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by Betsy Lampe

When self-publishing or starting a small press, many authors make basic mistakes that are easily avoidable, and are often unprofessional, unrealistic or unprepared despite their best efforts. It's hardly a surprise, since most authors come to publishing from other vocations, and they must endure a very steep learning curve over a relatively short period of time. 

Hopefully, this article will help you avoid any of the Three "U"s.

Avoid Being Unprofessional

Some authors come from the workplace -- one in which they were not the boss but an employee. They are unfamiliar with corporate or business identity and don't know how they should "appear" as a publisher. A publisher, whether a self-publisher, a small press or a major publisher, should offer a professional business appearance. This includes creating a logo that reflects the corporate theme or mission, having printed professional stationery and business cards (all displaying the logo) and having an office that is set up to do business.

Logos should not be homespun or created by a novice. This means that it should not be created by your nephew (after all, he received high marks in art) or by an amateur (they're so much cheaper). Seek an artist or designer who is schooled in creating a corporate image. You get what you pay for. If you choose a novice to save money, your company will look less than professional. Use your logo on everything you create or have created for your business.

Insist that a professional typesetter prepares the camera ready work for your business stationery. On it, be sure to list memberships in those professional or trade organizations to which you belong (National Association of Independent Publishers, PMA, Florida Publishers Association, Inc.). Be sure to use your logo consistently on the letterhead, envelopes and business cards. Make sure you have included all of your contact information, and do not assume that the typesetter will proof your work. Make sure everything is correct before approving a printing.

Most self-publishing companies and small presses are home-based businesses.  Do not operate a business from your kitchen table. Make a room for your business in your home, even if it's only a walk-in closet. Keep it away from  the distractions of your daily life so you can concentrate. Make sure you have the basic office equipment and contact resources, including email (do your homework and pick one to stick with so you won't have to reprint or correct your letterhead), a separate phone and fax line (which you can also use for your computer line if you don't have cable) and a computer, scanner and printer (or an all-in-one machine). If you're a technophobe, you'll have to change your ways and enter into the 21st Century. Learn to work your equipment and make sure, for emergency situations, that someone else is familiar with what you're doing and how you're doing it.

Avoid Being Unrealistic

Almost everyone, without exception, comes to publishing with incorrect preconceived ideas about publishing, which is understandable since most laypeople hear about only high-profile authors and publishers. The pie in the sky that is propagated by the media to the layperson results in new publishers who fail to understand that publishing is an industry (that some folks get graduate degrees to master), that writing is a business (not an artform) and that you're in business to make money (with very few exceptions).

Take some time to learn about the publishing industry. Many fine books are available on the topic, and they can provide you with a primer on publishing. Understand, right from the beginning, the kinds of costs to expect, the amount of time you'll need to devote and the patience you'll need to muster.

You are entering foreign territory and will be assimilating a massive amount of information. Don't neglect any area. Before you begin to produce your book you should feel at least conversationally familiar with all aspects of the publishing industry.

Don't allow yourself to be unpleasantly surprised after the book is published simply because you didn't take the time to do your homework before it went into production. A poorly written (very very few authors write well), edited (almost all authors need editing), produced (don't get your cousin Vinny to typeset your book on MS Word) or marketed (don't depend solely on bookstores) book is a waste of both your time and money. Understand that you will need to lean on the expertise of others and that you will need to delegate some tasks to those who are better prepared to execute them (professionals).

Learn what you need to understand to price your book competitively while still allowing for a profit margin. Know that the first print run might breakeven and that you're going to lose about 55% of the cost of books to wholesalers and others. Remember shipping and other costs. Think free PR before spending a dime on advertising. If your former profession didn't require you to have business savvy, attend adult education courses or seek the help of your local SBDC.

Avoid Being Unprepared

Self-published authors, with almost no exceptions, all want to be on Oprah! And for good reason. Books mentioned and authors seen on her show sell well. In fact, most publishers who wish their books would be mentioned on Oprah! could not financially handle what would happen if their books were featured on the show. Imagine having to suddenly come up with the cash to do a 50,000-copy reprint. Can you come up with that much cash on short notice? Can your current manufacturer handle a printing that large? Would shipping by truck be cheaper than UPS? Can you get quick help in the office if you are deluged with orders?

If you are approached by other authors (even as a self-publisher) to do publishing work, are you prepared to take it on? Do you have an author contract? Do you have an author contract between yourself and your own company? Do you know how to find an intern to get good, cheap help in the office? Have you sought the help of agencies to help sell the subrights on your title(s)? A good place to get prepared is, which offers a free, simple subscription to the most basic information the site offers.

Finally, if you understand nothing else, please know that, to sell books, you must create demand for them. To create demand for your books, you must look, feel and taste like a "real" publisher. You are a real publisher. You may look like Bartholomew wearing 500 hats, but you're a publisher nonetheless. Do your very best to make sure that your book has every opportunity to be exposed to the public wearing its best face. Make sure your company has on its best face when it meets the industry. Make sure you are professional, realistic and prepared to do business.

(c) 2003 Betsy Lampe

Betsy Lampe sits on the board of directors for the Publishers Association of the South. She also holds the positions of president and editorial director of Rainbow Books, Inc., an independent publisher of Self-Help and How-To nonfiction, as well as Mystery novels. A former President of the Florida Publishers Association, Betsy currently works as its association executive, where she edits its FPA Sell More Books! Newsletter. She also serves as the executive director of the National Association of Independent Publishers (NAIP) and writes its email-only newsletter, Publisher's Report. Reach her at or at (863) 648-4420.

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