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7 Worst Mistakes Indie Authors Make by Joanna Penn

To be an independent author means taking your book project seriously. But most of us haven’t been in publishing for our whole careers, so it’s inevitable that we make mistakes along the way.

Mistakes aren’t bad either. They are the human way to improve and learn. But it helps if we can help each other!
I’m not perfect and I continue to learn along the writer’s journey but here are the worst mistakes I have made and seen others doing too. I’d love to hear from you in the comments about your mistakes as by sharing, we can all improve together.
(1) Not spending enough time learning about you, your book and your audience
You need to get to know yourself as well as understand the goals for your book and the needs and expectations of your audience. If you don’t understand your goals, how will you know what path to follow and whether you are successful or not?
For example,
* Know yourself. If your dream is to have your book in every physical bookstore and airport, then you should be looking at traditional publishing. If you just want to reach readers, go ebook only with a low price or free. If you want to make income, make sure you have other products behind the book.
* Know your book and your genre. If you are writing historical romance, you should be reading that type of book and understanding what the audience is looking for and then making sure your book fits the niche – or look for another niche.
* Are you in this for the long haul or is this one book everything to you?
There are lots more questions to ask yourself. The key is to spend time reflecting and writing around these topics which will really help shape your publishing decisions.
(2) Not getting a professional editor
The #1 criticism of self-published books is that they are not professional enough and I believe quality is in direct proportion to the amount of rewriting you do and then the editing you have. Seriously.
I really think that every writer needs an editor.
If you get a pro editor, and take their advice, your book will improve beyond anything you could imagine. I’ll go further and say you need two editors – a developmental one for the structure of the book, and a copy-editor for the line detail and cleanup.
If you can’t afford an editor, then join a writing community and barter with other writers, editing each other’s work. You need more eyes on your manuscript, especially at the beginning when you are learning your craft.
(3) Not getting professional book cover design
We want our books to stand alongside traditionally published books and have the same level of quality. Unless you are already a designer specializing in books, then I recommend you hire someone. Check out Joel at The Book Designer or Derek Murphy’s CreativIndie book covers here.
If you really want to DIY, then read everything on TheBookDesigner.com including the Ebook Cover Design Awards so you can understand what works.
Your sales will be significantly impacted by a fantastic cover, and if your sales are lagging, changing your cover design can give your book the lift it needs.
(4) Doing a large print run without having a distribution deal
This was one of my big mistakes and I still hear of people spending thousands of dollars to print books that end up in their garage, until eventually they end up in the landfill. Only do a large print run if you have an agreed distribution deal with a bookstore or distributor, or if you’re a speaker or have a business where you can shift those books easily.
You should also consider carefully whether you really want to publish a print book at all. Many authors go ebook first these days, and only do print if sales make enough to cover the costs and also when they have fixed those last errors that snuck through.
If you still want to do print, then brilliant. For the best result, hire a book designer for the interior as well as the cover and go with print on demand as the first option. This means the book is printed when it is ordered which means no major upfront costs, no warehousing, no postage or packaging issues. It’s life-changing for authors! 
You can also order a few copies at cost to give to people or sell yourself.
(5) Paying way too much for services you can do yourself with a little education
I still get emails from people who have paid $10,000 for an author services package and received 100 books as well as losing their rights. Or people who have paid $5000 for their author website without knowing how to update it themselves, or those who have joined a so-called bestseller campaign to find themselves out of pocket.
I know most authors aren’t that interested in technology, but it is worth a little short term pain to empower yourself with some knowledge and save yourself a lot of money in the process. For example, if you just have a plain text novel, pay $49 for Scrivener and format your book yourself for Kindle and ePub. Then you can change the files whenever you like.
Get a WordPress site and do the free tutorials so you can update it yourself. Learn the basics of email marketing and social media and start to build relationships that will last over time. Remember, this is a long-term career so it’s worth investing in your own knowledge.
It’s definitely necessary to pay professionals for a service but make sure you know:
a) why you need it
b) how things will work in the future e.g. changing things, which is 100% likely to happen
c) what your alternatives are
(Obviously I don’t mean you should scrimp on editing or cover design but shop around and get the
best deal for you and the right person for the job!)
(6) Doing no marketing at all, or getting shiny object syndrome
When I launched my first book, I only knew about offline marketing and mainstream media. I made it onto Australian national TV and radio and still sold no books. That’s when I decided to learn about online marketing. Life has been a lot better since!
Many authors think marketing involves bookmarks or physical book signings but these are probably the least effective forms of marketing.
Other people get into blogging, then Twitter, then Pinterest, Facebook, podcasting, video etc all in the same week and then burn out with exhaustion and decide that marketing doesn’t work. This is ‘shiny object syndrome’ – jumping onto the newest, latest thing without giving the last thing a chance to work over time.
My advice here is to give something a try for six months of concerted effort before you expand into new areas. I started with a year of blogging, then moved into Twitter and podcasting, later I went with Facebook and video. These are my core marketing and platform building activities but they all took time to build.
Find what you enjoy and stick with it.
(7) Focusing everything into one book
When my first novel Pentecost came out, I was entirely focused on marketing it and making my new fiction career work. I heard the pros say you need more than one book but I was sure I could make it successful.
I put everything into the launch and utilized the large network I had build up over years online, but my initial sales weren’t enough to really launch any kind of career. Two years later, I have 3 ARKANE thrillers that have sold over 50,000 copies and they sell better together than one novel did alone, and I do a lot less marketing.
I definitely believe that you need to do some marketing to get the sales rolling, to gain initial reviews and build your platform for the long-term, but you also need to get writing.
The long haul career of a pro-writer involves always working on the next book. Celebrating the last, but getting on with the next. This is our passion, but also our job. Obsessing over marketing one book isn’t as important as getting on with the next.
I hope my mistakes stop you from making the same ones!

Joanna Penn is the author of the ARKANE thrillers, Pentecost, Prophecy and Exodus. Her site for writers http://www.TheCreativePenn.comhas been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers and for self-publishers. It offers articles, audio and video on writing, publishing and book marketing. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn

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This Post Has 37 Comments
  1. Excellent post – and one a bit more in the world of reality about editing – a new indie can’t afford hundreds of dollars to pay for an editor. I’ve done betas on people’s books then read the final product when the editor was done – sometimes it was better – sometimes the same and sometimes the heart had been ripped out.

  2. Excellent post Joanna.
    A mistake I made a few years back was to use an editor before trialling. Cost quite a bit of money to find out I hadn’t picked the right editor for me. Now I always ask to trial a chapter of several pages.

    1. So I’ve started contacting editors who I think I’d like to work with and ask if they’ll do a free trial edit of a chapter. At this point in time I haven’t had a freelance editor say no to my request. I can usually tell if they give the feedback that I’ll be able to receive from a chapter of their edits. I look for things like – do I feel like they are they trying to change my writing voice. do their suggestions mostly improved the way I’ve written. what is the tone they they edit with ( I know we need to be tough skinned – but I need a kind editor)
      Does that answer your question? xx

  3. Thank you! You’ve made me feel better about taking my time writing in different genres to find my voice and my niche. I love Scrivener and am glad to hear it’ll help when I decide I’m ready to pub 🙂

  4. Excellent post, Joanna! You give so much practical advice. It’s interesting how you were able to market less for your second book and beyond with better results. I see with traditionally published authors too a huge focus on their debut book and then pulling back on marketing with future books. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Thanks so much for the great post, Joanna! You really offered up a lot of food for thought, and your experience at what went wrong as well as what went right as you launched yourself really gives this great credibility. Thanks for sharing the lessons you’ve learned–much appreciated!

    Angela Ackerman

  6. Excellent post and advice as always, Joanna, thank you so much for sharing! I have been blogging for just over a year, created a book and an author page on Facebook and Goodreads, and am currently building a twitter platform – but taking my time with all of these platforms. I published my debut poetry book in July 2012, and because it’s such a niche market sales are slow but trickling. I’m currently working on a second poetry book, and drafts of a mid-grade and a contemporary romance novel. I was worried about having too many projects in the works, but after reading this, I’m glad to be moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace, lol). Thanks for the awesome post!

    1. Julie, Poetry is notorious difficult to sell, so you might find that you sell more copies after you have some novels out there and people get to know your voice. I think poetry is more about love than money – but romance, that can definitely make some money!

  7. Re: Scrivener. I just need it on my iPad and I’ll switch over across all my misc. devices.

    I just received a survey on self-publishing from KDP and found the questions interesting. If I were to read the tea leaves I’d say Amazon is going to get into the content marketing arena in a big way. Talk about a new shiny object! I know they’re in the marketing biz now, but the questions were definitely drilling down on how much I need a marketing partner. I think the gist of of my answers was, I need one a lot!

    Question for Joanna: Have you worked with a marketing firm? And if so, is there a marketing firm that you could recommend for authors? Thanks for the post!

    1. No, I haven’t worked with any marketing firm. I really do believe the author is the best marketer, and I have never had the budget. I have spent money on pro design, editing and email blasts through services like PixelofInk etc, but it’s mostly about time 🙂

  8. If a new writer reads this post, she’ll have saved herself at least two years of heartache and “spending thousands of dollars to make dozens of cents”.

  9. Joanna, Thank you for being at Indie Recon. I think you have covered all the bases. I will ditto Scrivener. For $49 it is just great for publishing ebooks and for revising. And you are wise to recommend authors to really get to know themselves, their books, and their audience. For me it has been part of my learning curve. One of the positive and fascinating aspects of social media is how it can force you to learn more about yourself. Very cool stuff!

    Congratulations on your success!

  10. What a great article. Who would have thought that something as simple as changing your cover was a way to help lagging sales.
    Excellent posting, Joanna.

  11. Hi Joanna. Your article is fantastic! I am jumping into fiction and would love your advice. In releasing a romance series, how far apart do you space the release? (I plan on releasing on amazon, both print and kindle. I have only one non-fiction book which is selling around 30 units per day as a marker for my current platform.)

    I sincerely appreciate your tips and your time. Jennifer

    1. Hi Jennifer, I’m pretty sure that most people would say ‘as fast as possible’ 🙂
      Remember you can also run promotions on the first book as the release the others as well, with price drops or free or giveaways.
      As someone who moved into fiction, I can say you should be presently surprised and pleased by the fiction sales compared to non-fiction 🙂 and certainly I had a real jump after 3 novels were available.

  12. Thanks for a great post (and site!), Joanna. Oh, editing. I’ve read several books that would have been great if they’d been edited. A good editor can fix everything you broke and still leave your voice intact. I was very happy to find one. 🙂

  13. Joanna, too many wanna-be authors jump in with both feet and sink to the bottom and wonder why. They often jump into the deep end without knowing how to swim. I researched first and then jumped in.

  14. I find the “knowing your audience” bit the hardest… I also find that I’m writing books that could be either MG or YA but I’m not 100% sure which to focus on. Thanks for a great post. This information is succinct and ever so useful!

  15. Joanna thanks so much for your insights. I have so many book projects I am currently working (two have over 100,000 words each moving closer to completion and one is a graphic novel) . I was thinking that I was crazy to have so many “pans in the fire” but now I realize i was just setting myself up for having more product to sell!

    1. Like you, Robin, I worried about the number of book projects (and you’re doing a graphic novel as well? Wow!).

      I found this post by Joanna both informative and a bit frightening. Know your audience? Eep! But yeah, I do actually see what she means.

      Good luck on your projects, Robin, and thank you, Joanna, for a great post.

    2. I do find having too many projects on the go makes my brain explode – so I focus on keeping one main one heading towards publication and the rest on the backboiler. It’s extremely important to finish and to ‘ship’ [as Seth Godin says]

  16. Another great post Joanna. It’s amazing how much the price drops on print books with volume. Question – Do you think it best to launch ebook first, then follow with paperback – or together at the same time?

    1. I am definitely of the opinion that the ebook should ‘settle’ before you do print. Based on my own experience, even after multiple editors, there will be some problems you want to fix, or even another light edit you want to do. Yes, you can change the POD copy but it is more hassle than just uploading a new ebook version, so I think doing print a bit later is the best idea. (my opinion though!)

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