Lessons from MTV on How Not to Self-Publish

Confession time. I watch MTV on occasion. For many years I enjoyed the “True Life” series, because most of the time it was a surprisingly honest documentary series on a variety of topics. Then a few years ago, the subjects’ “confessions” became obviously scripted, and the show quickly devolved into a pseudo-reality show masquerading as a docudrama.

But still, I watch.

A few weeks ago, they aired an episode titled “True Life: I Work with My Ex.” It was generally boring and not worth my time, and I found myself fast forwarding through much of it. That is, until they featured a young guy self-publishing a novel with the help of his ex.

I was riveted. Not because I wanted to know more about self-publishing, but because I was suddenly watching step-by-step instructions on how not to do it. The following are several lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: Publish before you’re ready. An early scene begins with the ex-girlfriend doing page layouts, and the author enters and shows her several pages with entire scenes cut out. They just weren’t working for him, he says. “Good call,” I think. He then proceeds to announce that he just wants to get the thing published so he can start selling it.

Okaaaay …. First, one should not be cutting out large portions of a book mere days before publishing. And second, I don’t think anyone, anywhere rushes publication to get a jump on sales. Like, ever.

Lesson #2: Have a complete and utter lack of marketing prowess. In a later scene, the two ex-lovebirds are shown on a street corner with a stack of flyers. “Do you like to read?” they ask/harass each passerby. “It’s the must read book of 2012,” they proclaim.

Later, to their credit, they are shown entering several bookstores and asking how they can get the book sold in-store. One owner takes the time to outline how important marketing the book on their own is, though something made me think they both thought, “Throw flyers at random strangers? Check!”

Lesson #3: No professional editing. From what I could gather, the only editing of the book was provided by the ex-girlfriend. Later in the episode, after the book has been printed, they are shown meeting with a freelance editor. The editor politely remarks on the author’s potential, though no constructive criticism is shown. I wondered if this scene was fabricated by MTV to fill time, as getting an editor’s feedback after publishing would be useless.

In fact, I wanted to believe several scenes were fabricated by MTV to pad the episode – the flyers come to mind – until I found the novel on Amazon. The author bio was rambling and very poorly written, and the sneak peek of the first few pages proved the book was no better. I’ll let the subtitle warn you of the writing inside: “A Story About Chaotic Harmony.”

The Amazon page was where I also discovered Lesson #4: If you don’t have real customer reviews, fabricate your own ridiculously glowing ones. The book
currently sports five 5-star reviews, and the “self-reviewing” is glaringly obvious. Some snippets:

“your words spoke to my dreams. and also my fantasies.”
“Hands down the most entertaining book I’ve read in ages. WOW, when does book two come out!?!? I can’t wait!”

Then, after several people left comments observing that all the reviewers had only ever written a review for that one book, the latest 5-star review made a point of explaining why they’d never written a review before.

Lesson #5 is my own conjecture: If your book can’t sell on its own, hatch a plan to market it on reality TV. The episode was supposed to feature exes working together, but something about this couple struck me as off. At the end of the hour they were back together and working on his second novel. I can’t help but wonder if they were together all along, and thought exposure on national television was the best way to market the book. Whatever their reason for appearing, I appreciated the resulting lesson on how not to self-publish.

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