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My Self-Publishing Story: 3 Book Marketing FAILs and Lessons Learned

“I just met you, and this is crazy…but here’s my story, learn from it, maybe.”

In a lot of ways, I wish Duolit did not exist.

That sounds more drastic than it is — more accurately, I wish we didn’t need awesome websites like Duolit to teach us how to market our books.

I wish readers just flocked to us in the instant that we released our books. I wish we could spend our days writing whatever our hearts desired with no regard for how it will play with our target market, what our editors will think or what kind of reviews we might get.

I wish I woke up every morning in the beach house I bought from selling the movie rights of my latest book and sat on the deck overlooking the ocean, typing away on my snazzy MacBook Pro while a shirtless Joe Manigniello served me a homecooked breakf–

Oh, sorry, let you a little too far into my head — my bad!

Unfortunately, very few artists have that luxury.

The reality is that I’m currently subdividing my writing time between working a full-time job, blogging for Duolit, keeping up with my social media accounts, marketing my own book and all those other pesky things like sleeping, eating and watching Teen Mom.

Oh, and I live with my parents and operate off of a five year-old Dell laptop that’s on its last, dying breath.

In other words, I feel your pain.

But just in case you thought we writers have it tough, the truth is we are in the same spot as our artist peers.

Movie stars have to go to endless press junkets to promote their movies, musicians have to sell their own merchandise after shows, painters have to spend their time lobbying galleries to display their work and writers have to promote their books through blog tours and social media.

It sucks, but there are ways to make it suck considerably less.

In fact, if you are very close to the point of complete frustration and seriously considering giving up on your writing career, you’re probably going about your marketing all wrong.

I know, because I’m right there with you.

My story is not yet a success, but the knowledge I’ve gained since Toni and I started Duolit has definitely given me a MUCH better idea of how to market my books. I’m in the process of re-doing my own marketing strategy and mapping out some plans for a big re-launch in the fall (groan).

Every time I see a comment from you guys on how much you hate sacrificing writing time for marketing time, I’m with you. When you lament about the spam on Twitter, I’m 100% with you. When you express how you feel like you’re trying to yell over a raucous crowd, I’m completely with you. When you worry about your marketing budget, man, I’m really with you.

Believe me, I, too have had my share of complete marketing fails.

Fail #1: There aren’t a lot of Christmas books for a reason.

Confession: I’m kind of obsessed with Christmas.

Like, most people love Christmas and that’s cool, but I loooove Christmas. I have this crazy awesome Christmas village with an ice skating rink and a lighthouse and trees and streets and people that I put up during the first week in November as a birthday present to myself because it makes me so, so, SO inexplicably happy (please do not turn me in to TLC’s Strange Obsession show, please I swear I’m okay, I’m totally cool, it’s totally fine, no worries).

Actual photo of my Christmas Village…you can’t see the train tunnel, but I think you get the drift.

It, therefore, made complete sense to me that my first book should be a Christmas-themed tale, recounting the past Christmases of one very large, catastrophe-prone family as they survived yet another chaotic holiday season.

I thought it was an especially clever choice because there never seemed to be any good, contemporary Christmas stories out there (aside from the handsome-stranger-in-Santa-costume-by-the-roaring-fire romance types and occasional gem like John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas).  Perfect for me! There was a hole in the product market I was happy to fill.

Only after I self-published the book did I stop and realize that the reason why there aren’t a lot of contemporary holiday fiction titles is because you’re pretty much limited to making sales from October to December, then nobody cares about your book for nine months.

And worse, you’re competing during the MOST intense marketing quarter of the entire year.

I still love my book and I know it was the story I wanted to tell, but in the future I will be MUCH more aware of the subject matter I’m writing about and how it affects my marketing plans.

Fail #2: The World’s Saddest Book Signing

Two years after initially releasing my book, I made a big push to do some local promotions since my book happens to take place in my hometown, St. Augustine, Fla. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting our fine city, it’s a unique little place with a cute, pedestrian-heavy historic district filled with charming boutiques and bistros.

Not an actual picture of the bookstore where I had my signing, but you get the idea. (photo by theseafarer)

I picked a bookstore just off the beaten path that I loved and inquired about doing a book signing. Their attitude on the matter was completely nonplussed (which should have set off alarms in my head), but alas, I was just happy that they were willing to have me.

On the Saturday morning of the event,  I awoke to sheets of cold rain falling from gray skies. This was problematic for two reasons — one, my location had no on-site parking and therefore relied on foot traffic (the kind that tends to stay indoors when it rains) and two, our lovely downtown area is notorious for major street flooding in rainy weather.

I showed up at the bookstore with a sour attitude about the weather and found that my hosts had tucked me into a room the size of a broom closet. It was completely out-of-sight from the entrance and filled to claustrophobic levels with old books, the store’s specialty (another factor I should have taken into account when planning my signing).

Between the rain, general bustle of the holiday season and poor location, I was lucky to get 11 people at my signing. Ten of them, bless their hearts, were my dear friends and family, who saved me from losing my sanity entirely.

Still, I went home that day feeling completely, utterly depressed.

A year later, I ran into the owner of the bookstore through my full time job. When I reminded her (reluctantly) about my book signing, she broke into a big grin and told me that the ten books I sold that day were the most they had EVER had for a book signing.

Small victories, people. Take them where you can.

Fail #3: Letting Laziness Creep In

The biggest concern we hear from authors every day — on the blog, on Twitter, in e-mail, etc. — is time.

No one ever has enough time. Not enough time to write, market, tweet, post, blog, comment, email and still make sure your kids know who you are at the end of the day.

What’s worse, the less time we have, the more we get frustrated and give up.

photo by robstephaustralia

Last year, I made a pathetically weak effort to market my book during my peak October – December season. I waited until the last minute to solicit reviews and was only able to pick up one. I didn’t execute any of the strategies that we preach on Duolit because I whined about a lack of time and energy after completing all my other tasks.

I made a lot of excuses, but you know what? It was 100% my fault.

First of all, no one else on this planet has a vested interest in selling my book. No one. It’s called self-publishing for a reason. We take all the risk, we do all the work and we reap all of the reward. But, if we don’t put in the first two things, we’ll never get to the third. No one’s going to do it for us. It’s not someone else’s dream, it’s ours.

In this case, it was mine. By not putting forth the effort to achieve it, I was saying to myself that it wasn’t worth it and, by extension, that I wasn’t worth it.

Second, I didn’t miss a single Florida State football game last fall. I kept up with my fantasy football team, watched every episode of Dexter and meticulously created my aforementioned Christmas village. So I have time. I have lots of time, I just have to use it more efficiently.

You’ve heard this phrase before: work smarter, not harder.

So I showed you mine, show me yours!

What mistakes have you made on your self-publishing journey? What lessons have you learned? Please share! The more we can learn from each other, the better!

(PS: Sorry if “Call Me Maybe” is now stuck in your head, but it’s been stuck in mine for weeks, so it’s only fair…)

  • T

    With the success of Friday & Call me maybe you might have been better off doing a YouTube trailer for your book and just plugging away from home doing social media. Just the other day a Christmas lover commented on my blog. She has one all about Christmas. A good story transcends the time period it is set in and published in. Everyone who loves Little Women knew that a long time ago.

    • That’s true! I’m sure if I put some more effort into it I could find some readers outside the season as well. Especially if I wrote a catchy song and made a sweet YouTube video, I’ll have to put that in my notes for my next marketing campaign!

  • It is in my head. Thanks for that 😉

    Shannon, give us the link to your book! I had no idea you wrote a Christmas novel. I wanna see it pretty please!

  • Great post! Oh my how the laziness creeps in….

  • Kristi

    I love St. Augustine! I still have a candle I got from a cute candle shop there over 15 years ago. I hear you on the time management thing, as I’ve been watching the Olympics non-stop this week…and women’s gymnastics is on tonight. I need to get back in gear–after tonight. 😉

    • Man, the Olympics have completely sucked me in. Every night I tell myself I’m just going to watch for a minute and next thing I know it’s midnight and I didn’t get anything done! It definitely takes a lot of discipline to stick to a schedule, but it’s worth it. Glad you enjoyed St. Augustine, too :-)

  • Flora Brown, Ph.D.


    I haven’t awakened in that beach house either. I’ve learned the hard way that priortizing is my biggest problem.

    I have no shortage of projects and ideas, but sabotage myself by jumping from one to the other or getting lured away by bright shiny objects.

    Thanks for sharing your fails. It really did help me to kick myself back on track.

    • That’s great, Flora! Glad I could be of some help :-) I do that too — start a new project when i’m in the middle of another. I think it’s best to get an ideas notebook so we don’t lose those good thoughts, but don’t spend a lot of time getting caught up in them while we’re trying to focus on something else. Otherwise we’ll never wake up in that beach house!

  • perilouspauline

    I think we all had things we wish we’d done differently. That you’ve learned and moved on is admirable. :-)

    • Thanks Pauline! I heard someone say once that it’s okay to make mistakes, just don’t make the same mistake twice. So as long as we learn from our pitfalls and don’t make them again, it’s a win!

    • perilouspauline

      Well, sometimes it takes more than once for a lesson to sink in. LOL Mistakes also make good fodder/stories. I tell my kids, well, if you get a story out of it, its not a total loss. (Though these days people seem to want to get a tweet/FB status out of things. LOL)

    • You’re so right about that ! Mistakes do make for great fodder/stories. Excellent advice and LOL on the tweet/FB comments. :-)

  • Am trying to market my Kindle book The Dumps Sports Helpers by tweeting as Ivun Idea, one of the characters, to UK presenters of theOlympics. Like pulling teeth!

  • I’m having a real problem getting beta readers. I don’t want to publish until I’ve gotten some feedback but nobody wants to beta read anything. Is there a group that I can get in touch with that will help me out with this problem>

    • I don’t know of any offhand. Have you been issuing a blanket call on Twitter or Facebook? If so, it might be better to personally invite a few specific people. You could also offer a small incentive (like a $10 iTunes card) to get people interested. Good luck!

  • I should have been out trying to set up readings much earlier than I am. I am excited about doing the readings. I just am hesitant about putting myself forward to bookstore owners,

    • It is scary Sandra, but it could turn out to be a huge success and that’s what you have to focus on. It’s always worth a shot!

  • Thanks for sharing; so relieving to know we’re not alone!

    I’ve certainly made each of these FAILs as well… My biggest self-pub fail has been rushing. With my earlier books, I was too excited to finish and publish, so I didn’t take the proper time to build an audience and polish the books. It took two books to learn that lesson, and now I’m taking tiny steps at a time with my next project to ensure that I don’t skip anything vital on my way to publication.

    (Your Indie Author Rockstar course has helped me focus on the marketing steps carefully — thank you!)

    • I’m definitely guilty of rushing as well. You just get so excited when you get the book done and you want to share it with everybody! But of course it is important to be sure that our product is properly prepared to go to market. Glad you’re enjoying the course Dana! Thanks :-)

  • Thanks for sharing! I think the reminder that we all have to manage day jobs, broken down lap tops, and tiny budgets is important. In the age of social media, writers are often only talking about how *all* they do is write and you begin to wonder if they either hit the lottery or are sitting on a giant trust fund. Nobody mentions “real life” which can sometimes be a slap in the face while you’re drifting off in your beach house day dreams! Keep up the great work & thanks again for being real!

  • Book signings are tough. I just had one Friday at a VERY popular bookstore in Fairhope, AL. The event was publicized and only 9 people bought books. 9 smart, lovely people, btw! :) It was raining and yucky out, and the stars didn’t align, but I did make some good contacts and ran a little gift basket giveaway in which I had people drop their name and email in a bucket. I was able to add those 10-12 names to my email list because I included a little space to mark ____ Add me to LCB newsletter!


  • Finding enough people to help out with spreading the word has always been a problem. I used to have a lot of people, but I’ve been constantly moving in the last few years, and social media can only do so much. That’s why I saved up enough money to get a book marketing service to help.

  • Professor Willenstein

    I’m not quite there yet; I’m still getting my money together! But once I do….I’ll probably be in the same boat ^_^

  • I think that not hiring out some things (like ebook formatting) was a poor choice. Of course, now I know (because I learned the hard way–more than once) how to format things mostly the way I want them. Still learning. But enough that I can be happy with my stuff. For now. I also didn’t really get the book out to contacts who would help in the ways I needed and early enough to have a great big push. None of these were fatal, and I was sort of publishing as an experiment, so I am overall happy with the experience, but also think I could have really done better had I taken more time. Love this blog, btw! So helpful.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. I am new to writing (still far from the point of publishing) and think its important for any new writer to have a realistic sense of the world they are entering in to. Not to discourage, but too prepare, so we can be resilient and continue to believe in ourselves through the many downs of the up and down writing experience.