The real(ly ridiculous) cost of self-publishing

Okay, even I can come up with a fistful of ones.
Okay, even I can come up with a fistful of ones.

Forgive me, Miss Manners, but I think it’s time to talk about cash.  It may be polite to tiptoe around the subject, but I know all too well that authors, or aspiring authors, or people who think maybe they might want to be authors if they could ever afford to retire, tend to be a little short on that particular commodity.  Traditional publishing takes its cut out of each book sold, of course, but the self-publishing world requires more of an up-front investment.  But how much?  And how much is too much?  Everyone seems to have a different answer to those questions, but let’s see if we can parse it through.

What are the costs involved?

Let’s say your only real skill is writing a book.  You’re hopeless with computers, you think vermilion is a new perfume by Guess, and your idea of editing is to shake the coffee cake crumbs out of your manuscript before giving it to the guy sitting next to you on the train to read through.  Clearly, you’re going to need a bit of professional help.

You’ll need an editor and/or a copy editor, and yes, there is a difference.  Copy editors fix typos.  Editors fix everything else.  If you’re unsure about the structure, pacing, or mechanics of your book, it might be worth the investment.  Estimates for developmental editing range from $2500 to $18000, depending on the length of your book and the work that’s needed.  Copy editors can run from $850 to about $7000.

Additional costs include a cover designer, for those of you who are artistically challenged for anywhere between $100 and $3500, someone to format your manuscript for print or electronic distribution, which might slap on an extra grand, and of course you need to pay for those all-important reviews, hire a PR wizard, and buy a big bottle of scotch because you’ve just spent $30,000 publishing a book all about how to keep to your household budget.

How can I avoid them?

Yeah.  Hold up.  That’s really not happening, is it?  The chances of recouping even a fraction of that investment are low.  I mean, really low.  Especially if you’re writing a novel, work in a competitive subject area, or have no established audience waiting to hang on your every word.  It’s suicidal.  I read this article about one author’s expenses and almost laughed pizza out my nose.

So how can you carve off some of those costs without taking out a second mortgage?  A couple of ways.  You could develop the skills you need to do some of the more basic technical work (CreateSpace and other self-publishing houses offer formatting templates that really do work), take a Photoshop class at your local adult education center to work on a simple, elegant cover, and forget about paying for canned book reviews, faux PR packages, and anything else that offers miraculous publicity and phenomenal returns if you just sign over your first born son.

You can also barter.  Got a degree in graphic design but can’t seem to keep the typos at bay?  Swap some cover art with someone experienced in line editing.  Feel helpless when it comes to promotion?  Partner up with other authors for guest posts and mutual promotion, check out some of the millions of blogs that offer free book reviews, and get active in social media.

I’ve probably spent a few hundred bucks on things like ISBNs, proofs, book reviewer copies, and contest entry fees.  I bought a Kindle, got business cards, and paid for my website.  I’ve made a little more than $200 back in the past year and a half.  Is it much?  Nope.  Technically, I’m probably still operating at a loss.  Is it better than being $20,000 in the hole because I fell for one of those scammy publishing packages?  Yup.

Should I really avoid them?

But you have to ask yourself a third question.  What should I spend money on?  Some spending is simply a necessary evil.  Cover art is a huge one.  Most people aren’t quite as savvy with the visuals as they think, and spending $150 on a few minutes of a professional’s time could really boost your sales.  Copy editing is another.  I’ve been called out on more typos than I can count, even though I pride myself on my accuracy and thoroughness when it comes to editing.  An experienced line editor will see your work with fresh eyes and really make your work seem more professional.  Entering contests with entry fees (after you establish their legitimacy) might be a gamble, but the returns can be massive.

Those are the expenses to consider carefully.  It’s hard to make money in this business, and you don’t want to start throwing good money after bad.  There are tons and tons and tons of free resources and free tools out there to get you on your way, so you can keep the tales of debtors’ prison in your historical novel instead of your autobiography.

Care to share your spending?  Leave a comment below.

8 Replies to “The real(ly ridiculous) cost of self-publishing”

  1. Publishing, no matter how you look at it, is a business, and money has to go into it. I could afford cover artists but not editors, which was my impetus for going the traditional route via small presses. I don’t mind their taking their cut of the sales since they provide editing help (as well as connections to different distributors and reviewers I can’t approach as an individual author), which is something I simply can’t do on my own.

    This is also a marathon, not a sprint (to quote other publishing gurus), and the long tail theory works for anyone outside the sacred clique of New York bestsellers. Those who expect too much by way of returns right off the bat are setting themselves up for some major disappointment.

  2. A bit lavish on some of your estimates for covers and editing, but otherwise, a good article. (I think the average cost I’ve seen for copy editing a novel is around $1000).

    Beware the $5 and $20 easy book covers.

  3. Yep editing and book covers should be the author’s two major investments. Also with marketing, yeah you can hire a saavy PR, or if the author has the time — do it yourself. And alot of authors aren’t sitting at home, they have 9 to 5 jobs, so they can’t really do alot of PR. I think some folks write a book and put it up on the internet expecting it to sell on its own.

  4. Great post, Jen! Surprised I just found your site today 🙂

    “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We all judge books by their cover. Books are usually bought because the cover engaged a browsing shopper enough to get them to peak inside. So when you’re thinking of how to design your own cover make sure it provides a lot of context immediately. Within a half second it should plant a seed in my mind about what’s possibly inside. You can get really creative with this. For no-name authors a well designed book cover can be the bridge between a strong launch strategy and the ‘buy now’ button.

  5. Jennifer, I first want to say, I ordered your book when Shelf media advertised it to help your sales and I m very glad I did! I love Tev! I was rooting for him the whole story, I really loved the friendship with Lerien and all his challenges. It was a great story.
    I self published with iUniverse and purchased a package which did not include an editor, cause I thought I could do this myself. Wrong! I missed about 10 errors and paid $350 to correct & republish the book. I paid my editor about $250, but my book was only 188 pages. She charged by the page. iUniverse was my publisher, but really they didn’t want to help me make money, they wanted to make me spend money by offering $2000 and $3000 marketing packages I felt I could do without them. I have done so many things, but still have no sales. It is exhausting!!! I am ready to hire a Market Rep because as you said, I also have a 9-5 job. I believe in my book and know its good. I ordered 100 of my own books and have mailed them out to friends and family and others. That cost me about $400. I put my book in the LA times book fesitval for like $600 to sit on a shelf for three days with 400 other books all weekend. This DID NOT increase my sales at all!!! I wasn’t happy I did that. I could have reserved an authors booth for $2000 with iUniverse, but just could not put out that kind of money.
    Writing a book is rewarding, but as you say, Don’t expect to make any money for a long while! I still am glad I did it and love the story. I just entered my book in this year’s contest with Shelf Media. “On the Edge of Wishing”
    Thanks so much for your blog, it was great to read!

  6. i disagree that you won’t make money for a while. if you launch the book with a proper launch strategy you should make the most money on the release date and in the first week.

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