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How to Avoid Becoming a Self-Publishing Failure

An essay that ran in Salon two weeks ago titled “I’m a self-publishing failure” recounts how one writer, John Winters, spent countless hours and dollars promoting his book online only to sell a handful of copies. Where did John go wrong? How can you avoid becoming a self-publishing failure?

1. First of all, start early.

Seth Godin is famous for saying that you need to begin your social media strategy three years before you launch your book. Don’t wait until you upload your title to Amazon to begin building your audience. Do it now.

2. Focus on what you can do for people, not what they can do for you.

If your number one goal is to get people to buy your book, you’re going to fail. You need to give something in order to get something. Think about what you have to offer the public. Then give it away for free. This will build trust with your readers, who will then be excited to buy your book when it comes out (But don’t be disappointed when a very small percentage of your followers purchase your book. Children’s book author Mike Spinak says that less than 3 percent of his 45,000 Google+ authors have purchased his book.)

3. Remember that social media is a marathon, not a sprint.

You are building your brand and your reputation. If your followers don’t buy your first book, it may just not be their thing. Maybe your second book will entice them more, and they’ll buy copies for all their friends. Or maybe they’ll continue to read your articles and stories online and tell others about you, who may love your work and purchase everything you publish. Just because followers don’t buy your first book doesn’t mean they aren’t taking notice of you and your work.

4. Remember that there is more to social media than selling books.

“Social media is hugely useful to me,” says Spinak. “I’ve found friends, love, travel partners, business partners, and more through it. It’s great for learning techniques, getting expert advice, keeping up with news in your field, getting critiques, playing games, meeting people and socializing. However, in terms of generating book sales, it’s best viewed as an afterthought, not as a marketing strategy, nor even as a significant component of a marketing strategy.” For details about what Spinak’s strategy is, check out my interview with him over at Writerland.

5. Have low expectations.

Remember that your chance of becoming one of the self-publishing superstars who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars is about as likely as your chance of becoming a supermodel or a movie star. Winters cites a Guardian article that states that 50 percent of self-published authors earn less than $500. SheWrites Press publisher Brooke Warner suggests aiming to sell 1000 books. “It’s not only about selling books, but also about increasing visibility,” she says. “And I think that that’s what self-published authors should be aiming for.”

How about you? Have you self-published a book? Have you broken the 1000-book mark?

28 comments to How to Avoid Becoming a Self-Publishing Failure

  • Melina Watts

    The number I have heard is considered "success" in mainstream publishing is 10,000. And publishing houses have a reputation, access to book store buyers, a relationship with the media, a history with book reviewers and maybe, with luck, a marketing budget for an upcoming book. So going for 1000 without the back up support of the above sounds like an excellent goal. Tough but doable.

    • meghancward


      I think it's remarkably difficult to sell books on your own. I hear of friends who self-published and have sold just 10 copies of their books, which means even their friends and family members aren't buying them. In my earlier interview with author Mike Spinak, he said you're doing well if 3% of your followers buy your book. That astounds me.

  • I'm just giving mine away. At least I'm getting some (minor) name exposure and some validation from the nice reviews on Goodreads, etc. Better than nothing after all that work of writing it.

    • meghancward

      I think that's smart, Steven. Better to get your book out there into the hands of people who will read it than to let it languish in your computer (like mine is right now!).

  • Becoming a self-publishing failure is one of my biggest fears, and I'd love to avoid trying self-publishing. It seems too risky to me. I have a friend who self-published and she couldn't sell any of her books. She now gives them away for free in goody bags at any event she happens to host. It is so sad!

    • meghancward

      That IS sad, Christine! I think it's incredibly difficult to sell one's own books. People do it, but it's not easy.

    • I don't know if you were aware, but the tragic author who failed in the aforementioned article, never made an eBook version. Are you kidding me? He failed because he was a stupid person, not because he couldn't write or market.

      Also, one should consider doing the print version on CreateSpace where it is Print On Demand and thus, one isn't required to buy any copies. That will avoid the problem your friend had.

    • It's not easy Christine, it's a gamble and risk to self publish, if I would have kept submitting manuscripts of my first book it would have never been published. It was the best decision I made to self publish, the biggest challenge is making it work. It really hurts to hear that your friend did all that work and couldn't sell the book.

  • Kristan

    My web-serial-turned-ebook passed the 1K mark awhile ago (and went well past 10K during the week that I gave it away free… but I'm not sure that counts, haha) and I think it's absolutely because (a) I instinctively followed the list of advice above, and (b) I was mostly doing it for fun. 🙂

    Btw, I read somewhere that the author of that Salon article did not have his book available for sale in digital form. That, to me, would be his first and biggest error, if true.

    • meghancward

      If that's true that he didn't have the book available in digital form, that would account for his failure. When you say web-serial-turned-ebook, do you mean Twenty Something? I really enjoyed reading it!

      • Kristan

        Yep, I'm talking about TWENTY-SOMEWHERE. That's my own "self-publishing" experience. Thanks, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Rise Of The Tiger

    Couldn't agree more with everything in this post. I'm in the stage of finishing up a free illustrated web serial (48 episodes). Each episode is illustrated by one of a battery artists who joined the project. It's the best thing I ever did. Not only do I have regular readers, but my artists are getting gallery invites, and we're starting spin-off content, like comics that tell an origin story for various characters. Readers have already asked when they can buy a revised digital edition in novel form. I'm sure that, even when my e-book does come out, it won't fly off the shelves. No grand illusions there. BUT I would never have gotten even this far without giving away free content and building a platform on social media long before the book hits Kindle. Probably the richest "payment" of all — and (in my opinion) a vastly worthwhile reason to do this sort of thing — is the relationships and new experiences I've gained. Meghan's advice here is right on. Kudos! Thanks for managing an always-timely and practical blog!

    • meghancward

      It sounds like social media has worked for you! How long have you been at it? I'll check out your book and blog!

      • Rise Of The Tiger

        Hi Meghan, I'd say it has. I'm not great at it, don't have a fancy strategy, but I am consistent about using Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as Facebook. I've been doing the serial for 7 months, twice a week, and I try to post other content almost every day besides that (roughly twice per week on my writing blog). Really though, my actual secret is the artist collaborations. I find that a project takes on a life of its own when suddenly other people have a stake in it. Lately I've started getting calls from people who want to volunteer their skill to help expand the story (with film, comic storytelling, etc.) just because they saw it was collaborative, and they wanted to get involved. Suddenly, they're telling their friends about it, etc. That's a marketing technique of its own, although I realize when I do go to publish something, and there's money involved, there will have to actual agreements, royalties, etc. and decisions about what content actually gets published. But while the project lives in the freebie world . . . collaboration is a huge marketing tool. Plus it's fun!

        • meghancward

          Collaboration is a great idea. My friends Caroline and Wendy just partnered on a book (one wrote, the other illustrated), and just having two people instead of one doubled their audience. I can only imagine what a collaboration with many artists could do to help get the word out about a book.

        • meghancward

          I thought your book and blog were posted in your comment, but I can't find them. Could you let me know, so I can check them out?

      • Rise Of The Tiger

        PS — Despite all this, I'll STILL consider myself lucky if I pass the 1,000 sales mark when I do publish a paid version.

  • annerallen

    Excellent advice. I'll be talking about much the same thing on my blog on Sunday with an 'Author Etiquette 101" post for social media. We're here to schmooze, not shill. Great post.

    • meghancward

      I look forward to reading your Author Etiquette post, Anne! I will definitely share that one!

  • This is a fantastic post.

    To answer your questions, I've sold around 200, in two years, of my first book, Henry Wood Detective Agency. I'm relaunching it on April 23rd – 25th by taking advantage of the KDP Select Free days. On that day I will be launching book two in the series, Henry Wood: Time and Again. I then plan to launch one book per month for the next six months.

    The book that you edited, "Two Decades and Counting", has sold around 1300 copies, mostly print, through doing lots of signings.

    Your point about it being a long game is right on the mark. When I did my first launch I had a much smaller following on Twitter, FB, and my blog. Heck, G+ didn't even exist. I don't know how this launch will do, but I am much better prepared. I've spent the last three weeks working exclusively on preparations for the launch.

    A mistake a lot of people make with the Free Day give-a-ways is that they just decide to do it. One can get a hundred or so that way, but if one plans (or so I'm told) the potential is 10K plus. I've submitted the announcement to 17 sites, have six blogs that are going to run guest blog posts, and gotten a bunch of social media friend who said they will spread the word during the launch.

    Let's hope the added preparation helps, but if it doesn't, well, I'll keep publishing and marketing until it does.

    • meghancward


      Send me info about the launch and I will post it. You may have sent me something already via G+, but I haven't read it yet 🙁 And great news that you've sold 1300 copies of Two Decades and Counting! Interesting that you sold them through signings. Mike Spinak, whom I interviewed about crowdsourcing his book, also said that he's has much more luck hand selling (mostly to libraries) than selling to online followers.

  • Shellie Palmer

    Those are well on point though the first portion of this blog is untrue,in fact, I began more socializing with the public through a number of social media outlets just a few short months before self publishing my first book. Twitter, Facebook and Google + are excellent formats to socialize, many knew of the book and were so excited to learn when it was actually published. I owe it to the readers and those who have bought the book already, in the process I didn't expect it to sell at all at this point so early on. Marketing The Poetry Diaries has been a great challenge so far while I'm currently working on the 2nd book. Whether I sell thousands or not, I'm happy at this point in promoting the book and connecting with a larger audience. Supposedly, the years I've spent in retail have done some good on me. The finest tools are knowing your audience, connecting with them and giving back.

    • meghancward


      When you say "the first portion of this blog is untrue," are you referring to Number 1. Start Early? That's great if you've managed to build an audience in just a few months, but I do think an author who begins earlier can build a substantial audience before a book launch, particularly if she ramps up her social media presence in the months before the release.

      • Shellie_Palmer

        Yes Meghan, Number 1, Start Early? The first few months before I released the book already began building an audience, the audience has increased since mid March and now I'm expanding my resume and currently working on book 2 in the poetry series. Surprisingly enough poetry is still well alive in the book world, thank goodness. Social media has given me the exposure well needed to increase my audience even more. I'm excited to begin the video sessions on YouTube for viewers and readers to come.

        • meghancward

          That's great, Shellie! I'm so glad social media is working for you. I am working on a series of YouTube videos, too. I wish I had more time to post them!

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  • mainecharacter

    Great tips, and I really like what Spinak said of what he gets out of it all. Completely agree.

    And 3%? Wow. I remember a YA author asking her blog readers how many had actually read her book, and it was less than 30%, and I thought that was low. Even though I hadn't read it, either. She was a great blogger, but I just wasn't interested in that story. But I did read her second book!