02/04/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

What Your Friends Can't Tell You About Your Self-Published Book

When watching an audition of an American Idol wanna be who can barely carry a tune, one wonders who told her that she could sing well, encouraged her to audition, and assured her that she would be successful. Knowing she will never be the next Kelly Clarkson, she sadly (and sometimes angrily) leaves the audition room without the yellow ticket to the next round and tearfully falls into the loving embrace of her supporters. You can almost hear her supporters saying "you got robbed" through the television screen. These well-meaning friends are not insincere in their assessment of her singing ability. Their assessment is just based on the fact that they know and love her. To them, her singing sounds like joyful noise and they are convinced others will experience more of the joy than the noise when they hear her sing.

As Creative Director for Authors in the House, a showcase for new authors (particularly self-published) that promotes books through entertainment, I read a lot of self-published books. Some of them are very good reads, but the majority of my reading experience resembles watching a bad audition for American Idol. Not being a friend or even personally knowing these authors, I wonder who suggested they should publish their writing. Just as those who love to sing but can't carry a tune should belt it out in the shower, in a church choir or at a karaoke bar, those who love to write but cannot put words on a page that do not make sense to anyone except those who know and love them, should share their works in notebooks or journals. As "Mr. Wonderful" Kevin O'Leary, investor on the reality show Shark Tank, would say, "It's not a business. It's a hobby."

Family and friends are often the inspiration for getting published and are profusely thanked in acknowledgements and recognized in dedications. However, unless they are successful authors, editors or in the publishing or in the book marketing business, their encouragement is just loving support. They probably can't tell you the following about the business of self-publishing:

1. Your book will reflect your investment. Publishing is expensive. To publish a book to the same standards and quality of the big four English-language speaking publishing companies (Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Random House and Penguin Group), you have to make a significant investment in the book. Sure, you can get your work published for a couple of hundred dollars but it will scream home made.

To self-publish a book to approach the standards of a traditional publishing company will cost at least $5000, and more if your book requires more than two rounds of professional editing (traditionally published books go through as many as five rounds of editing). Professional editing is particularly important for e-books. Amazon, Google and Apple track how long it takes to readers to complete a book and although it would require deeper analytics, we could make an obvious guess that bad writing causes readers to shut down their e-reader.

A customized book cover that is vetted with targeted readers is also part of publishing a successful book. Alex Meriwether, Marketing Manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA which houses its own on-demand publishing services, tells me that paying attention to the cover is extremely important to book sales and that self-published authors often "mess up" when it comes to a selecting a good book cover.

2. People who don't know and love you will need to buy your book. Your family and friends will definitely help promote your book (at least your first one; my mother-in-law was so proud that my book had been published that she became a one-woman sales force attacking the process just as she had sold Avon when she was younger). However, to approach the number of sales in order to get a return on your investment will require extending your book promotion beyond your personal Christmas card lists, Facebook friends, Twitter and Instagram followers.

For my self-published books, I calculated that I had to sell 2,943 of my first book and 1,667 of my second self-published book to break even. In contrast, within six months of both of my traditionally published books, I received royalty checks. Although the percentage of royalty I receive for my traditionally published books is the same percentage that I net on my self-published books, I am still working to break even on the self-published books, while I continue to receive royalty checks on the traditionally published books.

Self-publishing is great for authors with an existing fan base that is very large. President Obama (then Senator Obama) admitted that until his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, his 1995 self-published memoir, Dreams from My Father, remained stacked up in his basement... which leads me to my next point:

3. Book promotion is not for the fainthearted. With over 400,000 self-published titles a year, getting a self-published book noticed is a challenge even for professional book promoters. Book promotion requires traditional marketing, social media marketing, guerrilla marketing and a bag of chips. An even greater challenge is that promotion must be done within a limited time frame. Providing advanced copies to booksellers can be problematic for self-published titles, especially with publishers like Createspace that do not offer pre-distribution copies. Booksellers, book reviewers, notable book bloggers, radio and newspapers require advance copies to promote a book. A successful book campaign begins six months prior to the book release and continues for at least another three to six months after the release. After six to nine months, the book is no longer new and it becomes very difficult to get it noticed among the over 35,000 new titles released each month...and those are just the self-published titles.

4. Getting a self-published book on a library or bookstore shelf or featured e-book is as easy as raising one eyebrow. Remember bringing your written work to the public is a business. The majority of bookstores will not stock self-published books. It is a matter of dollars. Print on Demand book publishers do not offer the same deep discount on volume sales as traditional publishers; nor do they allow books to be returned. As a result, bookstore owners are reluctant to sell self-published titles. It is not because they are snobs. It is just good business. Stores do not have the space to keep large inventories, especially for books that are not selling. Returns are costly and inefficient. In the long run, the squeeze is just not worth the juice.

There are ways in which writers can self-publish and still get their title listed with Ingram and other wholesale booksellers who offer deep discounts and return policies, but it definitely increases your costs and does not automatically result in more sales. Someone still has to promote the book to book sellers and those someones are generally publicity firms and not an individual author.

5. Writing is a personal journey but publishing is not. A myth that most people unconsciously live by is the assumption that others are just as interested in your life as you are. My niece's wedding invitation was unique, beautiful, elaborate... and costly. Total mailing costs alone were as much as some people would pay for a rehearsal dinner. Her hope was that everyone would love to have the invitation as a keepsake long after the wedding was over. The investment was worth it to her and I am sure at least one person, her grandmother, still has the invitation stored somewhere in a box.

Most writers unconsciously (and often consciously) believe that people will be interested in what they have written. As the saying goes, everyone has a story in them, which is why self-published memoirs are among the top self-published genres. As baby boomers move into encore careers, they are eager to record lessons learned in non-fiction and business books and have self-published volumes. Motivational speakers, ministers, educators and the like, are recording their pearls of wisdom in self-published books hoping to increase their audiences by their sales. And there is the soccer mom or dad who is self-publishing a romance novel with the hopes of it becoming the next Fifty Shades of Grey.

The obvious truth is that everyone will not want to read your book. Book promotion requires a clearly defined target audience and a great marketing strategy. On the surface, defining an audience seems to be a simple task -- people who are like me will like my book. Unfortunately, defining a target audience and developing a marketing strategy extends beyond the tips provided by print-on-demand publishers. Everything -- and I do mean everything -- about the book needs to be vetted with the target audience. This kind of data is what traditional publishers have at their fingertips.

Writers who aspire to be authors have more options available to them today than ever before. There is definitely a paradigm shift in the publishing industry caused by technology and other factors; however, readers are still readers. Readers will always want good stories and readers don't have to have advanced degrees in literature to know and appreciate good writing.

It is safe to say that most MFA programs and seasoned authors have a preference for traditional publishing. The advantage that traditional publishers have over self publishing is that it provides a filter beyond family and friends. But there are ways to level the playing field for self-publishers.

Eve Bridburg, Executive Director and Founder of Grub Street, one of the nation's leading creative writing centers located in downtown Boston, tells me that Grub Street is "agnostic" when it comes to self-publishing. Grub Street is more invested in good writing rather than how the writing gets packaged. Eve describes the process as a pyramid with writing as a craft at the base and at the tip are superior writers of enduring talent who produce literature. Grub Street has a laser-like focus on advancing skills of writers whether they are writing as a hobby or as a professional. In either case, Grub Street's workshops create an atmosphere that is rigorous and supportive and one that "never involve tears or humiliation." In developing successful writers, Eve states that we "lose a lot of writers on the way up the pyramid, but if we have helped them become better parents, better thinkers, better contributors to society as they improved their writing that is great." Grub Street's goal is to widen the base so that it is "representative of all voices" and move them to the tip of the pyramid. As a result of "writers helping writers," the definition of literature expands and becomes more inclusive.

Family and friends will always be a catalyst for writers becoming successful authors. Dedications and acknowledgements will continue to honor their contributions. However, self-published authors that are competitive in the massive space of published books will be those who invest in their work in the same manner and intensity as traditional publishers, and who have evaluation filters beyond those who know and love them.