My Disastrous Journey Into Self-Publishing: What You Can Learn From My Mistakes

A Guest Post by Brad Vertrees

I’ve read some horrible ebooks over the years that, much to my surprise, have hit the Amazon bestseller list. I thought to myself, “I can write a better ebook than these hacks.” So I quickly came up with a plan to publish my very first short story on Amazon. I was going to be one of Amazon’s big success stories; from unknown author to writing superstar.

Like most aspiring authors, I saw Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program as a golden egg. If I published it, readers would come in droves. They’d buy my ebook and shoot it to the top of the bestseller list, making me rich and famous.

But when I finally did self-publish my first story I learned the hard way that just putting your ebook up for sale guarantees nothing. My story didn’t just flop, it was dead on arrival. I made about every mistake a self-published author can make. The experience was a huge blow to my ego, to say the least, and taught me that being a successful writer is more than just putting words on the screen.

How big of a failure was my first self-publishing endeavor? My ebook was listed on Amazon’s Kindle ebook store for a little over two years. In that time I think I made less than a dozen sales. I also published it on Smashwords, with the same results. I even made the story available as a PDF download on a previous incarnation of my personal website–-resulting in zero sales.

The following list is all the mistakes I made during my first publishing experiment (that’s what I refer to it as now, just an experiment). Many of the mistakes are obvious, but to a writer eager to self-publish, it’s very easy to let the fantasy of being a successful author gloss over the harsh reality.

I Assumed The Title Would Attract Readers

With a title like ‘I Took Grandma To The Strip Club’ (yes, that is the real title of my story) how could it not sell? A title like that draws readers in like bees to honey, right? Nope. The title did absolutely nothing to bring in sales, at least not that I’m aware of. Maybe one or two readers bought the story because of the title. But the title certainly didn’t cause it climb to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

I’m not saying the ebook title isn’t important, because it definitely is. What I am saying is that the title alone won’t do the heavy lifting in the marketing of your ebook. Further, if you’re publishing non-fiction and your title is a clever play on words then you’ll probably end up confusing readers. While you have a little leeway with fiction, non-fiction titles must be very straightforward.

For example, in my second attempt at self-publishing, I compiled all the blog posts I wrote for a blog I started back in 2007. The blog, called Brad’s Reader (now defunct), focused mostly on writing tips/tricks, inspiration, self-publishing and ways technology is leveling the playing field for writers. I only included posts about writing and titled the book, ‘The Brad’s Reader Guide To Writing.’ Big mistake. First, I just assumed people would know what my blog was about. Second, the title confused people because it was a guide to writing, but had the word “Reader” in it. Yeah, that ebook flopped too. My self-publishing career was going up in flames before it even got off the ground.

I Used Twitter As My Main Marketing Method

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and have only recently hit the 1,000 follower mark. The kid who delivers my morning paper probably has more Twitter followers than I do. Further, most of my Twitter followers are fellow authors who are also trying to promote and sell their own ebooks. So how well do you think my constant promotion of ‘I Took Grandma To The Strip Club’ on Twitter went? I’d get the occasional ‘Like.’ But I never saw a single sale after tweeting about my ebook. My big problem was my twitter followers were the wrong audience.

In fact, beyond Twitter, I didn’t do much else to market my ebook. I had a sales page on my website dedicated to the ebook, including a link to Amazon, but that didn’t do much either. I assumed that my blog would draw readers in and they’d naturally gravitate towards my ebook. Again, like my Twitter followers, my blog was geared more towards other writers, not readers who’d be interested in grandmas going to strip clubs. I didn’t think my marketing strategy out very well, to say the least.

Only One Person Proofread The Story Before Editing

I found a beta reader on Goodreads that proofread the story before I slapped it up on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, she made some great suggestions and found a lot of embarrassing mistakes. She even said it was a good story.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have relied on one person’s reading and should have splurged on a professional editor who could turn a mediocre story into something more polished, professional, and something worth publishing.

After publishing ‘I Took Grandma to the Strip Club’ on Amazon I reread it multiple times. While I never found any glaring mistakes or plot holes, I knew it could still be much better. A story can always be better. The fact that I felt satisfied enough to publish it after only one reader’s feedback should’ve raised a lot of red flags.

The Cover

I outsourced the design of the cover to a designer on Fiverr—the gig website where people perform basic tasks for five dollars. To be fair, the designer I hired had a very impressive portfolio of ebook covers. I bought a stock photo of a cartoon picture of what looked like an old lady dancing around a pole for the designer to use.

The finished cover made me chuckle and I actually still like it. However, just because I like it, doesn’t mean it’s good and will help sell the ebook. Looking back, maybe I should’ve let the designer pick out the image to use for the cover. I simply don’t have a good eye for this stuff.

What Did I Learn?

There’s a hard truth about publishing: people simply don’t care about what you’ve written. A big part of a writer’s job is to make them care by marketing not only your work, but also yourself. Had I done some marketing legwork before I published my story then I’d be writing a very different article.

What am I going to do differently the next time around? Well first and foremost, I’m going to make sure that the ebook I publish is the best ebook I can produce. It’s going to be edited by a professional with a cover that says, “read me!” I’m also going to start marketing myself before I hit the publish button on Amazon. This means building an email list of readers who are interested in buying the ebook.

List building is perhaps one of marketing’s greatest secrets. An email list is valuable because the people who sign up are actually interested in what you have to offer. With enough subscribers, an email list can almost guarantee sales when your ebook is first released.

The biggest lesson I learned, however, is that self-publishing is not easy. It’s not a way to get rich overnight. Most of all, it will take more than one book to build up a readership. That’s how the money is made. One ebook simply isn’t enough to stand out from the millions of ebooks on the

About the Author 


About His Book

Life Changes

Old things pass away, new things take their place.

Shadow of a Hot Air BalloonSome changes are for the better; some are not.

Some changes involve friendships and partnerships.

I can’t describe all of the changes that have come my way over the last few months and you wouldn’t want to hear about them if I could. But I can say one thing. All of them have influenced my writing life.

I have no doubts Danielle can say the same thing. How can I be so sure?

Danielle is busy promoting her books, Journaling to Become a Better Writer and the first in her MailBoat series.

I’m writing art lesson downloads like a crazy artist to raise money for editing (yes, we do have to raise money too!) My art blog is growing beyond all expectation, I have a new portrait to paint, and—yes, in the back of my mind—I’m looking for the next story to write.

In short, our schedules have become so crowded with things that we’ve had to take a serious look at everything we’re trying to do and decide what can be let go.

Indie Plot Twist is one of those things.

Hot Air BalloonsOh, Danielle and I will continue to be friends, writing buddies, and brainstorming partners. It’s my personal hope that that never changes.

But our involvement with Indie Plot Twist is at an end.

At least as a blog.

On August 1, Indie Plot Twist will transition from active blog to website. All of our old content will remain, but it will be in archive form.

We’ll continue to publish a monthly newsletter. That’s where you’ll find fresh, new content.

For the time being, the newsletter will continue to be a free service from us to you. But it will become a paid service at some point. Existing subscribers will be grandfathered into paid subscriptions, so now’s your opportunity to jump on the band wagon before we set our subscription rates and launch the new newsletter.

Balloons in the Setting SunThank you to all of our loyal followers, readers, subscribers, and commenters. It’s been fun and informative for us. We hope it has been for you, too.

I’ll be going back to writing about writing at Carrie Lynn Lewis Writing Well. Danielle will be busy promoting books and providing periodic updates via her newsletter. And we’ll both provide monthly articles for the Indie Plot Twist newsletter.

Now, as they say in the last line of dialogue from Around the World in 80 Days (the old version with David Niven), “This is the end.”

Why I Unpublished My Art Books

The driving force behind Indie Plot Twist has always been to help you write and publish the best books possible using the tools that are the best fit for you. From before the first post, Danielle and I intended to share our experiences in creating and marketing books.

Part of that picture is something most of us never think we’ll do. Unpublish something we’ve published.

But lets face it. Even the most popular bestsellers have a shelf-life. New books are published and rise to bestseller status. Old bestsellers fade down the list and eventually drop off it.

Traditional publishing houses eventually stop publishing books. That’s where the out-of-print list comes from.

We’ve all thought that independent publishing means you never have to unpublish a book and that’s true. You can leave a book published for as long as you like.

But there may come a time when the better course of action is to unpublish a book.


My Story

I’ve always been both an artist and a writer. The two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but they are both creative outlets for me. And lessons I learn in one area often translate into better work practices in the other.

I’ve been a professional artist since high school. Suffice it to say, a long time.

carrie-lewis-art-blog-headerIn 2007 or 2008, I started my first art blog and it gradually transitioned from being about me and my art to being about how I draw and paint. In other words, it became a teaching blog.

The how-to demonstrations in which I described how I drew various drawings and painted portraits were so popular that I decided to publish a couple of books. That happened in 2013.

Last month, I unpublished all of them from Amazon and I removed the permafree book from Smashwords and their distribution chain. This month, I unpublished one of two remaining books.


There are two primary reasons for this decision.

snickers-mini-candy-barsFirst is the fact that while I’ve sold enough books to earn royalties from Amazon almost every month and from Smashwords every quarter, the books have never been as popular as I’d hoped they’d be. My last royalty payment from Amazon was 21 cents. Not even enough for a candy bar.

Mind, I’m grateful for every penny that comes my way. They do have a habit of adding up.

But the tax paperwork involved with Amazon required a lot more time to assemble than those pennies paid for. My time can, quite frankly, be better used elsewhere.

Second, my primary marketing push is now and has always been the art blog. The more it has grown, the more more true that has become. Yes, I had MyBookTable installed on the art blog and yes, it did get traffic. Unfortunately, that traffic did not translate to proven sales.

I could have spent time marketing books through Amazon and Smashwords and in other ways, but I didn’t think that was the best way to market this content.

Nor did it advance my overall goal with the blog.

A Better Alternative

The Complementary Method for Colored Pencil 600Given my readership and their needs, the best way to make sure this content got into the hands of the people most likely to find it helpful was to present it as a series of lessons rather than as books.

I decided to offer content as PDF documents students could download and print. I had reason to believe that would work because I’d purchased that type of content myself.

I started with the permafree book. I unpublished that in late June, updated the content, removed some of the book-specific content, and offered it as a free downloadable PDF formatted so it could be printed.

I will soon be selling the unpublished book in the same way.

I’ve also begun converting existing content into lesson downloads, beginning with the most popular post. But that’s a post for another time.

How Things Are Going

It’s still too early to tell you how things are going. I uploaded the first two documents Monday of this week.

But I am hopeful.

After all, this method of content delivery gives me more control over what’s published, offers a much higher profit margin than self publishing anywhere else, and makes my blog the point of sale on everything I have to offer. What’s not to like?


This marketing tactic isn’t likely to work with most fiction, since so many readers use ereaders for pleasure reading.

But if you’re writing and publishing nonfiction content and especially content that is designed to be educational, you might want to consider this option in addition to publishing more traditional books.

It can be a great source of more direct income and can also be a great marketing tool to point people to books available in other formats.

What’s Your Biggest Writing Challenge: Finding Time to Write

Every writer faces at least one writing challenge—something that dogs him or her all of their writing life and interferes with productive writing. Some of us struggle with more than one big challenge.

That’s why our 2015 year-end survey included this question:

What’s Your Biggest Writing Challenge?

A lot of you answered that question.

The amazing thing is that most of the responses revolved around one issue.

Even more amazing, I’ve struggled with that problem myself.

What is it?

Finding Time to Write

2015-02-04 Watch (2)It won’t surprise anyone that this was the number one response. It’s such a widespread struggle, that I recently wrote about it here at Indie Plot Twist. That post was more about my attitude on the subject than with tips for solving the problem, though. So today, I’ll offer a few additional suggestions.

In the article Finding Time to Write, I mentioned two good ways to find time:

  1. Look for activities you can give up to make more time available for writing
  2. Look for “spare moments” throughout the day when you can write

Both are good places to start, but they are just a beginning.

So what should you do next?

Diagnosing the Problem

2016-04-20 writing writer pen paper page book journal notebook coffee mugFinding time to write often begins with taking the time to record how you spend your days. Don’t change anything—just make a note of what you do each day and how much time it takes. I did this once for work and was stunned at all the “free time” I was using in unproductive ways.

It’s easy to track how you use your time. If you have a Smart phone, dictate each activity, when it starts, and when it ends.

lined-paper-and-penIf you don’t have a Smart phone—yes, we are out here!—or prefer a written record, carry a note pad and pen or pencil. Jot down what you do and for how long.

What should you include? Everything!

  • The time you work
  • The time it takes to commute
  • Shopping time
  • Cooking time
  • Reading time
  • TV time
  • Everything

Keep a record for a week then tally the results.

You’re likely to find a remarkable amount of time spent doing things that aren’t productive. I hesitate to say wasted, but I did find a lot of wasted time on my list. It was revolting!

And revealing.

Solutions to the Problem

Now look for ways to convert that wasted or unproductive time into writing time. You won’t be able to dedicate all of it to writing but you should look for ways to redeem as much of it as possible.

outdoor-cafe-at-twilightTake a look around. Are there people around you? What are they doing? What’s the first thing you notice about them? Take notes and/or use those observations to create a fictional character.

If there aren’t people or if the setting is of more interest, describe that in as much detail as possible in the time you have available. Learn to describe what you see, hear, smell, feel, and maybe taste, then use those details to create a fictional scene.

Do a little research. You can consider the exercise above to be research. After all, you never know when someone you’ve seen or a place you’ve been is perfect for adding interest to your novel. But I’m talking about actual research. If a lack of information on something is keeping you from advancing your book and if you have a few minutes, get online and do a little research. You won’t be able to conduct in-depth research in your spare moments, but everything you learn can be put to use sooner or later and the time you spend is time that won’t be taken away from writing time.

editing-printed-pagesEdit. One of my favorite things to do when I was working was taking a printed copy of whatever story I was working on to work. I’d eat lunch in my car and edit the manuscript in half hour increments. If I didn’t have anything to edit, I’d write chapters or explore plot options long hand. Quite often, by the time the work day ended and I could write, I was ready to write with revisions or fresh ideas.

Dictate. Whether you use your phone or a tape recorder, you can always dictate notes or entire scenes in small increments of time that aren’t suitable for any other writing-related purpose.

Blogging. If you blog as an author—and you should be blogging somewhere—use some of the unproductive time in your daily or weekly schedule to draft posts off line. I’ve discovered that drafting posts off line and sometimes in other locations is great for finding new topics and keeping my writing voice—and blog content—fresh.

Social Media. This can be a biggie. If you find it difficult to set aside dedicated time for this activity, use your spare moments to check your social media and interact. You can stay in touch and engaged without taking time away from writing. And, hopefully, without guilt!

For a couple of other tips, check out Finding Time to Write.

What’s your biggest writing challenge?