Back in early ’09, I did the following post as a guest post for Henry over at I wanted to take this opportunity to reprint it here so that it can reach a different readership. You can see the original post here.

I’m Hillary DePiano, best known for being the author of the play The Love of Three Oranges, though I have written several other works of fiction and non-fiction. I have also, like Henry, worked as a service provider helping other authors to market and promote their books and used to teach some workshops on marketing and distribution for first time authors. I came by to share with you a little bit of what I have learned in these last 7 years in the word of print-on-demand, writing and publishing.

My position is somewhat unusual in that, as someone who has been running an online business since 1997, I have had experience with a lot of different marketplaces and companies giving me a different picture of the business of publishing from the author’s standpoint. What I wanted to share with you today is the distillation of all that experience.

Namely, the 5 most important things I have learned about self-publishing.

  1. There is no such thing as too many proofs (or proofreaders).
  2. You’re going to be judged by your cover.
  3. Price your content backwards.
  4. Never underestimate the power of giving away free copies.
  5. Know when to take the author hat off and when to leave it on.

Henry is fond of saying that I tell it like it is. What can I say, I used to work in NYC so I’m not use to beating around the bush. Let’s go through these one at a time, shall we?

1. There is no such thing as too many proofs (or proofreaders).

With alarming regularity, I hear authors complain about ordering proofs. “But I only changed ONE TINY THING,” they whine. “I don’t WANNA order another proof.” This is a ridiculous way to think. Proofs are an author’s very best friend. When I am working on a book, I do hundreds of proofs. Some I just print out on my printer; some I get printed and bound from Staples and Kinkos so I can see how the pages look facing each other and I order as many as I can from the printer I am using to make sure everything looks right. I don’t care if the only thing you changed was one word on the 78th page, any change, no matter how tiny, can affect the entire rest of the book so you have to make sure it still looks good.

To balk at the cost is utterly ridiculous. This is your dream, your big product, your ultimate presentation for the world. If you don’t want it to be the absolute very best that it can be you shouldn’t bother to publish it at all.

The same idea goes for proof-readers. I don’t care how many times you have gone over your work, I can assure you right now that there are still typos in it. Get every friend, family member or stranger you can get to go over your book with a fine tooth comb. Hire an editor if you can to make sure to polish it up. An “eh, it’s good enough” attitude is the surest way to kill any chances your book had.

2. You’re going to be judged by your cover.

We all know the cliché, never judge a book by its cover but, for an author, this is a very big thing. If there is any element of the publishing process that you may want to spend money on, getting a professional looking cover is one of the biggest leg-ups your book can get. If your book looks unprofessional on the outside, almost no one is going to take the plunge and read the inside.

And, if I may be brutal, unless you have or you know someone with significant design talent, please don’t try to make the cover yourself. I see hundreds of self-published books that have great content with horrifying covers that kill any chance they had of doing well. A stretched-out, grainy picture of yourself or your dog should not be your cover. A doodle your kid made on lined paper should not be your cover. You people know who you are. If you’ve never seen something like what you are putting on your book cover on the cover of a bestselling book, do yourself a favor and don’t put it on your cover.

There is a time and place for taking risks. If you are an unknown author trying to market your self-published book, you are going to have enough challenges without making your cover part of the problem.

If you don’t have the means to hire someone to do your cover and you don’t have the talent to do it yourself, simpler is better. You are far better off going with solid color book with the title neatly written out or even a pre-made template such as the covers in the Lulu Gallery than something busy and awkward that you made yourself. Better have a plainer but functional solid color cover with no images than a busy nightmare that scares buyers away.

Lastly, and you’d think this one would be obvious but you’d be amazed how it isn’t, proofread your cover. Not just the book blurbs on the back, proof read your title, subtitle, website, etc. A misspelled word right on the cover just screams unprofessional product.

And for the love of god, don’t make up reviews.

3. Price your content backwards.

This one can be the hardest to wrap your head around but it is very important. Most authors start out by saying, I would like my book to cost $5. Then later, then find themselves at a loss because they cannot make as much as they want or cannot offer enough of a discount to bookstores, etc. This is why you need to price your content backwards.

I’m currently working on the second edition of The Trading Assistant’s Assistant which is a book about starting an eBay business. Before I even think about what I would like to charge for it, I need to start at the end. I need to figure out what the print costs for the book are when I order them (and possibly shipping for a single copy for when I’m out of stock). I need to figure how much I will pay in eBay fees if I plan to sell copies on eBay. I need to figure out how much of a mark-up over wholesale I will need to offer to bookstores in order to make the book attractive for them to stock. I need to look at all the “worst case scenarios” for ordering my book so that I can still make a minimum profit even in these cases.

First I figure out all these fees, expenses and mark-ups and add them to the production costs of the book. Only then, once I have an idea of all the costs and bumps down the road, do I think about how much I want to make. Then I can add together the fees, costs and other expenses along with my desired profit and start to figure out what the cost of the book should be.

4. Never underestimate the power of giving away free copies.

Another rookie mistake I see is people making their friends and family purchase copies of their book. I’m not saying that you should comp everyone you ever met but your parents and close friends should never have to pay for a copy. These are your very best sources for word of mouth, positive reviews and other marketing benefits and if you irk them by making them buy a copy, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

If you are about to cry about the money you’ll lose in royalties by giving copies to your family and best friends, save it. If those 12 copies represent a big enough portion of your sales that they are worth crying about, your book is in much bigger trouble than copies to your family can save you from.

If the cost of handing out printed copies is beyond your budget, offer your closest “future fans” a free ebook or audiobook version. For that matter, consider making a free ebook or audiobook version of your book available for anyone. After all, you are an unknown author. With this first book, your number one goal is getting your name out there and making some fans and giving our freebies is a really quick way to make fans.

The surprise bonus to giving away copies? Relatives and friends are often so taken with your generosity they turn around and buy copies anyway for themselves or for friends. They talk your book up with more vigor than if they had paid for it, basking in the glow of your generosity. And strangers who get the book for free are just as powerful allies, sending out messages on their blogs or telling friends and giving you the best marketing you can ask for: word of mouth.

5. Know when to take the author hat off and when to leave it on.

You march into a Barnes and Nobel with a fake name and tell them that you are the head of an exciting new publishing house representing this amazing new author… you! They politely dismiss your offer.

Now instead, you walk into the next Barnes and Nobel and tell the truth. “Hi, I’m a local author. I have my first book out and I was just wondering if you would be interesting in doing an event of some kind. . . “ The clerks fact lights up and suddenly doors start to open for you.

You see, a self-published author plays many roles. You are your own agent, manager, editor, etc. But it is very important to know when to wear your author hat and when not to. In my experience, most bookstores have had it with pushy publisher reps, managers and agents but they still get that tiny star struck thrill when talking to an author. “I’m a local author” is a powerful phrase that can open up interviews in local news, book signings, readings at the library and more so don’t do yourself a disservice by “improving” the truth and pretending to be more than you are.

But there are times when you need to take the author hat off. When you are writing a press release and doing most of your marketing, you need to be objective about who your audience and target demographic are and how good your book is and, as the author, you just can’t be. For times like that, you need to take off your author hat, divorce yourself from the book and market it like it’s someone else’s product.

This is also helpful to keep in mind when you get bad reviews and bad press. If you are wearing your author hat, you are going to take it personally and it is going to hurt but if you look at the issue as if you were your agent or manager instead, you can take the criticism more objectively.