10 Publishing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
It happened again at a writers’ conference this weekend. I met two disgruntled, disillusioned, almost bankrupt authors who admitted making most of the mistakes listed below. They both have wonderful books in hand, but little understanding of the publishing industry and even less marketing savvy.
They learned too late that the time to ask questions and study options is BEFORE you begin to make publishing decisions. In fact, some fee-based print-on-demand publishers (FB PODs) seem to prey on uninformed, hopeful authors. They make it so effortless to find their services and so attractive to use them that authors are easily swayed to enter into contracts that they don’t really understand.
First-time authors are eager to see their books in print. I know this. I’ve been there and I’ve made mistakes. As authors, we work long and hard on our projects. The last thing we want to deal with after finishing a manuscript is the learning curve. When Google brings up IUniverse, AuthorHouse, Tate Publishing, Dorrance and other FB PODs on the first page of your search, why look any further? Why complicate your life with unnecessary research? Thus most hopeful authors sign with the first "publisher" who extends a friendly hand.
I’ve been observing and participating in the publishing industry for over 30 years. In the course of my career and as the president of SPAWN, I meet numerous authors every year—authors who are successful and those who are struggling. Some of these authors feel they’ve been mistreated by the industry and have given up writing altogether.
I’m on a mission, folks—a mission to help hopeful authors become more educated and informed about this industry so they will make appropriate choices on behalf of their publishing projects. This is SPAWN’s mission and it is my personal mission.
Following are 10 mistakes that many new authors make—mistakes that can cost you large sums of money and dramatically diminish your opportunity for publishing success.
- Inexperienced authors write a book as the first step. Why is this considered a mistake? It’s not a mistake if you are writing the book for yourself, family and a few friends. But if you aspire to have your book published, this may be the wrong approach. Whether you’re writing a how-to book, biography, self-help, romance novel, children’s story, mystery, memoir or dictionary, write a book proposal first.
In the process of writing a book proposal, you will learn:
- If you have a book at all.
- Whether there is a market for this book.
- Who your target audience is.
- The best way to promote your book.
If you follow the guidelines for writing a complete book proposal, you’ll likely enter into the publishing field with more realistic expectations. You’ll begin to understand your responsibilities as a published author and you may start to become familiar with the publishing industry.
Write a book proposal as a first step and you’re more apt to write the right book for the right audience. How better to snag a traditional royalty publisher than with a promising project? Read Patricia Fry’s new book, "How to Write a Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less (http://www.matilijapress.com)." Another good book on this topic is Jeff Herman’s and Deborah Adams’s "Write the Perfect Book Proposal."
- Eager new authors often go with the first publishing opportunity they stumble across. You don’t make other business decisions this quickly. You research the possibilities and study your options. Many authors forget that publishing is a business. We get so attached to our projects and so eager to see our books in print that we act emotionally rather than logically.
Learn the difference between a traditional royalty publisher and a fee-based print-on-demand publishing service. You’ll find hundreds of traditional royalty publishers listed in Writer’s Market (available in the reference section of your library or for sale for about $30 in most bookstores. A new edition comes out each September).
Visit bookstores in search of books like yours. Find out who published these books and contact those publishers.
Find publishers for books in your category using a Google search. Carefully scrutinize the listings so you know whether you are dealing with a traditional royalty publisher, a vanity press or one of the 75 or so FB POD publishing services.
Another option might be corporate sponsor publishing. If you need help financing the publication of your local history book, for example, contact a local bank. Ask an architectural firm to sponsor your book on architecture for the beginner or one featuring some of the great architectural accomplishments of the century. Maybe the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce or Georgia Historical Society would put up the money to publish your historical novel set in this state. Offer the sponsor a percentage of the profits and/or advertising space on the back cover or inside the front cover.
As an author, you have many options. Research them, understand them and scrutinize them in order to choose the one that is right for your project.
- New authors believe they don’t have a chance with a traditional royalty publisher. This is simply not true. If you have a viable project, arm yourself with knowledge and approach the publisher in a professional manner, and you have a definite chance of landing a traditional royalty publisher.
Find publishers who produce books like yours. Study their submission guidelines. Follow these guidelines in approaching them with your project. If they request a query letter first, do NOT send your complete manuscript. If you don’t understand what goes into a query letter, study books and articles about writing a query letter. Take an online class or an extension course through your local community college. Patricia Fry’s book (free with a SPAWN membership), "The Successful Writer’s Handbook," covers query letters, how to find the right publisher, how to approach publishers and much more.
Some naïve authors believe that there are just six publishing companies—the majors. Not so. There are hundreds of small to medium-sized publishers eager for good, marketable books. For example, everyone knows that poetry books are a hard sell. Yet, "Writer’s Market" lists over 40 traditional royalty publishers who publish books of poetry. There are at least 125 publishers of mysteries and about the same number who produce historical novels. There are over 200 traditional royalty publishers that publish biographies and more than 175 who produce children’s books. Encouraging, isn’t it?
- Many authors don’t understand publishing terms. Authors will say to me, "I’m self-publishing with ABC (FB POD) Publishing Company." Other FB POD publishers advertise that they are royalty publishers. It’s important that authors understand the true meaning of these terms.
Fee-based POD publishing services will accept almost any book for publication. Most will draw the line at pornography and racist books. Quality and accuracy don’t seem to be an issue with most of them, so acceptance is nothing special. Almost everyone who submits a manuscript to them will receive their friendly acceptance letter.
Some of the most well known POD companies have accepted books riddled with typos and pages repeated throughout.
A traditional royalty publisher puts up the money for your book and pays you royalties on books sold. These publishers are generally very selective in the books they publish. Sure, most FB PODs pay royalties on sales, but it costs you a lot to receive those royalties.
Self-publishing means that you establish a publishing company—get a fictitious business name, purchase your own block of ISBNs, etc. You get your book ready for publication, you hire a printing company, you are responsible for distribution and shipping and you reap all the profits. Publishing with a FB POD is not self-publishing. Read Dan Poynter’s "The Self-Publishing Manual" and/or Patricia Fry’s "The Successful Writer’s Handbook" for more information about establishing your own publishing company and how to self-publish a book.
- Newbie authors don’t generally solicit advice from professionals until it is too late. Do NOT sign a contract with any publisher or purveyor of publishing services without hiring a literary or intellectual properties attorney. This should go without saying, yet thousands of authors each year bypass this important step.
I also recommend that inexperienced authors talk to other authors who have used the services they are considering. Contact organizations such as Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network (SPAWN) at http://www.spawn.org, Publisher’s Marketing Association (PMA) and Small Publishers of North America (SPAN). Ask questions.
- Authors tend to give control over to their POD publishing company. Hire your own excellent editor. Never trust the FB POD to provide a good editing job. Most authors I talk to say their editing services amount to nothing more than proofreading.
You need to make sure your page layout is perfect before submitting your project to a POD. One author gave me a whole list of things that were wrong with his book when it was published through a popular FB POD company. There were quotation marks around his title on the cover, a comma in the title, and numerous mistakes in layout throughout the book. I suspect this is the way he submitted the work. It is vital to the success of your project that you take charge of quality control.
Likewise, when your POD publisher offers you their press release service for a hefty fee, I recommend that you decline. You can hire the same press release service they use for less money. I recommend, however that you send out your own press releases. My books, "Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book" and "The Successful Writer’s Handbook" list extensive online newspaper directories.
- Uninformed authors blindly sign up for unnecessary services. Some FB PODs state that they will get your books into bookstore databases and provide a return policy on your books for a fee of around $700-$800.
I have two things to say about that. First, you can get your books listed in bookstore databases nationwide for free. All you have to do is fill out an Advance Book Information (ABI) form. Your book will be listed in Books in Print (BIP). This is one database that bookstores use to order books. If a customer asks for your book and it is listed in Books in Print, the bookstore can order it for that customer. And the listing in BIP is free.
Secondly, the return policy that some publishing services are selling their authors is, in my opinion, a huge waste of money. This policy is no more a guarantee that booksellers will carry your book than a nickel guarantees the purchase of a candy bar. Booksellers nationwide reject POD published and self-published books as a general rule. A return policy does not change this fact. The person who can change this rule is YOU—the author. Make a big splash with your book through intense marketing efforts—attract hundreds or thousands of customers to the bookstores—and booksellers will carry your book.
Before signing up for any additional services with a FB POD, launch your own study. Ask several booksellers what the return policy means to them. Check with other FB POD authors to see if the return policy helped them. I did a mini-study of booksellers throughout the nation. Every one of them said that the return policy from a POD had little meaning to their own policies. One told me that PODs are willing only to issue credit to the bookstore and he said, "The last thing I want from a POD is credit."
- Some authors sign with POD publishing companies because their services are free. This sounds too good to be true and, of course, it is. While some PODs do not charge a set up fee, they do charge for other services. The author pays for copies of his books and he/she signs over publishing rights to the project for seven years or more.
What does this mean? If your book does so well that it catches the eye of Random House, for example, who reaps the benefits? Yup—your POD publisher is in on that nice big advance you’re offered and those great royalties you’ll draw.
- Insecure authors shy away from self-publishing. Self-publishing seems like a daunting undertaking for an inexperienced author. But what better way to learn the biz. In fact, I suggest that hopeful authors self-publish a how-to book or booklet as a way to familiarize themselves with the publishing industry and the publishing process.
Set aside that novel, memoir or children’s book for now. Instead, produce a book on a topic you know well—one that has an audience that you know how to reach. Maybe you teach scrapbooking; are an excellent cook; raise pugs, pigs or pigeons; have success tips for hairdressers or you homeschool your children. Write a booklet telling how to design a baby’s scrapbook, for example. Put together a small book of your favorite one-dish meal recipes for busy moms. Produce a book for pug or pig owners or publish one for parents who are thinking about homeschooling their kids.
Before going too much further with your idea, evaluate whether there is a market for this book. Who is your target audience and how will you reach them? You might promote the homeschool book through "Homeschooling Today," "Christian Home and School" and other homeschool and education-related magazines; through education-related and homeschool Web sites; through your local school district; through religious magazines, bulletins and Web sites and possibly through homeschool organizations.
Your recipe book could be marketed through cookbook bookstores (there are scads of them throughout the U.S.); cooking, women’s and family newsletters and magazines; the food section of newspapers nationwide; in grocery stores and kitchen stores and that’s just a start.
Study Dan Poynter’s "Self Publishing Manual" and Patricia Fry’s "The Successful Writer’s Handbook" for help establishing a publishing company and producing your first book. Here are a few things to consider when designing your how-to book:
- Build promotion into your book.
- Design the book for your target audience from start to finish.
- Collect promotional ideas as you work on your book.
- Authors are accustomed to writing alone and often make publishing a lone venture as well. I tell authors that when you become serious about writing as a career or even if you want to publish just one book, it is important to connect with others who can share in your journey. For example, SPAWN has been a lifesaver for many an author. Join and join in. There are thousands of authors with unique experiences. Reach out and learn from them.
As one gentleman said to me last week at the writers’ conference, "If only I had met you before I spent all of that money with the POD publisher."
—Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 23 books. Her latest book is designed to help hopeful and experienced authors write a winning book proposal. "How to Write a Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less (Matilija Press, 2005)," $12.99. Order at http://www.matilijapress.com.