Caveat Venditor—Five Mistakes KILLING Self-Published Authors
All right, it’s about to be a brand new year and many of you are wanting to finally see your books published. ROCK ON! But, I am the friend who will tell you if there is toilet paper hanging out of your pants. Writing isn’t all glitter and unicorns and I want to warn you of the most common stumbling blocks, because I really DO want you to succeed.
When I began writing I was SO SURE agents would be fighting over my manuscript. Yeah. But after almost fourteen years in the industry, a lot of bloody noses, and even more lessons in humility, I hope that these tips will help you.
Self-publishing is AWESOME, and it’s a better fit for certain personalities and even content (um, social media?), but we must be educated before we publish. In fact, my last book Rise of the Machines (cover above) is much more than a social media book. I dedicate a large portion of the book explaining how the various forms of publishing work, because you need to make the best choice for YOU.
I want that decision to be an EDUCATED decision.
Mistake #1 Publishing Before We Are Ready
The problem with the ease of self-publishing is that it is, well, too easy. When we are new, frankly, most of us are too dumb to know what we don’t know. Just because we made As in English, does not automatically qualify us to write a work spanning 60,000-100,000 words. I cannot count how many writers I’ve met who refuse to read fiction, refuse to read craft books, and who only go to pitch agents when they attend conferences at the expense of attending the craft sessions.
Additionally, too many new writers I meet do not properly understand the antagonist. They don’t grasp three-act structure, and most don’t have any idea what I mean when I mention POV, Jungian archetypes, or the phrase, “scene and sequel.”
I see a lot of new writers who believe their story is the exception, that the rules make for “formulaic” writing. No, rules are there for a reason, and, if the writing is too formulaic, it has more to do with execution than the rules.
****And YES, we can and SHOULD break rules but that is another post. Every musician has to learn to play the instrument before reinventing music as we know it.*****
Three-act structure has been around since Aristotle, and there is a lot of evidence in neuroscience that suggests that three-act structure is actually hard-wired into the human brain. Thus, when we deviate too far from three-act structure, it confuses and frustrates readers.
Stories have clear beginnings, middles and ends. Without a clear story objective, it is impossible to generate dramatic tension, and what is left over is drama’s inbred cousin, melodrama. Yet, many writers start off writing a book without properly understanding the basic skeleton of story.
Heck, I didn’t and I deserved every rejection I got…
Writing fiction is therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. Yes, characters should struggle with inner demons, but that does not a plot make. Struggling with weakness, inner demons, insecurity, addictions are all character arc, not plot arc. There should be a core story problem that we can articulate in ONE sentence. The plot arc should serve to drive the character arc. If the character does not grow and change she will fail, but it is the core story problem that drives this change.
No problem, no crucible.
Yes, we are artists, but we need to understand the fundamentals. I played clarinet for years, and yes it was an art. But this didn’t excuse me from having to learn to read music, the finger positions and proper embouchure (the way to position the mouth to play).
The better we are at the basics, the better we know the rules, the more we become true artists.
I’ve received contest winners whose first pages were filled with newbie errors. Yet, when I sent them my critique filled with pages of corrections, I would then receive a reply telling me that the book had already been self-published.
Sometimes there are reasons we are being rejected and we need to take a hard look and be honest. Self-publishing is suffering a stigma from too many writers publishing before they are ready. If you really want to self-publish, I am here to support you and cheer you all the way. Heck, I did it. Will probably do it again.
But remember, though the stigma IS fading we have to write better than the traditional authors.
Mistake #2 Jumping in Before Understanding the Business Side to the Business
I see a lot of writers rushing into self-publishing without properly preparing to be a small business, yet that is exactly what we are. When we self-publish, we take on new roles and we need to understand them. We need to be willing to fork out money for proper editing, cover design and formatting.
One of the benefits to traditional publishing is they take on all the risk and do the editing, proofing, etc. When we go it alone, we need to prepare for some expenses and do our research.
We can be told a million times to not judge a book by its cover, yet that is exactly what readers do. Additionally, we may need to look into becoming an LLC. We need to set up proper accounting procedures and withhold the correct amount of taxes, unemployment, state taxes and on and on.
Mistake #3 Believing that, “If We Write it They Will Come”
There are a lot of writers who mistakenly believe that self-publishing is an easier and faster way to fame and success. Yeah, um no. And those magic beans are really just beans. Sorry.
Self-publishing is A LOT of work, especially if we are starting out this way. If you didn’t defect from traditional publishing and can’t slap New York Times Best-Selling in front of your name? Prepare for a ton of work.
Not only do we need to write good books, but we need to write prolifically. When we self-publish, we need a much larger platform because we don’t have New York in our corner. This is one of the reasons self-publishing isn’t for everyone. We need to look at how badly we want the dream, and then ask how many hours are we willing to work? What are we willing to sacrifice?
Mistake #4 Misusing FREE!
There are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. There are ways to effectively harness the power of FREE! but too few writers understand how to do this and they just end up giving away their art for no tangible gain. This goes with my above point of us needing to understand the business side of our business. When we do choose to give away stuff for FREE! it needs to serve longer-term business goals.
Mistake #5 Shopping One Book to DEATH
One of the BIGGEST problems I see with self-published writers is that they publish one book and then they focus every bit of energy on selling THAT book.
They fill up all the writing hashtags with link spam promoting their books. They keep futzing with the cover, the web site, the promotions. They do blog tours until they drop, and they do everything except what is going to help that book sell a ton of copies…write more books.
Here’s the thing. Self-publishing, in many ways, just allows us to accelerate the career path of the author. Even in traditional publishing, it usually takes about three books to gain traction. In traditional publishing, this takes three years because we are dealing with a publisher’s schedule.
In self-publishing, we can make our own schedule, but it still takes THREE BOOKS MINIMUM. I know there are exceptions, but most self-published successes hit at about book three. The ability to offer multiple titles is a huge advantage.
Just make sure they are good books ;).
This is why it is critical to keep writing. Not only will writing more books make you a better writer, but once people discover they love your writing, they have a number of titles to purchase. Being able to offer multiple titles is how we make money at self-publishing. It also helps us maximize the whole FREE! tactic.
Even I am putting my nose to the grindstone to come out with more books in the next six months. I don’t tell you guys to do anything that, I myself, am unwilling to do. I have two books in a series already written, but I’ve made the decision not to give them to a publisher or publish myself until I have a minimum of THREE finished titles.
This is a profession, not a playpen.
Remember Why We Do This
Self-publishing is a wonderful alternative. Just because we self-publish doesn’t mean we cannot publish other ways, too. I’ve been saying this for a LONG time, but it bears repeating. I feel the author of the future will actually be a hybrid author, and I do believe that the ability to self-publish is challenging all of us to come up higher.
We are striving to be better writers, to be better entrepreneurs, to get better at organization and time-management and to write more books and better books. If we can learn from these mistakes and grow, then the future is ours for the taking.
A little humor from the fabulous David Kazzle…
What have been some of your challenges with self-publishing? In what areas is it forcing you to grow? Have you had to outsource? What sacrifices have you made? Tell us your story!
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.