I read a tweet that said Penelope Trunk was giving away her latest book on Kindle free for 24 hours.  Being the Kindle-addict that I am, I rushed over to see what the hubbub was about.

First I read this post:


In it, Penelope tells the story of how she got a big advance but basically walked away from a book deal in order to self publish, because they were so clueless about online marketing, she figured she could do better on her own.  If you do the math on most book contracts, authors are only making about $1-$3 per sale (depending on whether it’s hardcover, ebook or paperback) and if you self publish, especially as an ebook, then you really take home much more that — essentially everything over the cost of editing and self-publishing.

My initial thought?  Right on!

I was a little surprised that she could walk away WITH her advance, but maybe she didn’t.  Anyway, I went over to Amazon to find the book.

Found it.  (It’s here.)

At the time there were two reviews.  Both negative.  This is what they said:

“At less than 50 pages long, The New American Dream barely touches on what could have been a compelling premise. […]”

“Overall, an interesting book but would echo that it is really just a blueprint and not a full set of plans.”

I didn’t even bother downloading it for free.

Wait, so Penelope Trunk had a book deal and THREE MONTHS before publication (and I quote from her blog post: “Three months before the publication date, the PR department called me up to “coordinate our efforts.””) she had a falling out with her publisher and decided to self-publish?

I’m following up to the point where I ask myself, wait, which major publisher was going to do a hard copy version of a 50 page book?  (Her first book, The Brazen Careerist, was 200 pages).  Then I learn today, after checking to see only ONE MORE REVIEW in the days since she gave it away that said:

“This “book” is a complete joke. It’s sloppily laid out. The copy looks like it’s for a blind person, there are no page numbers, and worst of all there are numerous links (underlined words that were obviously links in your blog)! Now please tell me what the heck I’m supposed to do with a link in a hard copy book?”  It goes on.

She’s linking to other work on her blog, which is fine for an ebook.  But to say this was a book at a major publisher three months before publication (wouldn’t they have edited it before then?) that she ended up self-publishing I have a really hard time believing.  I think she didn’t finish the book, blamed the publisher, wiggled out of her contract and tried to pass this off as a victory for self publishing.

Here’s the crazy thing, when that didn’t work, when her sales were low, she didn’t get feedback from anyone (or at least anyone who will be honest with her) on what wasn’t working.  Instead she threw some more marketing at it.  Which worked!

She got me to her Amazon page so I could personally see that she messed up, the book is a disaster and that she’s full-of-shit.

Given that she has only one new review, I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one.

The big take aways:

1.  We all screw up, but you have to know when to stop.  Maybe she didn’t want to get into the whole backstory on not finishing the book, and I can understand that.  I think her messaging was WAY off to call out the publisher when it’s easy for people to see the quality/length of the end product and make their own assumptions.  SHE KNOWS it’s a 50 page ebook, not a full book.  (Unless she’s delusional.  Who knows?)  But she got her message wrong because she pumped up what she did too much and the book doesn’t deliver.  OKAY.  CRAP.  WELL THAT SUCKS.  What do we do now?  We don’t send more people to that page!  We don’t keep pushing it!  We get real, own it and move on.

2.  She needs feedback from someone else. Whoever is giving it to her now, is not doing a good job.  The way I can tell if I’m getting good feedback (when I ask for it) is that it makes me angry.  If I’m happy after reading a critique from a peer, then they have just made my day, but it won’t help my work.  It’s completely useless.  If I’m seething and hurt and a little angry, that’s a good thing — and they are probably right.  If anyone one of my friends asked if their 50 page ebook was good enough, I would definitely ask them about the length.  Especially if they were pitching it as a full length book.

3.  Content, in the end, is still king.  It doesn’t matter if she has 200+ comments on every post on her blog, she couldn’t transform that massive popularity and traffic into even ONE positive review on Amazon.

4.  While self-publishing is awesome, publisher bashing isn’t.  Maybe a traditional publishing deal isn’t right for every author or every book and yes, obviously people with a large platform, like Penelope, might not even need them.  But there are also good reasons for going that route, like getting a reality check — Penelope’s foray into self-publishing actually demonstrates how publishing houses sometimes save us from ourselves (if you read the comments on her blog post, you’ll see even more feedback to this effect, for example, that a good publisher would have changed the title, the book cover, etc for better messaging).  In fact if you compare the results of her first published book (from 2007) and this one, she has 44 more comments, a higher review score, and better blurbs.  It’s one thing to self-publish, it’s another thing to rally the “publishers are idiots” battle-cry, especially if you can’t deliver.

Anyway, don’t be like P.T.  Get feedback from people you trust, and make sure you haven’t lost your mind before you do something absolutely bizarre.

Update: Found this post claiming that an industry insider says the original book deal was for a 300 page book.

Update 2: The original book is still listed on Amazon UK.  It’s called “Slave to Happiness: Why Having an Interesting Life is the New American Dream” published by Que (as the update above said, so that’s confirmed) and listed as a 192 page hard cover.  How that turns into a 50 page ebook isn’t exactly clear.  (BTW, there are posts on a number of forum/website posts about this, but the two mainstream articles about her book on Forbes and Techcrunch both failed to mention the book’s crazy short length.)