5 Mistakes Writers Make (and How to Avoid Them)

1. Thinking that your book will sell itself

I have five books published with Simon & Schuster and let me tell you: They do not walk off the shelves. I made the mistake of becoming complacent and thinking that because I had a huge publisher behind me that I didn’t need to do much PR work to promote myself. In the words of Julia Roberts: “Big mistake. Huge.”

I watched my friend and author Becky Wicks work like a demon to promote her indie book Before He Was Famous and within 12 hours of it going live on Amazon it had sold nearly 500 copies. She worked her BUTT off for months prior building an audience, interacting on Twitter and Facebook and building a fan base from scratch. She rocks. It’s totally inspired me to do the same.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)



the-sound-novel-cover-alderson     sarah-alderson-writer-author

Column by Sarah Alderson, author of five novels, the most recent of which is
OUT OF CONTROL (May 2014, Simon & Schuster), a fast-paced YA thriller
focusing on human trafficking summed up with the tagline: “Move to a new city.
Meet a hot boy. Run for your life.” Having spent most of her life in London,
Sarah quit her job in the non profit sector in 2009 and took off on a round
the world trip with her husband and toddler daughter on a mission to find a
new place to call home. After almost a year spent wandering around India,
Singapore, Australia and the US, they settled in Bali where Sarah now
spends her days writing and trying to machete open coconuts without
severing a limb. As well as Young Adult fiction, Sarah writes New Adult
fiction for Pan Macmillan under the pen name Mila Gray. Her first novel,
COME BACK TO ME, will be out in summer 2014. You can find all
Sarah’s books on Amazon here. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter.



If you have written a book and put it on Amazon hoping for the best then good luck with that. If you’ve written a book for a major publisher and expected them to do the hard work for you — good luck with that. You need to act like an indie author — a determined one — if you want to make it in the world of publishing. This means:

  • Spending hours a day on social media interacting with fans, building rapport (and this doesn’t mean shoving your book down their throat but providing interesting content).
  • Studying marketing & promotion, learn everything you can about it — now!
  • Starting at least 6 months before your book is out.

2. Thinking that people care about your life story

Unless you are an A-list celebrity or have done something truly extraordinary that makes a stranger’s jaw drop, unless it has a hook, then it’s a mistake to assume that your story is of any interest to anyone beyond your immediate circle of friends and family.

I have lost count of the number of acquaintances who’ve come to me and told me they want my help with a “great idea they want to turn into a novel.” Invariably it’s a story about their battle with cancer / divorce / trip around the world. My eyes glaze over. If it means that much to you write it, but don’t expect it to sell. Though I’d be happy to eat my words!

3. Following trends

I made the mistake once of writing a book — a YA dystopia — because I was told that was all the rage at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was a good book but by the time I’d written it, guess what? Dystopia was yesterday’s news.

Sure, you can always fly in the face of this advice by writing something truly astonishing and amazing, but it’s more likely you won’t. My best suggestion? Write the story you want to read and don’t look at trends. They come and go.

(Tips on how to find more agents who seek your genre/category.)

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4. Expecting overnight success with a debut novel

Sure, this happens. Occasionally. But it’s exceedingly rare. I’m on my fifth book with Simon & Schuster and am yet to earn out my advance with any of them. Sigh. And my advances weren’t even that big to begin with.

My first new adult book — Come Back To Me — is out with Pan Macmillan in three weeks and that’s my first book to earn out its advance before publication thanks to foreign rights sales.

I’m hoping by the time I am on my tenth book I might be making some royalties.

5. That they’ll be able to quit their day job once they sell that first book

Industry advances are shrinking. My advances today are less than they ever were. Factor in that a publisher will only buy roughly one book a year (if you’re lucky) and that your agent will take 15% and the taxman another 20-30% and you’re left with less than you first thought.

I quit my day job, started traveling the world AND then decided to become a writer because I never researched how much authors earn. Doh.

How do I survive financially?
— I copywrite
— I have started writing screenplays and earning from that.
— I’ve optioned my books to production companies
— I teach / lead retreats
— I work my ass off!

I’ve had to use my creativity and imagination to find other ways to earn income, in short.


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20 thoughts on “5 Mistakes Writers Make (and How to Avoid Them)

  1. Avatarjanetevanovivhofficial@gmail.com

    A manuscript that’s written for a different era
    Peter James, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, no? So if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right? Well, actually no. Those guys wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market. Unless you do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book over theirs. Same thing with kids books that hanker after the 1950s. Or comedies that reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or people who are rewriting Stephenie Meyer as though they haven’t noticed there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since then. Just don’t do it. Either invent a time machine or write for the world as it is now.

  2. AvatarLevRaphael

    The biggest mistake or misunderstanding is one that even experienced writers make: discounting the fact that luck can outweigh talent any time and often does. Being in the right place at the right time, meeting the perfect editor for your work at a party, or writing a book about a topic just before it becomes hot, these things mean much more than talent. People love to say that if you write a good book, people will buy it. That’s nonsense. People may never even hear about it, even if it’s promoted to death by the publisher or you do that yourself. Luck is something that nobody can predict or tame or quantify and it’s the great unknown in every writer’s career. Val McDemird spoke at my Michigan State summer program in London in July and offered several examples of how she was lucky, and said there were writers just as good as she was who weren’t as lucky. She wasn’t just being modest; she was being honest.

  3. Avataratwhatcost

    How does social networking convert to sales? I keep hearing writers and authors say we have to do our own marketing, but no one seems to want to answer the obvious question at length — how?

    I’ve asked on the WD forum and I see people have looked at my question. No one seems to want to answer it though. It’s like marketing is a sin as a writer. I want to sell my book. I’d like to know how.

    1. AvatarLevRaphael

      I’ve never seen it boost sales. But then I’ve never seen going to mystery conferences and even moderating SRO panels boost sales of my series. I think lots of accepted wisdom really is just guesswork or wishful thinking.

  4. Avatarkrysroz

    Interesting post. I have a problem with continuity though. You say you have yet to earn your advance on any of your books, and say they are shrinking. Then you reply to Clinton that make 6 digit advances. I don’t think that’s too shabby.

    One of your points is that your books don’t ‘walk off the shelves’ and then you tell the same commenter that you sell over a thousand books a week. The publisher must be doing something. Simon & Schuster is a big house, with a lot of YA authors and they do have a promotion department.

    Believe me, it’s not like I think you do nothing to help promote your books, I’m sure you bust your butt (or hire someone to help), but I don’t think you do it all by yourself. Someone with those kind of advances and the sales indicated by your Amazon rank must afford you the help you need. God willing, I might get to that point.

    I do think that many of your points are VERY appropriate.

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. AvatarTCKenn

    Interesting, and sort of refreshing, to see the skeptical comments re marketing. I wonder if those responders have books out there doing well without the authors making an effort to sell books. How did word-of-mouth work for you, Clinton?

    I’m in the readers-reviewing-criticizing stage of revising my first novel, so I’m facing this issue. Aren’t there ways to build a platform that are not just “marketing.” If a writer blogs in his/her subject area, he/she can combine promotion with writing that works toward the writer becoming a better writer. Doing close readings, for example, of other writers’ works and blogging about those works. You can immerse yourself in writing, learn from it, and use what you learn to connect with a potential audience for your own work. You give readers references to good books, thoughts about ways to read those books, and build a community. There are other ways to use “promoting” to build yourself as a writer. Anything you do that gets you writing helps you develop as a writer.

    Having said that, I procrastinate too. I don’t like “marketing.” But I know I am going to have finally promote that FB page I created for my book, set aside precious time get my blog “out there” for the sake of the platform (I write full time for a living, but not fiction, which is my true vocation), tweet more, etc. to begin creating a virtual world for my book.

    1. AvatarSarah Alderson

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t enjoy marketing either and would much rather be writing (I’m contracted to three books a year so I’m busy with that).

      I think the best thing I’ve learned is that 90% of all you put out there; on a blog, FB, Twitter etc should be providing useful content. Sharing others’ blog posts and retweeting other authors and offering advice related to your own journey. I find that the more you share information and provide useful content (I make video answers to fans who ask me questions about writing as well as blog) the more enjoyable it is, because you are giving rather than asking people for something.

      It’s a more comfortable dynamic for me anyway. I wish you all the best in your endeavours!

  6. AvatarClinton A. Seeber

    Well, I’d say it must be that your writing just isn’t very good. If a book is good, word of mouth will get out about it, and it will sell. Quit trying to blame your lack of success on anything other than lackluster writing skills.

    1. Avataratwhatcost

      Five books published by Simon and Schuster. Nah, it’s not lack of talent.

      But keep thinking the Wishful-Thought Genie will magically bring anyone to your books to spread word-of-mouth.

  7. AvatarClinton A. Seeber

    Why is someone who has admitted that they haven’t had great success at being an author yet giving advice on how to be a successful author? Maybe your reason for not having the success you desire is just that your stories are not good and compelling enough.

    1. AvatarSarah Alderson

      I was just being honest and open about my experiences Clinton. Success is relative isn’t it? I’m selling over 1000 copies a week of my latest novel in the UK alone (it’s not out in the US until next year). My first novel Hunting Lila won the Kingston Book Award and was voted into the top ten UK YA books and is also in production as a movie. Financially, I’ve earned into six figures from my books so far (I’m UK published and only just starting to publish in the US) so relatively speaking, I think that’s successful for just three years published. I’m interested in what you define as success? How do your books sell?

      Whether my writing skills are lacklustre and my stories not compelling is debatable for sure! But considering I have thousands of fans who actually read my books who would contest that I’m not going to let your comments get to me (as I am sure you intended them to). After all, Haters gonna hate.

      1. Avatargh0st0wl

        YEAH. Thank you for replying to this guy’s comments, it drives me crazy when people feel the need to tear someone else down. What possible purpose does it serve? The anonymity offered by the internet seems to give people the need to show the ugliest sides of themselves instead of the best, making comments they would never present in person.

        Thank you for the information, although I keep hearing the same message I still find myself thinking I can write and self-publish, and be successful, without doing all of the work of self promotion. I know it’s not possible but since I am not very good at selling myself yet. I have yet to find the self confidence I need to successfully publish a book.

        I am also thinking about getting in to copywriting as a way to help supplement my income, but have no idea where to begin. I feel like that’s where I should start though, as a way to find the confidence I need to make it “in the wild”.

        Thanks again, and you are correct – hater’s gonna hate. It always seems to be the people with the least amount to say that speak the loudest.


        1. AvatarClinton A. Seeber

          Oh? And just why wouldn’t I say that in person? I’m sure that I would if I were inclined to do so. As far as “anonymity” – this my actual name and I am a man living in Mobile, Alabama. I make my contact info available to public. What more do you need to know? Are you going to come “looking” for me?

  8. AvatarSarah Alderson

    Thanks for the comments. To clarify as I should have done in my post, I also self-publish so I have experience of both. Why bother with traditional publishing you ask?

    1. I have been paid well into six figures with advances on my books so far.
    2. The product is far better (in my experience) with a publishing house. I have beautifully edited, proofed and designed books thanks to their expert input, something I simply couldn’t afford to do on my own.
    3. My books are in all major bookstores which helps me build my name and spread the word.
    4. I’m able to get into Amazon’s promotions (at the moment I’m on a summer promo with them that only trad publishers can organise – and selling in the UK alone over 1000 copies a week on a new title). That would require a lot of work on my part to achieve the same if I was self-published.
    5. Film rights – as a screenwriter that meets frequently with TV and film companies having a traditionally published book is a great calling card and does open doors that would remain shut to me otherwise.

    So, I would still take a publishing deal over a self-published deal right now, as I make much more money from them than I do from self-publishing (at the moment and probably because I’ve only just started to really do more marketing). But I would definitely consider self-publishing again in the future. It really depends on the offer and my work schedule.

    I work full time! It’s not a hobby. I have to weigh up how much my time is worth and what the returns are. I enjoy social media as it’s the way I connect to fans and other readers. If you write YA or NA fiction then I don’t see how you can sell many books without being on social media – that’s where your readers are.

    Thousands of books are sold each day. Amazon has millions of titles – why would anyone even find yours unless you market it? It amazes me that anyone thinks any product can sell without marketing these days – particularly in an over-saturated market-place like books.

    If you were selling fruit at a farmer’s market would you hide your produce under the table, or worse, not bother going to the market at all, but instead stay home and grow another apple tree? That approach is fine if you want to just write, but if you want to make a living from books you need to be able to build a stall at that market, let everyone know your apples are the best out there (maybe a bad analogy there!) and then go home and grow a whole orchard. That’s how you have success.

    If you are selling books without doing any marketing I would LOVE to know how. There are millions of us striving writers out there who would pay to know your secret.

    Thanks Becky for your comment showing the results you have had from ‘self-promotion’ and marketing. Well done! It’s so inspiring to hear your success and see how it is possible (even for people who aren’t comfortable on social media). The proof is out there. I guess a lot of people don’t want to face the reality of what being a successful writer actually means today.

  9. AvatarBeckyWicksAuthor

    Great post, Sarah! Books definitely don’t walk off the shelves, and many people do think that as writers who have time to market our work, we don’t have full time jobs. Writing is a full time job and if you want to sell what you write, marketing and what shadowwalker calls ‘self-promotion’ must be your second full time job. It is self promotion, but no one else will do it, and the fun is in finding out how YOU can do it differently, without putting people off 🙂

    I had three books published with HarperCollins and thanks to zero marketing (and me being very naive about how things worked) they sold very poorly. I didn’t earn out my royalties on the last two. Now I’m self publishing and I’ve made learning all about this brand new industry my third full time job. For anyone interested here’s how I shifted 24,000 copies in 4 days… and it took a LOT of work, and while I spent a long time writing the best book within my ability at that point to write, I spent even longer on the marketing! I didn’t want all that work to be for nothing – I wanted to share my work. I’m just hoping it pays off sooner rather than later, but till it does we can only try, and keep learning, and keep working hard at our dreams…

  10. Avatarjonny42

    I agree.

    So they do nothing to help you promote your new book? Then what is the point? You might as well put it out yourself and have total control over your product.
    I guess those of us who have to work full time (and beyond) are out of luck, because what little free time I have I spend writing, not blogging.

    I might as well self-publish and take my chances.

  11. Avatarshadowwalker

    If I’m supposed to spend “hours per day” on social media, then I guess my book just won’t be a big seller. Some of us are just not comfortable with it, and let’s be honest – some authors suck at it. They’d probably lose sales. And frankly, until I see some actual study that says all this self-promotion actually results in significant increases in sales, it’s not something I’d put any time into. I’d rather be writing the next book.


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