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This is part one of an ongoing series in which I identify key skills and aptitudes which I have found necessary in order to have the best chance of succeeding as a self publisher or indie micro publisher. These articles are based on both my professional training as an author, editor and commercial artist, and my experiences in the industry, running my company for the last 5 years. They are not intended to refer to any particular individual without permission, and are merely my opinion. Please read lots of opinions and only use mine if they resonate with you.

I really believe in the power of indie authors to be great, and carve out a place of respect for themselves in the market and among their peers. But, to do that, we all must engage in a process of continuous self-improvement and learning about quality and industry best practices. I am still in this process myself, but I would also like to reach out and help those newer to the community. The better you do, the better we all do. It’s time to raise the standard and earn respect for everyone!

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

These are old sayings, but they point at something intrinsic to human psychology that wise people have always known is there. Wisdom is self critical, and yet inexperience is bold and brash.

It wasn’t until 1999 that psychological science was able to put a name to this phenomenon, and proactively measure the ways in which the inexperienced are blind to their own failings. Two scientists, named Dunning and Kruger, conducted a series of experiments which measured people’s performance on different types of tests versus their estimation of their own abilities. The results are well summarized in this wikipedia article.

In brief, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that those who are under-qualified in a particular set of skills are more likely to rate their abilities highly, whereas those who are highly skilled in a given discipline are more likely to under-rate themselves, be critical or their own performance and overestimate the ease of doing what they do. The research implies that although the severity varies, these behaviours are intrinsic blind spots in our psychology, hard-wired into the human brain, and everyone does them at one time or another. It has no correlation to intelligence, but often causes others to perceive the person suffering from it as clueless at best, unintelligent and arrogant at worst. But, this is not true. It’s a failing common to all of us, and it’s possible to break through.

The Dunning-Kruger effect can have many manifestations in the world of indie publishing. In each article of this series, I will compile a list of some common possible problems people may encounter if they have an issue with the skills addressed in the article.

Common Problems of Indie Publishers Exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

1. Over-inflated ideas of where the project will go.

Yes, some authors do hit it big right away, but in my experience, their great luck is also combined with a lot of research, skill and hard work, no matter what. Expect a slow start. The common turn-around time for an arts business of any kind to turn a profit (of any discipline, even if run by experts) is ten years. Expect people to be skeptical of you at first, and to pay your dues and build relationships in the community. Also, you will quickly learn that a huge marketing budget and a lot of flash and branding can’t make up for a shoddy product. Readers are, by and large, some of the best critical thinkers, not to be swayed by window dressing. Resources, especially at first, are almost always better centered on the core product.

2. Stopping at ‘good enough for me’.

Many people suffering from this phenomenon fall into the thinking of ‘I’m an average person, and it’s good enough for me, so it’ll be good enough for other average people.’ Wrong. So wrong. People are learning creatures, and their entire reading lives, they have been taught that traditional publishing standards are what they should look for in a book to read. They do, to rehash an old chestnut, judge a book by its cover. It’s a snap, split-second judgement. Do you really think that any amount of argument or charm on your part is going to change an ingrained, instinctual reaction? Changing those types of assumptions takes time, and colossal societal movement, and I guarantee that it is not in your budget unless you’re a Gates or a Disney.

So, why not take the time to learn industry best practices and make people’s assumptions work for you? It’s much better and more fulfilling than playing the misunderstood starving artist/martyr, I promise.

3. Working with friends when it’s bad for the business.

This is another one that I, unfortunately, have had to learn the hard way. Naturally, you want to think your friends, lovers and relatives are talented, and cool, and give them that big break they’ve been waiting for all these years, or maybe just some good work experience and a reference. And, they’ll usually work for cheap to free! What could be better than that?

A lot of stuff, actually. First of all, I know it would be fun to work with all people you know, and cost is on their side, but the likelihood that you are going to be able to pull the level of people you need in order to be taken seriously from your friend and family pool — from volunteers among your friend and family pool — is exponentially low. You’re sinking a lot of money into this process, or at least a lot of time and heart. Don’t you want to make it work the best it can?

Secondly, you need to think about the potential complications, and whether your personal relationships are worth sacrificing for this. What if someone does a bad job and then either won’t listen or gets angry when you can’t use their work? What if they start getting indignant about all of the work they’re doing for you and think you should start paying them, or paying them more? What if they offer to work for a reference, then don’t perform to your satisfaction, and don’t get the reference? You think it won’t happen now, but people change the agreements they’ve made all the time, and conveniently forget what they signed on for, no matter how up-front you are. Depending on the circumstances, you could get sued, or they may threaten to smear you on the internet to anyone who will listen.

These are all things that can be devastating to your personal relationships, and result in substandard books being put out into the world. Don’t let emotional attachments trip you up. It may seem cold at first, but in the long run it is much kinder and saves a lot of hurt on both sides. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty.

4. An overall sense of being ignored, dismissed, or not taken seriously.

A huge problem with suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect is that often, other people will be too embarrassed or not assertive enough to tell you what is wrong. They will simply ignore you, exclude you, and walk right on by your booth. Just like the clueless guy with his fly undone at the club, very few people, unless they have a very specific personality and relationship to the subject, will step up and address the issue. The people that do stop to help may seem blunt, harsh, and a tad on the rude side. Chances are that if they are assertive enough to break the taboo, these things are true of them, and that can cause barriers to improvement because it is easy to get indignant. But, they are actually giving you a great gift, and you must learn to treat it as such.

Many indie authors encounter resistance, questioning, and even outright hostility from some people when they do their first few events. It is not necessarily a quality indicator if you meet one or two genuinely rude people. But, if you sell less than perhaps ten books per show, if people seem to be glossing right over you when they walk by, or treating you with open disdain or dismissal, it might be that your product is obviously inferior and people are embarrassed for you. If you get an overall sense of dismissal from people and it’s hard to pinpoint why, your answer most likely lies with the Dunning-Kruger effect. Your work looks okay to you, but it is far from meeting industry standards in some key way. You need to dig down and figure out what the problem (or problems) are.

So, we’ve identified a key problem facing indie publishers today, and identified some of the ways it can manifest in our business practices and attitudes. But, how do we ditch the Dunning-Kruger effect? The short answer: learning and patience. In part two of this blog, I’ll give you my tips for breaking down false images of your work and building attitudes that lead to more accurate self-assessment.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and found it helpful! Feel free to ask for some solicited indie advice in the comments section, or to weigh in on my strategy!