Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Failure

On October 2 in New York, I'm giving a talk at the Self Publishing Expo Conference titled, "The Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success."

While preparing the presentation, I started thinking about how it's possible to succeed as an author yet still fail to achieve your full potential.

Every author is the CEO of their own budding publishing empire, full of unrealized potential. Decisions you make today will determine your success in the future.

We all make multiple decisions every day, and some of our decisions will inevitably prove incorrect or ill-conceived. The secret to success is to recognize our mistakes before they become business-limiting. Just ask Mr. Big Fish in the image above. Maybe he should have favored a smaller meal.

Today, I'm going to share the Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Failure.

All of us authors have probably made some combination of these mistakes at one time or another.

My intention is not to ridicule the authors and publishers who inspired these tips. Instead, my goal is to help you, the CEO of your business, avoid these business-limiting mistakes that might prevent you from achieving your full potential.

The Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Failure

  1. Fail to respect the reader - Don't waste your reader's time. Some authors, empowered by the ease and speed of ebook publishing, rush books to market that haven't been thoroughly revised, edited and proofed. Books get better with revision and editing, so don't skimp. If your book or story isn't the absolute best you can make it, don't release it until it's ready. With so many great books out there, you have to compete to earn and deserve the reader's attention, and their word of mouth.

  2. Limiting your Distribution - Some authors treat retailers like a religion, sports team or political party. They think they must only choose one and shun the rest. This is counterproductive. Authors should work to expand distribution of their books across multiple retailers, rather than concentrate distribution on only one. So what if 80% of your sales come from a single retailer today. It won't always be that way, as many Smashwords authors already realize. If you shun other retail opportunities, that 80% will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you'll leave sales on the table as the rest of the ebook market develops without you. Cherish your retail partners. Each is investing millions of dollars to attract readers to their stores. They will gladly provide you the benefit of their investment if you'll allow them. Every time an author deliberately removes their book from a retailer's shelf, a little angel in heaven sheds a tear, or stabs itself in the eye.

  3. Limiting your sampling - The other day I learned approximately 450 of the over 19,000 books at Smashwords don't permit sampling. What are these authors thinking? They might as well encase their books in cement. Why would any reader in their right mind purchase a book they can't sample first? Don't shoot yourself in the foot. Books with disabled sampling are automatically removed from our catalogs in Stanza (iphone, ipad, ipod touch) and Aldiko (Android devices), because these catalogs require samples.

  4. Laziness - It's tough work writing a great book. Some authors, after spending years or a lifetime investing their heart and soul to finish their book, look at the Smashwords Style Guide (or Amazon's DTP publishing requirements) and give up because they say it's too difficult to format an ebook. If these folks can't spend thirty minutes or an hour to study the Style Guide (written for novices), or can't shell out $45 to hire a fellow Smashwords author for formatting help, or can't find a fellow Smashwords author friend to help them for free, can they be helped? If free-to-$45 is all that stands between you and widespread distribution to all the major retailers, why give up now? Maybe this is a form of Darwinian natural selection.

  5. False expectations and Impatience - I admit, I think millions of people would enjoy my novel if only they gave it a chance. You probably feel the same way. Unfortunately, you and I are probably wrong. Most of us will never reach millions of readers, so we should set more realistic expectations, lest we enjoy wallowing in bitterness and regret. Every once in a while I'll hear from authors who are giving up on publishing and unpublishing their books because their sales didn't meet expectations. Why deny future readers the chance to discover you? See Darwin.

  6. Play the Blame Game - Some authors, when their books fail to live up to their inflated expectations, try to point the finger at someone else. Some might blame the reader for not understanding their brilliance, or blame their agent, or blame their publisher for not promoting it enough, or blame the retailer for whatever. Almost once per month, like clockwork, I'll get an angry email from an author complaining they haven't sold a single copy through Smashwords or any of our retailers, and they'll threaten to unpublish their book and remove it from distribution if we don't do something about it. See Darwin. You're the CEO of your publishing business. Take responsibility, and don't shoot yourself in the head with tempestuous, foolish decisions. It's tough to sell any book. Write the best book you can, revise and edit it until it's squeaky clean, market it with passion and commitment, and then cross your fingers readers love your book as much as you do. Readers are in charge here.

  7. Failing to Trust your Partners - There have always been bad seeds in publishing (including publishers who do a good job of following these seven rules for failure), and thousands of authors have been burned by them. Yet it doesn't mean you should be mistrustful of every player. The vast majority of people I've met in publishing the last three years are honest and ethical. We'll often get emails from authors who tell us their book's sample has been downloaded 30 or 40 times yet they haven't had a single sale, and they'll accuse us of not reporting the sales. We've even had authors who had trouble getting accepted to our Premium Catalog (hint: read the updated Style Guide) demand to know why we were discriminating against them, their book or their religion. More than a couple have said, "if you don't want to publish my book why don't you just tell me." Paranoia runs deep in some authors, possibly because authors are so great at imagining things that don't exist. It's tough to reason or do business with folks like this. Another author last week, not realizing our retailer sales reports weren't fully loaded, accused us of illegal activity and threatened to "take the matter to the authorities." They even complained to our retail partner before they bothered to check with us, or read our online site updates. Business cannot run without trust. As the CEO of your business, you should trust your distributor (Smashwords or other), your retailer and even your customer. Give your partners the benefit of the doubt and recognize that any of us who plan to build a long term business can only do so by treating each other with honesty and ethical integrity.
So there's the list of failure secrets. I don't want to give the impression the mistakes above are common, because they're not. I've highlighted a few true, rare and extreme examples to illustrate my points.

Once I do my session at Self Publishing Expo, I'll summarize the seven secrets to success here on the Smashwords Blog. Until then, happy CEO'ing!


Krista D. Ball said...

Outstanding post!

There are plenty of things outside of my control that affect book sales. So, I focus on what I can control, which is a huge amount!

Even traditionally-published, or traditionally e-published authors have to market, edit, revise, market, edit, rinse wash repeat. It's no different for self-published authors - only it can be a lot harder for them.

Publishing is hard work. There's no room for laziness. readers won't stand for it.

Shayne Parkinson said...

Psst! Mark, the link to your novel doesn't actually work. Another secret? :-)

Shayne Parkinson said...

Really useful advice, and the first item deserves its place at the head of the list. Thanks, Mark.

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Thanks for the catch, Shayne! Corrected. Secret #8: Provide potential readers a working hyperlink. An inoperable hyperlink is like a bridge to nowhere.

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

Hey Mark:

Great article.

The things you say about some of the authors you have had to deal with reminds me of Robert J. Ringer who self-published 3 mega-bestsellers and then decided to go into the business of publishing other authors' books. Even though the first book Ringer published for someone else turned out to be a New York Times bestseller, Ringer said that publishing other authors' books was the biggest mistake he made because of his having to deal with authors.

Here is some of what Ringer had to say about some of his authors:

"On more than one occassion I was tempted to laugh out loud when dealing with some of these 'authors,' but would quickly
remind myself that the author with whom I was speaking might well be dangerous. Who knew what these people were capable of when they were running around loose on the streets? . . . I could have written a great movie script based on my zany experiences. I can see myself now, accepting an Oscar for Psycho Author.

Anyway, I love this comment of yours:

"Paranoia runs deep in some authors, possibly because authors are so great at imagining things that don't exist."

In fact, I have already quoted you on my webpage Sensational Quotes about Writers and Writing.

I hope you don't mind.

Ernie J. Zelinski
Author of How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
(Over 125,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
and The Joy of Not Working
(Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

CS McClellan/Catana said...

A badly needed post. Guaranteed: the people who need it most will never read it.

#9. Setting a price that's completely out of line with the amount or quality of content.

#10. Not providing a Twitter button. (hint, hint)

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Thanks, Ernie! The gift of imagination can be a double edged sword, so yes, we deal with some creative folks. Back in college I remember I had a brilliant anthropology professor who on the first day of class told us that many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs were made by schizophrenics. He said their gift was that they could see and imagine things invisible to others, and then they tied their visions and imaginations back into reality. I think many of the best writers can probably relate to this, and not because they suffer from any so-called mental illness. A great writer needs to allow their mind to go anywhere, including these dark or forbidden places, so they can surface these great stories. My challenge to these writers is to not let these necessary demons devour your reality. It's a challenge sometimes for us to deal with it (we're working with almost 9,000 authors now!), but luckily the vast majority of our authors are gracious, trusting and supportive. I also try to remember that these writers are filled with passion for their work. They're protective of their work as they would be their child, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. This morning I received this note out of the blue from a new author at Smashwords: "As an author
who has sent about a hundred query letters to agents and publishers
only to be turned down by everyone, I want to say thank you so much
for allowing me to realize a little piece of my dream." <- That is what Smashwords is all about, and it's what helps me see past the rare unpleasant interactions.

Shelf Unbound magazine said...

Good article. I would like to direct self-published authors to the recently launched Wattpad + Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for self-published authors. It runs through January 31 -- entry is free. Go to for details. Also check out new Shelf Unbound indie book review magazine, featuring the best of small press, university press, and self-published authors. You can download submission guidelines and preview our first issue at -- Margaret Brown, publisher, Shelf Unbound: what to read next in independent publishing

DesGreene said...

Great post Mark - a lot of what you say can be put down to one 'failing' and that is impatience.

- too impatient to get the work finished
- too impatient to revise, re-edit and format
- too impatient to await sale evolution
- too impatient to market work
- too impatient for 'accolades'

The great thing about epublishing is that all these issues can be worked on indefinitely.

The really revolutionary aspect of ebooks is that they are available worldwide and in perpetuity (at least as long as the internet survives).

Thanks for giving modern writers this great opportunity!

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Des, I think you nailed it. It takes patience to plant seeds, let them germinate, and let them take root. On the topic of permanence, a traditionally published print book is here today gone tomorrow, yet a self-pubbed ebook can achieve an immortality traditionally published print can never achieve. Counterintuitive, but true.

Neil Crabtree said...

I've been posting at Smashwords Books Reviewed authors who succeed by doing all the hard work required. Today's Featured Author, AJ Davidson, has his networking links fired up, videos for his different thriller, and a terrific website showing his substantial publishing history. It would be nice to be listed as a blog you're following, when you get a chance. Like you say, we're all in this together.

Milliscent said...

Thank you for this informative post.

I think it important for people to realize that without some kind of pre-existing following out there already, simply making a book available online cannot get it noticed.

My own offering here at Smashwords has pleased me with it's level of sales, but I've been blogging to my niche and telling my stories for years.

My niche is extremely small but I had a pre-existing following within it and those folks came with me to Smashwords.

I imagine that, given my niche, without that already existing group of folks who are interested in my work, sales would have been zero.


Candy Paull said...

Patience is the watchword, and understanding that a free e-book that goes viral can introduce thousands of potential readers to the books you have for sale, and create a positive synergy with website and other marketing efforts. I'm thrilled with what's happening with my books at Smashwords, knowing that it's the infancy of this new publishing model, and that every growth in sales and/or downloads, no matter how small, is confirmation of future growth. The long tail of the Internet means that even slow starters have the potential to grow in sales and distribution, given time and patience.

I have worked in the publishing industry for over twenty years, been a published author, and had some great sales numbers (printed editions of The Art of Abundance over 95,000 copies sold total) and awful numbers (the less said the better), lived through a publisher bankruptcy, ridden the waves of change in the industry, and saw the bottom fall out in mid-2008, with all the folks I worked with laid off and my way of making a living in traditional publishing disappear. Smashwords is the future unfolding now, and it's exciting to "watch the baby grow." Folks, remember, these are early days in a new publishing paradigm.

I published my first e-book with Smashwords in Sept 2009, saw one book sold, and then nothing for months. I added my free e-book in March 2010, and now am adding more of my previously published e-books. Downloads of the free one tell me someone out there thinks it's worth their while to take a look. And a handful of actual sales offers a preview of coming attractions. It's exciting to be a part of building the infrastructure of this new business model together. Though I let go of the dream of traditional publishing, I'm seeing a different dream of independent and e-publishing open in a new way. Smashwords creates a great synergy with my own marketing efforts, and I'm going to do my best to build on whatever success comes, even if it's unconventional or doesn't happen as quickly as I hoped.

cbriggs98 said...

Hi Mark,
Good article. I'd like to pass along one of my favorite quotes that I think applies to many situations. Your pubishing pointers as well as some of the comments brought it to mind.

"Every thought is a seed. If you plant crab apples, don't count on harvesting Golden Delicious." ~Bill Meyer

We get out of our books that which we put into them...sometimes we have to go the extra mile to cover all the bases to ensure success.

Thanks so much
Cynthia Briggs
Soon to be published author on Smashwords.

Anonymous said...

As a first time author, I've really learned a lot over the past five months that my book has been on the market. It has been a real eye opener from the standpoint of understanding my target audience, how they react to my book, and what type of support I'm going to get (none) from within the industry I'm writing about.

Like many, I didn't write a book with the intent of spending all of my free time promoting it - so I decided to take a break. I felt like I was trying to push a roller coaster car full of people up the back side of the first drop and not making any progress.

I think I've only scratched the surface with respect to promoting my book. Based on my efforts thus far, I realize that the book isn't going to get the exposure it needs to develop the momentum to sell itself until I come up with a completely new strategy. It's a good thing what I've written about won't be solved any time soon. LOL

The English Teacher said...

I just stumbled upon this today, but I find it a very enlightening post. Thanks for putting everything very clearly.

Alica McKenna Johnson said...

Saving this post in my favs- I have to say the idea of formating makes me a bit nauseous, but your right I am in charge of my own sucess and I need to just read the darn thing!

Rajasir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunifashion said...

I understand why writers and publishers complain. The only reason is lack of patience: they think that prospective readers think like them too.

In last four years I have sold around fifty thousand copies on various sites and I have never ever complained about anything.

Mark, you have very intelligently put forward your valuable views. It shows you really care for the fellow writers and publishers.

I wish you could sell more than a million copies of your Boob Tube. I have one and it is worth reading.

God bless you.

Raja sharma

David M. Brown said...

Fantastic post - really helpful.

Alm Hlgh said...

This is a very timely and needed article. Thanks for the advice; hmm I'm editing as fast as I can. Unfortunately I only have 2 eyes and ten fingers... lololo

Alm Hlgh said...

This is a very timely and needed article. Thanks for the advice; hmm I'm editing as fast as I can. Unfortunately I only have 2 eyes and ten fingers... lololo

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great insights. I think my books are good. I like them anyway (not that I'm in anyway biased), but I'm still trying to figure out the marketing and social media part of being a writer. I'll get it eventually--I hope.