How To Sabotage Your Self-Published Book (in five easy steps)

self-published book

Too many self-published authors make common blunders that guarantee their books will receive negative reviews and no buzz. Here are five mistakes that will doom any self-published book.

This post is brought to you by BlueInk Review.

For the last 25 years, I’ve been a full-time genre fiction book critic — writing for BlueInk Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Chicago Tribune. I’ve evaluated titles in every genre category and reviewed both traditionally published and independently published titles.

I’ve read and reviewed enough books (10,000+) to know that self-published authors make common blunders that virtually guarantee their books receive negative reviews and ruin any chance at creating a positive buzz. These are giant red flags — ear-piercing alarms — warning me of an imminent bad read.

Consider this a public service announcement. As a reviewer, I want you, the self-published author, to bring your best book to the table. I would love to be blown away by your self-published novel and shout about it from the rooftops for the whole world to hear.

Listed below, in order of importance, are five mistakes that — in my humble opinion — will doom any self-published book.

1. Typographical and grammatical errors

Learn your craft, writers. Spelling and punctuation errors are the biggest red flags there are. If you can’t spell words that most fifth graders should know and you don’t understand how to use commas, chances are you shouldn’t be writing a book.

That’s not to say that a bad speller can’t be a fantastic novelist. It says he or she should have let a professional editor and/or proofreader correct it before publishing.

When I review books, I keep track of every single typographical error the author makes in a trusty notebook. A dozen errors in total is only mildly irritating; anything over 50 is unacceptable. I’ve read self-published books with hundreds of errors — grammatical mistakes on every page, in every paragraph, almost in every sentence. I actually reviewed a self-published novel with a typo in the title on the front cover!

Do not publish a novel until it’s finished — and it’s not finished until you know that the majority of errors have been found and removed.

2. Chest beating

Don’t brag about what a great writer you are. I’ve read more than a few author bios that state that Author X knew from an early age that he was an incredibly talented wordsmith. It’s a special gift he wants to share with the world. Don’t say it — do it. A little humility goes a long way.

3. No understanding of genre expectations

Before you endeavor to write a historical whodunit, ecological thriller, or steampunk romance, you need to understand the genre in which you are writing. This ties in peripherally with understanding your craft. There is a level of literary awareness here that cannot be understated. Do you understand the history of the genre in which you’re writing? Have you read more than a few classics and/or current releases? Do you know what kinds of storylines are trending? Are you aware of the conventions and clichés?

The popular Edmund Burke quote, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is true in this case. I can’t tell you how many self-published novels I’ve read that have had premises or narrative elements eerily similar to iconic works.

I don’t think it’s plagiarism so much as ignorance.

Consider any category of fiction — such as apocalyptic fiction, paranormal fantasy, or amateur whodunit — to be a vast forest. Every novel is a tree, every short story a bush or vine. The more you explore the woods in which you intend to plant your own narrative tree, the stronger that tree will be.

4. Amateurish cover art

Yeah, I know, people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But guess what? They do. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: a mediocre novel with eye-catching cover art sells well while a brilliant novel with bad cover art comes and goes unnoticed.

This is a big deal. It’s essential to choose your cover art wisely. You are doing yourself and your novel a great disservice by accepting amateurish or ill-conceived cover art.

5. No social networking presence

Some people may disagree with me about this, but I think it’s critically important: if you’re a self-published author, it is imperative that you have a social media presence. If you’re trying to promote a self-published novel and you don’t have a website and you’re not active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc., you’re effectively shooting yourself in the foot.

This is where your readers are. Potentially millions of them. Get your name and your book out there and grow your audience!

Readers of the BookBaby Blog can get a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the key code “Allen.” (This does not guarantee a review by Allen.)

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  1. Thank you, Paul. I appreciate the information. I am now in the process of self-publishing my second book, not counting an anthology of short stories and poems. My first book is a teacher-mentor book, self-published June 2019. My mission: for each book purchased, I gift one to a teacher or parent. I’ve given away over 50 paperbacks and sold 53 paperbacks on Amazon, not counting personal sales at a book signing, and ebooks, free Kindle Unlimited. So far I have 28 five-star reviews. I’ve more than made up for the cost of the publishing and books given away. I’m not out to make money on this. I just want it in the hands of as many teachers as possible. I am on Goodreads and Facebook, though I don’t think FB ads have helped much.

    My second book is the true love story of my parents during World War II, RAINBOW OF PROMISE. It’s being formatted now and will be out later this month. My formatting and cover are through E.M.Tippetts Book Designs. They’be been great to work with.
    Question: I don’t have a website. Is that necessary? I’m not writing to become a famous or rich author. I write because I have a lot of stories in my head that I want to get on paper. Will a website help sales so that I can afford to continue self-publishing? I do have an educational website but it needs revamping:

    I don’t have the money for Kirkus Reviews or Bookbaby promotions. I’m a retired teacher on a limited budget.

    • Edmund Burke wrote “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similar idea. Different wording.

      • It would seem we are doomed no matter what we do. Science says that our observations affect the subject of that observation. We inadvertently give energy to what we look at. If we were to study war, we would be adding energy to a subconscious thought form. Thought ends up creating reality more often than not. So, is there any such thing as free will?

    • If you’re available on Amazon, you’re novel is probably there. If nobody put it there, you tell Goodreads you’re an author and then say , “[my book] isn’t listed” and give them the ASIN or ISBN.

    • Hi, Geof! Mine appeared automatically when I first published on Amazon, without me even being on Goodreads myself at that point. But if yours hasn’t, you can add it yourself or contact the Goodreads Librarians group of volunteers in the community area and ask them to do it. They’ll just need your ISBN and title, and are very helpful and speedy (my 2nd book appeared twice, which created 2 profiles for me! The librarians sorted it).
      Then link your own profile to your book, if it hasn’t automatically, and a Goodreads Author logo will appear by your name, with any books you publish gathered on your page. You’ll be able to blog, invite questions etc, as well as uploading your photo and/or bio like on Amazon. It’s a presence, as Paul says in this article – readers can see you and start to feel they know you. NO one’s ever asked me a question and precious few have read my blogs, but I’ve had some reviews and ratings (and therefore purchases) from strangers, just from being there!

      Paul – thanks for a great article, and for the service you provide for readers and writers alike. I’ll certainly check out Blue Ink. It’s so encouraging to know that there are reviewers out there keen to shout us from the rooftops! If we warrant it, obvs. And that bit’s up to us ;o)

      All best with your projects, everyone,
      Find me on Twitter @jairus_girl or lockdown readings and my contribution to the Big Kidlit Q&A on YouTube as L R Hay

  2. I had an agent and a website for over thirty years. Since I retired as a film director I dropped my website and don’t need an agent. Now I’ve got three novels and a graphic novel finished and on Google. I am just going over the fourth rewrite on another. In my 80s I’d rather concentrate time on art and writing than advertising. I know this is foolish for a younger person but I feel the time is better spent creating that talking about me. Do the internet outlets have promotional departments?

    • Many people will gladly take your money to ‘promote’ your book. None of them will guarantee enough sales to pay for their fees. None of them will work on a commission for part of the revenue they generate.

      You need your own website if you want to sell more books.

    • I’m half your age and feel the same way. Plus, I know enough about what all those 800-ton social media gorillas are doing to want to keep most of them at arm’s length. Which is really annoying, since a lot of the advice-givers about writing take it for granted that Facebook participation is a lot higher than reality (nearly universal when in fact it’s only about 56%).

      (That and I’m rather “old school” about cover art, which a lot of PhotoShop addicts dismiss as “amateur.”)

  3. Nonsense! Editors are for typos and commas aka SPAG. Also for development and other levels of editing.
    If you have something worth saying then you can write a book to spite folks like Blueinkers who are arrogant and trying to tell you what to do. Now if you are just a wannabee Walter Mitty playing at writing then go ahead and write your book but put it in a desk drawer and forget it with the other millions of pretend ‘authors’.

    More nonsense! If you can write a book you can DL a template and do your own cover better than any alleged cover artiste can do it. Covers are meant to sell books not win awards for some artiste. Why spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a fancy cover that might win some award for them but does nothing to boost sales. Will any of those so called artistas guarantee you enough additional sales because of their cover to pay for the cost of it? Didn’t think so.

    • I totally agree. I found my book was attacked by people who wanted to defame me on political grounds. What they said on Amazon showed they never read or bought the book. The demolition by such people is disheartening when your work is good and may have taken a year or more to produce. Also if you use Grammarly and have at least a course or two in grammar, you should be fine. The book is not about a comma splice

  4. Hi Paul!
    Thank you so very much for your valuable points. I am about to publish my first book, and it’s good to see that I’ve passed your 5 No-Nos. When I’ll have it published I’ll get in touch hopefully to be reviewed by you.

    Thank you again.
    Stay well,

  5. The BlueInk Review was one of three professional reviewers of self-published books, and I was surprised at the variations in the assessments, which made me wonder if the reviewer is sometimes given a book outside of the genre they enjoy reading. A good example is science fiction. It covers a broad spectrum. The first thing that comes to the mind of most people at the mention of science fiction is interplanetary travel, Star Wars, intermingling with aliens… so when a reviewer ends up with a natural disaster story in their hands, it may not be the kind of science fiction they enjoy reading.

    For a first-time self-publisher, BlueInk Review gave me a “starred review” and a few months later had it published as a “recommended read” Booklist Magazine. Another review described it as flawed, which made me realize just how different an individual’s views really are. However, they all mentioned the one thing I didn’t expect to be noticed. I spent almost 4 years (5 hours average per day) doing research for the book, and they all made positive comments to that point. That, more than anything else, really made it for me.

  6. Very valuable info. Will be investigating things I’m not doing. Just started a strong presence on FB. Have a web site which is under construction to amplify sales efforts on my book, With God All Things Are Possible and has 5star rating on Amazon.

    Thanks again. Tom Tomoser.

  7. It was an excellent article! It covered almost every aspect of self publishing that needs to be understood. However, I didn’t notice one error in this article. Edmund Burke did not write or say that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned / doomed to repeat it. ‘ that particular line comes from the Life of Reason by George Santillana. That said I would urge everyone who intends to self publish to read this article.


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