by Savannah Cordova
“Failures are just learning opportunities that have presented themselves successfully.” If you’ve come across that sentiment before, it’s probably because there are countless quotes from numerous successful people about the value of making mistakes. If you’ve read a few self-help books or follow any motivational influencers in Instagram, it may even seem a little trite.
But the reason this idea is so pervasive is because it’s true — especially when it comes to writing and publishing a book! Around every turn is another possible mistake, but that’s okay, because those are also chances to get better and better at conquering this process.
That said, if you’re just embarking on your publishing journey, you’re probably hoping not to make too many mistakes. In which case, you might find this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt more helpful: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Luckily, Ms. Roosevelt’s advice is the essential thesis of this post. Here are five common mistakes first-time authors make, so you can take them out with a preemptive strike!
1. Writing mistake: head-hopping
Head-hopping is when a story being told from the viewpoint of one character suddenly changes to the viewpoint of another character — typically multiple times in a given section. This disorients the reader and makes it much harder for them to bond with the main character, which is critical to maintaining their interest. Needless to say, head-hopping is something to avoid at all costs.
What if your story is meant to be told from multiple perspectives? That’s okay! Just don’t jump abruptly from character to character. For instance, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is told from the perspectives of several descendants of one family — but each character’s perspective is clearly distinguished by chapter breaks and slightly different voices. This is a common technique in novels with multiple characters, and very effective so long as the reader doesn’t get confused.
What if you are writing in third-person omniscient — the point-of-view that allows the narrators to know the thoughts and actions of all characters at all times? Well, technically it’s not wrong to head-hop in third person omniscient, since this style is supposed to alternate among characters. However, it can still be jarring if you write from the perspective of multiple characters within the same scene, so again, try to steer clear of rapid transitions.
Indeed, unless your story absolutely calls for it and/or is experimental in some way, it’s best to stick to one perspective at a time. You can always clue readers into the thoughts and feelings of non-POV characters in other ways, like describing the expressions on their face, or through dialogue with the main character(s).
2. Editing mistake: revising as you write
Lisa Lepki, editor of the ProWritingAid blog, has said: “The creative part of your brain — in charge of imagining your scenes, conceiving your characters and telling your story — is very different from the part of your brain you use to edit. Going back and forth between the two of them causes you to lose momentum — a key reason why many writers never finish their book.”
In other words, trying to edit as you write is a bit like head-hopping between your storyteller and editor selves. You’re bound to lose your connection with the task at hand and end up lost. As a result, editing as you write can ironically make your prose worse, because you’ll break the “flow” state that leads to great writing and diminish your focus overall.
So if you have a nagging “editor’s voice” that insists on perfection before moving forward, do your best to shut it down — otherwise, you won’t get anywhere! And if that doesn’t convince you, think about it this way: it’s better to have a finished but imperfect book at the end of the day than no book at all.
3. Design mistake: a book cover that doesn’t drop clues
Another huge mistake first-time authors make is using a cover that doesn’t convey their book to its target audience. What’s an example of a book that does this well? Hear me out: Twilight is actually a great demonstration of effective cover design.
As most of you probably know, the cover of the first book in the Twilight series features pale hands holding a red apple, set against a black backdrop. Now, we all realize that Stephenie Meyer’s series has nothing to do with apples — and a plain old picture of an apple would be incredibly misleading.
This cover works, however, because it gives potential readers a hint as to its genre and themes. The pale hands against the dark background creates an edgy, gothic vibe. The font of the word “Twilight” is intricately curled, which is a common aesthetic for fantasy titles. And then there’s the apple, which (in Meyer’s own words) represents “forbidden fruit.”
In fact, there are no vampires on the covers of ANY of the Twilight novels, presumably because that would be way too on-the-nose. Instead, each cover design provides subtle clues about its themes while also leveraging genre-specific trends — just one of the things you should aim to accomplish in your own cover design.
4. Marketing mistake: marketing to everyone
“My book is for people who like fantasy.”
“Anyone who likes Victorian fiction will be into my novel.”
“Teenagers will love my book.”
Just a few examples of people who don’t know how to market. This kind of mindset is one of the most common marketing mistakes among all authors, not just first-timers. Defining your audience is not just about narrowing it down from “everyone” to a single age range or genre, because you’re still targeting too many people — prioritizing quantity over quality.
Listing a book simply as “fantasy” on Amazon throws it into a pile of thousands and thousands of other books, making it that much harder for readers to find you. Likewise, posting a Facebook ad targeted at “fantasy readers” casts a net so wide that all the fish have already escaped by the time you reel it in.
So instead of trying to market to everyone, focus on the group of people for whom you’ve really written your book. For example: young adult readers who enjoy historical fantasy with strong female leads. Now we’re talking! Targeting this smaller niche allows you to directly reach the readers who are looking for exactly what your book offers, and who will likely become loyal fans. (For more tips on finding your target audience, check out this post by Ashlee McNicol.)
5. Promotion mistake: overlooking the power of free
It’s no secret that everyone loves free things. Anyone who’s been to Costco and walked by a sample station will know how crowds clamor to get their hands on free goodies.
And while “clamoring” might be a bit of a stretch when it comes to free indie books, readers are far more likely to take a chance on an unknown author if they can try out a book for free first. While you might be reluctant to go this route, giving away your book for free definitely isn’t a “loss.” Because if that reader you attracted with a giveaway enjoys your work and becomes a fan — someone who will either talk about your book or buy one of your other books (or both!) — then your small investment ends up generating a much bigger profit.
One last hot tip for running your book promotion: check out how the top indie authors in your genre go about it. Do they give away free books as mailing list magnets? Do they make the first book in a series permanently free? Do they run frequent free promos? Clearly, those tactics are working for them, and you should try to do the same. Because what Eleanor Roosevelt once said about mistakes also applies to victories: learn from those who have succeeded, and you can’t lose.
Guest post contributed by Savannah Cordova. Savannah is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She’s very interested in the publishing industry and where it’s headed. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.