Self-Publishing #Fails

by | May 5, 2014

We all know there’s a huge amount of information about self-publishing out there, just the other end of a Google search.

Service providers, print on demand vendors, book and ebook distributors, and lots and lots of authors have been contributing to this vast pool of knowledge.

And almost everyone who adds something to the pool of knowledge does it to help other people navigate the sometimes rocky path that leads to publication.

As an author said to me last night, “This self-publishing is a lot of work, it’s hard.”

Hey, at least she has good advice and people to call on. It’s the other people I worry about, the ones who don’t know when they are poised to step right in something unpleasant, something that might require some real effort to get rid of.

Yes, it’s the Self-Publishing #Fails.

Look, we all have something to learn from others’ experience. It’s just that in these cases, you really don’t want to see yourself in their shoes.

If you’re squeamish, you might want to look away. If you can’t help but stare at traffic accidents you pass by chance, you’ll feel right at home. Let’s begin.

1. Formatting for beginners.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been handed 2 books by their authors that really made my heart sink. Why? In each case the author was a professional, highly educated, well-informed and determined to create a book worthy of commercial publication.

Problem? They had each found a “semi-pro” book formatter to create their nonfiction book interiors. How do I know they were “semi-pro”? Immediately I saw things like blank right-hand pages, running heads on blank pages, an entire book typeset with hyphenation set to “off,” inappropriate visual spacing, all the usual suspects.

To their credit, both responded immediately when they learned that their books were not ready for prime time, and corrected all the problems. But what if they hadn’t talked to me first?

It’s just so much harder to get traction for your book when you have unnecessary obstacles in addition to the real ones.

2. Formatting for the ages.

An author had booked a consulting appointment some time ago. I always like to look at the books we’re going to talk about, whether in manuscript or already laid out for printing, before consulting.

But in this case, even though there were weeks before our scheduled meeting, I never got the PDF of the book the author had promised.

When we finally got to the day, I asked the author where the book was.

“The formatter is still working on it,” he said.

“But hasn’t it been a few weeks now? Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Well, actually the formatter has had the book for almost 6 months,” came the reply. “She says she’s going to finish it right away, but that’s what she said last time, too.”

6 months? To format a fairly simple book? Huh?

Let’s be clear. Even a pretty complex nonfiction book can be formatted by a competent layout artist in a couple of weeks. Not months.

Obviously, this author was dealing with a real amateur, someone who seemed overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do about it. But the author had to take charge of the situation and not simply go along, month to month, feeling helpless and resentful.

3. Is That Cover Yours or Mine?

An author in the popular paranormal romance genre was just getting started in her career. She studied all the blogs that other writers in her peer group wrote, and learned how to put together a book for print on demand publishing.

She wanted a distinctive cover treatment, especially because she was launching a series, with the intent to publish a whole line of books with the same characters appearing in different settings and combinations.

So the whole representation of the story on the front cover of the first books was of a lot of concern.

She found an artist who specialized in illustrations for book covers, and the two had a great working relationship.

Together, they came up with a beautiful cover, attractive typography, and a custom illustration that truly represented the whole work.

Everyone was happy.

But then a funny thing happened. The book, and it’s sequel, started to get really popular, selling tens of thousands of copies.

When the author got back in touch with the illustrator for a new cover for the next book, she also got a shock.

The illustrator let the author know that she now owed more money for the first illustrations, and that the new illustrations were going to cost a lot more, like triple the original cost.

When I heard about the situation, I asked the author if she had signed a written agreement with the illustrator, because that surely would have spelled out the ownership and rights to the custom illustration.

Nope. Did she realize the illustrator still owned the artwork and all other rights to it?

Nope. That partnership ended soon thereafter, and there was quite a bit of work involved finding a new illustrator and new artwork to re-configure the series of books.

4. I’m the Editor, Who Wants to Know?

Last year I worked on a lovely historical novel. It was edited by one of our top developmental editors, and the cover was designed by an artist I know who worked for big trade publishers for many years.

I took care of the interior, and generally provided some guidance to the author, a highly educated man with a deep background but no experience with book publishing, and not that much with technology in general.

The book went through the typical publication process, was duly published and launched, and the author was happily making appearances, and sold hundreds of copies.

Not bad for an almost 600-page historical novel from an author no one had heard of. End of story, right?

No, the #fail was about to bite, big time. Apparently, the author had the feeling that the book needed one more edit to get rid of the remaining errors that were still in the book. He wanted it to be as good as it could be.

Somehow he came in contact with an editor who told him of the long experience she had with publishing companies, and that she would do that last edit for him.

By the time I found out about it, the edit was in full swing. There was only one problem.

The editor had requested—and the author had given her—the original Word file to work on, not a proof of the typeset book.

“But, but…” I spluttered when I heard this news, “doesn’t she realize we’ve already typeset the book? It’s already done!”

Oh, you thought that was bad, huh? Ignoring all the formatting (the book has over 100 chapter openers) and all the corrections in the book file, and going back to the manuscript?

It gets worse.

When the editor turned in the corrected manuscript, it turned out that she had no use for revision tracking, and “never uses it.”

So where were all the edits? What had been changed? Who knows? She had just edited the original file and handed it back to him with a bill.

I have to admit, that was a new one on me. Of course, we ended up completely reformatting the book, instead of just correcting it, and who knows how many mistakes there will be in there now to correct?

Don’t Let This Happen to You

In each of these cases normally intelligent, highly competent people hit an obstacle that they didn’t even know about.

We have to know enough to ask questions like these:

  • Hey, how come there’s no hyphenation in my book?
  • What do you mean, I won’t be able to accept or reject your suggestions?
  • Well, exactly when will my book be finished?
  • Does this purchase allow me unlimited use of your artwork?

But that’s the only way to avoid these kinds of failures.

So again, I say the most powerful thing you can do for your own publishing future is to make sure you’ve educated yourself on this new business, and then get advice from people who have published more than 1 book if you get stuck or if something you’re being told doesn’t sound right.

What about you? Any Self-Publishing #Fail stories to tell?


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Shaina McAndrews

    Thank you for these horror stories, Joel! I always appreciate your insights. It would be great if you could review our services for ebooks at
    We are already very successful in Italy and are now expanding to offer our services to the rest of the world. One of our biggest assets for formatting is our tool called BackTypo which makes a writer able to create their epub format. It takes out the possibility of the middleman messing up or taking too long with your format. Plus, it’s free for our author partners. No start up costs or any hidden fees either.

    Check us out and I’d love to discuss further with you.

  2. Mark Wolfinger

    What is the best source for getting a complete education on using MS Word Styles (My version is 2010). I have the basics down, but want more sophisticated instructions.

    Thank you.

  3. Danette Key (@dk1037)

    I made too many mistakes in self publishing to even name them. But 1 I will share. I found an editor who quoted me work based on pages. So before I submitted the manuscript, I went through and deleted any spaces between paragraphs, took out spots where I did a page break, etc. So I condensed a 180 pages to 100 pages… Saving money.
    Anyway, when I got it back she sent the manuscript back along with an email stating a few suggestions. I thought, wow, no corrections on the manuscript, I must have done well. So I reviewed he suggestions, corrected a few things on the copy that i had (the one with all the spaces, page breaks, etc) and submitted it to the publisher.
    Once I got my book in hard cover before launching, I was reading it and found tons of errors!!! I was so mad! come to find out the editor had edited the manuscript I sent her and attached it with those suggestions. I was so naive, I didn’t realize it. UGH! It cost me about $300 to resubmit the corrected manuscript. So much for saving money!!! Hard lesson learned.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Live and learn, Danette. Maybe it was “payback” for eliminating those 80 pages??

  4. Kristen Steele

    It’s blog posts like this one that every aspiring self-published author should read. Authors should do everything they can to avoid the common pitfalls that come with self-publishing. Of course, we all learn something from our mistakes too.

  5. Kathryn Goldman

    In the immortal words of somebody famous whose name escapes me, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That’s why you hire a professional (with a contract).

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, I’ve seen that quote attributed to Socrates, Scott Adams, and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. No matter who said it first, it’s still true today, and one of the absolute best reasons to make sure you’re dealing with someone with experience (and a contract).

  6. Rosanne Dingli

    MSWord allows you to decide about each hyphenation. Simply use the facility, which is inside Page Layout – click on Manual. As you proceed through the document, you are asked to accept or refuse each split. What I usually do is look for rivers visually, and highlight a paragraph that seems irregularly spaced. Then Word suggests a hyphenation, and I work out – visually and syntactically – whether it suits the page. Some of the suggestions are awkward. And I never hyphenate proper nouns. The rest is common sense… and industry standards experience!

  7. elizabeth

    About hyphenation. I don’t actually like splitting up words like that. From what I understand you are saying that the spacing gets screwed up to fit the “box.” So if I were to use Indesign I would go to each place there was a hyphenated word and decide it that worked for me? IF so, couldn’t I turn off hyphenation in word.doc and do the same? (I’m using your templates.)

    • Joel Friedlander

      elizabeth, no matter what program you’re using, InDesign or Word, turning hyphenation to “Off” for most books will create unsightly and large gaps between words on many lines, and I don’t recommend it.

  8. Autumn Macarthur

    Thank you for another fabulously informative post.

    I don’t have any self-publishing #fail stories yet, but maybe that’s because I won’t be releasing my first self-published book until later this year.

    I pray I don’t come back and add to the list with some doozy of a mistake!

  9. Andy Traub

    The original document “re-edit” reminds me of the power of Google Docs and even Dropbox’s ability to revert to an older version of a document. There are ways to protect ourselves from these things but the 1st step is to have a documented process and then stick to it. Great reminders Joel.

  10. Annie Pearson

    I too have received edited files with no change bars. However, Word has an effective “compare” feature that produces a separate file showing the difference between the original and the edited versions.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, that’s great to know, Annie, and I’m sure it will help. In this case, of course, we had one version in InDesign and the other in Word. Although we could export an RTF file from InDesign and use it for the compare, the entire project became so much more difficult than necessary it just wasn’t worth the trouble.

  11. Helena Babington Guiles

    As a book designer and illustrator, I too have learned the hard way how important my professional design skills need to be matched by skillfully clear understandings and agreements with my clients (authors and publishers.) I developed an interactive PDF that thoroughly reaps all relevant info and I use the info gleaned to customize my contracts. Leads to far smoother sailing and far less wasted and unpaid time. Thanks Joel for this post. I always enjoy ones like this concretely related to design and production issues.

  12. Belinda Pollard

    Joel, I’ve seen books where the odd numbered pages were on the left.



  13. Mary DeEditor

    Gracious! In every case, the problem could have been avoided by a clear letter of agreement. My standard letter of agreement states the extent and kind of editing I will do for the author, the programs and features I will use (usually Word with track changes and comments), defines the schedule (usually one month) and estimated cost, states who owns the rights in the finished work (the author, of course), and so on. Don’t let your manuscript leave home without it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I totally agree, Mary, and I haven’t taken on a book design project in many years without a written agreement, it’s the basis of the relationship I’m building with the author.

  14. Rosanne Dingli

    As an experienced self-publisher and contractor for other authors, I always read these blogs with my heart in my mouth … and then end up relieved that I have all bases covered. I must admit though, that this one – although it does not expose anything I’ve been doing wrong – has put me into a cautious mindset. Thank you – I’ll take your advice and watch my step.

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    OK, here’s one more:

    To avoid embarrassing someone who might not want to be written about, I once decided to change a real name to a fake name in a book I was writing. I used MS Word’s Find and Replace feature, which quickly made about a dozen substitutions in a chapter.

    But when I read through the chapter I was surprised to find a few instances of the old name which had escaped the Find function.

    It’s important to do a manual verification, because Find might not find hyphenated words or words with apostrophes or in their plural form as targets for replacement.

    Don’t risk a lawsuit or embarrassment by publishing a wrong name or word.

    • Bill Peschel

      Good catch. And make sure to click on the “whole words” option, so that changing “Bob” to “Robert” doesn’t change “bobbin” to “robertin”.

  16. Yelle Hughes

    As a brand spanking new author, I’ve run into some of these problems and probably will run into more. When I got into the game, I didn’t expect it to be this hard and it was hard. I thought it was tough going through the editing process, but then I decided that I would do my own cover and my own formatting.

    So far, so good. The journey was crazy, I tell ya and I have to do it again in a couple of months.

    Thanks for the article, it will really open the eyes of my fellow authors in my group.

  17. betty ming liu

    Joel, thank you for sharing these highly entertaining horror stories. They are also highly memorable — and helpful. I’m leaving this post feeling a little bit more savvy! ~B.

  18. Jo Michaels

    Great post, Joel. I laughed at some, I cried over others, and I got angry on behalf of the author who got screwed on the illustration rights.

    I went into contracts and why an author needs them on my blog a while back for that very reason. I saw someone get screwed. I won’t share that story; it’s not mine to tell. But a contract is something everyone should be signing (even if only for a proofread or beta-read). You’re sharing proprietary information with a third party, after all. Not a lot of folks realize that any contract should state you own the right to all edits, changes, artwork, etc… once the contract is complete, and the person working on it has no further responsibility beyond those services outlined therein. Also look for a defamation clause AND a clause that says your cover designer has rights to use the image(s) they’re using on your book (extended print use) as well as transfer rights to you. Important!

    On to my self-publishing #fail :)

    So, I got the all clear to typeset a book. It was beautiful. Custom artwork for the pages, lovely margins, great fonts, and custom artwork for the scene breaks. We get done with the book and proofs are ordered. Suddenly, here comes another version of the manuscript I hadn’t seen and had no way to track the changes through. Add to that, it was requested that the margins be reduced to 1/2″ from the 1″ they were.

    Well, needless to say, legacy issues in InDesign ran amok when I tried to rectify the situation by replacing the MS with the new version, reworking the master pages to fit the new layout, and adjusting the margins in layout adjustment. I had to start from scratch. head/desk

    Lesson learned! LOL!


    • Joel Friedlander

      Sounds like the Project from H-LL, Jo. And with some people, it doesn’t matter how often you explain this, they just go ahead and do it anyway. But look, you survived!

      • Maggie Dana

        Author: But all you have to do is hit a button, right?

        Typesetter: headdesk

        • Jo Michaels

          Joel, I fought for those 1″ margins, too. Alas, it was not to be. InDesign can be quirky, but I wouldn’t trade the master page function for anything :)

          I’m cracking up at Maggie. Yeah, just adjust it, right? :)

  19. Greg Strandberg

    Good stories. Things like this will become more common as people want to get on Amazon.

    I had an older man contact me a few months ago to get his self-published print book from the 90s onto Amazon. Thankfully he had a Word document and then transferring the cover to digital was easy enough.

    On another one I had a guy with something similar, but he just had old paper copies. A lot more work, but we got that on Amazon too.

    Even having someone manually type those pages didn’t take that long and we had the book out in a week or so. If “professionals” are taking six months or even a month I’d be worried.

    • Bill Peschel

      Greg, if you come across another job converting a manuscript to Word, here’s a trick using MS OneNote. Scan the page and drop it onto a OneNote page. Right click and choose “Copy Text from Picture.” It will use OCR to scan the image. Open Word, create a blank page, and paste.

      The quality of the result depends on the quality of the scan. I’ve had gibberish on bad pages, and nearly 100% on good.

      The text could appear in a variety of sizes and even bold/italic. Those can be cleared by choosing Ctrl+A (highlight all), Ctrl+Space Bar and then clicking on the Normal Style.

      • Kathryn Goldman

        That is a brilliant OneNote tip. Am clipping it now! Thank you.

  20. Paula Cappa

    Hi Joel: Can you expand on your comment “an entire book typeset with hyphenation set to “off,”. I had some hyphenation issues (end of line breaks hyphenation) for my print editions. What settings do you use to get the least amount of hyphenation? The old standard was no more than 3 line break hyphenations per page. Now I think the trend is no more than 2 hyphens for line breaks per page. Any tips on this?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Paula, when I typeset books I use the controls available in Adobe InDesign. They allow you to set many parameters for both hyphenation and justification. What I was referring to in the article was a book set with no hyphenation at all, resulting in large gaps between words on many lines. In professionally typeset books we usually limit hyphenations as possible, but personally I don’t use any specific rules like the ones you mention.

  21. Michael N. Marcus

    No matter how many times you read, re-read and re-re-read, you’re bound to find mistakes in anything you’ve written. It’s best to find them before the book is printed or the ebook goes on sale.

    Back in 2009, just minutes before I had planned to send a book to the printer, I decided to check my table of contents.

    I had a feeling that as I changed the length of some chapters, a page number might have changed.

    I actually found three wrong page numbers, and two chapters were missing from the table.

    Apparently, I didn’t learn the lesson well enough.

    In early 2012 I was trying to find a chapter in one of my books that has many chapters. I couldn’t find it by flipping through the pages, and I couldn’t find it by studiously scanning the table of contents.

    When I looked even more carefully, I realized that the last entry at the bottom of one page of the TOC was Chapter 51, but the first entry on the top of the next page was Chapter 53.

    There was no listing for Chapter 52.

    I felt like a blind idiot.

    (IMPORTANT WARNING: Any time you fix an error in a book, you may create more errors.)

    • Scott McPherson

      Thanks for your thoughts. Your comment about causing errors while trying to fix them is a great thing to consider. I have enjoyed the journey of self-publishing, but there was a certain comfort in having a traditional publisher “choose” my first novel. I was disappointed that they did not treat it with the care that it deserved. I am still debating whether to self-publish the rest of the series or return to the traditional publisher. My worst problem is promotion, and I’m still learning the ropes.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, it’s amazing how often errors crop up on the Contents page. This may be because in the rush to get the book finished and off to press, late changes that can cause a need to correct the Contents get overlooked. Hey, at least you caught them eventually!

    • Danette Key (@dk1037)

      OOOOh, created a mystery! Free book to anyone that discovers the error. :)

  22. Scott McPherson

    Thank you for your insights. It is good to know this happens to the best of them. My #fail was actually with my traditional publisher. Aside from introducing typos into the ebook (they must have retyped it to change the formatting) the cover had misspelled words. I have the galley proof which was totally spell-check perfect. I asked for a slight change in the font color on the spine (it didn’t match the same word on the cover). When the book was released they had misspelled “Christian” as “Chirstian” and “detective” as “dective.” It was, obviously, too late to change. That is one nice thing about self-publishing. I can unpublish and re-publish if a correction needs to be made.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ouch, misspelled words on your cover is definitely a #fail Scott, you have my sympathies. And from a traditional publisher, we should expect a higher level of performance, right?



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