5 Proven Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

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Looking for a way to get in?

I am in the process of surveying independent booksellers to learn what they have to say about self-published books and authors. The early returns are very enlightening. Self-published books as a rule don’t sell well primarily because they are poorly illustrated (in the case of children’s books) or are in need of professional editing. Often the quality of the printing is amateurish and whoever lays out the book neglects to put the title, and author on the spine.

Does content make a difference? Yes, it does. The most likely self-published books to sell concern themselves with themes of local or regional interest. Sometimes a folksy, handmade quality improves sales on those titles, but don’t count on it.

Will bookstores buy self-published books? Not usually. Sometimes not at all. There are those who might consider a consignment if it fits their demographic and product mix. They may provide limited shelf exposure and if the book does well they could decide to buy that title in the future, but don’t hold your breath. Independent booksellers are aware of the plight of self-publishers because they too are often self-employed. They would be happy to see a S.P. author succeed, but they will not, nor should not, risk their businesses on the untried and unproven. I don’t blame them, do you?

Let’s examine some of those complaints further.

  1. Poorly Illustrated. Just because Cousin Jimmy can draw pretty well, doesn’t make him a professional illustrator. There is a reason that illustrators, graphic designers, and layout artists are paid a lot of money. What they do adds value to the book. You may buy into the saying, don’t judge a book by its cover, but when considering a book purchase where do you start? Do you even pickup a book that doesn’t catch your eye? Have you wondered why traditional publishers are willing to spend so much money on expensive printing flourishes like foil stamping, embossing, and film lamination? Eye candy. Do you have to incur these expenses for your book? No, you don’t, but you may suffer fewer sales as a result. “The devil is in the details,” after all.
  2. Lack of or Unprofessional Editing. Your third grade English teacher was right, how you say it is at least as important as what you say. In the book business grammar and spelling don’t count for part of the grade, they are the grade. Present a book to a bookseller filled with mistakes and it won’t take a minute for you to be turned down, and turned down flat.  Don’t say that colloquial authors like Mark Twain got away with it. First of all, you are probably not Mark Twain. Second, if you read beyond the dialogue you will see meticulous attention to spelling and grammar. And PLEASE don’t hire someone you know, or someone in the family to be your editor. You want the editor to take a hard-eyed look at your work and not be afraid to tell you where the bear went in the woods. The focus of a professional editor is strictly on the work and your tender ego isn’t a factor.
  3. Book Layout. Are your even page numbers on the left-hand page and your odd numbers on the right? Do you start new chapters on a new page, and is it an odd numbered page? If your chapter ends on an odd numbered page did you leave the next page blank? Do you count blank pages as part of your total when seeking printing bids? If your book is soft cover, did you make sure the title and author appear on the spine? If your book is hardcover with a dust jacket do you have the title and author name on both the hardcover and the dust jacket?
  4. Content. If the book is fictional does the story hold up? Does the plot unveil itself logically? If there’s a surprise ending, did you build a case for it throughout the book? Even some bestselling authors forget that rule. It is almost as if they get tired of the manuscript or their editor is pushing for more pages and they just wrap it all up with an illogical conclusion. One of my favorite contemporary authors, Stephen King, has been guilty of introducing a monster out of nowhere to conclude a novel. If your book is non-fiction, did you do your research, or hire someone to do it? You should be ready to substantiate every fact. If you are ever caught just-making-stuff-up you can say goodbye to your writing career, and do I have to say anything at all about plagiarism? Three words–don’t do it! If you quote someone, make sure you have their permission. The same goes for using trademarked properties, or lyrics, or anything proprietorial.
  5. Ho-Hum Book or Premise. Let’s face it; a self-publishing author can’t succeed with a product that is as good as a traditionally published book. You will have to find some way to be superior to the other material on the bookshelf. I realize that is a heavy responsibility, but if you think about it you will know that it is the truth. There are other ways to market your book, but if you want to go through traditional distribution channels, be prepared to have your excellent book rejected. Make it unique. Make it stand out. Always keep in mind that the traditional publishers are very knowledgeable about all of the tricks. and anything you think of has probably been done before.

The Red Hen Association of Self-Publishing Authors, Inc. intends to assist self-publishers find ways into traditional distribution channels, but if the book is not good enough (see the 5 areas above) there is no way on heaven or earth that anyone can make it happen for you. You as a self-publishing author are your own Red Hen. You have to plant the wheat, care for it, harvest it, mill it, and bake it into bread, but don’t confuse that with editing, art, and layout. I plead with you to hire the right people for those things. It will cost more upfront, but will be well worth the expense if it opens doors for you.

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