Learn From My 6 Stupid Self-Publishing Mistakes

Learn From My 6 Stupid Self-Publishing Mistakes

Some indie authors write their debut book and it sells like starcakes. Their Amazon rank shoots up the stratosphere and makes lots of starbucks. The author’s eyes go bling bling, and I’m thinking: if they can do it, I can do it. And I can do it better.

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve got two books out and a third in the launch pod. My sales are so low I can’t even pay my internet flatrate. You see my Amazon report and want to pity-throw food stamps at me. Thank tech I’m still doing my full-time illustration work. Still, writing is my passion, so I continue shipping new books and keep learning about the craft of storytelling. In this post, I want to show you my top mistakes that I learned from the first 10 months of self-publishing:

1) I created unique book covers

With my first book Blogbuster, I created a very comic-ish cover. Pink and blue with a comic pose. Cool, except it wasn’t. Most folks thought it was a comic book.
It probably confused a lot of folks and confused customers don’t buy. Your cover has to be niche relevant.

For my second work, Attack Planet, I dramatically changed the cover at least five times within a four month span. Why? Because of the target audience.
You see, in the beginning I thought your cover only had to look cool and eye-popping, but my indie peers took me apart. They told me a cover always has to cater to the audience-so if you write romance, use a photograph of a man and woman holding each other. When writing sci-fi, use spaceships with a star-struck background of the universe. Thriller? Use big-ass letters, dark colors and silhouettes running to or away from the observer. Sounds like pandering to the common denominator, but the readers are not as innovation-craving as one might suggest.

“Same same but a little different” seems to be the way to go. Now I create genre-specific covers that mix the mainstream with my style. Remember:
Make it too unique and you confuse your target audience.
Make it too samey and you bore your target audience.

The magic is in the middle.

2) I didn’t build my email list.

You see the signup form under my banner? I neglected that list sucker for a year, while my peers earned up to 50K from theirs.
There are about 1,205 people on my current list, and some of them proofread my books, spread the word and recommend the book to others.
It’s the tool to own your sales funnel.
What the marketers say is true this time.
Ze money is in ze list.

3) I neglected my (few) readers

In the beginning, I ignored every reader that reviewed my book. Like the traditional authors, I focused on writing only. Fail. Now I engage. Every 3 weeks or so, I get a positive 4-5 star review either on Amazon or Goodreads. The reader praises my addictive story and fun writing style and looks forward to my next novel. Hex, I even had two folks asking me for the sequel. These messages are rare but they do come. Knowing that readers exist who pay for my work fuels my writing.

I follow the readers on Twitter and engage either via tweets or messages. I follow them on Goodreads, like their current reads and connect with them. Emotional connections bind people to you. Even a superficial online friend is better than an unengaged reader.

Remember: building a personal connection in the age of social media is the advantage of indie writers. Most traditional authors are so out of touch with today’s fan engagement they don’t even interact with their readers. Don’t make that same mistake. Be out there and connect like it’s National Connector Day. You’ll build the foundations of a personal brand.

4) I made my first book free.

Free books used to be all the rage to attract new readers. It was a solid marketing technique to attract as many new readers as possible, especially when you were unknown. But with today’s choice overkill, free is the quickest way to be forgotten. If someone gets your work gratis, it will collect digital dust on their phones and Kindles because they didn’t invest in it. A small price tag on the other hand suggests: you paid for it, you should read it.

My current books are priced at $2.99, enough to earn me about 70% in revenue, while still being affordable to the random reader who doesn’t know about me.
Once you get more brand recognition, you can jack up the prices.

5) I wanted my first self-published book to be a success. Now I know better.

You write your first baby and want to make the big bucks. Sounds good, but isn’t.
Imagine you write your debut book and it goes bajookas. The spotlight’s on you. Now thousands of readers eagerly await your sophomore attempt and scrutinize you if you don’t deliver it: “Yeah, his first book was a blast but the second sucks. Typical one-hit wonder.”

You’re under pressure.
Unda pressaaa.

On the other hand, if you can draft your first books in obscurity, you can practice your craft without fearing public outrage. You’re like the assassin in the shadow of the corner, sharpening his blades for the big kill.
Then, if your fifth, sixth or seventh book takes off, you have had a long training streak. You’re now prepared to write in the spotlight, where every (major) mistake you make will be inspected.
So learn from every book while you’re still anonymous.

6) I focused on creating a masterpiece and wasted many months.

Creating a book is like putting a point into the skill tree of an RPG. Let’s say you invest in the fire blade skill. One point gives you 5% chance of setting your enemy on fire. So only 5 of 100 enemies burn once you hit them. Bad chance, but skill on. Another point doubles the chance to 10%. Only three more points, and every 4th hit makes the target burn. Now the odds are getting in your favor, Katniss.

I believe writing books is similar. One book gives you 5% chance of discoverability, another book 10% etc. Two or three books more, and you’re exponentially increasing your chance of attracting (new) readers. Obviously, the percentages are arbitrary but you get the point. So far, every indie author I know that has 5-10 books out earns at least a couple grands a month, even the shitty ones. So forget about crafting your one masterpiece. Ship till you trip.


It’s easy to get blinded by the stratospheric success stories of some indie authors like Jennifer Foehner Wells and Andy Weir whose debut books take off like anti-grav rockets and earn a (small) fortune. They’re the extreme cases on the fringes, the equivalent of a lotto win. For the rest of us, we have to take the long and steady climb to the top, improving with every new book. But you know what they say, slow and steady wins the race.

If you like this post, share it with your community.

  • Joe Schwartz

    Best indie book writer advice I’ve read to date.

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      Cool, thanks man.
      It’s everything that I’ve learned so far, and I was even afraid to share it, especially the low sales of my books. But if I learned from it, then hopefully my audience as well. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.homepreneurhelper.com/ Sabra Kay

    Great post. I have one to add. First book out the gate? Don’t make it a damn series. Why? Because it might suck and you might realize that you really don’t want to write that part two, but you have to or else you look like an unprofessional ass.

    Okay, that sounds a bit negative. But, I have put myself in a situation where I am promising a trilogy, but my part one isn’t selling and probably won’t. So, there’s that. And I have so many other things I want to write! Gotta finish your stuff though.

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      No, that’s exactly the strategy I’ve following–create a first book that works BOTH as a standalone and as a potential entry into a series. I ship it and see how the sales are. If there’s demand, I continue with book 2 in the series, if not, I write a completely different one.

      Also: just because a book doesn’t sell in the beginning doesn’t mean it will never sell. You have to build momentum by launching multiple books. After 4-5 books, you can reassess. Hugh Howey’s earlier book only sold well after Wool.

      • http://www.homepreneurhelper.com/ Sabra Kay

        This is true. I left my first book on somewhat of a cliffhanger, it def does not work as a standalone. I think I spent a bit too much time with it so I am not eager to jump into the next one. I am working on something else for the next few weeks and then I will get back to it. You are right, there is no way to know what is going to hit and what is going to miss, or when that will actually happen. Looking forward to your follow up to Attack Planet!

  • http://www.bookmasters.com/ Kristen Steele

    Utilizing your email list is really important, and a lot of people neglect it. I know it seems like a crazy thought today, but there will come a day when Facebook and Twitter fade out. And when they do, it’s safe to assume that email will still be here, and you want your audience to still be here, too.

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      Yes, absolutely. I’ve neglected it for far too long, but I’m actively using my list for the current launch of my sci-fi book. The response has been amazing, that’s why I tell my fellow indies on implementing their own list. Email is the still the best way to reach people on your own terms.

  • http://www.unconventionalveteran.com/ Unconventional Veteran

    Great advice!! I need to get off my ass and stop trying to make this mega book and just chop it up into mini books…

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      dude, no more postponing;)
      It took me forever to publish my first book, mostly because of the voices in my head. I should have started wayyy sooner. It’s grrreat residual income if you know your target audience. Message me if you have questions.

Join my insider book list

Get notified about my new sci-fi book releases, free advance copies, and cover sneak peeks.