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What to Avoid When Self-Publishing Your First Book

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Learn what to avoid when self-publishing so that you can be proud of your first book.

Learn what to avoid when self-publishing so that you can be proud of your first book.

After critiquing, editing, and reviewing many manuscripts and books of self-published authors, I can say that the following are some of the most common problems I’ve observed. Do any of these apply to your work?

Problems to Avoid When Self-Publishing

  • Not writing for a specific audience
  • Brain purge/trying to put all of your ideas into your first book
  • Never-ending chapters
  • No "About the Author" bio chapter
  • No disclaimers
  • Cliché, swiped, or poor quality images
  • Not using Microsoft Word's table of contents function (nonfiction)
  • Nondescript book titles, chapter titles, and subheadings (nonfiction)
  • Too much quoted content (nonfiction)
  • No warm up or conclusion (nonfiction)

Not Writing for a Specific Audience

I’ve harped on the evils of not knowing and writing for the reader so much, that I feel I’ll get my angel wings pretty soon. (*snickering*)

When I review manuscripts professionally, I ask authors for a profile of their readers. Many are stumped by that inquiry, or they provide a profile that could be “anyone.”

I believe that some authors think they’ll figure their audience out once the book is done. Then they wonder why their books are a tough sell. Aside from the marketing issues this creates, the manuscripts written for a non-specific reader can suffer from being too complex, inappropriate, or even offensive to readers.

Too Long, Part I: Brain Purge

Though many authors are serial self-publishers (raising hand!), for others, their first book is their one glorious writing opus. So some of these one-timers want to get every single idea out of their heads and into a book.

On the nonfiction side in particular, some authors feel that they need to cover absolutely every single aspect of their topic in order to appear as an expert in their field.

In both scenarios, it’s a brain purge resulting in dreadfully long books that would better serve readers as multiple books. And it could better serve the authors, too, by providing future book sales opportunities.

Too Long, Part II: Never-Ending Chapters

Even if the total length of the book is reasonable, some authors just don't know how to break up the chapters in their books. I think this happens for a number of reasons:

  • They're trying to satisfy arbitrary school word count standards. Worried about not pleasing a teacher from long ago, these authors are trying to make the grade by making each chapter about a term paper's length.
  • They're afraid that readers will scoff at a short chapter. This is a words-per-pound problem where authors feel that if they include any shorter chapters, readers will not see the book as having enough weight in terms of content. Just not true!

Book chapter breaks should be where an idea or situation being presented would naturally end. Breaking books up into sections which combine logical, related ideas or story parts can also help avoid bulking up individual chapters.

No "About the Author" Bio Chapter

I’ve been stunned by the high number of manuscripts that have no “About the Author” bio chapter. Granted, some may have plans to add that right before they self publish it. But in my opinion, it’s an integral part of every book. It helps readers better understand the author and what may have caused him or her to write the book. It can help provide context and build fans.

Also, particularly for authors who want to use a nonfiction book to promote themselves as experts, it’s surprising when this bio is missing. The “About” chapter is an opportunity to give readers more information about how to connect and work with them.

In their defense, authors who do not include this type of chapter in the manuscript may intend to put their bio in the back cover copy. That’s understandable and that would be a valid reason for not including it in the manuscript for a print book. But even then, the space on a back cover is very limited. And when publishing an eBook edition, there is no back cover! So it’s better to make sure that is in the manuscript so readers will find it one way or another.

No Disclaimers

I would say that half or less of the manuscripts I review include a disclaimer statement on the copyright notice page. A disclaimer is particularly important for any self published nonfiction work that includes advice and information.

Fiction writers aren’t exempt! Ever been to the movies and you’ll see a statement in the credits that confirms the characters and events are fictional? Yeah, it’s that kind of statement that fiction writers need to consider.

For either fiction or nonfiction, consult an attorney to help develop a disclaimer that is appropriate for your book.

Cliché, Swiped, or Poor Quality Images

Most manuscripts I’m asked to review are primarily text. However, once in a while I receive one that includes stock art or other images, sometimes swiped, from the Internet.

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Even if properly licensed and/or the author has secured permission to use them, some of the images are so cliche that including them adds nothing to the manuscript. Example: Someone typing on a computer when talking about a computer. I think most of us could figure that scenario out without the image.

Of more concern are the images that appear to be right-clicked and copied from the Internet. Remember, “public domain” rights do not mean “on the Internet.” It’s probably best to presume that everything you see on the Internet is copyrighted and that you’ll need to purchase a license or secure specific written permission to use it.

Aside from the cliche and licensing issues, most images that I see plopped into a manuscript are so low resolution that printing them will be a mess. While some may work for eBooks, high resolution (usually 300dpi or greater) images are required for proper print quality.

Not Using Microsoft Word's Table of Contents Function (Nonfiction)

I’m always surprised at how many authors type in their Table of Contents, and don’t use Microsoft Word’s Table of Contents (TOC) function. The TOC function will automatically pull in the page numbers, chapter titles, and subheadings if Headings in Styles are used. Word is a program that authors need to master!

IMPORTANT: Just remember to put in the TOC after the manuscript is completely edited and proofed since the function is not dynamic. By not dynamic, I mean that if the page numbers change, it will not automatically be changed in the TOC!

Nondescript Book Titles, Chapter Titles, and Subheadings (Nonfiction)

For nonfiction, the title, subtitle, chapter titles and subheadings in the Table of Contents are critical selling tools for the book. They give the potential reader a glimpse of what’s covered in the book, which helps them evaluate whether it’s worth buying and reading. So when these are vague, confusing, or cutesy clever, it’s difficult for the reader to assess the value of the book.

Too Long, Part III: Too Much Quoted Content (Nonfiction)

In an attempt to appear knowledgeable, some nonfiction authors include so much of other people’s stuff that their books are almost not their own. In some cases, I guesstimated that about half of the book was discussion of or direct quoting of other people’s work. Sadly, instead of appearing knowledgeable, they just end up promoting the knowledge and work of others. And they set themselves up for the risk of copyright infringement or a very arduous project of obtaining permissions.

There may be a number of reasons why authors may do this. One, they don’t feel confident in their own thoughts and ideas. Two, they are using this quoted material to prove their point (even though the quoted authors might not agree with them in reality). And, lastly, they don’t feel they have “enough” material of their own and just want to pad their manuscript to appear more valuable.

No Warm Up or Conclusion (Nonfiction)

I’ve seen a number of nonfiction books that just start with Chapter 1. A warm-up introductory chapter (with, we hope, a more intriguing title than “Introduction”) helps the reader put what they are about to read into context.

On the opposite end of the book, some nonfiction books just end. No author bio chapter (as discussed earlier). No afterword or closing thoughts to help give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2019:

Hi Dolores! Aw, thanks for the kind words. Glad you find my posts helpful. Hope that manuscript gets to see the light of day. :) Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful day!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on February 21, 2019:

This article as well as your others are so helpful and informative for self publishers. I have a manuscript sitting around gathering dust and if, on of these days, I get around to self publishing, I know where to turn for advice !

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 28, 2017:

Donna, glad to be of service! ;) It is difficult to be a caring and critical friend. Thanks, as always, for your kind comments! Hope you're having a great holiday season so far. Cheers!

Donna Herron from USA on November 28, 2017:

Love this list, Heidi! I've had a few friends ask me to look over something they're writing. It's often difficult, or heartbreaking, to criticize the structure or quality of their work. Now I can just send them to this hub. Thanks so much!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 19, 2017:

Larry, we're all learning by trial and error... all the time! Glad to see you realized what you would have done differently. Some authors never do and just keep doing the same thing and hoping for different results. Thanks for your kind comments and sharing your experience with us! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on November 19, 2017:

Some very good advice there, Heidi. My four books are fiction but many of these would apply to me as well. When I wrote my first book I was totally out of my element. I spent way to much to get it self-published. I learned as I wrote each book and learned most by trial and error. I wish I had your advice back in the day.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 12, 2017:

Bill, bless you for being there for your friend! Glad you can relate to what I'm seeing out in the writing pool. Thanks so much for chiming in and enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 12, 2017:

An interesting list for sure. I'm reading a friend's initial novel....547 pages...too much history..too long chapters...rambling most of the time without a common thread to hold it together....sigh! Good writing is a hard-earned talent.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 12, 2017:

Hi Manatita! Glad you found the tips useful. Thanks for stopping by and you have a great weekend, too!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 12, 2017:

Flourish, that TOC feature is a lifesaver, especially for Kindle eBooks that need active links to the chapters.

Love the writing diarrhea. :) Wish there was a cure.

Thanks for adding your thoughts and humor to the conversation! Have a great rest of the weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 12, 2017:

Hi Sally! Glad you found it useful. And we'll be watching for announcements when you publish your book. Thanks for stopping by and have a terrific weekend!

manatita44 from london on November 12, 2017:

Some nice and invaluable tips. Good on you. Have a great weekend.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 11, 2017:

Such great advice here! The TOC feature is indeed useful. I’ve read some of those never ending chapters that feel like the author had a bad case of written diarrhea. Usually, however, I don’t hang in there too long.

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on November 11, 2017:

Very useful advice, definitely one to bookmark and come back to at a later date when I need a checklist of things to do and not to do when I publish my own book:) Thank you, Heidi.

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