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

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