The Biggest Mistake Self-Publishers Make

On this blog, and throughout my free guide – INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS – I make the point that if self-publishers want to have any chance of success they have to present their work in the most professional manner possible.

That means a good cover designed by a pro, spending money on a professional editor, formatting your e-book correctly, and conducting yourself appropriately when marketing your novel.

There are many self-publishers who skip some or all of these steps and, as a result, there is a lot of crap out there.

On the other hand, you can follow all of the steps, to the letter, and still fall flat – with either poor sales or poor reviews killing your career before it even had a chance.


Publishing before you are ready.

The number one mistake that new writers make – according to agents – is sending out a manuscript before it is ready.

In the past, the writer only had two real choices. Write something new, or revise it. Now there is a third choice – self-publish it.

I’m a huge fan of self-publishing, and I think it’s amazing that writers now have a way to bypass agents and the huge publishing conglomerates and achieve virtually the same reach (in terms of e-books) just by publishing through a few websites.

I’m also a huge fan of the control it gives the writer over every aspect of the publishing process. Writers can decide how their story is presented, and what price it should sell at.

They can also decide whether something gets published at all.

This is a huge responsibility. Writers – for their own sake – must use it wisely. I have a novel – A Storm Hits Valparaíso – and it’s killing me every day it’s not on sale.

I know that sales levels for novels tend to be much, much higher (and they can tap into the higher royalty rate), and I have huge plans for it when it eventually becomes available to the public.

However, I also want my readers to get my best possible work. If I put out sub-standard stories, they will never read another one with my name on it. If I put out great stories, they will read everything I publish.

I could publish my novel now, and I’m sure it would do okay. I have had lots of people read early drafts of it, and they really enjoyed it.

But it’s not ready. And I know it can be a lot better. So I owe it to myself (and my readers), to keep working on it until it is.

Self-publishers need to be very disciplined. They need to look beyond the short-term sales potential and think how every release helps them build a career. And you can only build a career if you have readers coming back for more.

But how do you know when your work is ready for prime-time?

This is tough, it really is. Writers are the worst judge of their own work. They either think everything they write is crap, or amazing, and they can often hold both opinions simultaneously, without contradiction.

It’s quite a trick, but necessary to handle the dichotomy of generating enough confidence to write and complete something, and enough scepticism to edit it effectively.

You need to have beta readers who are honest with you. And you need to be honest with yourself.

Sometimes though, even this has limits. I knew I had a particular problem with this novel – a nut I couldn’t crack – so I sought outside help.

Editorial Report

Over the weekend, I received an editorial report on my novel (not from my regular short story editor, but from one that specialises in manuscript appraisal whom I had engaged previously).

These things are always tough to read.

The standard advice is to read them once, not lingering on any particular part, then leave them in a drawer for a day or two. When you have subconsciously digested some of its findings, you will take it out again and read it closely.

When you have taken it all in, and finished turning the air blue, you can start sketching out a plan of attack. I specifically asked the editor not to sugar-coat it, but to be forthright about the flaws, and not feel the need to pepper the report with false positives to make me feel better.

It’s clear my novel needs considerable work, but I think if I can address the concerns raised, I could have something really strong on my hands.

It was a classic case of a beginning writer biting off more than they can chew, without even realising it.

I have seven main characters in a standard-length historical novel. You will notice that most novels will have one main character, two or three at a stretch. There is good reason for this.

The reader has less opportunity to get to know the characters, and the writer has to work really hard to achieve the requisite level of engagement in the restricted space afforded.

There are additional complications with all of the characters starting in different locations, their respective narrative strands only gradually weaving together, and the whole story being spread over a twelve-year period.

Finally, the action revolves around a war that readers haven’t heard of in a setting they are unfamiliar with.

That’s a lot for a new writer to take on, and I was certainly less skilled in the summer of 2006 when I first started working on it.

I believe I have grown considerably as a writer since. While the task ahead of me is daunting, I do think the novel is salvageable.

The report has given me a couple of pointers, and I’ll think about this properly when I read it again tomorrow, but I’m keen to get to work on this pretty soon.

That’s got to be a good sign.

And when I am done – however long it takes – I will be able to publish it, stand behind, and say proudly: this is my best work.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

24 Replies to “The Biggest Mistake Self-Publishers Make”

  1. One good indicator is that most successful writers bin their first book, some bin their first two – or three – books. One or two I’ve read about wrote 10 books before landing an agent. I have book on the compost heap in the garden. My sister thought it was my best work so far!

    1. Yes, JB, you’re right that’s very, very common. While it’s important to learn how to see a project through to the end (or else you will be forever starting things and never finishing them), it’s equally important to know when to walk away. Painful, but necessary. A skill I am starting to grasp for short stories, but not quite yet for longer work.

    2. So I’m in good company and maybe just count this as earning my stripes — as they say.

      A compost heap (ouch) that’s pretty brutal. I was thinking about just archiving the file for later.

      Thanks for the kind words.


  2. Dave,

    Good post. No matter how mature I want to be about criticism it still stings when you see it in black and white (and blue and red…).

    I have a question. I have a book I’ve been working on for awhile, but like you said I think I bit off more than I could chew (multiple POV characters). How do you know when it is time to stop a project and say that was a good learning experience, but maybe it is time to try a different tact.

    I’m not sure if I’m bailing on this because sometimes writing projects go stale and I need to push through or if I legitimately need to try again with a new storyline. I wrote a first draft realized there was a problem went back to correct it and it changed the story so much it doesn’t feel like my story any more and I’m having a hard time with it.



    1. Josie,

      It’s really hard to make that decision – either way. I have abandoned this novel a couple of times now – once when I was half-way through and realised what I had taken on (didn’t touch it for a year) – and once when I was getting a pile of rejections. It keeps drawing me back – even though I have a ton of short story ideas, and another novel underway.

      As you said, it’s a learning experience, and no word is ever wasted in that every single thing you write gives you more experience that you can draw on the next time – whether you publish it or not.

      You can get all the advice in the world, but ultimately, unfortunately, you are on your own with this decision.

      Sometimes one project can sink you, if you let it. And it’s tough to let go of something you have put so much work into. Experienced writers handle this a lot better, they know when to cut loose and when to fight for a story. It’s something you develop over time, and I am only beginning to get a sense of that with short stories.

      If you really aren’t sure, maybe take a break, try something else. Write a short story, outline a new project. Maybe you will come back to it, maybe you won’t – but remember the time spent on it is never a waste.


      1. Thanks. I think I just needed to hear what I’ve been thinking said by a third party.

        It’s good to see you left your book for a year and came back to it. I guess I was thinking that if I left it sit that it would be final. I think even if I continue with this project it is going to require a lot of brainstorming so in essence it has to sit anyway.

        It’s just hard to admit that it might be one of those in the drawer books when all is said and done. But I have learned a lot writing it. If nothing else I learned to take my time learning about my characters before I begin writing — or a little detail can really get you in the end.

        Like you said you want your best work out there and although this book is good, others might be a better. But I’ll just have to give it time.

        1. And don’t forget – walking away from something doesn’t have to be final.

          Usually it is, but not always. As I said, you could try a short story, that might clear the head-space a little, then try and tackle it again. You may realise it’s beyond you, for now, or you may come at it with fresh impetus.

  3. I would love to make this post required reading for everyone who wants to self-publish. It takes time not only to become a professional in terms of writing skills but also in terms of attitude. When rejections are no longer a personal affront (even if they are still painful and disappointing), when self-publishing is no longer about acting like a pouty child who couldn’t have a cookie before bedtime, when writing is less about ego and more about vision, it’s time. Probably not before then.

    And I cannot emphasis enough how much I agree that we need professional cover designers and editors helping us with our work. Cripes am I glad I went with an editor. And I love my cover. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Margo.

      I also had 18 months on the query-go-round to toughen me up and tighten my work. I thought my first draft was amazing. I thought it had a few kinks here and there, but nothing serious. I was wrong. Very wrong. I have re-written it three times now. It’s a lot better.

      If self-publishing had been this strong a year ago, I’m sure I would have been tempted. That would have been a mistake. New writers today need more restraint than ever. Some writers who publish too soon might get away with it, and learn on the job, and improve as they go. But not everybody can handle growing up in public, and if I had published that first draft, and it tanked, I could have easily walked away from writing.

      I’m glad I got rejected by all those agents. I’m especially grateful for the excellent feedback I received from a few. It really helped.

      Another huge factor, for me, was getting some short stories published. That really was a boost in confidence. If someone gives you a cheque for a story, you know that you can write. After that, I stopped treating rejections as rejections of me as a writer, and started to realise it was the book they were rejecting.

      That’s a big step for a writer.

      1. I found that self-confidence (in writing) can be so incredibly variable. I’ve been in positions that garnered me a lot of praise. Initially, it hurt my writing career — I was too young to know how to handle it. Then I got to the point where praise didn’t have an effect on me – which I thought was a good thing. Then I talked to my editor on Sunday and found out I’m not immune after all. *sigh* We writers are such complicated creatures.

  4. Something I’ve noticed A LOT in the last couple of years is a certain amount of impatience from new authors who have gotten a traditional deal and want to know why it’ll take 12 to 18 months to properly market and launch their book… while their self-published friends are bragging about being a “published author” within 24 hours of finishing the manuscript thanks to the Kindle edition they’ve tossed together with a crappy cover, no editing, and poor formatting.

    If you’re going to self-publish, do yourself a favor and do it right! 🙂

    1. This is true. And there have always been crappy self-published books, but the cost and difficulty held a lot of people back. Now it’s easy, and if you are not spending money on covers and editing then it costs you nothing more than time.

      Ultimately, the writer who goes down that road is only harming themselves (purchasers can always return the book).

      And those one-star reviews don’t go away.

      But what’s worse is the guys who have a good book, then don’t bother putting any time/money into presenting it right. However, I think they are in the minority. Fair or not, when most people see a sloppy cover or description, they will assume the writer has taken as much care with the story.

  5. Good post. But you forget one element. Marketing. Most of the writers are starting to market their novels on the day it’s been released. The problem with this; first week sales counts the most. Usually those ones are the strongest, then it will be weaker (With the exception if the novel goes viral by some reason.). But marketing is also necessary, just as those elements what you’ve mentioned.

    1. You’re right, of course, but even with the best marketing in the world, if your novel isn’t ready, people will read the sample and run away. Or worse, leave a review warning people not to buy it. There are countless examples of self-published novels which got media attention or went viral to some extent (for whatever reason) then got absolutely slated. We’ve all seen the internet pile-ons – never pretty.

  6. Terrific post, David. I agree so much about getting outside assessment before hitting the presses. I always go to the same top editorial consultancy because they don’t believe in sugar-coating. In fact if they don’t like the first 3 chapter submission, they will request you not send yet (rather like submitting to a mainstream agent or publisher). This gives you unambiguous signals, DON’T PUBLISH!
    As to the covers: so very true. I have just contracted the designer of my previous two for my next two simply because her studio has ‘an eye’.
    As to the marketing: if anyone out there has a foolproof dot-point plan that gives one wide-ranging coverage and yet maintains integrity, will they please let me know!

    1. Covers are so important, it’s amazing how people can forget how they shop for books themselves.

      A good cover won’t sell a book, but it will be the reason why you pick it up/click on the listing in the first place.

  7. One problem I have is that I could edit a book forever – what I add in, change or (more frequently) take out depends a lot on my mood, as well as on what else I’ve been reading. I suppose that’s the benefit of traditional publishing – the sense that once a professional editor has looked over it then it’s “done”.

    With regard to binning work, I don’t even call the first novel I wrote my first novel any more, and sometimes I forget that I even wrote it – but I’m quite happy to have written and binned* it, as it’s the novel that taught me how to write.

    *Obviously I couldn’t bring myself to bin bin it – it’s just tucked away in a dark corner of my hard drive.

    1. I know exactly what you are saying. Sometimes I will go on an em dash binge at the expense of most other punctuation. Other times it’s semi-colons. Often its questionable use of commas. Thats when I know it’s either done, or I need a break from it.

      And while it is a benefit of traditional publishing that once it’s been proofed, you have some kind of closure, every published writer will tell you about a typo that annoys them or cliched turn of phrase or a repeated word that they wish they could go back and change.

      With self-publishing, you can alter your text whenever you want.

      In the second story of the collection I published a couple of weeks ago, I felt the end seemed a little abrupt. But when I broke the last couple of lines out into two fresh paragraphs, I felt it gave the reader a little pause right before the end, and it works better. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but it makes a big difference to me, and I’m so glad I had the power to be able to do that.

      However, if you are the kind of writer that can’t ever walk away from a manuscript, that power could be dangerous.

      And re calling something a first novel or not, some people call them “practice novels” – one way of couching it to show (yourself) the time wasn’t wasted. Some published writers are shocked when they look back at these practice novels ten years later – at how bad it was and how good they thought it was at the time.

  8. Great post David. I know I’ve been guilty of at least two of the no-no’s. But this is one of the wonderful things about getting to know other writers. You learn from their experience. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. We can all benefit from this great blog. 🙂 Jeanne

    1. Jeanne, everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made a couple of biggies. The trick is to learn from them.

      And besides, I’ve seen your reviews, you must be doing something right.

      I liked the sample of the Red Balloon by the way, and I hope to read the rest soon (if I ever get a spare minute). That’s the problem with not having a Kindle – so many distractions with reading on a computer, especially when you feel pressure to promote your books every time you are on the internet.

      And I agree about getting to know other writers. If the writing community wasn’t so generous about sharing their own successes, failures, tips, and advice, I would know squat.

  9. A very timely piece. I’m finishing up the first part of a trilogy. Till about a month ago, I was aching to publish it. Now, I’m pretty much convinced it’s smarter to publish all three in one go, even if it means zero sales for another 3 years.

    There are a number of reasons for my change of heart:
    1. I’m starting out, meaning, if I publish one book, that’s all there is. Writers who sell well have at least a handful of titles.
    2. I would think twice about buying part I out of a promised III. If the book is good, I want part II immediately. I don’t want to wait 2-3 years for the sequel. The writer might die and I sure wouldn’t remember what I was waiting for. Also, the cliff-hanger endings in part I and II are liabilities if I publish them one at the time.
    3. Not publishing I and II until III is finished, means I can tinker with the whole. If a great new character shows up in part III, I have the option of foreshadowing it in the earlier parts. It also means I’ll have a better grasp of what to place on those precious covers and ensure that there’s series feel to them.
    4. Like Mr. Gaughran says, you better be great, or no one will come back for seconds (which is a pretty intimidating prospect for any publishing virgin).

    Restraint, perseverance and quality control. Can you believe I started writing because it is fun?

  10. Interesting and honest article. Ever considered publishing that book report that came back to you, here on your blog? It would probably make interesting reading for other writers. For my own part, I haven’t used these kinds of editing services – yet. I’m considering doing so, but the money’s an issue. I’m also a bit suspicious of the real value and quality of the reports you get back. Seeing someone else’s would be an interesting exercise, though I would totally understand any reluctance on your part. Anyway, consider it a challenge – to you or maybe some other authors out there who’ve gone down the same road. Perhaps this could be one of those ‘added extras’ that could be made available with e-books (like the extras that come with move DVDs). Someone could publish not only the early book reports, but even early editions so an interested reader could compare the changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *