By Ken Vollmer

For those of us struggling to place our first work on the world’s bookshelves, the obstacles to traditional publishing — unresponsive agents, uninterested editors, unreachable publishers — can seem overwhelming. It is no surprise, then, when faced with these exasperating options, that more and more of us consider the seductive path of self-publishing.

I myself have walked this dark course — which led to my 2003 book, The Wanderlust Survival Guide — and I have returned to catalog the sins of my journey into self-publishing. Here they are:

Sin #1: Vanity

Have a very compelling reason to self-publish. There are some sound reasons to self-publish — and if maintaining complete creative control over your work is paramount, it could be the right choice. But there are also many bad reasons, like the desire to maximize your revenue as an author. News flash: If you want money, you are in the wrong business. Most authors I know do not make a living on their books. Many of them lose money. Self-publishing can easily exacerbate this effect, since you take on the financial burden of printing and marketing the book. If you don’t push a few thousand copies as a self-publisher, you’re in the hole.

Sin #2: Parsimony

Try not to open your wallet. You have dreams of making a killing with your book, but on a practical level, you will probably be happy to not actually lose money. A good way to accomplish this goal is to keep expenses down. There’s a lot of bad advice out there about the things you absolutely, positively must buy in order to self-publish. Here are just a few of the things I regret paying for:

  • A post office box ($70/year). Supposedly you need to hide from your fans. Hide from your fans? You should be so lucky.
  • ISBN (retail book numbers) ($300). The smallest increment of ISBN’s you can buy is ten. If you are considering self-publishing, you should already have strong alternative sales channels to leverage for your primary sales — channels that do not require ISBN’s. You only need ISBN’s to place your book in bookstores, which, surprisingly enough, are terrible places to sell books.
  • Accounting software ($200): The main purpose of accounting software is to track sales and expenses for tax and audit purposes. If you can diligently log these items, you can just as well log them in a simple spreadsheet. People once even used physical books for this purpose. Caveat: If you are going to hire an accountant to do your books, you’ll need to buy whatever software they use. Like we can afford accountants. Ha.
  • Membership in a marketing association ($100). This might have been a good idea if I had $2000 or so to participate in their various marketing programs, but I’m a starving artist. I opted to eat, instead.

Sin #3: Arrogance

Before you hire someone to help produce your book, take a stab at doing it yourself. I assumed that I could not do many things. I assumed I could not design a book. But I educated myself with an excellent out-of-print book called Bookmaking. I read it diligently, and learned everything I needed to know to explain myself to a designer. My aptitude then exceeded that of the designer I hired. This only became clear to me after I owed the designer one thousand dollars.

Caveat to sin #3: You cannot edit your own work. Hire an editor, preferably one with credentials. The more critical your editor can be, the better — you will almost certainly need to throw parts of your book away before you go to print.

Sin #4: Skepticism

Trust no one. I put a lot of stock into the words of the self-made self-publishing guru, Dan Poynter. Don’t get me wrong — his book does give a lot of good advice. But maintain a healthy sense of skepticism. In The Self-Publishing Manual, Poynter advises us to accept the lowest printing bid we receive, because all digital printers are the same. The lowest bid on my contract was made by some dude with a cell phone in Miami. He wouldn’t reliably return calls. That company’s bid was 50% cheaper than all the others. I’d have been insane to take it.

Instead I took the second lowest-bid, with a company that had a reliable-looking web site. They maintained this clever facade until they went out of business and ran off with (yet another) thousand dollars of my meager publishing budget. Thankfully, I paid with a credit card. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this article, PAY FOR EVERYTHING WITH A CREDIT CARD.

The third publisher I considered was Fidlar/Doubleday. If Doubleday goes out of business, we’re pretty much in the midst of some sort of book apocalypse. Incidentally, their quality is noticeably higher than that demonstrated by the proofs I received from the no-longer-extant printer. All digital printers are not the same, it turns out. All three of these printers were recommended in Poynter’s book.

Sin #5: Betrayal

Don’t trust anyone you hire for production, either (even friends). No one cares about your book as much as you do. Double-check everything, including less obvious items such as:

  • Submitted image resolutions (600 dpi for B+W line drawings)
  • Color formats for cover graphics (CMYK for printing — no RGB graphics should ever be delivered to a printer)
  • Integrity of apostrophes, italics, and special characters
  • Index page numbers

I found errors in each of these areas, in some cases not until I had a proof or even a “finished” book in my hand. Sometimes the errors would be fixed in one draft, then reappear in the next. I eventually made a list of things that had gone afoul and checked it every time I saw a new revision.

Sin #6: Audacity

Once you set yourself on self-publishing, follow through. You will eventually (and if you’ve followed my advice, with very little financial investment) generate a set of files that you can easily turn into tangible fruits of your labor. Even if you decide not to print thousands of copies and invest big money on marketing, you will still have a book to show.

At this point, if you still want to self-publish, I have to assume that you can’t be stopped. You are either a masochist or hell-bent on doing it yourself. In that case, prepare yourself for the frustrations, and the ultimate satisfaction, of becoming a self-made author. Good luck!

Ken Vollmer ( is the author of the self-published backpacker bible, The Wanderlust Survival Guide: Tips and Tales for World Travel and a contributor to Travelers’ Tales’ Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why. While he’s not traveling, he’s generally ranting at