Mark Coker’s 7 Secrets to E-Book Self-Publishing Failure

A while back Mark Coker, founder of e-book self-publishing site Smashwords, outlined what he believes are the 7 secrets to self-publishing failure. The man talks a lot of sense – if only more people listened to him. You can read the article in full here, but if you don’t want to click here’s a summary with some of my own thoughts thrown in for good measure. If you’re about to embark on e-book self-publication, take note.

1. Fail to respect the reader (customer)

Publishing your ebook can be done in an afternoon. The temptation to get your work out there right now is so great – I know it is, because I’ve experienced it myself – but you need to relax, and take your time. Edit and revise until you feel you can do no more. Then have someone else look at it, a professional. Family, friends and spouses don’t count unless they also make their living as editors, and even then I’d be suspect. Put thought, time and skill into an attractive cover. Your early readers cannot be guinea pigs, nor can they be unwitting members of a virtual writers’ group. The work must be finished and ready for the world before they lay their eyes on it. If it’s not, they might well be the only readers that work ever has.

I put customer in brackets because as I’ve said before in previous posts, writing may well be a romantic, creative act that refuses to be tamed, but once you print it out, bind it (or convert it) and slap a price tag on it, it becomes a business. Whatever has gone on before is irrelevant, because now you are offering people a product in exchange for their hard-earned cash, and you are obligated to deliver on the product’s promise. Charging $24.99 for a 5,000-word e-book about the time you made madeira cake that is so badly formatted it looks like Space Shuttle schematics is NOT delivering on that promise.

2. Limit distribution

According to Mark, some Smashwords authors are picky about where their e-books will be sold and remove their titles from retail channels where – for the moment – they don’t win many sales. This is so stupid I’m not quite sure where to begin, so I’m just going to reiterate the obvious: don’t do it, you moron! As Mark says, “Every time an author deliberately removes their book from a retailer’s shelf, a little angel in heaven sheds a tear, or stabs itself in the eye.”

3. Limit sampling

Sampling means the percentage of the book readers can download to their devices for free before they decide to purchase, a try before you buy kind of thing, the electronic equivalent of taking a book down off the shelf in the store and flicking through some pages to see if you like the author’s style. I’ll try and say this nice, okay? If you limit or disable sampling you are telling me that you know absolutely nothing about e-book publication, might be stupid and are almost definitely doomed to failure. A little harsh, perhaps. Or maybe not harsh enough. I say this because of the reason writers limit or disable sampling: it’s because they don’t want anyone to “get” any of their words for free. It’s a bad attitude, and plain ignorance about how this whole e-book thing works.

Sampling should be 20-25% minimum. After spending the time it takes to read a quarter of the way through your book, there is a far greater chance of the reader shelling out to finish the rest of it. And if you’re worried that after reading that much they won’t want to pay for the rest because they’ll have realized your book isn’t worth the time or money, and you’d rather pocket their cash before they find out you aren’t that good of a writer, then clearly you’ve ignored the lesson in point number 1.

And you’re kind of dishonest.

4. Laziness

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m not perfect. (But I had you fooled there for a while, right?) I nearly ruined my chances of selling e-books in all but one retail channel because I was guilty of this very sin: laziness.

Back in March of this year, I came to e-book publication almost accidentally. My attention was focused on Createspace and I only decided to self-publish e-books because I had nothing to do while I waited for the paperback proof copy to arrive, and because… well, why not? The formatting drove me crazy and by the it was done – and Smashwords had okayed my entry into the Premium Catalogue – I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the whole operation. I downloaded a copy to my mother’s Kindle, and checked the PDF version Smashwords had on sale. Both looked okay to me and so I turned my attention to shopping for a book launch outfit.

But I shouldn’t have. I’d failed to check the most popular e-book format, EPUB , which I discovered five months later had nearly 1,300 pages, or one for each paragraph. A glitch in MS Word for Mac had inserted a page break at each return. By my estimates, around 50 people had purchased the ebook only to find it in this way, and one had left a review saying as much on Barnes and Noble’s e-book store. Disaster. I re-did the formatting, re-uploaded the book and the lovely reader edited his review after I sent him a voucher for a free download, but I was lucky.

This could all have been avoided by doing just the thing Mark advised in the Smashwords instructions: download a free copy of Adobe’s Digital Editions and your own book in EPUB format, and check that everything is all right. As I said above, if only more people would listen to him.

5. False expectation and impatience

I would actually split these into two different secrets, because false expectation is really just plain old craziness (like those hopeless idiots on X-Factor who think they’ll be the next Madonna when their voice sounds like a bag of nails that’s just been thrown in a wood chipper) and is incurable, whereas impatience is a different thing altogether, and it afflicts the sane. Moreover, it can be cured. Just wait longer.

E-book sales, I’ve found, are a lot like blogging. Success comes slowly but it’s important that you keep plugging away. So if your book only sells 3 copies the week of its release, don’t despair. Recently the Smashwords blog highlighted the success of Brian S. Pratt, a fantasy author who has earned $25,000 from sales across Smashwords’ retail channels this quarter. He earned $18,000 last quarter and his projected Smashwords sales in 2011 will earn him a cool $100,000.

But in his first quarter, back at the beginning of 2009? He made $7.82.

6. Play the blame game

Back when I started this whole self-publishing adventure, I encountered an individual who was as bitter about Createspace as Steve Brookstein is about Simon Cowell. He had published a book about enchanted turtles or something, slapped a cover on it that looked like a nightmare I once had after drinking a shot called a Brain Hemorrhage and was charging nearly $20 for a slim paperback that if the back cover and table of contents was anything to go by, was riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes, printed in a font too large for a large print edition and was formatted by a version of MS Word ’97 on the fritz. It had sold one copy, presumably to himself. But his worst crime was that he was blaming Createspace for his book’s failure.

“They’re doing nothing to sell it,” he complained to me. Um.. yes, they are actually. They’ve listed it on the world’s biggest online book store, haven’t they? And should someone ever order a copy, they’ll print it, pack it and ship it out for you. You, dear deluded author, are the one whose doing nothing to sell your book.

Mark Coker says that, ‘Almost once per month, like clockwork, I’ll get an angry email from an author complaining they haven’t sold a single copy through Smashwords or any of our retailers, and they’ll threaten to unpublish their book and remove it from distribution if we don’t do something about it.’

They may as well unpublish their book, because acting like this is the best way not to sell any.

7. Distrust partners

A small corner of self-publishing only exists because certain authors are paranoid that Big, Bad Publishing is out to get them. (I call it The Crazy Corner, and try to stay away.) Yeah, it’s all a big conspiracy against you and your 504,000-word novel set in Sumerian times but also in the Fifties because there’s a time machine hidden in the remains of the spaceship that built the Nazca lines in Peru which your protagonist (whom you only ever refer to as “the protagonist” – never “my main character” or “Shakira”) discovers while out befriending a race of talkative petunias known as The Gimpalores, isn’t it? All the agents are in bed with the publishers who are having phone sex with Amazon while Barnes and Noble are on the other line, and anyway they’re only interested in books about post-apocalyptic vampires written by James Patterson’s minions.


This paranoia gets carried over to the self-publishing world when the writer is left with no choice but to produce Shakira and The Gimpalores him or herself. Bad sales figures? Smashwords must be hiding them, because you know loads of people are buying it. Over three thousand samples downloaded, but only one sold? Smashwords must be pocketing the other sales, because that ratio is just not possible. Who wouldn’t love your book after reading even a page of it? Smashwords says your book isn’t good enough for Premium Distribution. Are they discriminating against the gimpalore race? They must be. There can’t be another reason. Your know your mother bought your book from B&N this morning but it’s been a whole four hours and the sale still hasn’t shown up on your Smashwords dashboard. Call the police!

There are two ways to counteract this type of behavior:

  1. READ THE SMALL PRINT. You will then see how often Smashwords or Createspace or whoever you’re threatening with legal action updates its sales data – clue: not in real time – and how often they pay.
  2. TAKE MEDICATION. See a certified mental health professional for this.

Was all that a little bit too much doom and gloom this close to Christmas?

If so, you can read my post What do self-publishing success stories have in common? or Mark’s own brilliant The 7 Secrets to E-Book Publishing Success, required reading for any self-publisher, be it of the print or e-book variety.

Read all my e-book related posts.

(Thanks to Chris Whitehead for the image in this post.)

14 thoughts on “Mark Coker’s 7 Secrets to E-Book Self-Publishing Failure

  1. Talli Roland says:

    Love this post! Although you’re addressing self-publishing, many points could easily be applied to authors with small presses or even larger ones — especially with the ‘blame game’. It’s so easy to think other people should be out there selling your book when in reality, the best person to do it is you.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Talli! It’s probably even easier to play the blame game when someone else publishes you. I know of a debut author who was published last year by a very well known publishing house, and was disappointed that they did nothing for her – and I mean literally nothing, they didn’t even send out review copies or anything. Instead of sulking about it or talking about them she went out and did all her promo herself and it’s worked great. And as you say, you’re the best person to sell it. Who knows your book better than you? 🙂

  2. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    As someone on the edge of self-publishing — novel is on track for January 2011 — I found this post invaluable and inspiring. You were smart about self-publishing from the get-go, and I am grateful you share your experiences.

  3. Mark Coker says:

    Hi Catherine, thanks for helping to spread the word about these tips. I think your commentary added a lot of value (and humor). One minor edit: My last name is spelled “Coker” 🙂 Thanks!!!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      No problem! As I said I just hope people take notice of them!

      And so sorry, Mark! I always had it in my head that it was Croker.. should’ve checked! (It’s my first epub all over again!) Will change now. 🙂

  4. Caethes Faron says:

    I love #5 and the fact that you point out what the article says about his first quarter earnings. I love how most people just read the headline and make assumptions about that story without reading the whole thing.

    I always say you need to look for the story behind the story. You may hear stories of people making a full time income off of self-publishing, but what you don’t normally hear is the time and work they put in to get to that point. People don’t want to hear about all the work that goes into the successes because it will burst their bubble about this being easy. Then you see someone complaining about the fact that they just slapped an ebook up on Amazon and nothing happened. Well, yeah, you did nothing and nothing happened.

    If you’re writing with the hope of making money then you need to realize that it’s a business. A lot of self-publishing authors treat publishing like a hobby. Hobbies don’t pay, businesses do.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Absolutely! The business Vs hobby issue is at the heart, I think, of most self-publishing problems.

      I recently went to see a play – a great play, very funny and very festive. It should’ve been a big hit. But I saw it in almost empty theatre. This is because the producer (who was also in it) had paid way too much for the rights, struck a bad deal with the venue and done absolutely NOTHING to promote the play. (I only heard about it because someone I knew was in it.) It struck me that she wasn’t at all interested in the general public coming to see it; they didn’t “exist” for her. She was just doing it for her own fun and entertainment, and it was a total financial flop. It COST her to put it on.

      This is exactly what happens with self-publishing. People shell out thousands for packages from what are basically vanity presses, or throw up a book they finished half an hour ago on Smashwords – because they just want to see their work for sale, and don’t think beyond it. If you don’t treat it like a business, it’ll never make money for you the way a business would/should.

  5. Maria Staal says:

    I stumbled across this post in search of some information about how to publish an ebook, and I am really glad I did!
    As I am on the brink of formating my book for Kindle as well as Smashwords, this post was very enlighting and helpfull.
    I’m looking forward to reading your other posts on this subject.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Maria. Glad you found it helpful and good luck with your e-book adventure! If you look on the right hand side you should see a link to my “easy” way to format your e-book, and you can access all previous e-book posts in the dropdown menu that appears if you put your cursor over “Self-Printing”, above.

      Best of luck!

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