Self-Publishing Success Stories: 7 Secrets Guys Will Never Tell You

One of the great things about my job is that I get to work with decision-makers and experts in a variety of fields, people who make a positive difference in the lives of others or who are on their way to becoming influential. Jackie Brewton is one of those accomplished people—she is the go-to person for people and institutions who need a motivational speaker and teen relationship expert.

If you’re a teen or a parent of teens like me, her book, 7 Secrets Guys Will Never Tell You: A Teen Girl’s Guide on Love, Sex, and Relationships has obvious value.

2-color book design, book cover design, self-publishing
Copies of 7 Secrets Guys Will Never Tell You at the book launch.

When I got the call from Jackie, she had already worked with a designer on the cover, but the production values were lacking. This seems to be happening to a lot of authors. In the last two years, I have seen an increase in calls from people who have hired designers who, it turns out, could not complete the project in a satisfactory way or who have simply gone missing before the job was finished.

From my perspective, Jackie is obviously an accomplished person with a personal brand that matters. My advice was to take the project to a higher level. This process would involve three things: first, refine the cover concept and give it higher production values. Second, add value to the book with a page design that would be reader-friendly, communicate the book’s central concept, and be visually appealing to her audience. Thirdly, use an enhanced print strategy.

To communicate the book’s subject matter—seven secrets about teen relationships and sexuality—I developed a graphic for the cover that combines DNA with heart symbols and numbers in a formulas design. The seven appears to peels back to reveal this formula (the peel-back illusion was part of the original design concept).

2-color book design, cover design, self-publishing
Cover graphic for 7 Secrets Guys Will Never Tell You: A Teen Girl’s Guide on Love, Sex, and Relationships.

In the interior page design, the up-right and inverted hearts were incorporated into the running heads. Rather than have pages filled with nothing more than a long stream of text, design features are added to enhance the page layouts. Pull quotes are added to help draw the reader into the explanations. Design elements are used to make the different information categories in the book stand out—dialogues, statistics, special features, and tables with comparisons. These features are made to stand out by adding a second spot color in the print process.

Chapter opener design, self-publishing
Done right, design adds value. Even if a book is just text and no photos, the design strategy can still make it visually interesting and reader-friendly. Two-color chapter opener design for 7 Secrets Guys Will Never Tell You.

“I can’t tell you how many people have commented on the wonderful job that you did with the design. I’m very pleased with how it turned out. THANK YOU again!” —Jackie Brewton

Always do the math.

Print-on-demand (POD) has revolutionized self-publishing. But is it the best choice? It allows authors to avoid large upfront print costs and simply order books one at a time. This sounds great, and there are some situations when it is a good option. What most self-publishing authors fail to recognize is that the unit price is too high to be competitive and the print options are so limited that the books simply fail to impress buyers who have better options. Offset printing provides more options—better printing at lower costs. This is one of the reasons POD books are rarely stocked in bookstores and professional publishers rarely use the method.

Even though Jackie had a book that could easily be printed POD as a black and white book (it had only texts and graphics—no photos), she could add value to her book by using offset printing instead. That would allow her add another color to enhance the interior and add special effects to the cover, such as a spot varnish, foil, or embossing—options that are simply not available in POD. What’s more, doing her book in B&W using POD would have cost more! For a book that size, the POD unit costs is around $3.40–3.50, or $9.20 with shipping and handling. For example, 1500 copies in POD, with shipping, would be around $5300. By comparison, the same book with 2-color printing and special effects would be around $2.59, or $3885 for 1500 with shipping (36% less). Also, the offset print unit price drops as the print quantities go up.

With lower costs and higher quality her book would stand apart as superior even to other professionally published books in her category which are only back and white. Publishing is very competitive. But done right, the results can be amazing. Only a few months after the books came out, I received a kind letter from Jackie with photos of her book launch and the news that she had orders that already exceeded 3000 books:

“Hi Michael, I hope you’re doing well! I thought about you today and wanted to give you an update on the progress of the book. I’m attaching this link with pictures from my book launch as well as a picture from one of my book signing events. I’ve also attached a picture with my high school English teacher that I mention in the Acknowledgements… I’ve received two large orders from agencies, totaling over 3,000 copies…”

That’s definitely the kind of update I like receiving.

2-color book design, page design, self-publishing
Jackie Brewton at her book launch.


Book design, book launch, self-publishing
Jackie Brewton at her book launch with her high school English teacher.

It would not surprise me if she sold 100,000 or more copies of this book.

Bear in mind that even a small quantity of 3000 copies is close to $48,000 in direct sales or $28,800 at 40% wholesale. The upfront investment necessary to create a professional product pays off.

Jackie’s mission, of course, is about more than book sales. She wants to have a positive influence in the lives of teens, and the success of her book means she can reach a much larger audience.

It’s fine to self-publish, but you still have to compete with publishers who have respected brands, expertise, and experience. To succeed you need a strategy to make your book stand out in its category. Do a good job developing your content and work with book professionals who follow publishing best practices. That way, you’ll create a book that book buyers and reviewers will recognize as a quality product.

“Almost everyone who sees the book comments on how good the cover and interior look. I participated in an Indie Author Book Fair in Athens, GA and met an editor and a graphic/book designer. They both remarked about the great job that you did. Thanks again for making my book look like a traditionally published book. You were definitely a godsend.” —Jackie Brewton

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Book project, Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth

I love self-publishing success stories. Sometimes success comes just by chance and sometimes by thoughtful decisions and a commitment to quality. The book, Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth is the latter case.

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth. Front cover jacket. Under the jacket is an adhesive case with the same cover design and image.

I knew from the start I was working with smart people who had a brilliant idea and a lot of great content. Too often self-publishing authors are thinking “sell globally” on the Internet when, in fact, success is much easier when you start with “sell locally.” If you’re selling a coffee table book that is $32.95, like The Cottages of Lake Worth, direct sales for even a small print run of 3500 books, adds up to $115,325.

As Alex Shephard recently wrote in the New Republic, what sells books is discoverability. “Guiding audiences to a book is the key to successful bookselling. Word-of-mouth buzz can turn a book like The Girl On The Train into a cash cow, as can reviews and other media coverage…” Obviously, Word-of-mouth buzz is much easier to start locally than nationally or globally. That’s good to know, because it can steer many aspects of a book project.

The group behind The Cottages of Lake Worth book project were themselves cottage owners and an award-winning photographer, which is why there are so many excellent photos in the book. The book brings together popular topics that are of interest to audiences everywhere—inspiring cottage photography, garden design ideas, and solutions for living in small spaces. But getting almost instant success comes from having many local advocates, beneficiaries, and stakeholders such as the cottage owners featured in the book, the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, and various supportive individuals and local businesses. There are also many local venues and opportunities for selling the book. So, not surprisingly, I received this email shortly after the book was published:

Hi, Michael—“Can you believe it, we are going for our second printing of our book? On Monday, the board gave a collective thumbs up for more books. . . . We are down to fewer than 150! Thank you again for making our book so, so successful!”

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, page design, book design
Chapter openers feature a custom sun and wave design.

Yes, I could definitely believe it. Their success had nothing to do with Amazon or national bookstores—which they didn’t use to sell the first print run. In fact, it was mostly word-of-mouth marketing and commitment to creating a quality product.

A big part of the book’s success comes from the creators’ decision to go beyond self-publishing. That started with creating their own publisher identity to become an independent publisher. They carried this through, following publisher best practices with the editing, design, branding, printing, and marketing strategy. They were receptive to professional guidance and made decisions guided by marketing ideas that you would expect from an acquisitions editor at an experienced publishing house. The result is a book that anyone would find interesting and enjoyable to look through. Not only does it not look “self-published,” it is easily competitive with the best books in its category.

“. . . it was wonderful that we chose to work with you after receiving a recommendation from mutual friends.  Our book has been a huge success and you are a great part of that success . . . People love it and smile when they look at it.  You were always available to talk to us and guide us through some important decisions . . . AND the book is beautiful, thanks to your design! We could not have asked for more . . . By the way, we are selling so fast that we are depleting our supply of hardbacks . . . We should have listened to you when you wanted us to print more! The Best to You.” —The Cottages of Lake Worth Book Committee

“Well, it seems we ALL did a great job on our book. The public loves it, and they are selling fast.” —Janice Snearer

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book endpapers, spot varnish printing, book design
Flaps with spot vanish and custom endpapers.

Here’s a video that shows the spot varnish effect:

Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Page spread design showing photo, caption, and lizard decorative element.
Publisher logo design, Cottages, Lake Worth, small homes, self-publishing, independent publishing, book design
Publisher logo design created for the Cottager Press

The photographer who created the photos in the book was kind enough to send me this nice endorsement:

“Michael Rohani . . . guided us through the production of the book . . . Without him, we are certain, that our book would not be the successful tribute to Lake Worth and its cottages. His sage advice saved us money and helped us make good decisions to ensure that we produced the most beautiful coffee table book our region has ever seen. In four months, we have sold 80% of our print run. I wish Michael could hear the wonderful comments from those viewing the book. He would hear praiseful words such as “wonderful,” “professional,” “gorgeous” and “spectacular.” We always say, “Well, the best decision we made was hiring Michael.” We appreciated his warm, patient and personal approach through the laborious process of getting our book to print. . . . He completed his tasks quickly and expertly, and our pages reflected his immense talents. We can’t recommend Michael Rohani more highly.”
—Taylor Jones, Photographer for Living Large in Small Spaces: The Cottages of Lake Worth

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