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5 Lessons Publishing Will Teach You

It's only after publishing that authors realise the mistakes they've made.

Do you know how to write, publish and launch a book? After listening to podcasts and reading around the subject, many unpublished authors believe they do. They’ve heard of KDP and Ingram Spark, understand the editing process, and feel they can piece together a launch plan. Many of us start out this way, full of confidence. It’s only after publishing, though, that we discover the cavernous holes in our knowledge. We publish flawed work, wrapped in inadequate covers, and receive poor reviews. At least, that’s how we see the list of mounting mistakes we notice. Despite learning from the best in the business, we can’t help wondering what went wrong.

Listen to any interview with a popular author, though, and you’ll realise you’re not alone. When asked about their early publishing experiences, many will reel off well-repeated phrases about how they:

“went into publishing blind”

“didn’t have a clue what they were doing”

“made all the usual mistakes”

We repeatedly hear stories of how intelligent individuals did their due diligence yet messed up in predictable ways. How they got great advice from mentors only to believe they were the exception to the rule and stumbled into the same traps. Listening to these admissions, we convince ourselves that we’re different. That the internet has more to offer now. That we’re more prepared — all while approaching the same tripwires, totally unaware.

If you’re yet to publish a book and think your first launch will play out smoothly, you’re probably wrong. In theory, you might have absorbed all the knowledge you need, but in reality you’re unlikely to put it all into practice. That’s normal. And it doesn’t matter how many times experienced authors warn you, either. The oven is hot; too much ice-cream will upset your stomach; you need to factor buffer time into a book launch — some lessons only sink in through experience. Take onboard just a few of the lessons publishing will teach you from today’s blog post, however, and you’ll have a huge advantage over authors who ignore the warnings.

Publishing is a Business

Many new authors hear that they need to think like an entrepreneur to succeed at publishing but still expect to work like an artist, holing up in a writing shed, never allowing outside parties to have an input. This strategy works for some authors. Indeed, the media loves to report on the outliers who get commercial success or critical acclaim without compromising on their art. However, they’re rarer than you’d imagine and rely entirely on luck. For every one that gets lucky, a hundred bestselling or award-winning authors achieve success by writing like an artist then following up like a publisher. But it takes a series of missteps to learn how that looks in practice.

The first step is learning about all aspects of publishing and expecting to invest money in your work as you would a product in any other business. It means hiring experts to improve your production value, and project managing the full publishing process—from editing to distribution to marketing and licensing rights. It also means collaborating with other authors and book trade professionals to reach your audience. In some cases, it means learning the basics of accounting to run a profitable operation you can scale. This may sound cynical, but publishing is a game designed for entrepreneurs. Statistically, if you don’t learn to play, someone else will win.

Nothing’s Precious

“My book is my baby!”

At some point, most authors have said a variation of this line, even using cliché incubation and birthing metaphors to discuss the creative process. Some take it further, posting pictures online of their first draft wrapped in a towel like they’ve just made a love child with their printer. What you come to learn after publishing, however, is that nobody sees your book as a precious infant like you do — not agents, not publishers, not other authors and, eventually, not even you. Your debut novel might feel precious the first time you see it, but that feeling doesn’t last. Soon, the novelty fades and you start to view that paperback as just an income stream.

This doesn’t happen right away, but it’s useful when your brain makes the switch. For instance, before it, many authors are overly sensitive to negativity. Bad reviews feel like personal criticisms. As you gain distance, however, your skin thickens and bad reviews lose their mental hold over you. This is good; it’s only then that you can read them objectively for feedback and start to think long term about using your book as part of a larger marketing strategy. You become more open to giving books away to build an audience. This emotional distance might sound like cynicism but it’s not; it’s enlightenment to the possibilities of running an author business.

Lead Times Matter

Public accountability is the jet fuel some authors need to ensure they publish a book. Some publicly announce a date they plan to publish. More intense ones go as far as setting an assetless pre-order to create pressure from retailers. All think they’ve given themselves enough time. What most inexperienced authors who use these tactics fail to consider, however, is the honeycomb of gaps in their knowledge. How long does it take an editor to return a manuscript? How many days early do you need to supply retailers with a finished ebook file? How much notice must you give retail merchandisers to ensure they add your book to a promo slot on launch week?

You might have mastered personal time management, but your spreadsheets won’t save you if assume every collaborator will drop their current workload to rescue your project after someone else delays it. Most new authors learn this lesson the hard way and have to cut corners as a result, uploading unchecked files and compromising on second choice designers after their favourite refuses to work under a time crunch. It’s impossible to guarantee how much lead time you’ll need without launching a few books and uncovering bottle necks. That said, starting with a detailed production plan that includes buffer time can reduce potential stress.

Passive Income Isn’t Passive

The ads are everywhere and their scripts follow a predictable pattern: “Are you stuck in a dead-end nine-to-five? Do you want to earn six figures a year, work four hours a week, and travel the world? Write a book!” Yes, many authors write a book because it’s their passion and they have an idea they can’t shake but, for some, the dream isn’t holding a novel they wrote; it’s passive income. The logic seems simple to follow: write a book once, put it on the internet and see the royalties top up your bank balance every month forever. But is the reality that straightforward in practice? 99% of published authors will tell you it’s untrue, apart from in rare cases.

Indeed, passive income businesses are rarely passive. Yes, they can earn you income 24 hours a day if you sell in multiple time zones. But achieving a solid income often requires consistent action. For an author business, the costs and work are frontloaded. By the time they start selling in meaningful numbers, many authors have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours honing their process. It isn’t until they’ve produced a series that most can make their marketing efforts scale. And those who build empires do so by launching frequently for years, often while working a day job. If you’re only publishing for easy money, it’s worth knowing this in advance.

Nothing Stays the Same

Many beginner authors assume they’ll be able to slow their learning intensity once they understand the principles that underpin publishing books. In part, that’s true. Learning how to write a compelling book, publish well and build an email list will get you a long way. That said, just 15 years ago, Amazon made self-publishing a viable option. Since then, we’ve seen publishing aggregators, ebook promo sites, digital audiobooks, POD hardbacks, NFTs, direct sales. Remember MOBI files? Pronoun? Just this month, Spotify hit the audiobook market. It’s only after publishing that you realise you must keep learning to stay ahead of the crowd.

Readers continue to love books but how they consume them changes constantly. So do distribution and marketing options. New formats appear and old business models go extinct. Right now, nobody can predict what will drive the future of the creator economy. Will blockchain technology allow authors to draw an income from second-hand ebook sales? Will we be able to exploit or license our content in the metaverse? What works this week might not work for you in a few months. Hence, while the mantra “write, publish, repeat” works, it doesn’t address the necessity of learning and pivoting on a constant basis. To keep earning, you must keep learning.

It’s possible to internalise the five warnings this article outlines without having to endure a painful lesson. However, if you’re working on your first book, you’ll probably have to accumulate a few scars to understand them to their full extent. Fortunately, those mistakes will also teach you that everything in the book trade is fixable, despite the smoke and mirrors of “perfect” book launches, authors and publishers are constantly fixing mistakes. As long as you learn from yours, you will improve over time. Experience is a fantastic teacher.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.