8 Reasons Books Fail

No one wants his or her self-published book to fail. In the new issue of Publishing Success, learn to avoid eight of the most common mistakes and make sure that your book is a success.
Publish date:

To achieve success with your self-published book, your book must look like a book, and its quality must be higher than or equal to other books in your genre. Many people (myself included) make costly mistakes early on in their self-publishing journey, but there are very simple ways to recover from these mistakes and avoid them in future books.

When I self-published my first book, Personal Budget Planner, in 1991, I was so focused on getting my book to market in time for tax season that I failed to do a thorough job on it. However, I was fortunate because my book—with its anecdotal style and features (eight worksheets)—was an unusual entry in its category. But perhaps more important, a graphic artist stepped in to help me. He designed a striking cover, helped me lay out the book and encouraged me to use a standard font. He also told me to get an ISBN. These invaluable tactics helped me produce a salable book.

As a result of my experience, I have pinpointed eight reasons why self-published books fail:

1. Muddled title
Your title must grab your reader. A strong title conveys the exact subject matter of your book. If your title is muddled and you have not yet bound your book, consider changing the title. Conduct an informal survey to decide the best title for your work. If you have already bound your book, promote it in ways that rely more on you and the book's content rather than the title. This can include reviews, autograph parties, editorials, and radio and TV appearances. You can also pursue direct mail, but consider promoting your subject rather than your title.

2. Poor content and writing
Some publishers forget to have someone clean up their writing and improve the content. If you have not bound your book yet, hire an experienced editor, or at least ask several of your literate peers to give your manuscript a thorough read and provide candid feedback. Be sure to implement the sound advice.

If you have already produced your book, spend time promoting it by getting reviews; if your content interests enough readers, reviewers will still review your book. I have read a few useful how-to books that were poorly written yet received favorable reviews. Hold autograph parties and sell your books at your events. Launch a personal direct-mail campaign to people you know and invite them to acquire a personally autographed copy of your book for their collection. When you sell all of your inventory and go back to press, upgrade your content and writing quality.

3. Poor cover art
When you offer your books for sale in retail stores, potential buyers are first attracted to your cover. Your cover should directly relate to the content of your book. (For more information on finding images for your cover, see "Illustrate Your Words" by Maureen A. Taylor on page 30.) For example, my graphic designer created a catchy cover that directly related to my title. The book's title is Personal Budget Planner, so my designer used George Washington's picture from the dollar bill as the cover image. If you have already gone to press with your book and it doesn't have a striking cover, sell your book where the cover is less important to the buyer.

4. Poor back cover copy
Back cover copy is the draw that entices the reader into your book. The copy should describe the book's contents and summarize the benefits of the book. Use this valuable space to pique the reader's interest and demonstrate why the reader should buy your book—and what he or she will get when they do.

If your back cover copy is not the strongest and you have not printed your book, hire a copywriter and create a great ad. If you have already gone to press, consider selling the book through mail order where you can write the ad copy.

5. No ISBN
The publishing industry uses the ISBN (international standard book number) to trace your book back to your company. If you are at the galley stage (pre-production), obtain a block of ISBNs from R.R. Bowker. Print the ISBN on your copyright page and on the back cover in your bar code with the price extension. (For ISBN and bar code ordering information, see the Exclusive Resource Directory on page 56.) After you have obtained the bar code film, send (or e-mail) the film to your book manufacturer to strip the bar code into your back cover.

If you have already gone to press, visit your local print shop and order a roll of stickers that contain your ISBN, price and bar code. Paste a sticker on the back cover of each book. While this is time-consuming, your book will have that essential ISBN.

6. Poor distribution
Distribution means getting your book from the warehouse into your customer's hands. (For more information on wholesalers and distributors, see "Get Your Book On the Shelf" by Julie Duffy on page 16.) Concentrate on promoting your book to create demand. With a strong sales history, wholesalers and distributors will be more interested in working with you. In the meantime, team up with a retail bookstore that has a toll-free telephone number. When you promote your book(s), give out the store's telephone number; they can field calls and process orders for you.

7. Wrong price
A relatively high price may lead customers to buy less expensive competing titles, while a low price may imply poor quality. Make sure your book's price fits its market. Some people said my Personal Budget Planner ($19.95) was too costly. Instead of changing the price, I created a brand out of the book that spurred demand and sales. If you decide to change your book's price after it's in print, you can file a revised Advance Book Information form with R.R. Bowker and order stickers that contain the new price, ISBN and bar code; you can also change the price when you go back to press for a second edition of the book. If you decide to change the price on a second printing, make sure that you update the price on your book's cover.

8. No market for the book
This can be a perplexing problem, especially if you have already gone to press. First, revisit the contents and features that your book offers. Once you find out who is interested in these features, discover how to reach that audience. This may be through reviews and freelance articles.

With my book Book Promotion Made Easy, I found that salespeople (and genre-specific book reviewers) valued the book as a guide to help salespeople develop their skills in personal selling. These reviews helped me sell the book to two markets (publishers and authors, and salespeople) and turn over my inventory faster.

We all make mistakes and miss a few things, especially when we are new to the field of self-publishing. One sound strategy is to follow the format and features of successful books. Create a checklist as a reminder of the important features you want your book to have. Be sure to follow the checklist each time you design a book, and update the checklist as you gain more experience. See you in print.

ERIC GELB is an investment banker. He has written five books and self-published three of them, including Book Promotion Made Easy (Career Advancement Center, www.smallbusinessadvice.com).

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 21

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a blank me poem.

4 Tips for Writing about Family Grudges

4 Tips for Writing about Family Grudges

Author Samantha Downing discusses the techniques she used when writing her literary novel He Started It, which focuses on family secrets, old grudges, and lots of scores to settle.

W.A. Winter: On the Joys of Writing Crime Fiction

W.A. Winter: On the Joys of Writing Crime Fiction

Crime and suspense author W.A. Winter discusses why he decided on fiction over true crime for his latest novel, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and how writing this book brought him joy.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 20

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a Love and/or Anti-Love poem.

Stationery vs. Stationary (Grammar Rules)

Stationary vs. Stationery (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of stationary and stationery on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Erik Larson Quote

Liminal Spaces: A Profile of Erik Larson

WD gives a peek at the daily routine of Erik Larson and the writing process behind his bestselling narrative nonfiction in this Nov/Dec 2020 profile by Zachary Petit.

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Debut author Jennifer Boresz Engelking discusses what led her to write her historical nonfiction book Hidden History of Lake County Ohio and how research gave her a new appreciation for her hometown.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 19

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an animal title poem.