The Mindset of Successful Self-Publishers

by | Apr 21, 2014

Mindset—yours may be important in determining whether you’ll achieve success in self-publishing, or whether you’ll struggle, never quite getting where you want to go.

What is a mindset? Well, it’s kind of like an attitude, or a whole series of attitudes around a particular topic.

When we go into a new field, we’re naturally sensitized to notice lots of things we might never have paid attention to before, and this can happen in both significant and mundane parts of life.

For instance, maybe you just bought the latest Volvo sports car. All of a sudden, when you’re looking at the paper, driving on the road, talking to friends, you’re going to become aware of Volvo sports cars.

“Hey, there goes one. I didn’t realize there were so many. I’m seeing them. I’m waving at them!”

In other words, this has become a meaningful object to me and so I start to react to it when I see it in my environment. Not only that, but it seems like all of a sudden there are Volvos everywhere, when I never noticed them before. How did that happen?

The same mechanism comes into play in self-publishing, and can play an important role in your success. If we have the right attitudes in our mindset when it comes to self-publishing, the world is going to look like a big, glorious opportunity.

3 Aspects of the Self-Publishing Mindset

We are complex, and each of us is a mix of lots of characteristics. When we focus on a specific task or field of work, the attitudes and experiences we’ve had in that field become active.

Within those attitudes, in the self-publishing mindset here are 3 traits that many successful self-publishers share (and one bonus at the end):

  • Experimental
  • Opportunistic
  • Self-directed

Let’s look at each of these traits and see what it can tell us about this mindset that can be so influential.

  • Experimental

Let’s face it: every self-published books is pretty much an experiment right from the start.

We don’t know how it’s going to come out, we don’t know if readers will appreciate it, the whole enterprise is very uncertain.

Successful self-publishers will experiment when there’s a new technology, a new service, or some new way to deliver their content to readers.

Having an experimental mindset can take many forms.

  • Trying a different format for your book, one that readers might like better, or which will open up your market to new possibilities.
  • Changing or updating your book cover to see if you can target your readers even better than you already are doing.
  • Adjusting the price, either upward to capture more profit, or downward, to capture more buyers. Some books, especially instructional nonfiction, can sometimes sell more copies at a higher price than they will at a lower price. Without experimenting, how will you know?
  • Opening new markets that you haven’t approached before, to see if there are untapped audiences who would like your work.
  • Incorporating new technology in your books and ebooks to take advantage of the mix of physical books and digital ones.
  • Using your book as the template for a training course, a webinar, or a workshop, further monetizing your work.

It seems there’s always something we could do better, and experiments are often how we find the things that will really make a difference.

  • Opportunistic

Self-publishers are famous for one thing: we always have copies of our book with us, we never go out without one or two copies in a purse, backpack, or attache case.

If we were to walk out to my car right now, you’d see I’ve got dozens of copies of A Self-Publisher’s Companion in my car. After all, there’s no telling when you might run into somebody who’s really interested in your book. You want to be able to hand them one, don’t you? Or even better, sell them one. That’s also part of being a self-publisher.

As self-publishers, we are open to opportunities that present themselves because we have the ability to actually do something with those opportunities.

Being a writer, a content creator, and knowing how to move the products of our invention into the marketplace means that we can capitalize on things like:

  • rising public interest in a personality,
  • a fad or craze that sweeps through the population,
  • an area of a market that no one has addressed yet,
  • a new innovation in your field, or
  • a need that’s being poorly met by the books or other information products currently available.

For instance if you write about sports and you find out there’s a big sporting event that’s scheduled to come to your community, you might see that as an opportunity to capitalize on the waves of promotion that will lead up to the event.

We can get projects like this out very quickly because we’re doing it ourselves. I just talked to an author who is about to launch a book, and when she sent me the cover I realized instantly that her book—assuming that she’s done a good job with the material and markets it well—is almost guaranteed to be a success, because it addresses a need many people have, yet there is no other book on this subject available.

At a pitchapalooza I was helping to judge, one of the books that created the most interest was about tree pruning, because the only other book on this specific subject was over 20 years old. There are lots of examples like these in self-publishing.

Looking for these opportunities is part of how entrepreneurial self-publishers think. They look for the opportunities and if they find one, they jump on it quickly.

Maybe there’s a new social media site, and a lot of interest but not very much in the way of good quality information on how to make the most of it.

An entrepreneurial self-publisher will study the site, write a guide book about it and publish it quickly. That’s what I mean by opportunistic—being tuned in to new opportunities in your market and being ready, willing, and able to take advantage of them.

  • Self-directed

The third aspect of the successful self-publisher’s mindset is being self-directed. Self-publishing is really good for people who are independent.

I mean people who are “self-starters” who don’t need somebody to hand them a list of tasks. They have plenty of drive along with the ability to organize themselves at least well enough to accomplish goals on a project—like a book—that may take months or years to bring to fruition.

Lots of self-publishers have day jobs, but they might have a desire to run things themselves. Some are self-employed, and those people already know quite a bit about getting things done under their own power.

The promise of being able to work at something you enjoy, to even make a good living at it, is enough to keep some authors motivated and actively moving forward.

They don’t need a boss to tell them, “Hey, you’ve got a deadline on Thursday!” No, they are hyper-aware of that deadline because as a self-publisher they aren’t going to miss the opportunity, whatever it is.

The Holistic View

Think about these things:

  • being open to experiment,
  • looking for and jumping on opportunities
  • being able to direct yourself

One thing I might add to this list is optimism. Maybe I’m wrong but I think you have to be something of an optimist to do well at self-publishing.

How else can you get through the huge amount of work that it’s going to take to bring your publishing projects to completion? Or put in all that time on social media building an author platform to help you market your books?

Putting a lot of work in and expecting to get a positive result out seems to me to be a sign of optimism. So ask yourself: Are you experimental, opportunistic, self-directed, and perhaps even optimistic? If so, you’ve got a great self-publishing mindset.

Remember that we don’t want to get into the negative thought patterns that can try to take over our mindset. They are not going to do us any good. If you think that your project is going to fail, let me tell you something: It probably will fail because that’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you can maintain your energy, keep yourself up, remain open to opportunities, be experimental, you’re going to do much better with the same book.

Maybe we could look at this mindset study as something of a “secret sauce” that will help us understand how we can put our own attitudes into play to make the most of the incredible opportunities open to writers today.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Nina Amir

    Well, you’ve hit on a few characteristics I don’t cover in my new book! But I like the ones you do mention here. They are very important to an author’s success.

    And I will say that being opportunistic in a positive way is so important. That was key with my first book, How to Blog a Book. I knew that if a publisher didn’t take it fast, I was taking it to market fast. I saw a real opportunity in the market. And look at how it has done…Amazon bestseller for two full years.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, exactly, being able to take advantage of these opportunities, to move quickly and know how to get books onto the market really give you an advantage over more slow-moving publishers. You are an inspiration, hope your new book does just as well.

  2. Katie cCros

    This was great!

    I just finished reading a great book on Self Publishing and how successful it can be, and it has a lot of the same line of ideas as what you’ve expressed here. Great summary, Joel!

  3. Heather Day Gilbert

    I love everything about this post–it really reinforces my decision to go indie. It’s a nice fit for me. Being independent/self-directed isn’t always valued in the tradpub world.

  4. Simone

    Excellent post! Thanks.

  5. Greg Strandberg

    Sounds like you did the right thing, Eric. Lots of eBook authors are coming to realize you want a lot of that front matter in the back, even if you do have the book jump right to the first paragraph.

    It increases the amount in your ‘Look Inside’ that readers can see, and considering that’s one of the three main components of your book on Amazon, well, I don’t want to say that guy’s wrong, but perhaps just ignorant of publishing today.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Greg, lots of publishing people seem to still be trying to figure out ebook publishing, and why it’s different from the publishing we learned years ago. Indie authors are frequently way ahead on this stuff.

  6. Debra L. Butterfield

    Joel, I very much agree on all of these, but especially about optimism. I believe optimism is foundational to the other three. Optimism says “I can” and pessimism says “I can’t.” I saw these very aspects played out this weekend in a conversation with a family member. I saw the opportunity, but she didn’t. It was very much a case of optimism vs. pessimism.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Debra, I love it when subjects like this come alive, like in your weekend conversation. My own thinking on this subject has likewise come straight out of the conversations and consultations I have with authors.

  7. Autumn Macarthur

    An excellent post Joel, as always!

    So timely for me – after playing with the idea and hesitating on the edge dipping my toe in the water for over a year, I’ve decided to dive write in. Oops, that was a typo, but kinda apt!

    I’ve been putting off resubmitting a story that had interest from a mainstream publisher, because my instinct told me wasn’t a good fit there. Last week I decided I’ll self-publish it in October instead. I’ve booked a slot with a freelance editor, started looking for cover designs, planned follow-up stories and a prequel novella to release as a freebie taster of my writing. It’s big and scary and exciting, and I need to make sure it doesn’t become a huge distraction and take over from the other story I want to be working on now!

    I love your list of needed qualities. The comments here are also very relevant. Ernie is so right. Without optimism, we won’t do anything and will fail. But optimism alone is no guarantee of success. Too many optimists have the blinkers on for the commercial potential of their work, and no concept of the amount of hard work needed to get a book self-published. I guess that’s why you put it last! We need it, but without the other necessary qualities, optimism alone won’t get us far.

    Michael makes a good point too about the writer’s own definition of success. Too many self-publishers seem to have unrealistic expectations of what SPing will do for them. It probably won’t make them President of the world, win back the love of their life, or even impress family. That last one is the toughest gig of all! But it can give us creative control over our work, find readers, and yes, maybe eventually make us enough money for writing to be our full-time job.

    That’s the three year plan, anyway! I’m also planning to blog the progress, an irregular journal of a newbie self-publishers lessons along the way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sounds like you’re on the right track Autumn, and getting all your “ducks in a row.” Good luck with the book!

  8. Rosanne Dingli

    Joel, I just love your blogs – there’s always something to learn, even for an old hand like me. I mention your blogs every time I deliver a workshop to a group of new writers. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience on this site. Thank you!

  9. Eric F. James

    A publisher criticized my recent award winning, non-fiction book for not adhering to conventional format. I placed my acknowledgement chapter at the rear of my book, together with chapters on author, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. A conventional format would place the acknowledgement chapter before the prologue, a throwback to the early days of publishing, I presume, when publishers esteemed themselves more than their audiences.

    My reasoning for doing so followed the primary rule of a book to engage its audience, as immediately as possible. To use a real estate analogy, if I want to see the inside of a house available on the market, I do not want to be stopped after entering the garden gate to be told of all the tradespeople who contributed to the home’s construction. ABSOLUTELY NOT! I want to get inside the home as fast as possible and experience the home for myself. If the house excited my interest, I might inquire about the tradespeople myself.

    To borrow another analogy from the film art form, how many audiences would sit through the movie’s credits if the trailer screened prior to the film?

    So why should an acknowledgment chapter be placed before a book’s principal content?

    • Joel Friedlander

      More authors seem to be doing this Eric, and I can see the logic behind it. When I get queries on the Acknowledgments, my advice is to put it in the front matter, in the back matter, or off on their website if they like. Really, it’s up to you.

  10. Michael N. Marcus

    This post does a fine job covering aspects of the mindset of successful self-pubbers, but just what is success?

    There are probably many more definitions of successful publishing than there are aspects of the mindset.

    Is success completing one book, publishing one book, selling one book, selling 100, 1,000 or 100,000?

    Is success getting one great review, many great reviews, not getting any negative reviews, winning an award, winning many awards?

    Is success breaking even, making lots of money, quitting the “day job?”

    Is success changing the world, impressing parents and friends, becoming Time mag’s person-of-the-year or winning back a spurned lover?

    A writer’s definition of success affects the strategy and mindset for achieving it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for pointing this out, Michael. I agree that it’s the responsibility of the publisher to define success for each of their books, and that success can take many forms. I’ve helped authors publish books that were meant for only a few people, and getting the book to those people was the whole definition of “success” for those projects.

  11. Ernie Zelinski

    Great article.

    These quotations have been part of my “secret sauce” that have helped me become moderately successful at self-publishing.

    “You are never given a wish without the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”
    — Richard Bach

    “Seek above all for a game worth playing. Such is the oracle to modern man. Having found the game, play it with intensity; play as if your life and sanity depend on it. (They do depend on it).”
    — D. S. Ropp

    “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
    — Norman Vincent Peale

    “If you see in any given situation only what everybody else can see, you can be said to be so much a representative of your culture that you are a victim of it.”
    — S. I. Hayakawa

    “When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
    — Richard Bach

    “The law of floatation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things.”
    — Thomas Troward

    “The fishing is best where the fewest go and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone is aiming for base hits.”
    — Timothy Ferriss

    “If you follow the crowd, you will likely get no further than the crowd. If you walk alone, you’re likely to end up in places no one has ever been before. Being an achiever is not without its difficulties, for peculiarity breeds contempt. The unfortunate thing about being ahead of your time is that when people finally realize you were right, they’ll simply say it was obvious to everyone all along. You have two choices in life. You can dissolve into the main stream, or you can choose to become an achiever and be distinct. To be distinct, you must be different. To be different, you must strive to be what no else but you can be.”
    — Alan Ashley-Pitt

    One important note: Being too optimistic can be a liability for many people. As someone recently pointed out, there’s a lot of positive thinking on the Internet. Fact is, positive thinking is a big suck-in factor in get-rich schemes that tend to liberate people’s money and make them much poorer. This applies to many book publishing and marketing programs being sold to wannabe best-selling authors. I know of several cases of people who have spent thousands of dollars for book “expertise” and then have sold fewer than 25 copies of their books. The bottom line is that a lot of people do not possess adequate critical thinking skills to determine what constitutes a good book. This includes many people with Masters and Phd degrees.

    Having said that, I think that I have a better self-publishing mindset than most authors. In 1991 (23 years ago), I was in the middle of writing my “The Joy of Not Working.” One Sunday when visiting my mother, I told her, “I have a feeling that this book may just end up making me $1 million.” I self-published the book that September. The book has made me only around $715,000 in pretax profits since then. However, the book sold over 5,000 copies in its print edition in 2013, the best it has done in print sales since 2007. And combined with the ebook edition, it should earn me over $20,000 in pretax profits in 2014. Another 15 years like 2014 and this one book will reach the $1 million mark. How’s that for optimism?

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 270,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ernie, thanks for the wisdom in your quotes and also pointing out:

      “a lot of people do not possess adequate critical thinking skills”

      That’s something those of use who write about these topics can’t really do much about, except to point people in the right direction. And hang in there, I bet you’re going to hit that $1,000,000 mark.

      • Shawna Hartley

        As an award winning book designer and self publisher, can you tell me how you might tackle the subject of creating a POD version of a not-for-profit book that is big (A4, 168 pages + cover, filled with heaps of photos, graphics and words). We have the file that the printers in Cambodia used … and I’ve created a text only version as an eBook but now want to be able to offer POD on Amazon rather than going for a second print run.
        Many thanks for any input you might have. I’ve so enjoyed the few posts I’ve read of yours and look forward to reading more!

        • Joel Friedlander

          Shawna, assuming the files are in InDesign, the graphics are all reproduction quality, you’ll probably just need to replace the copyright page. Both Ingram (through Lightning Source and Ingram Spark) and Lulu offer A4 trim size in both black and white and color interiors. However, the prices for POD color books may be an obstacle if you plan to publish as a profit-making enterprise.

  12. Judy Croome

    Wonderful description of authors who choose to independently publish!



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