Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I haven't criticized a book about publishing in a long time. Now it's time.

Many of the books I've complained about in this blog deal with self-publishing because so many of those books were terrible and warranted complaints, and I know a bit about the subject.

At some point I stopped doing it. One reason was that I published many books in the field and didn't want to be seen as slamming competitors. Another reason is that I didn't like reading lots of shitty books.

The book shown above is not shitty. (How's that for a compliment?) It's not awful or even bad. It's better than many, worse than some and it rates a solid "OK." There are a number of errors that keep it from being "good." An examination of the book leads to important lessons for self-publishing authors. 

Mike Kowis follows the pattern of endless other authors (including me). He self-published a book and decided that his experience qualifies him to teach others to do the same. He still has much to learn.

Let's start with the cover.
  • The illustration is a dull piece of stock art by Tiero, presumably purchased at Fotolia for a few bucks. There's nothing wrong with using a stock photo or illustration but it's not yours alone, so it's good to customize it.
  • The title starts with "14 steps." It's only natural to count the steps shown on the cover, and find that there are more than 20. That's silly.
  • The number 14 dominates the cover but it's arbitrary and uninteresting. Heinz is known for its 57 varieties and Baskin-Robbins for its 31 flavors, but 14 has no special significance that I know of. A word such as "vital" or "critical" would have been stronger than a number. (I've used 99, 100 and 1001 in my own titles. Those numbers are more interesting than 14.)
  • Most nonfiction books have cover art that is a too-literal interpretation of the title. Maybe someone thought that a staircase made out of books is cute. I don't. A book about infant care doesn't need a baby bottle or diaper on the cover. A book about publishing steps doesn't need steps and books on the cover. I wonder if the illustration led to the title. An all-text cover could have been more of an eye-grabber.
  • The author identifies himself as "Mike Kowis, Esq." I assume his real first name—like mine—is "Michael." If he's a well-known jock like Mike Ditka or in show biz or politics like Mike Todd or Mike Pence, the nickname would be OK on a book. On a serious book where the name is paired with "Esq." which identifies an attorney, the informality seems out-of-place and lessens the author's authority. (I am never Mike or Mickey.)
Mike dedicated the book to his "beautiful wife." I assume she likes the honor, but all wives are beautiful and the dedication seems silly—unless her beauty somehow enabled or affected the book.

Here are Mike's 14 steps:
STEP 1: Finalize your manuscript.
STEP 2: Create a new business to self-publish and market your book. 
STEP 3: Buy a domain name for your book’s website and build the webpages. 
STEP 4: Buy ISBN numbers from Bowker. 
STEP 5: Apply for an LCCN number [sic, redundant] from the U.S. Library of Congress (for print books only). 
STEP 6: Apply for a merchant account at your preferred shipping company. 
STEP 7: Create a social media platform to promote your book. 
STEP 8: Decide where you want to sell your book and in what formats. 
STEP 9: Hire a professional cover designer to make your book cover. 
STEP 10: Hire a professional graphic designer to format the interior pages of your print book and/or convert your manuscript to an eBook. 
STEP 11: Purchase an editorial book review well before the book launch date. 
STEP 12: Upload your book files onto the distributor’s website. 
STEP 13: Register your book with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months after the publication date. 
STEP 14: Market your book.

The proper first step in publishing a nonfiction book has nothing to do with either starting or completing a manuscript. The first step actually includes marketing, which Mike leaves for last. 

The first part of marketing is to identify your potential customers and potential competitors. The more precisely you can define the customers, the easier it will be to reach them and the more efficient your marketing can probably be. Before you start writing a book you need to know if anyone will need it or want it. It would be horrible to invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to produce a book that nobody buys.
  • If you’re writing and publishing a dictionary, your potential market is all of the people in the world who can read the language you are publishing in, or are trying to learn it. The potential audience could be many millions, and your potential competitors may number in the hundreds.
  • If your book is about your not-so-famous mother, you probably have no competitors covering the same subject, and your potential audience may be eight people. Or two.
  • Most books fall somewhere in between. Books intended to help fisherman, mechanics and corn growers probably have potential audiences in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, and dozens of competitors. Mike has hundreds of competitors—including me.
Unless you are writing in a very new field, you are likely to face competition from existing books as well as books that are "in the pipeline." Try to write something that is better than the competition—or at least make it seem that way. Powerful marketing can make even ludicrous ideas seem legitimate.

Mike's STEP 6 is very strange—and very wrong—and an 
attorney/college instructor should have known better. A "merchant account" has absolutely nothing to do with shipping. A merchant account is an arrangement with a credit-card-processing company that enables a business to accept credit cards for purchases.

Most books are sold by booksellers, not authors, so the authors have no need to process credit-card orders. Mike recommends "finding at least three experts" to review your book. One of his experts should've caught this blooper. (For occasional sales you can be paid through Paypal with no merchant account.)

Similarly, unless you maintain inventory (unnecessary for ebooks and print on demand) and expect to ship out lots of books, there is absolutely no reason to have an account with a shipping company (but it's not difficult to get one). Many authors keep a few books on hand to send as gifts or for reviews, or to sell with autographs. You can easily send them by going to the Post Office (or FedEx or UPS). No account is necessary. You can even give books to the mail carrier who comes to your place or call for a free pickup.

I disagree with STEP 11. I am absolutely opposed to paid reviews. For a positive review to be meaningful it should be written by someone who likes your book—not by someone who's paid to read and review it. If you pay a prostitute $1,000 to go to bed with you and she or he proclaims love, would you believe it? Of course not.

Mike minimized a vital step: securing blurbs. A blurb is a brief chunk of text written by someone who knows something about you and/or your subject and can help you to sell the book. It means much more than a purchased review. You should start seeking blurbs as soon as your text is good enough to be read by others. Mike says blurbs go on the back cover. They can also go on the front cover, in the front matter and in promotional material, including online book listings.

There are many varieties of self-publishing and Mike's title doesn't make it clear that he is writing for authors like himself and me who want to establish their own little publishing companies.

However, if you are like most authors who think they're involved in self-publishing you will probably be the customer of an inept company such as Xlibris or Outskirts Press that will do most of the work discussed in Mike's book. Mike's first chapter clearly explains some of the possible publishing paths, but I hope that readers don't encounter those words only after buying a book they don't need.

Mike kindly reveals the costs for the various aspects of producing his first book and this one. He spent so much on the first that I doubt that the book made any money. That first book, properly, was a learning experience and his costs were less for the second book.

In the discussion of business names, Mike advises us that "It might be wise to select a name that reflects the value or benefits of your book. For my business, I chose the name Lecture PRO Publishing because it reminds readers of the benefits that you can expect from reading my first book (i.e., you can learn to lecture college students like a “pro” if you read my book)."

I disagree strongly. It's much better to have a neutral name (such as my own Silver Sands Books) that can work with any book genre. "Lecture PRO Publishing" does not relate to Mike's second book. CLICK HERE for advice on naming your publishing company.

Mike asks, "Do you want to sell an eBook? If so, do you prefer Kindle, non-Kindle (e.g., Nook, Apple iBook, Kobo, etc.), or both?"

That's silly. The author/publisher's preference for ebook format is irrelevant. An author/publisher should focus on the preferences and needs of the likely readers, and the more formats the better.

Mike Kowis has provided a lot of useful information for beginning publishers. With a little bit of additional work the book could have been "good," not merely "OK." That's an important lesson.


  1. He should have hired you.

  2. Mr. Marcus,
    Thank you for taking the time to read my latest book and give it an "OK" rating (although my editor would insist it should be an "Okay" rating...LOL).

    I'm not going to take the time to address all of your jabs above(side note: it's kinda hard to take your comments above seriously when you criticized me for saying that my wife is "beautiful" in the dedication...really?). I'll address a few of them just for funsies:

    1) I agree that my book is NOT perfect or even the "best" on the market, I never claimed it was either of those things. I simply wrote this book because earlier this year I published a few articles on my book's website explaining the steps that I took to self-publish my first book and those articles received rave reviews by many folks (specifically, most said my steps helped them clearly understand what practical steps were needed to create their first book), and several of them encouraged me to write a book based on my steps. In short, I wrote this book to help aspiring authors, and I stand by it 100%. Is it a perfect book? No. Does it contain useful information that can help aspiring authors self-publish their first book? Yes (just as you graciously pointed out above)

    2) I appreciate your opinions on the book cover, but the bottom line is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I posted this cover along with 2 other choices on my social media platform before I published this book, and I had hundreds of written responses with this cover being the clear winner. To be fair, more than a few folks (who are no doubt OCD... LOL) mentioned that they were slightly annoyed that the number of steps in the cover didn't equal 14. But many others didn't seem hung up on that at all and thought the stock photo captured the genre and point of the book perfectly. Personally, I kinda like the fact that the staircase seems to go on forever b/c the reality is that the last step (marketing the book) can and should continue for as long as the book remains in print. In the interest of time and $, I chose to use this cover design with the unmodified stock photo, and I'm happy with it. One thing I know for sure. You will never get 100% of the population to agree that one book cover is perfect.

    3) Paid editorial reviews (Step 11 of my book) is commonly used by traditional publishers to help market the book, so why should self-publishers not take advantage of this same tool. Also, Step 11 is absolutely necessary if you plan to market your book to libraries (actually, I believe they usually prefer the more pricey editorial reviews like Kirkus).

    Best of luck to you and all of your books. In fact, I wish all of my fellow authors and their books the best of luck. Just because one person doesn't enjoy a particular book doesn't mean that someone else won't like it or find it useful. But that is just my opinion.

    Kind regards,
    Mike K.