Five years ago, I self-published my first book, Awkwardly Strong. It was the culmination of years of work. I had spent a lot of time researching the content itself, how to get my book published on Amazon, and making a ton of decisions I had never considered before.
I was so proud of my little book, and it did fairly well. I instantly became addicted to publishing and knew this was now my life. So I continued to learn how to improve my craft and as time went on, I became more and more upset about my first book. I was able to improve the quality for subsequent books, but there are days I really want to go back and completely redo that first book to bring it up to standard.
So without further ado, here are five things I wish I had known when I self-published my first book.
Don’t Take the Free ISBN
As I was filling out information in what was then CreateSpace (and later aquired by Amazon) for my physical book, there was a space for the ISBN number of the book, which is required for physical copies. They offered a free ISBN number, or I could purchase my own.
The ISBN number is what tells bookstores (and informed customers) which version of the book they are purchasing. It distinguishes between hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio versions.
A quick search told me that a single ISBN number runs around $100. While they are recommended for ebooks, they are not required. So I really only needed to be concerned about this for my physical book.
Based on the above information, well, duh, I was going to take the free one.
What I didn’t know was that this lists Amazon as my publisher, as opposed to me being the publisher.
Small detail, sure, but I was unaware of the impact that it would have. As I went around town putting my book in various bookstores, I asked Barnes & Noble if they had a local author section. The manager was willing to put my book on the shelves of their store, but when he scanned the barcode and discovered Amazon was the publisher there were issues.
As the publisher, Amazon will have an added measure of control over where books are distributed. And as a business, of course they want to keep as many sales on Amazon as possible so they can make the most profit.
Be your own publisher. Buy the ISBN. Even better, buy them in bulk if you plan to write more books, because then you don’t pay near so much per individual ISBN.
For my second book, I purchased ten ISBN numbers, and it came to roughly $30 per number. HUGE savings.
Also, I can’t just change the ISBN. It requires a huge overhaul, needing changes to the content and subtitle at least, in order to consider it a new book and publish with a new ISBN.
Formatting Is More Than the File Type
This is my most obvious mistake in my first book. I knew I had to submit the manuscript in PDF form for physical copies of the book, and .epub or .mobi files for digital.
I write in Google docs, and knew I could easily download it to a PDF from there, but had no idea how to convert it for digital. I also didn’t care to learn how to do this myself. I just wanted my book to be finished and the process had already gone on long enough in my mind.
I decided to outsource this part, and hired a formatter from Fiverr. It took less than 48 hours and I put it up into Amazon thinking it was done.
The bad news is that I had not realized interior design of the book is a thing. When I received a proof for myself, the inside looked funny, but I couldn’t place it. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know how to communicate this with the formatter.
So I let it go.
Formatting includes the interior design of a book, and there are a lot of subtleties that we don’t realize as readers, but can tell when something is off. For example, margin sizes, font, line spacing, and so much more.
My Table of Contents was minimal and had no page numbers. My pages didn’t have margins that considered the fold of the spine.
My heart dropped to my stomach when I learned all of this and recognized what was wrong.
I still prefer to outsource, but I received a strong recommendation from someone who had vetted several options. My following books have had a professional take care of the interior design and formatting of my digital and print books.
This seems like it wouldn’t be important, partially because not every one uses them, but I wanted to and understanding pen names held me up for months when I was trying to publish.
My given name is incredibly common, I often refered to it as my witness protection name growing up. I like my name and didn’t legally want to change it, but I did want something more visible online. So I did a bunch of searching when it came to selecting a pen name.
When you type in “Paula Jean Ferri,” I am what you find for the first several pages of Google before you start finding other combinations of “Paula Ferri” or “Paula Jean” matches.
My concern then became, “What happens if someone were to write me a check at a book signing or something for Paula Jean Ferri?” How do I cash that check? Granted, they aren’t that common, but I still had questions and concerns about banking and getting my money.
When I asked the bank, they had no idea. I wasn’t finding any information about this online.
So I essentially created my own solution.
I decided to register as a business and open a separate banking account under a business name. Then I could cash checks no matter who they were written out to, and felt more secure in receiving payments.
Self-Publishing Is A Business
This actually took several years, and no one came right out and said it, but I am a business owner.
Often when dealing with labels, people say, “I am a writer,” or “I am an author.” They aren’t wrong. But was isn’t understood is the full scale of owning and running a business.
Authors write books. But I’ve discovered I do so much more than just write books (though it is by far my favorite part). But this is how I make my income. This means that I also have to pay attention to things like marketing, finances, and sales.
In larger companies, there are several employees that break down each aspect of these. There are people who are experts in SEO, taxes, lead generation, and much more.
And as the business owner, I decide what I am outsourcing to others to take care of for me, what I am hiring for specifically, and what I am taking care of myself.
There was a huge shift in seeing myself as an author to seeing myself as a CEO. The mindset required for a CEO is different than that of a writer, and my decisions have to reflect that. I have several different hats that I wear as I shift between roles that I take on in my business.
But I love how much more decisive I have become as a result, and how much I have seen my sales and profits increase as a result.
Promotion Is Continuous
This was certainly better understood as a business owner, but it is comical to look back at when I first published my first book and how it was released. It did really well at first, and I moved a few thousand copies. But as the weeks went on, sales continued to drop.
So then I launched a second book, and the same thing happened. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit in 2020 that I started to really learn more about promotion.
It seems fairly obvious, but I was a little bit oblivious to this. I didn’t want to be too overbearing or pushy about my book, especially when it was the only thing I had available.
But I also realized that I simply wasn’t confident in what I had to offer. What I had discovered when researching that first book was hugely eye opening for me, but I was worried that it was too common sense and that others already knew this.
I have since learned that not every one knows the same information that I do or understands things the same way. But every time I go on a podcast and speak with the host, I get a great response and people are blown away by what I share.
This has given me so much more confidence in what I have to say, I just have to find the people that haven’t heard it yet. That’s promotion. Not telling people who have already heard what you have to say over and over again.
Don’t discount those. I still have family members that didn’t realize I had released another book, or that just never got around to buying it, then suddenly did after another post. Sales still happen, but make sure you are spreading your influence outside of just your family circle, too.
These were the five biggest lessons that I have learned since publishing my first book, among several others as well. Looking into the details of each of these opened several new doors.
Honing your craft is a continuous process. I’m still learning new ways I can grow and improve both my writing, as well as my business skills. But I’m so grateful to know how very far I have come, and it makes me all the more excited to see what the future has in store.
Yes, I didn’t do so great in the past. And it is actually a goal I have to re-do my first book with several upgrades. I’m hoping to be able to do that by the end of 2022.
However, I hope you don’t have to deal with the same issues that I’ve had to deal with. Taking care of these things up front will save you several years worth of floundering, confusion, and unnecessary costs.
So Now What?
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If you would like more information about things that I have learned, including in depth breakdowns, and links to resources I’ve used, you can purchase my next book Hard Earned Lessons Learned: A Guide on What I Wish I’d Known When Self-Publishing.