Practical Tips for Authors from Publishing Consultant Mick Rooney

Mick Rooney is the owner of TIPM Media, a company through which he provides editing, writing, and publishing consulting services. He has published several books and regularly contributes articles to print and online publications while also serving as a Services Watchdog for the Alliance of Independent Authors. In addition to writing and consulting, Mick shares a wealth of useful information about writing and publishing via The Independent Publishing Magazine- a resource well worth perusing (it was named a best writing website by Writer's Digest).

Having helped hundreds of authors publish books, Mick knows a thing or two about common mistakes made by fledgling authors. Below, Mick reveals useful tactics for promoting new books, reveals some important realities about self publishing, and explains how to avoid publishing scams as a fledgling author.

What tactics have you used to promote the self-published books you have authored? Which have ultimately been the most effective?

Mick RooneyFREE is a small word but a very powerful promotional tool. It should play a significant role in whatever kind of marketing campaign an author uses, whether it’s offering free downloads of an e-book for a limited period, or free sample chapters before the release of a book. These are all tactics I have used to increase sales, but fundamentally, to engage new readers. Every new author needs to place exposure before profit. FREE doesn’t just mean a sales spike during that period. I often experienced a spike in e-book sales when I changed the price of a book back to $2.99-4.99.

I began self-publishing in the early 1990s, long before POD, and I still place a great deal of faith in hand-selling. You must have physical stocks of your book if you want to engage any kind of promotional strategy beyond the use of social media. You have to be creative with promotion. I would write off the first 200 books on any print run as FREE for promotional purposes. I spent one whole summer secretly depositing books on restaurant tables, library and bookstore shelves—wherever I thought the book might garner interest.

I also read and performed my work to music at writing workshops, literary festivals and local libraries. My advice to authors is always to start at a community level and expand. Promotion and marketing is pointless unless you understand your reading audience and can strategically target them.

There are far greater promotional opportunities to marketing non-fiction than with fiction.

As a publishing consultant, the four biggest mistakes authors make when it comes to promotional tools and a marketing strategy are:

  1. Publishing before establishing a reader fan base
  2. Promoting and marketing your books AFTER publication
  3. Targeting WRITING communities instead of READING communities
  4. Not having a general understanding of how publishing works and media outlets function

Under what circumstances should an author pay to self publish a book rather than use a service like Amazon's CreateSpace to sell print books on demand without shouldering upfront costs?

There is a big misconception in the self-publishing community about publishing through channels like CreateSpace (for print), Amazon Kindle (for e-books), Smashwords and Lulu, and similar DIY self-publishing and distribution platforms. Yes, it’s convenient and easy, in relative terms to trade and mainstream publishing, but it reflects only some of the functional aspects of publishing a book.

Some of the channels mentioned above do offer additional services like editing, formatting and design, and marketing, but most authors using these channels simply use them to upload and make their work available to readers.

Therein lies the greatest freedom for authors, combined with the greatest pitfalls for self-published authors—the ability to reach a wider readership and compete with major publishers—but without the necessity to apply editorial and design standards. Used correctly, these channels are excellent tools, but too often authors place freedom ahead of necessity. Speed and efficiency cannot replace the need for quality and professionalism.

The most successful authors in the self-publishing community—Theresa Ragan, Tasha Harrison, Joanna Penn, Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, Colleen Hoover, Bella Andre, R. L. Mathewson, CL Lyons etc.—don’t make that mistake. They use the same professional editors and designers used by the publishing industry. They didn’t bolt from the starting blocks without first perfecting their writing and storytelling abilities.

If you self-publish and want to present the best of your work in the most professional way, then there is no such thing as self-publishing your work without an upfront cost. When you self-publish you are the publisher. You can’t—or shouldn’t—publish without an upfront cost. And that’s the modern myth of self-publishing—that it can be done well and professionally for nothing. It can’t.

Every author self-publishing a book has some set of skills that can be brought to the table. Beyond the necessity to be a good writer and have a worthy tale to tell, or message to communicate; an author needs to examine what skills he/she might have developed in other areas of life—a background in sales or business, design, IT or PR skills. All these are likely to be helpful and curtail the expense of self-publishing if the author can hone these skills into a book project. But ultimately, few authors have all the skills to complete all aspects of self-publishing without contracting the services of some publishing professionals—whether that’s in the areas of cover designer, editing, interior layout or marketing. Using self-publishing platforms like Smashwords, Amazon Kindle, Kobo’s Writing Life, Blurb and Apple iBooks, are all facilitators and distribution avenues to self-publishing. They are not complete solutions.

There’s an arrogance and sometimes a naivety within the self-publishing community—by some well intentioned individuals (who should and probably do know better), together with some loud and misinformed individuals—who wish to propel the myth that any author can self-publish a professionally written and produced book with success. I’m all for freedom of expression and the downfall of industry gatekeepers, but properly self-publishing a book requires careful understanding and management of a book project. It’s no different than deciding to build your own house. You accept from the get-go that you are not an architect, bricklayer, electrician, plumber or carpenter. You contract those services out to professionals. Otherwise you end up with a fallen-down shack instead of a home you can be proud of.

I’ve dealt with hundreds of authors over many years as a publishing consultant, and the first question I ask them is usually why they want to self-publish. Understanding the skills, needs and aspirations of an author often defines the publishing path he/she will take. Every author is different and it’s not simply black or white.

Assisted self-publishing services get a hard time from the loudest voices in the self-publishing community, and for good reason. Some are pretty shoddy and nothing more than author mills. But what many of those loudest voices forget is the demographics of self-publishing. Most authors considering self-publishing are new to publishing per se, are not always the most computer literate, don’t use social networking on a day-to-day basis, and are in the 40+ age bracket. They’ve brought up kids, established a life with great experiences, stories and opinions to share, and want to make use of the freedom today’s world brings. If you listened to the self-publishing community as a whole, you’d swear every self-published author was a dynamic, college-educated, techno-loving geek between the ages of 20-35. The majority of my clients fall into the 40-80 age bracket!

What are the most common challenges faced by the authors you consult, and how do you help your clients overcome them?

Authors are bamboozled by the choices they have now. They simply don’t know where to start when they have a book to publish. You’d be amazed how many authors I talk to day-to-day, who actually don’t realise that self-publishing and vanity publishing isn’t the norm.
Many of the authors I talk to have written silently for years without sharing their work. With the explosion in self-publishing and the ease of access provided by e-book platforms, the two biggest challenges are technical understanding and marketing. Sometimes I feel as much a social consultant as I do a publishing consultant!

A lot of what I do isn’t rocket science. Once you get beyond explaining how the publishing business works, much of the marketing relies on the same principals it always did. Any technical stuff can be learned in time, or can be outsourced. Marketing works best in ever-increasing circles—like a ripple effect. Word of mouth sells books, and you need to develop a physical and social network circle to achieve that. Every author is unique. It’s about identifying the strengths of the author and supporting and augmenting where he/she is weak.

Above all, it’s about helping authors to identify their measure of what is success, and knowing when it is right to tone down their expectations, or encourage and raise their expectations.

How can one avoid publishing scams as a fledgling author? What methods do you employ as a Services Watchdog for the Alliance of Independent Authors to sniff out abusive practices?

Do your homework. I don’t expect every author to run the kind of checks we run at TIPM into every service provider and company—that often includes checks on company directors and staff for legal and criminality stuff. Yes, on occasion, we have used external contacts to run PNC checks on certain individuals and you would be astounded what we uncovered. We can’t always publish detail like that, but it does give us a good insight into companies and their history.

All services are vetted at the Alliance of Independent Authors before attaining partner membership and we continue to monitor those services independently and through our author member feedback. Earlier this year we published a guide to Choosing a Self-Publishing Service, compiled by the Watchdog team at The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). This book tells you all you need to know in order to choose the self-publishing pathway that's right for you. We evaluate these players, compare one to the other, tell you what they do and don’t do, what they charge and for what. Offerings are categorised, prices examined, royalty structures broken down, terms and conditions trawled, small print scrutinised, and claims checked against the experience of real-life authors who have actually used these services.

TIPM also regularly publishes in-depth reviews of publishing services and a ranking index of those companies. TIPM adheres to the 12 Points to Consider When Looking for A Good Author Solutions Provider.

In what ways do you think the self publishing world will change over the next five years?

While much has been made of e-books, print will remain the dominant format for sales of books over the next five years—certainly no more than 50-50. The classroom, and the education sector in general, will probably see the biggest changes in the coming years. I can certainly see a time, not too far away, when the printed book disappears completely as a manual and guidance tool from educational institutions and the general workplace.

Self-publishing remains in a transitional period, and I’m confident it will eventually merge with the mainstream industry as a cheaper and viable way for large publishers to develop new writing talent. What keeps the self-publishing community distinct from the larger publishing community (the book!) is going to disappear as digital content takes over the physical form. In a future world dominated by content, what is ‘self-published’ is going to hold no more validity than comparing what a trade journalist or writer does, to what a freelancer does. What will count is what should always count—quality.

In a curious way, the publishing world of the future, brimming with multi-content (global, national and community), ease, reach, diversity and the ability to freely market to anyone—all the things the self-publishing community aspires to—may actually result in its own demise and redundancy