Eight Reasons Why Self-Publishers Fail (And How to Easily Avoid Them!) Contributed By Peter Bowerman To
Peter Bowerman

Peter Bowerman, a veteran commercial freelancer and business coach, is the author of the award-winning Well-Fed Writer titles (all self-published;, how-to “standards” on lucrative commercial freelancing – writing for businesses and for rates of $50-125+ an hour.

He chronicled his self-publishing success (52,000 copies of his first two books in print and a full-time living for seven-plus years) in the award-winning 2007 release, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time

By Peter Bowerman
Published on September 23, 2009
Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living discusses self-publishing pitfalls

No one ever said successful self-publishing was easy. Yet, so many authors, by making a bunch of typical, easy-to-avoid mistakes, make it far more difficult than it needs to be. No, getting all the following right won’t guarantee riches beyond your wild imaginings, but it’ll clear some of the most common stumbling blocks from your path. After all, if you’re going to crash and burn, why do it for a dumb unnecessary reason?

1) You Wrote an Unnecessary Book

Harsh? Perhaps. Honest? Afraid so. If we’re talking non-fiction (fiction is different), what if there are already 20 titles on your subject? Does the world really need a 21st? If so, why is yours different? Related to the above: Write a book people will want to read. If there aren’t any books on your subject, that might either be a really good thing, or it could be the case for a reason. When I wrote The Well-Fed Writer, there was only one book on the subject of lucrative commercial freelancing, and I was certain there was a market for a well-written how-to guide to making GOOD money as a writer. 42,000 copies later, I can safely say I was right.

2) You Have a Bad Book Cover

This one’s so easy to get right. It is categorically impossible to overstate the importance of a good cover. 190,000 new books are published every year. Those who wholesale, distribute, stock, and review books are constantly looking for reasons to cull the herd. A cover is the easiest place to start. This has always mystified me: how self-publishers can invest copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears into their masterpieces, and then settle for a crummy-looking cover. They either, a) don’t understand the critical importance of a cover, or b) actually think theirs is good. A safe strategy: Until you know differently for a fact, assume that you, as an author, can’t be trusted to know what good design is if it walked up and bopped you one.

Hire a graphic design pro (or ideally, a full-time cover designer), not your cousin who’s artistic and not your printer’s in-house graphic designer. Got a B&N or Borders (full of beautiful book covers, by and large) in the neighborhood? If possible, visit it with your designer and study the shelves in your genre for designs and titles that catch your eye. Figure out why they appeal to you, and try to capture what works. If you’re working with someone remotely, go the bookstore, make notes of the good books and then send them the links from Amazon. Yes, getting a professional cover will cost you more, but if you’re in this game for the long haul and to make some bucks, it’ll be a pittance. 

3) Your Title Is Lame

Or weak, non-descript, confusing, boring, or bizarre. Any of which can hobble a book’s chances. And if you’ve written a how-to book, make your title a promise: show what’s in it for the reader (e.g., The Well-Fed Writer, The One-Minute Manager, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fix-It-and-Forget-It Cookbook). If you’re just not creative that way, hire someone who is (a professional copywriter is a good bet; and yes, I offer title consult as part of my coaching service;, Mentoring).  

4) You Didn’t Hire an Editor/Proofreader

I don’t care how sure you are that your book is clean as a whistle, a good editor/proofreader (and most good editors will do both) will find lots of things you didn’t, and will offer tons of constructive suggestions that never occurred to you. I promise.

You may be a wonderful writer, but there’s a big difference between being able to write a decent sentence and make a well-structured case. You may have a great premise, but if your book is full of typos or bad syntax, no one’ll read long enough to get the message.

5) You Think Small (Part One)

Since I began my self-publishing adventure in 1999, I’ve read or heard countless accounts of self-publisher “success” in newsletters, and at meetings and conferences. Often, the “coup” was getting an independent bookstore to carry a few copies of their book. Or convincing a library to stock a few free books. Or landing a review in some mid-profile publication. Nothing wrong with any of that.

But I say that celebrating any validation from the larger world, no matter how modest, is thinking small – it’s a “starving self-publisher” mentality akin to the “starving writer” version. Like all you deserve is the scraps. That what happened was only thanks to a bit of rare generosity from the larger world that saw fit to throw you a bone. Lose that mindset. You have every right to be there.

6) You Promote the Old-Fashioned Way

The standard book marketing/promotion template calls for hitting up mainstream media to land reviews, articles, radio/TV appearance, etc. That makes sense if you have a mainstream book (dieting, health/fitness, relationships, financial security, religion, parenting, etc.). But, if yours is a “niche” book, then here’s the truth: the average journalist doesn’t care about you.

Even if you do have a mainstream book, but you’re an unknown author, chances are excellent, they don’t care about you. An unknown author of a niche book? Fuhgedaboudit. A better avenue for all the above  scenarios is a targeted Internet approach. In a nutshell, identify your target audiences, figure out where they hang out online, contact and get a review copy into the hands of the gatekeepers of those sites, and work hard to land reviews, blurbs, interviews, green lights to write articles, etc. And then repeat over and over again. Speaking of which…

7) You Think Small (Part Two)

You’re not going to have commercial success with your book by sending out a few dozen review copies. You need to think big numbers: 350-400+. Send out that many and something’s gonna happen. That’s what I did, and it absolutely led to commercial success. Yes, that sounds daunting (When am I going to have a life?! you wail), but keep in mind three things: 1) that’s over 3-4 years, 2) if you’re hitting it hard at the outset, you can easily get one-third to one-half of that number out in the first few months, and most importantly, 3) do what I did and hire an intern to handle the marketing grunt work. I simply set her up with standard cut-n-paste email pitches, a list of past review copy recipients to contact about the new book, and guidelines to pursue new prospects. All for about $9 an hour. It worked out well. In that same vein…  

8) You Forget Your ONE Job (and Try to Do it All Yourself…)

I know it’s called self-publishing, but that doesn’t mean everything falls to you. I say, as a SP’er, you only have ONE job: Build the Demand For Your Book. Yes, you need to oversee the book production process (hiring creative pros to handle editing, layout, cover design, indexing, and printing), but once that’s done, anything not specifically related to marketing (i.e., demand-building activities) should be delegated to someone else. That means web design, warehousing/fulfillment (the physical storage and shipping of your books to wholesalers, distributors,, etc.) possibly accounting, and more. I promise, you’ll be saner, have more fun, and boost your bottom line.

***The above article was excerpted from The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living, by Peter Bowerman. Fanove, 2006.