bad reviews J.K Rowling got for the Casual Vacancy. Every reviewer dislikes some books, and some reviewers revel in their dislikes. Put-downs can be fun, unfortunately.

Accepting the snark with grace is part of being a professional. You will feel the sting, of course, but deal with your anguish offline. Anything you do in response to a negative review is likely to backfire in a major way.

Note: this does not extend to bullying. Most bad reviews are not “bullying,” but some misguided morons do abuse the review system in order to attack or "punish" authors for imagined transgressions or out of sheer malevolence. People who use reviews for bullying generally follow a certain pattern.

1) They make it pretty clear they haven't read the book
2) They attack an author personally
3) They often attack in packs, using identical talking points
4) They may be organized by a "rival" author (yeah, mean people are usually kinda stupid, too.)

If you are being bullied, do NOT respond to the bullies in the comments or engage with them in any way. But DO report them for abusing the review system. I'm glad to hear that Amazon is rolling out a new program for reporting abuse. If you see this kind of bullying happening on any author's buy page, report it.

All writers benefit from fighting this kind of abuse, because it renders the whole review system useless.

If you're a victim, stay away from groups where bullies hang out and try to get some good professional reviews to quote in your product description to counteract the lies.

And trust that your readers can tell the difference.

If you want to read more about online bullying, I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago on Gangs of New Media.

If you're still sitting on the fence about self-publishing, Orna Ross has a great post this week at Jane Friedman's blog with 15 questions to ask before you self publish.

If you'd rather go the traditional route, but don't write in a genre on the agent hot list right now, take a look at indie presses. Escargot Books, listed below, has just opened to submissions in most fiction genres and accepts both agented and non-agented work. And there's a list of small digital presses with ratings at

What about you, scriveners? Have you made any of these mistakes? Have they turned out not to be mistakes at all? And what’s up with that steampunk stuff? If agents love it so much, why isn’t it all over the bestseller list? Have I missed something? What other advice would you give a new indie author? Have you ever been bullied by a review bully? 


Roxanna Britton, a biographical novel by Shirley S. Allen will be FREE on Amazon from May 22-25. It's Little House on the Prairie meets Jane Austen. In this wonderful novel, my mom tells the story of her own great-grandmother, an amazing pioneer of the Old West.

 "This true biographical novel of an American pioneer is gripping and exciting in every sense. From Ohio to California one cannot help but admire the courage of the Britton women... If true history is your cup of tea, I strongly advise you to buy this book."--Karen Mabry Rice

"A family saga I could not put down. Ms. Allen has written a fascinating tale of real people, full of danger and tension, in prose that flows easily and pulls the reader along."--Susan Tuttle

The Gatsby Game, based on a real unsolved Hollywood mystery, is only 99c at Amazon and Barnes and Noblethrough May 31st, in honor of the debut of the Baz Luhrmann film. It's based on the mysterious death of David Whiting, a man I knew in college. Nobody knows what happened the night he died in Sarah Miles' motel room during the filming of a Burt Reynolds movie, but I have a theory, and this is a fictionalized account of it. Like David, my anti-hero Alistair Milbourne is obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and imagines himself to be "the ghost of Jay Gatsby, in a straw boater and spats, whistling a tune by Cole Porter." 

"I was thoroughly entertained by The Gatsby Game. It has all the elements for a good mystery, and would also appeal to readers who enjoy romance in a women’s fiction style. I give the characters, cultural references, story building, and especially the slightly sarcastic narrator voice a 5 star rating" --Donna Hole


1) Iron Writer Insane-a-Thon!

The Dreadful Cafe will hold their annual writing marathon on July 13, 2013. There are prizes for the most words written in a 24 hour period and for raising the most money for their charity, St. Jude's Hospital. It's a wild and crazy insane-a-thon for a great cause. More at The Dreadful Cafe. Send in your entry to before July 14th.

2) Spoonfuls of Stories Contest 

For new, unpublished writers of children's fiction. HUGE prizes for the winning stories for children age 2-6. This contest, sponsored by Cheerios, offers a $5000 grand prize and some hefty runners-up prizes too. More info at  Deadline is July 31. 

3) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK 

DEADLINE EXTENDED! Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their free or sale books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until June 30th, on a first come, first served basis.

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

4) Orion Magazine

Submission Window Opens June 1  “America's finest Environmental Magazine" is open to submissions only three times a year. Orion accepts essays, narrative nonfiction, interviews, and short fiction that focus on nature, culture, and place. 1,200 to 5000 words.

5) Escargot Books is expanding its catalogue and are now accepting submissions.

Crime fiction (dark thrillers to cozies), women’s fiction, health and fitness, children’s, sci-fi and dystopian. All books will be published in digital format. Some books will be chosen for print and/or audio as well. Escargot Books does not offer an advance, but they offer higher royalties than traditional publishers, especially for direct sales from our website, as well as editing, formatting, promotion, and the company of bestselling authors. This is an indie press with some big name authors and a good track record. Here’s their online submission form.

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