Publishing mistakes

Things I wish I would have known before publishing my book

My first three books were published by the (then) largest publisher in the Netherlands: A.W. Bruna. I got an official contract and a €5000 advance per book, which would be an exception nowadays. Most publishers currently ask the author for a financial contribution when they publish a book.

Bruna took care of everything: they arranged an editor, a designer, contact with the bookstores, printing, distribution, and marketing. In return, I received ‘only’ 8% of the proceeds from each book. Of course, I first had to recoup the advance.

At first, I felt so lucky. Here I was, a first-time writer getting a contract with a large publishing house. I should have known this was too good to be true.

Working with a big company has its advantages and disadvantages. Without realizing it, my marketing skills were more developed than theirs. Some serious mistakes were made. When in the end I discovered I had earned less on my own books than the truck driver who drove them to the stores, I decided to self-publish my books from then on. I am now working on book number 30!

Don’t get me wrong. I am (still) very grateful to Bruna for giving me the opportunity to become a published author. I have learned a lot from them. On the other hand, I also learned that we were not a good fit. I’d love to share those lessons with you.

Here’s what I learned from working with a publisher

  • Network and visibility matter. Bruna wasn’t as triggered in my story as they were in me as a person. They were interested in the audience I had built up during Coins for Care, the Donors Association (Donateursvereniging), and participation in Survivor (Expedition Robinson). They also knew that I was going to include the real names of the ‘charity crooks’ in my book ‘What’s Your Excuse?’ Scandals and possible lawsuits are good for publicity, and that’s what made them want to sign me, I later heard.
  • Helicopter view. It was great to work with a professional editor. He taught me that it is important to look at your story with a ‘helicopter view’. Look at the big picture and don’t lose yourself in the details. Always keep in mind what the benefit to others will be. Think about what the readers can learn from your message. The most difficult assignment I got was to rewrite the chapter on ‘charity crooks’ so that it was half the length and all my frustration was filtered out. I learned to adjust the pace of my story to the reader. I had to let the reader draw their own conclusions and not impose my opinions on them.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. It was my first time publishing a book, but for the people working at Bruna, it was their daily business. They knew exactly what to do, how to do it and whom to hire to get it done. That is the biggest advantage of working with a publisher; they take you by the hand through this – at first somewhat intimidating – process. On the other hand, the very fact that it is their daily business makes them less alert to possible improvements or different ways of getting things done.
  • ‘Guerilla’ marketing vs traditional marketing. I am very grateful to Bruna for giving me the opportunity to publish my first three books and I learned a lot from them. But I also learned that we were not a good fit, especially in the area of marketing. As an entrepreneur, I was used to doing everything differently, faster, and cheaper, and our approaches were just not compatible. I was used to getting free publicity and running my own marketing thanks to the previous experience of promoting Coins for Care. I was not really impressed by the publisher’s marketing department, who of course had to distribute their resources among many authors. Sometimes I felt they were simply missing the mark. The ‘big company’ and entrepreneur were simply not a good match.

Publishing mistakes to be avoided

  • Not having your book ready on your launch date. This one seems a no-brainer, but despite the long lead time, none of my three books had arrived in the bookstores in time for the launch. Bruna calculated 3 months to print after the manuscript was finished, but still, on the day of launch, the book was delayed.  I had personally arranged TV and radio appearances but the book was not available Three times, for three books… So make sure you keep your eye on this process!
  • No control over the final design of your book. Even though I indicated that the book had to fit through a letterbox because I sell books through my own webshop, my third book was printed on cheaper (and therefore thicker) paper at the last minute – without consultation. It was so thick that it did not fit the letterbox; I had to pay almost €10 per book in shipping costs.
  • Not collecting information from potential buyers. Postcards were made (very beautiful!) to promote my book at a book fair. However, Bruna forgot to ask for email addresses on the card; only the postal address was requested. The cards were then sent back to people without keeping track of the details we did collect: their names and addresses. Result of this investment: zero.

After these painful experiences, I decided to self-publish the rest of my books (already at 30+!), which gives me much more flexibility and control.

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