Top 10 Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes—Explained!

by | Jul 19, 2010

I learn a lot from the comments readers leave on the blog. People have pointed out errors, shown me resources I hadn’t heard of, and made connections that had never occurred to me. It’s a big web out there, and one of the things I enjoy most is this sharing of knowledge, resources and experiences.

Two weeks ago I published Top 10 List of the Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes, a semi-serious look at normal mistakes newcomers to self-publishing might make. But a couple of people asked if there was going to be a follow-up article. They wanted to know the reasons why these were the so-called “worst mistakes” so they could avoid making them.

So here is the follow-up, the explanation for why you wouldn’t want to do any of these things when it comes time to publish your book. I’ve copied the questions from the earlier article and given an explanation for each.

Top 10 Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes—Explained!

“10. You thought you could re-use that ISBN you paid so much for since the novel you put it on last year isn’t selling anyway.”

Explained: You never want to re-use an ISBN, or even use it for another edition of the same book. The ISBN is known as a unique identifier. It’s intended to be assigned to one edition of one book. Your book’s information has been entered in book databases everywhere, and you will only create tremendous confusion between the two works, hurting sales for both, if you attempt to re-use an ISBN. Just don’t do it.

“9. Everybody knows the words to the song, so it’s okay to quote lyrics from it throughout your novel, right?”

Explained: Check out this blog post about using bits of songs in your writing. The author here found, after using only snippets of 60s songs in a party scene, that he had a liability of over $6,000. Just like paintings, poems, or any creative expression, people’s lyrics and music are protected by copyright law, and violations of this law can be expensive and very damaging. If you want to use it, get permission first.

“8. The photos looked fine on your screen, and that means they will look fine when they’re printed, it just makes sense.”

Explained: Graphics on screens are all displayed at a resolution of 72 dots per inch (dpi) in Reg-Green-Blue (RGB) colorspace. That’s just the way computers display graphics. However, when you go to print your book, your color photos will need to be 300 dpi in the Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black (CMYK) colorspace. So no, the image you see on your screen, no matter how gorgeous, may not have enough resolution to print well.

“7. I picked Arial for my book because the name reminded me of my middle school girlfriend.”

Explained: Many people don’t notice typefaces, typography, design, serifs, ligatures, and the other elements book designers take for granted, and why should they? But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what typeface you use. The classic book typefaces, when used correctly, will produce a book that’s beautiful, readable, and reader-friendly. That’s why they’re classics.

“6. I know they’re charging me $6,000 to publish my book, but I get 10 copies, absolutely free!”

Explained: Well, $6,000 divided by 10 is . . . The point here is that if you want to publish your own book you may be better off using a plain author services company like CreateSpace or Lulu than a subsidy publisher. Why? The subsidy publisher makes its money from sales to authors–that’s you. If you use a service like CreateSpace you are the publisher and you use them as a printer. You pay only for the services you decide you need, and then you make your money from book sales.

“5. I thought it would sound more impressive if I wrote my memoir in the third person. All my sports heroes talk that way.”

Explained: By far the best way for most authors to present their information in nonfiction books is with a clear, active, straightforward style. Attempts to create unusual styles, strange viewpoints, exotic points of view almost always fail since they are incredibly difficult to carry off well. Both you and your readers will be well served by a natural conversational style that follows a normal and expected narrative. This will make your valuable information stand out, not an eccentric way of saying it.

“4. I really got the unit price down, but I had to print 10,000 copies. You have any room in your garage?”

Explained: Having a plan on how you intend to market, publicize and sell your book before entering into book production is highly recommended. The unit cost of your book is meaningless if you never sell any. Many self-publishers are using digital printing through print-on-demand distribution to minimize this type of risk. However, you have to plan your book, its retail price, and your method of distribution before going to press.

“3. Sure, I included an invoice with all the books I sent to book reviewers. Hey, they don’t care, it’s just a big company paying the bill.”

Explained: Although reviewers do usually work for larger companies, sending an invoice with a review copy will ensure that while you won’t get paid for the book, you won’t get a review either. The convention is that you are asking for valuable editorial time and space in a publication, and certainly the least you can expect is to provide a book to anyone gracious enough to go to the trouble of reviewing your book.

“2. It was cheaper to print my novel as an 8-1/2″ x 11″ book because I got so many words on each page.”

Explained: Although it’s true that you can save money in digital printing by creating a book with fewer pages, a novel printed full page on letter-size paper with small margins and tight lines to “get so many words” on a page is likely to be read by no one. Making your book difficult to read is a quick way to eliminate many readers. There is no economy in printing books that no one wants to read.

“1. What do you mean, I need a cover designer? Don’t books come with covers?”

Explained: Most author-services companies are only too happy to put a cover on your book for a fee, or to turn you loose on their cover creation programs. But it’s pretty easy to tell most of the books that have been “designed” this way, and it isn’t a pretty picture. If your book is worth publishing, and you want people to buy it, and you understand the cover is the primary way that people will identify the book wherever it appears, don’t you think it might be worthwhile to get a cover designer you can afford to create a cover for you?

Well, there you have it. If there was any doubt, you now know some good things to avoid when it comes time to publish a book.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by dinrao,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joan Millett Rothwell

    I was urged to document some of the amazing events experienced during the early Jesus Movement. When considering professional printing (not my spiral copies), I saw a jungle out there. It is my heart to encourage Faith sharing in natural ways like shared in simple short chapters. Where can I go? Who can I trust? Joan

  2. Cyprian Fernandes

    I am writing a non fiction memoir. I have “legaled” it. On the cover I have a photograph of five friends I grew up with. I have written permission from for use on the cover. Now my publisher is asking for notarized permissions. Is this really required?

  3. Keturah Kemble

    GREAT ADVICE. The most important step is HAVE A PLAN! I first self-published about 6 years ago and was so excited by the chance to publish, I didn’t do a very good job marketing my book. In retrospect, I realized after that I had priced it way too high for my market (My book was chick lit for 20-somethings. I priced it around $20). Once you finish writing, INVEST in an excellent book cover design and binding. Remember your cover is what sells it. That’s what people see. PRINT about 10 books or so and schedule a test reading/discussion for your target audience(e.g. recruit college students, book club members, book bloggers and feed them). To be clear about your target audience, an erotic thriller will not go over well with your church group. Book bloggers will be key in helping get the word out, but you need to build relationships with them in advance. If your readings go well and the feedback is mostly positive, CRAFT a stellar social media marketing campaign. This is the time to BUY followers because you have a product to sell and need to get the word out. GO TO EVENTS and have a handful of books with you (You want to look like you sold out early!!). If more people want to buy, then you can direct them to your website, Amazon, or wherever your books are sold online. This saves you a lot of money in ordering costs. ASK for feedback via social media (This helps increase your status on Google Analytics). Get photos of people with your book, testimonials, etc. Set a realistic goal to sell for a month (e.g 50 books) then follow up with 75, 100 etc. You may exceed these goals but don’t get ahead o yourself and buy 1000 books to sit in your attic. HOPE IT HELPS, AUTHORS!

  4. Marshall

    I’m between a rock and a hard place. Increasingly I’m thinking I was sold a bill of goods; by a Christian book publisher nonetheless. I have paid out a few thousand and now they want more and I have no assurance of their follow through.

    • Jessica

      Tate publishing?

  5. Elizabeth Varadan

    Great article. Very useful explanations. I’ve bookmarked this.

  6. KJD

    Bang on – all ten. This is a must read for all wannabe self-pubbers.

    Thanks Joel. I use Createspace.

  7. Small Dog Alone

    Hi! I LOVE 99 Designs and my cover contest is going on now — yay! Now that it looks so great, I was wondering how to get the page numbers off my title page and copyright page and final blank page…I really appreciate your help! Thanks so much — I am using Microsoft Word! Thanks again, Small Dog Alone

  8. Angela

    If you want to keep all rights and really earn 100% royalties (eliminate the middle man), but still need help with design and formatting, hire a firm like

  9. Richard David Feinman

    Great deal of valuable information but I expect to have a camera-ready, well-edited manuscript which readers tell me should maintain the dozens of color illustrations and assume that I will need color printing. I know how to market to my intended audience. Only thing standing in my way is having it printed and have some plan for fulfillment. Right off, since binding and paper stock are universal, what is the difference between digital production and printing? What does CreateSpace do that you can’t do by putting the camera-ready copy in the printer’s “in-box?” In other words, how can I go to a finished product without breaking the bank? I would say that I am not on a very tight budget in the sense that I am willing to pay for convenience but I don’t want the book to be so expensive that Amazon won’t pick it up. Apologies if 12 other people asked the same question and I missed it.

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  11. Sigrid Macdonald

    Joel, this is a wonderful article. You’ve made so many excellent points that I don’t know where to begin, but the one that jumps to my mind as being most critical is having a marketing plan in mind when you’re writing your book. As a manuscript editor, every day I deal with people who want to either self-publish or approach traditional publishers. Very few of them have a social media presence or have devoted a budget to marketing! This will guarantee disaster.

    Even the small traditional companies now expect authors to promote themselves, and why not? We have the tools to do so. Many of us – I’m a writer as well as an editor – would prefer to write rather than advertise, but people aren’t going to buy a book that they’ve never heard of.

    Most of my clients think that if their book goes up on Amazon, suddenly everyone will know it’s there. That’s really naïve. Amazon is a jungle and the only way people know your book is there is if you have a very specific niche audience so that it can be located by a simple keyword search by topic, or if you have driven traffic to your page.

    My experience has also been that my clients are willing to pay for editing, but they balk at the thought of putting money aside for marketing. Mistake! And, of course, later they return to me saying how surprised they are that they haven’t sold many books.

    Thanks for this article (and for the fabulous feedback from the posters). I’m going to bookmark it and send it to my clients.


    PS One question – you recommended against going with a font like Arial, and Steve said don’t use Times New Roman. What do you recommend? Verdana? Garamond? Courier?

  12. Ladia Jones

    Mr. Joel Friedlander, it is because of you that I knew I wanted to self-publish my memoir. I have been following, studying you for years. This article is excellent. The advice and comments from your readers are invaluable. One of the things that helped me is that I studied self-publishing. Another thing I did was looked at every single memoir in the library. I spent hours looking at book covers, how the book is laid out, what should be in the front, the back; how the cover is designed. Then I went home and looked at the hundreds of books in my personal library, those recently published and books published decades ago. This was all while I was still writing. I know I have a great story but I wanted to put out an excellent product. At the same time, I wanted to self-publish. I hired an editor, a good editor. I hired a good cover designer. After studying everything I needed to study I did the interior layout myself. I also had a professional make-up artist professional photographer to take my author picture. There’s no sense doing all that work and short-change on the back of the book. It turned out pretty good after I adjusted some things. I’m very proud of the job that I did in publishing my first book “Overcoming NO!”. I did use lulu to publish the book but I only use them as distribution. I don’t sell my book on Lulu. The book is available on my website. Thank you authors, and contributors of this article. I spent a considerable amount of time reading the comments because they were just as good as the original article. I would have been here sooner, but I was finishing the book.

  13. Rodrex Matthew

    The mistakes and the solutions for it are very well explained. Self publishing is surely not an easy task as the author is responsible for each and every work. This article can be very useful to avoid the mistakes and make the publishing process a bit easier.



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