Making Lemonade Out of Self-Publishing Lemons

Although many authors who decide on self-publishing (whether they choose true self-publishing, in which the author handles editing, design, printing, etc. him/herself, or one of the print-on-demand self-publishing services) don’t know it, it is extremely difficult to sell self-published books. Despite the periodic news stories about self-publishing successes, the average book from a self-publishing service sells fewer than 200 copies (see the Sales Statistics section of the Print on Demand page of the Writer Beware website). This is why success makes news if it happens: it’s rare.

Here’s a unique take on this problem. “Is Sara, the Pineapple Cat the most unsuccessful book series in publishing history?” asks this press release.

Have you ever heard of Sara, the Pineapple Cat? No? Well, that does not come as a big surprise to the publisher…Because sales have been so non-existent, the publisher is considering contacting the Guiness [sic] World Records people to see if there is a “Most Unsuccessful Book Series in Publishing History” category. But that would probably make Sara just famous enough not to qualify for Guiness [sic] World Records…Sara cannot be found lying around the shelves of your local bookstores, but go to and search for Sara, the Pineapple Cat and you will find her.

The Sara series consists of five books, each created by a different author-illustrator team, all printed by self-pub service CreateSpace. The series’ owner, David Olin Tullis, has trademarked Sara–a gesture of hope that, it appears, has not borne fruit.

Mr. Tullis definitely gets props for an original publicity angle. But given that press releases are among the least effective of all book marketing strategies, I don’t see a change in Sara’s future. Poor Sara.


  1. Do you know anything about Lumina Press? I think my friend said that they were print on demand but that she had to buy $500 worth of books on the first printing. I think there were some other fees to get a Library of Congress number but I’m not sure. She had to do all promotion herself. In the end, she lost money. I’ve always felt Lumina took advantage of her naivete about the publishing industry. I noticed that Amazon still has a book page for it even though it has been out of print for years. How is that possible? To my knowledge, she has never gotten any money from the book.

  2. Stop saying pubbed, pub

    Anon, I use these short cuts all the time and it has nothing to do with being published, not being published, “showing off”, it has to do more with writing it day after day after day after….
    I answer I don’t know how many emails from hopefuls asking for advice. Eventually, you par life down, other wise you wouldn’t have the time to reply AND work.
    If something like this bothers you, you need to step back and figure out what, in life, is important. This IS the business, in any business, you get to know the language, you use it and no, it’s not in any dictionary!

    Ellen, you cracked me up:)

  3. Jamie Hall said,

    When I gave up on it and asked for my rights back, it had sold just under a thousand copies over the course of three years. Not enough to ever interest a real publisher.

    But way above the average for a self-pubbed (there, I said it) book.

    Marketing the Muse said,

    Self publishing is hard but cream does rise.

    I’d say rather that cream may rise. That’s true in commercial publishing as well–good stuff often rises but often doesn’t. With self-publishing, the many challenges–no real distribution, for instance–make the odds of rising way, way smaller.

    Paul Maurice Martin said,

    How much if any difference would a forward from a bestselling author in one’s field make to a self-published book’s chances A) in terms of re-approaching trade publishers and B) one’s own marketing efforts – for example, being able to mention in an ad “with a Forward by Famous Author X”?

    It would certainly lend credibility to the self-pubbed book, and possibly make people more likely to buy it if they saw the ad. I imagine reviewers and bloggers might take the book more seriously also. How much benefit you’d realize in terms of sales, though, is an open question, because the challenges around getting visibility for the book wouldn’t change.

    As to marketing to a larger publisher…I honestly don’t know the answer to this. My sense is that with self-pubbed books, the main thing that leverages publisher interest is sales. If the author who did the intro (there, I abbreviated another word) were a really compelling authority in the field, though, it might help. There’s certainly nothing lost by trying.

    Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, I took my meds this morning.

  4. The key to selling self published books is to sell them-period. Sell enough and you’ll get noticed. Should you do that, chances are you have a story overlooked by conventional publishers–they do make mistakes—take those numbers-translated to mean the money you made-to a publishing house. Nothing gets their attention like money does.
    Self publishing is hard but cream does rise.

  5. My own book, self published in the true sense that you describe, is dead in the water for the usual reasons of lack of resources for marketing/no brick and mortar distribution. Question:

    A prominent author in my field has offered to write a forward. This individual has lots of other commitments, and I’m sure that in the end I’ll be lucky to receive it at all – and that if it happens, it will only be with some further prompting on my part.

    How much if any difference would a forward from a bestselling author in one’s field make to a self-published book’s chances A) in terms of re-approaching trade publishers and B) one’s own marketing efforts – for example, being able to mention in an ad “with a Forward by Famous Author X” – ?

  6. Dear Anonymous,

    How well is that “must make people change to suit me” thing working for you these days?

    Oops, you spilled your gunk all over me!

    We’re adults and need to handle our own annoyance, on or off our meds. With that attitude, your book won’t go on my Staff Recs (har har) and may never even be pubbed (har har har).


  7. My vanity-published book (yes, I will use the v-word!) was consistently in the top 5 or 10 results for that publisher on, but it never sold well.

    When I gave up on it and asked for my rights back, it had sold just under a thousand copies over the course of three years. Not enough to ever interest a real publisher.

  8. Stop saying pubbed, pub, etc. The word is PUBLISHED, PUBLISH. And the use of AHEM by sarcastic know-alls is getting on my nerves.

    Just my two cents. For a blog where people rejoice is writing [sic] whenever possible, these bad habits are extremely annoying.

    Is it really too difficult to write self published instead of self pubbed?

    Yuck! The English language is a treasure that should be valued by writers, not dishonored by such vulgar usage just because people want to make out that they are part of the business. Another irritating word is ‘meds’ instead of medicine or medication.

    If you have time to type [sic] you have time to write ‘published’.

    Let’s maintain decent standards.

    And if you find a typing error (for God’s sake don’t say typo) in my writing, feel free to [sic] it, as long as you don’t say PUBBED.

    Disgruntled Person, Idaho.

  9. No cigar. There are plenty of self-published books that don’t sell a single copy. A record for that is somehting Guinness can’t maintain.

  10. Victoria, I just read an old blog post of yours, “happy Valentines day…” and I am sooo sorry I missed posting on that one. I hate seeing passionate but naive people taken advantage of.

    I wish I had found your blog sooner!:)

  11. This story isn’t just sad-but-true for vanity-pubbed authors. It’s often just as difficult for debut midlist authors pubbed by major houses to get audience/sales. Too often, debut midlist authors got tiny advances, which left their publishers little to no motivation to market/promote their books, which just get dumped in the marketplace with no sales support. Marketing and promotion of even legitimately pubbed midlist books are then left to the author. My agent tells me it is not uncommon for debut midlist authors who get abandoned by their publishers’ marketing departments to sell fewer than 1000 copies of their book. And then it’s even harder for them to get the next deal.

  12. That makes 11 people who have laboured for nothing. On the flip side, they don’t owe any income tax!

    I agree with Ellen and in the case of picture books, most self publishing falls woefully short with the illustration of the book. This is, at least, half of the appeal of the book itself.
    In the case of this particular series, many of them (at least judging a book by it’s cover) have been illustrated very well, not the usual amaturish, childlike pencil crayon, or flourecent digital art seen in self published books.
    Either most self publishers don’t understand the importance of a partnership of good art to good writing or worse, they don’t know the difference:)

  13. One question? Do writers believe traditional publishers flag down audiences?

    Nothing comes easy. Lemons/lemonade can be made from either, which (may) be one issue… believing one to be easier than the other. (Trying to get rich quick?)

    Sub-par writing won’t fly in either market…which unfortunately/fortunately traditional presses can’t catch them all.

    And one Quick plug;-) The Second Tour by Terry Rizzuti/published by Spinetinglers (??)… never heard of the author until I came across him on one of Amazon’s discussion boards. Awesome Read!

  14. Many authors with their sights aimed at a quit-the-day-job career as an author, print-on-demand looks like a hopeless waste of ideas and writing time. How can such an endeavor result in any rewards at all? From that point of view, those people must be delusional.

    The fact is, not all people who write are interested in that kind of career. Some folks are perfectly happy making pizza money. Instead of having faceless thousands as their readership, they have a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, many of whom the author knows personally as a result of the sale.

    They don’t want to spend more time in marketing and promotion than they do in writing. They don’t want to be beholden to a corporation that is expecting the book to make its advance.

    The appeal of buying a print-on-demand book has more to do with the relationship between reader and author than it does having access to exceptionally fine writing.

  15. I agree with Ellen. Much of the problem of self-publishing is the general stigma of sub-par writing attached.

    For those who self-publish (and I’m one) has to be aware of the work involved to sell their book, make sure they write something better than traditional, and to be realistic in that they likely won’t sell thousands of copies.

    For me, I’d be thrilled to sell even 100. Then again, what I did publish isn’t my life’s work. It was more for fun and to learn what’s involved in publishing and marketing.

  16. Don’t you think they might be going for the Guinness Beer award instead??

    As an indie bookseller who has sometimes handled consignments for our store, I can relate, and you’ve inspired me to blog about it myself from the bookseller perspective.

    The problem is usually with the book itself. During the revision phase, the author failed to solicit objective feedback from people outside the flattering circle of friends and family.

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