The Cardinal Sin of Self-Publishing

The Cardinal Sin of Self-Publishing

I see a lot of inexperienced authors saying things like, “If that crappy book can sell a million copies, mine will do way better.”

This post will break down all the errors in that statement.

First, it’s good to know your competition.

But you also need to respect it.

Authors who make statements like that often haven’t even read those books they are denigrating; or they’ve flipped through it but thought it was trashy.

If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.

Also, disrespecting a book is disrespecting its readers. You can’t fathom why that book is selling – so you assume all the people who bought it must be idiots. You probably won’t be able to write a book that people like if you think poorly of your target audience.

Authors sometimes think, “Well if they liked that book, they’ll love mine, because mine is better.” They probably mean it’s better written or more substantial or “deeper” – they don’t get that readers may not want a story like that. They may have wanted the cheap, guilty pleasure of reading something simple and fun.

If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience (do not copy: your book needs to be unique and original, but hit the same emotional buttons).

The other huge mistake authors make is trying to be different: they identify the audience (the readers of that bestselling book they thought was shitty) but then instead of doing all the same things that other book was doing to reach that audience (book cover design, especially) they do something totally different so it’ll be new and “fresh.”

By not using a cover that appeals to the same readership, the author loses the easiest method of attracting that readership. Instead, the cover will be a barrier and liability, that must be overcome so that readers can find out what the book is about.

And that’s actually probably fine, because the truth is the author has written a completely different book that has very little to do with that first book – and the author made an error in assuming that the buyers of that other book will also like his new one (pride+no market research).

And this is unfortunate, because the author has probably spent thousands of dollars publishing and marketing on the assumption that, since that other book made millions, it should be easy to at least make a few hundred thousand dollars… so they see these expenses as cheap and count on future sales.

But because they made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it, and then sabotaged their efforts by making an ugly “original” cover and not following standard design and publishing advice (because they wanted to be unique and different and stand out), their book probably won’t sell 10 copies.

They won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will “get it”. Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells, and test your assumptions (I recently found out that the picture I was using for my first online course, everybody hated. I’m really glad I asked before I launched!)

If I sound frustrated, I am – this is why I’m getting out of services altogether. Many authors destroy their own success by being rigid and inflexible, and getting too excited about how their first book is going to be an international sensation, as soon as they get on Oprah. Seriously – authors think this way. One asked for advice, and when I gave him feedback, he said “f*ck that, I like it the way it is.”

I’m happy and excited for authors with a dream and high hopes, and society encourages them to be bold and daring by not following advice and going with their gut, but I’m tired of seeing authors throw money into a project that goes nowhere and watching them quietly fade away after their unsuccessful books becomes invisible online.

There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing.

But you need to learn the rules of the game first.

So the cardinal sin of self-publishing is hubris: foolish pride or dangerous over-confidence.

Don’t worry, this is normal!

However, please understand that this is a normal part of the process. Almost everyone makes this mistake. Everyone starts off as a fool (when you publish your first book, there is a huge learning curve). There’s a ton of stuff to figure out. Same thing when you launch and try to promote your book. Almost everything you do won’t work, so you might feel like the book is a failure.

But that’s OK – sometimes you need to fail before you figure out all your projections and assumptions were wrong. You need to leap, and you need to fall, before you figure out how gravity works. And if you survive the crash (don’t worry, you will), you can pick yourself up, and now that your hubris has been rudely removed, realize you don’t know everything and start learning.

With enough education and experience, you’ll become a magician – an expert user of tools, an understander of the way things work, who can achieve powerful results with very little effort.

But the sooner you admit to being a fool and recognizing that your way may not be the best way, the sooner you’ll start figuring out what does actually work.


For a few other “cardinal sins” of self-publishing, this post by Holly Lisle is worth reading:

How to Tell Who WON’T Make It in Writing (and How Not to Be That Writer


  • Leeah Taylor Posted

    I actually fully agree with you. Because I’m learning the hard way now that I’ve published my first book. Although I may not have been as confident as to say that my book was better than those that sold hundreds of thousands or even millions. No, I’m not that confident. But I am confident enough to feel that my book was as ready as it was going to be and constantly remind myself that “Hey, I am my worst critic here and it will never be as perfect as I want it”. Once I did get passed that part of it I was more confident. But I am learning that there is a lot of before stuff that should have been done: building a platform for myself, understanding marketing better, and probably letting someone else design my cover (but hey, indie author and no budget….mixed with a little impatience. And I don’t think what I have is awful. Actually I’m quite proud of it). I digress. Bottom line is, we live and learn and try hard not to make the same mistakes. Because let’s face it life is just that. Living and learning. Awesome article @DerekMurphy.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks! We’re all getting better all the time, and are probably right where we need to be. 🙂

  • George Donnelly Posted

    So, just recycle the same tropes and cover concepts over and over again. God, that sounds really boring!

    • Derek Doepker Posted

      There is definitely a balance George.

      Innovation = Imitation + Creation. Almost all innovations build upon what’s already there. I.E. Not reinventing the wheel. Then there’s something unique added to it.

      What Derek is suggesting is modeling and fitting into what’s expected, but also one can add an element of uniqueness to stand apart.

      To have only imitation leads to as you put it, recycling the same tropes.

      Only creation leads to something so different people are like, “What the hell is that?”

      The paradox is you must fit in while also standing apart.

      The middle ground is where it’s at. I encourage authors to not see things as either/or (either be creative or be an imitation) but rather both.

      • Charity Rabbiosi Posted

        Oh my gosh you’re amazing.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Write a fantastic book that readers love. That’s your goal, right? You can stay within a genre and also subvert and challenge it. But the cover is packaging. If you don’t get the cover that convinces readers to read your unique and wonderful story, you’re cheating your readers.

  • Christine Posted

    I actually love this article and totally agree with you, though I can understand why it might hit a nerve with some authors. It might’ve hit a nerve with me too once, but I’ve moved passed that. What it comes down to for me is that I want to write books that people will want to read. Sometimes writers need a kick in the butt, a little tough love, if you will, to get themselves moving. I know I certainly do from time to time.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      probably depends where you are. If you’ve published a book or two you’ve probably learned enough to get past this point.

      • Christine Posted

        Haha I published one book that sold basically nothing, but it was a great learning experience. I just purchased your first course and can’t wait to learn how to get better at all this!

  • Eeva Lancaster Posted

    Everything you said is true. Working with authors day in and day out, I’ve come to the conclusion that self assessment is not one of a self pub’s strongest points. This may be connected to the self doubt that many writers experience, so they cover it up with hubris. Clearly, if we compared our work with others, we would see what needs improvement. If we want the books to sell, we know what needs to be done just by observing what successful authors are doing. But, many still stick to their own… beliefs.

    I once offered to do a free cover for someone cause the cover was just so…confusing. The offer was refused because like you said, the author “likes it the way it is.”

    But, another factor, aside from the lack of ability of some to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, is influence. The wrong kind. Authors are usually around other authors online, and the fact is, very few will tell their fellow authors that their covers suck, that their manuscript is not polished, that their blurbs are confusing, that the book needs major editing – an author cannot get honest feedback from their peers. Feedback which could help them improve. Maybe this happens because most authors don’t welcome negative feedback themselves – so they don’t give it. The result is, a mediocrity virus goes around, contaminating those around it.

    And lastly, writers are not marketers. Content is king, that’s what everyone says. This is true, on blogs and websites maybe. But with books, Content is queen and Packaging is King. A buyer needs a lot of convincing, before they get to the point where they click that buy button. But, it’s less work to just believe that the kick ass content is enough. Less costly too.

    I’m sad to hear that you’re getting out of the author services biz. But, I feel ya. 🙂 Great article, Derek.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Oh, absolutely – there’s a common problem in self-publishing, that authors help each other and support each other (great) but also reaffirm misleading beliefs or ideologies that can be harmful (bad). But, professional help is expensive. Like you, I often offer free covers, and they’re often refused because they weren’t what the author wanted.

  • Thia Licona Posted

    Hahaha! I’m on my way to magician land! I have recognized that I am a FOOL big time! My reward? Derek Murphy and the naked truth and reality about this most exciting journey of Authors on the mountain to top away! Thanks Derek. You are a gifted teacher.

  • Laurie Varga Posted

    You were writing this article about me, weren’t you. Well, me a year ago Thankfully (for you) I’m in a place now where I don’t want to throw a pie filled with rocks at your face. I’m at least a 0.2 – making my way to a magician.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Ha, awesome! We all go through it. My first cover I spend months on, it had dozens of layers and dozens of little icons and a painting I did myself… it was EVERYTHING it shouldn’t be. But I learned.

      • Laurie Varga Posted

        I’m crying tears of recognition over here.

  • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote Posted

    I just spent close to forever designing the most beautiful, brilliant, perfectly unique, artistic book cover the world has ever seen. I love it. My husband loves it. My stepdaughter loves it. My sweet old retired English teacher auntie loves it. Even my blogger friends love it.

    But… it is nothing like the boring best selling book covers in my particular genre.

    Thank you, Derek, for helping me realize what an idiot I can be. After taking a closer look at the covers of best sellering memoirs, I just did a quick redesign — using the simple theme they all have in common. This new cover won’t make a breathtaking painting for hanging over the fireplace. But maybe it will catch the attention of my intended audience.

    I owe you!

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Hope it helps – the description and reviews matter too but making it pretty clean and simple is probably a good idea.

    • AlexBeecroft Posted

      Maybe you can make the gorgeous one available as a poster or freebie for fans and still get some use out of it?

  • stjoanna Posted

    Great advice, Derek. I once read that any writer will learn far more about themselves in the process of writing and producing a book than they will about the subject they are writing about. It seems all our strengths and weaknesses surface in all their glory when we write!

  • Jane Ann McLachlan Posted

    Good article, Derek. Only, I’m not so sure just getting through FOOL will make you a MAGICIAN. I think I’m at least halfway through FOOL but I’m still overwhelmed by all I have to learn to get to MAGICIAN, and honestly, don’t think I ever will. I think my goal will have to be Not-So-Much-FOOL.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Being a magician isn’t just about skill, it’s about determination and will power. If you decide to become one, you can!

      • Jane Ann McLachlan Posted

        You’re sweet to say so, and very encouraging, but the point about magicians is that there’s some magic involved, as well as learning and skill. I’m glad the magic happened for you, and appreciate how much you do to help others. Your website has become one of the ones I tell my students about whenever I teach a writing course. Hope that’s helpful to you – it’s what I can do to give back to you for all you give to others.

  • Gavin Ough Posted

    I must be one of the lucky few who managed to find your site and actually take heed of the advice you’ve given. I’ve just self-published my first book and spent a long time emulating the cover style of many of the best selling books in the same genre, I’m sure it’s not perfect as I can’t afford to get it professionally done but it sits alongside the others perfectly (I hope)

  • Arewa Lanre Posted

    Amazing Article Derek, you really hit the right spot with Authors. Some are just too rigid to adjust.

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