Self-publishing a book is growing more and more common these days. It may in fact be the only way new authors can get published.There are lots of reasons for that. Commercial publishers are pulling back on the number of books they are publishing. They are less willing to take risks on new authors. In fact, increasingly they are looking to successful self-published authors rather than first-time authors who approach them.Technology also makes it more attractive to self-publish. No longer do authors have to order thousands of books upfront, just to be published. (Requiring a huge minimum order is a red flag that you’re dealing with the kind of company you want to avoid.) “Print on demand” technology means the book does not need to be printed until it’s actually sold. An author’s upfront costs need not be astonomical, nor do authors need to be stuck with a garage full of books they may or may not sell. (Publishers themselves are using POD technology for the same reasons.)Given these realities, self-publishing can make a lot of sense, especially for first-time authors.However, self-publishing is full of potential traps.If you’ve ever done a search on Google for ‘self-publishing companies,” it gets even more confusing. The top search results are from self-publishers themselves, who of course will attempt to woo would-be authors with glowing promises. Many make it sound as if they offer the services similar to traditional publishers, when nothing is further from the truth.Into this mix comes a welcome book by Mark Levine, The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies–Analyzed, Ranked and Exposed.Now about to be released in its Third Edition, the book does authors a great service in ranking some of the most popular self-publishing companies, exhaustively going into the finer points of each company’s contracts and ranking them in terms of how author-friendly their terms really are.In a recent interview with Mark, we discussed the five biggest mistakes authors make when looking into a self-publishing company.Mistake #1: Not knowing who the book is really for. As a book publishing consultant, I can’t tell you how many times people say, “My book is for everyone.” It may be, but “everyone” is simply too big a category.Think about your own book-buying habits. What persuades you to buy a book? Aside from the number 1 persuader–a recommendation from a trusted source–don’t you go by which author appears to solve the particular problem you have? If you had a self-help book you wanted to publish, would you be more likely to buy a book called “How to Successfully Publish Your Book” or “How to Successfully Publish Your Self-Help Book”? You might argue that the first title would appeal to every author who wants to self-publish a book, but in fact, a more targeted title and book will outsell the more generally targeted book.Whether you self-publish or go with a traditional publisher, knowing your audience is key. A commercial publisher won’t even consider you if you don’t have a clear, demonstrated audience for your book. However, when you self-publish, you are free to write an unmarketable book. Nobody will stop you. You’ll just be stuck with a garage full of unsalable books.Mistake #2: Unrealistic expectations as to how many books you really can sell. Yes, all authors want to be the next big blockbuster phenomenon, but unrealistic expectations could make you vulnerable to spending too much money, especially in cases when you pay less per book if you order large quantities. So what if you pay $5.60 per book for 1000 books instead of $7.80 for 500? You’re still out $5600 instead of $3900, and now you have to figure out how to store and sell 500 extra books.Mark Levine says of his own expectations, “I’m happy if I can go out to dinner at a really nice restaurant once a month on the royalties for my book.” A book can be a lot of things: a means of commanding higher speaking or consulting fees, an introduction to your knowledge that you can sell in other, more profitable ways. But in itself, a book is not the most profitable way to earn income.Which leads to …Mistake #3: Not expecting to invest in marketing (time or money). In researching for this article, I was surprised at the number of people who warned against self-publishing because “they will not market your book.” As if traditional publishers do. Yes, good ones usually do some kind of launch, but they concentrate their limited marketing dollars on authors they know will sell. Any author needs to accept full responsibility for promoting his or her book.Traditional publishers now demand it. They won’t even consider authors who are not interested in marketing their own book. Self-publishers don’t demand it, of course. Some will offer marketing packages, but be very careful and very clear about what you will actually get for your investment. But do expect to invest something–if not money, then “sweat equity” in terms of getting the word out.Mistake #4: Not getting your book professionally edited and designed. Personally, the biggest giveaway to me that a book is self-published is the interior design. Amateurish artwork, sloppy layout (especially in terms of narrow margins), and unproofed copy will kill sales. A retailer (bookstore pro) can usually spot such a book and will reject it. A potential reader may not be able to put a finger on exactly why a book doesn’t appeal, but an unprofessional-looking book will be passed over.You simply cannot skimp here. Get professional editors (a content editor and a copy editor–they are two separate things) to edit you. And a professional book designer to design the exterior and interior of your book. Make sure these people work with books, not other products.Mistake #5: Getting published by the wrong publisher. There are good publishing companies with fair terms–and quite the opposite. The biggest way publishers gouge authors is in the printing markup, Mark Levine says. “Anything more than 15 percent markup on printing is simply not acceptable, unless you know what it is for and don’t mind paying more than you should.’To find a good publishing company, do your homework well. Don’t be afraid to ask the publisher tough questions (this is how Mark Levine researched his book). Ask other authors their experiences, but be aware that they themselves may not have known there’s a better way than what they chose. Self-publishing can be a wonderful way to get your message into the world–or a sinkhole of time and money with disappointing results. With eyes wide open and the right knowledge, you can make your dream of becoming a published author come true.