The 15 biggest regrets that authors have — and how to avoid them

I work with dozens of authors. A lot of them end up surprised, regretful, or sad about what happened in the process of creating and promoting their books. “If I’d only known,” they say.

Unfortunately, everyone in the publishing process has an incentive to hide, or at least ignore, some fundamental challenges. Publishers want you to think they do more work than they actually do. Editors and designers don’t get paid unless you go forward with the book. Everyone has a bias towards optimism, especially authors. That doesn’t serve the process well — and I’ve seen the regrets that results from that bias.

Authors: consider this a message from your future self. Here’s what you’re going to regret — and how you should prepare yourself to avoid heartache. (Note that these regrets are most applicable to nonfiction authors, since those are the type I work with most frequently.)

1 Being naive about the required investment of time and money

The number one comment I hear from new authors is “I had no idea this would be so much work.” Unless you can commit hundreds of hours to the process over a period of months, you’ll never create a book that matters.

Don’t be naive about the financial investment, either. You’ll likely need to spend at least $10,000 on marketing and publicity help. (No, the publisher doesn’t do all of that — see item 15). You’ll likely need to pay an editor. If you are self-publishing, there’s another $5,000 to $15,000 to get the book produced; if you’re doing hybrid publishing, that’s more like $25,000 or more.

2 Picking an idea without depth and breadth

Did you ever get partway into a business book and say “Hey, this is just the same stuff over and over?” Happens all the time.

If you’re going to write 40,000 words or more on a topic, there has to be a lot to say. The idea needs depth — subtleties and consequences to explain — and breadth — applicability in a wide variety of contexts. If it doesn’t have those, it’s a blog post or a white paper, not a book.

3 Going with a weak title or subtitle

A great title is one that you can remember and connect with the book’s idea. Like Freakonomics or The 4-Hour Workweek. Great titles rarely explain the book, but they remind you of the idea.

A subtitle explains what the book is about. The subtitle of Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human is “The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.” Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise has the subtitle “Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.” Taken together with the title, the subtitle promises what you’re going to get.

Brainstorming titles is a discipline. You need two other people to bounce ideas off. And you need to make sure there’s not another similar book with the same title. If you don’t spend enough effort on this, you’ll definitely regret it.

4 Choosing the wrong publishing model

There is no perfect publishing model. They all have weaknesses.

Even if you can get a traditional publishing deal, it is slow; it typically takes a year and a half. Also, lots of publishers treat authors like crap.

Hybrid publishing (hiring your own publisher) is expensive.

Self-publishing is a pain to manage and has a lot less impact.

So pick your poison. And don’t complain later that you didn’t realize the model you picked wasn’t perfect.

5 Scrimping on an editor

An editor stands in for the reader, then gives you expert advice on how to improve the book. You lack perspective about your own ideas; the editor provides that.

In rare cases, the editor at your publishing company is going to help. But these days, getting editorial help is usually the author’s job.

Some editors will do a whole manuscript for $15,000. Others will do it for $1,500. As with everything else that’s “a bargain,” you’ll regret choosing a low-priced editor. And no, your nephew who’s willing to review the manuscript for free is not a successful editor substitute.

6 Not researching enough stories

Books are made out of ideas, proof points, quotes, and stories. The stories are the most important part.

If you have no stories, your book will be boring. If you’re writing a business book, you need case studies.

So find stories from clients, friends, and what you read in the news. If you get to the end of writing and your book seems lifeless, it’s probably because you didn’t do enough work finding stories.

7 Not telling your boss

If you surprise your company with a nonfiction book you wrote, your publishing journey will end badly. They’ll wonder where you got the time to write it, and may resent the time you need for book promotion. Depending on your employment contract, the company may even claim that it owns the intellectual property in your book. If that sounds painful, it is.

On the other hand, if you tell your managers about your plan to write a book, you can work out these issues ahead of time. They may even help with book promotion — or find ways that you and the company can get mutual benefit from your book.

Don’t hide your book from your boss. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

8 Expecting too much of publishers

Publishers come up with covers, lay out the book pages, print the book, put it into distribution (although they cannot guarantee bookstore placement), and manage inventory. They also do the accounting and pay royalties.

Publishers also have editorial and publicity functions. Most authors who depend fully on those functions end up disappointed. You’re much better off augmenting them with your own editorial, marketing, and publicity efforts.

And keep an eye on the page layout. If they make a mistake, it’s your job to catch it. Blaming them later won’t fix the problem.

9 Lying in print

You could make stuff up. I’ve seen nonfiction authors tell stories about themselves and others that are invented or exaggerated.

Never do this. You’ll get caught. It will ruin your career. You could even get sued for libel.

Just tell the truth. Even if it’s not as sexy as a lie might seem.

10 Suffering the pain of graphics

Graphics help books seem more accessible and clear. They’re also a pain in the ass. You’ll have to deal with formatting and file type issues, getting them to fit in the laid out pages, font compatibility, and challenges converting color graphics to black and white.

All graphics have pain associated with them. So use just a few: the ones that are essential to getting the point across.

And make sure you have the rights to whatever you publish, including diagrams and photos.

I’ve worked with one (hybrid) publisher that created the graphics for the author. That was the exception; in general, creating and managing the graphics is your problem. Prepare for that work as you’re working on the manuscript.

11 Crappy self-publishing

There are a lot of outfits that will do a professional job self-publishing your book. And then there are a bunch of other people who just learned to use Adobe InDesign and say they know what to do.

If you’re self-publishing, find suppliers that know what they’re doing. If you don’t, all the work you put into the content will be for naught as your name ends up on the cover of a crappy self-published book.

Here’s one outfit that I’ve seen do an excellent job: Gatekeeper Press.

12 Not listening to the copy editor

Your copy editor is going to find fault in what you wrote.

If you ignore them, errors will get into print and you will be sad.

If you just do what they say, you might lose the poetry of what you wrote.

Consider each error they find and address it in your own way, even though it’s towards the end of the process and you thought you were done.

13 Failing to keep track of sources

Every fact and quote you use comes from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from your personal experience or interviews, it’s from another book or a web site.

As you assemble this research material, keep track of where it came from. (An easy way to do this is keep links in your text in progress.)

Later, when you’re footnoting the manuscript to identify sources, you’ll thank yourself.

And you’ll avoid accidentally publishing other people’s material as your own. It still counts as plagiarism even if the cause is sloppiness rather than intentional theft.

14 Ugly dumb-looking covers

Don’t tell designers what to do. Tell them how you want the reader to feel.

Then give useful feedback on their design ideas.

Whether the publisher is responsible for your cover or you hire your own designer, you’ll have to live with the final version. If you hate it, you’ll feel ill every time you see your own book.

15 Failing to promote (and keep promoting)

Promotional failure is the main source of author regret. If your book sells 175 copies, how will you feel about all the work you put into writing it? That’s no way to gain influence.

It’s your job to promote the book. That includes speeches, webinars, placing articles, building a mailing list, and energizing fans.

There are a hundred ways to promote your book. The biggest mistake is to get tired at the end and fail to do anything.

You need a promotion plan. And you need to keep promoting for at least a year. Books need love, even after they are published.

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