What Are the Real Costs of Self-Publishing? Wrong Question…

Last week a friend sent me the link to this article: The Real Costs of Self-Publishing a Book. He wanted to know my take on the issue.

The article seems to have gotten the facts right. It is possible to pay zero out-of-pocket cash to produce a book and it is possible to pay thousands.

I’m not overly bothered by the self-serving nature of the article. The author, Miral Sattar, is the founder and CEO of BiblioCrunch, a matchmaking service for authors and publishing professionals. So of course she’s going to focus on how very, very important it is for writers to pay for professional services. No fault there. I think ebook formatting is very, very important, so every article I write on this blog is focused on making ebooks. Professionals in any area of expertise are convinced their specialty is the most important part of any process. I am assuming readers can figure that out and adjust accordingly.

My problem with this article, and many like it, are that they ask the wrong question. I have learned through hard experience that asking the wrong question usually gives you the wrong answer. Even if it’s a good answer, it’ll be wrong.

So here’s the situation: You have a book to publish and you have a budget. You need to know how best to spend your budget to produce a profitable product. The “experts” are the wrong people with which to have this discussion. They can give you facts and figures. But. An editor will tell you, and mean it from the bottom of her heart, that editing is most important. An ebook formatter will tell you formatting is most important. A cover designer will tell you that without a top-notch cover your book is dead on arrival. Marketing and PR will insist that they are the ticket to success. Any of those experts could be right, but they could also be dead wrong.

To know why, you have to understand the reality. Up until the self-publishing boom, it was a rare writer who was making a living from his writing. I can’t recall who said it: “You can get rich writing fiction, but you can’t make a living.” For the longest time that was true. Even best sellers had to work “real” jobs. Even writers who commanded respectable advances weren’t making a living. They might get a $100,000 dollar advance, but that might be their only income from writing for three or four years, and when you factor in taxes and agent commissions, that figure shrinks considerably. Genre fiction writers fared slightly better. Those who were prolific and could consistently please their publisher, could publish multiple titles each year and make a living based on output. (There is a reason best selling writers who make tons of money are news–it’s because they’re rare!)

With self-publishing, more and more writers are making a living. There is a reason for that. Availability.

Here’s the thing, in order to make a living, a writer has to develop a following of readers. Out of that following, a percentage of those readers will not pay for the book. They’ll find books at the library, or borrow from friends, or find them at the used book store. Do not think for a second that the non-paying readers aren’t valuable, because they are extremely valuable. They pay for the book by talking about it. They recommend the book to friends or post a blog or write reviews. They discover favorites amongst the freebies. They will go hunting for other titles by a favorite. This is where self-publishers have the advantage. Their books are available. Traditionally published books often have limited shelf-lives. The only place readers could find back list was in used book stores or the library. Quite often back list titles disappeared altogether. It takes time to build that following. It takes time to produce enough good books to start the snowball of visibility rolling.

Do you see where I am going with this? Maybe one first book in 100,000 will make a noticeable splash, money-wise. It’s a rarity. Quite frankly, those are lottery odds. If you’re a serious self-publisher who intends to make a living from your writing, then you have probably figured out by now that blowing your wad on any individual title is a fool’s game, especially early on. I will go so far to say that depending on where you are in your career, some of the money spent will be a total waste.

Once you have a product in hand (a book is only art when you’re creating it; when you try to get people to pay for it, it’s product), you need a budget. Once you have a budget, you have to allocate those funds. What you need to do is put on your businessperson hat and figure out the best way to use your budget to get the greatest return on your dollar. In order to do that you have to ask the right question:

What do my readers value?

Successful writers, both traditionally published and self-published, are tuned in to what their readers want to read. They are also tuned in to what their readers value.

Take editing for example. If your readers value quantity more than quality, then using a large part of your budget to pay a developmental editor is probably a waste. You can save a lot of money by using beta readers, then use your editing budget for a competent line editor to find your most egregious mistakes. The perversity of publishing is this: The smaller, more exclusive, your intended audience, the more you’ll need to pay for editorial.

What about covers? Do some market research. I popped over to Amazon this morning and did a quick survey (very non-scientific). I looked at the top selling ebooks in science fiction and fantasy. Overall, the covers are VERY good. Very artistic. Most look expensive. What this tells me is that readers value “high-dollar” covers–why, I don’t know, but that’s the surface appearance. On the flip side, I looked at the top sellers in romance. The covers? Not so good. In fact, a large number in the top one hundred are pretty crappy, with the majority being mediocre. What that tells me is that–perhaps!–while romance readers are looking for covers that look like romance covers, they aren’t judging the quality of the story inside by the covers. Do better market research than I just did. While a gorgeous, beautiful cover never hurts (unless it’s not a good fit with the genre), spending more than you need to can hurt your pocketbook and put you in the red longer than is necessary.

What about ebook formatting? Again, do some market research. Download samples from the top selling ebooks that appeal to your readership. You may find that all the readers care about with the ebook is that it works. Or you may discover that bells and whistles are a hallmark. Let me let you all in on a little secret. With ebooks, do-overs are easy. Wait, you knew that? Okay, then don’t forget it. If you are willing to do some work and read instructions, you can get away with a homemade ebook format and it won’t cost you any cash. Then, as you get more books out there, and start making some money, then spend money on a pro to have the books redone. You’ll have a bigger audience to appreciate the effort.

Print format. This requires a real commitment, either in time or money. Print on demand books are getting into bookstores and libraries now. But if your book looks cheap and amateurish, it won’t be picked up. This is one area where you should not cheap out. Either schedule a good block of time to learn how to do it yourself, properly (and even with templates, there is a rather steep learning curve), or set aside enough of your budget to pay for a professional job.

Marketing and promotion. This is a tricky, tricky area and one where not even the “experts” have a real clue about the best way to spend your budget. For five bucks, you can make one investment that will pay off: Buy David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible. He’s done the toughest research for you about selling ebooks and building an indie career. As for everything else, in my opinion, based on observation, you’ll get a better return on your dollars by burning them on an altar to the BestSeller God than you will by spending them on advertising. UNTIL you have a decent sized body of work available for sale. Early on in your career, rather than shelling out big bucks for ads, book trailers, PR services, paid reviews, etc. write more books. Build your shelf-presence at the online retailers. Build your audience. Go where your readers are and figure out how they are discovering books to read. That said, some genres are more competitive than others and you might have to work harder or even spend some money. If you do your research, you can spend it wisely.

There you go. You now have the right question to ask: What do my readers value? Answer that, and you will know how to divvy up your production budget so you can get the most bang from your buck. With a little luck and a whole lot of hard work, I’ll be seeing you on the Writers Who Earn A Living From Their Fiction list.

53 thoughts on “What Are the Real Costs of Self-Publishing? Wrong Question…

  1. I don’t just like this post – I love it. All in CAPS. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Readers can be very forgiving if a story is good – that’s number one. Number two – an author, unless say we’re talking about the 50 shades gimmick – must reach a critical mass and that means books. Not just one book, books. That does not mean marketing the hell out of a single first book and then bemoaning the lack of sales. That is a losing game.

    • Thanks, Julia. Many writers can detach from their work. See it as a product. Others have a more difficult time. This isn’t good or bad, just how it is. But business can be LEARNED. With knowledge and some experience and a plan, it’s easier to stop looking at our work through sentimental eyes.

      • Aye he’s no a bad wee guy and he has just posted on the fact that Amazon appear to have nicked some graphics from one of his books and using it in a promo without permission or attributing it… bless em ….

      • Ah geez. I’ve grown reluctantly philosophical about “sharing” my work with the world. I figure anything I put out there is at a risk to be stolen or even misused. I took at a look at the post. Looks like someone took an illegal shortcut. I hope Hicks get some recompense for it.

  2. I think there are basically two different kinds of authors who self-publish. On one hand, there are people who have a lifelong dream to write a novel or they are publishing to satisfy some sort of personal ambition. For this group of folks, paying for services may not be the wisest, as return on investment is probably going to be tough. The other group is people who have a small business mindset and are trying to make money (and a lot do, especially Romance/Erotica authors). For them farming out all these services is a good business decision since it will increase the value of their books and will free up time. Those are usually the people we work with on the formatting–the business authors.

    • Don’t get me wrong, Paul, I think if someone is selling a product, then that someone owes it to their customers to put together as professional a product as they are capable of managing. And, like you, I would really prefer it if people would use professionals to format their books.

      Reality is, time and money are both limited resources. Some people have more time than money, and others have more money than time. Either way, those resources should be concentrated where they will do the most good. The thing about self-publishers is, they are creative. Even with very limited resources, they can find creative solutions to all sorts of messy little problems.

    • No need for chills, ac. See it as a challenge and rise to meet it. Self-publishers on shoestring budgets are producing wonderful books all the time, and many are succeeding in building their careers to the point where they can make a living doing what they do best, which is write.

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    • I think the answer lies in how you define quality. A writer can dash off a story that moves. Dean Wesley Smith recently wrote a book on deadline in about eight days, under a penname of a best-selling author. (He posted a daily diary on his website, and, no, he won’t tell you the name of the author.) You can bet that the story moves, but that there’s not going to be one memorable sentence in it.

      If your readership wants that kind of story, it’s possible to provide it to them rapidly. Think of writing a soap opera instead of a romcom.

      • I’ve never seen a correlation between speed and quality, bp. There are as many writing types as there are writers. Some are fast and furious, some are slow and methodical. I do think that some stories have been rushed by deadlines or other pressures. Others have been milked dry by too much time in the writer’s hands. An advantage of self-publishing is that there’s no reason to rush, and the pressure of competition will convince some chronic fiddlers to turn their work loose before it’s stripped of life.

    • A lot of erotica authors really crank out the books (particularly when they are in series). I’m not saying the writing is bad, but they write up to one a month, which is incredibly impressive in terms of quantity! These authors tend to sell pretty well, but their fans can be really pushy–always on Facebook demanding “Hey, when’s the next damn book coming out”. That’s a lot of stress on the author, but they do make a good business out of it.

      • Hey, you want to talk about cranking out the books, check out Corín Tellado. Between 1972 and 2006, she wrote about 4000 books. She wrote a novel a week for a magazine for years. There were some months when she had seven novels published.

      • Hypergraphia, William. I suspect it’s a disorder common to many of the super-prolific writers. Combine it with a gift for story-telling, and the mind, she does boggle.

      • Indeed, Paul. Self-publishing is the perfect fit for some genres. When the floodgates opened, wow. Just wow. Some types of fiction and non-fiction don’t have the audiences. Right now. Even a trickle can eventually carve a Grand Canyon. Writers in the less popular genres can focus on building their body of work, to be ready for the day their particular readerships catch up.

    • Oh lord, Laurie, I really SHOULD rethink writing something that sounds snotty (unless I’m trying to be snotty). No snottiness intended. What I should have said was, if the readers are the type who read mass quantities, and they are reading purely for entertainment, then entertainment is what they value most. Let’s say a writer has a romantic comedy. If the writer spends a year carefully crafting the work, then spends $3000 or more on editorial, they could end up with a wonderful book, but it’s a bad business decision. The readers want quantity. They will tolerate a lower level of editorial quality. For that readership, fast and plentiful is the key to profits. From a purely business point of view, the writer is putting herself behind the curve both in time and dollar investment. On the other hand, if a writer is writing historical novels and hopes to reach the audiences of Wilbur Smith or Larry McMurtry, then they have to know those readers SAVOR their books and depend on them for accuracy. A writer better have their editorial and fact checking ducks in a row, or the readers will snub the books. Two very different audiences and it’s up to the writer to adapt.

      I don’t mean to imply that NO editorial is ever okay. Writers in the fast and furious genres have a valuable resource on hand they should learn to exploit. Beta readers who know the genres inside and out. If cash is tight, writers can exchange line-editing and proofreading tasks. I barter tasks all the time with good results. It takes a little time to develop the network, but once you do, it pays off time and time again.

  4. Nice post, Jaye,
    You see quite a few of these advisory post out there, and of course they all suggest something different. I like your approach here simply due to the fact that you never used numbers (dollars) and you asked the core question that all indie authors should be asking themselves; What do my readers value? Sometimes it actually is as simple as that.
    Well done.

    • From my point of view, Randall, it’s pretty tough to name dollar figures. When the range is between ZERO and SHOOT THE MOON, how is one supposed to pick the magic number?

  5. I come from a world where you get what you pay for. Green around the edge of publishing I bought the whole shebang and got educated very quickly about POD companies and their wares. Sigh ~ If only I read this post when I needed it, I’d be $20,000 dollars richer than I am… I am grateful for the good I bought, and terribly sad about the rest.

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  7. I have self published, and the quality both in and out are amazing, but (big but), I have nothing left to spend for advertising or getting the word out. So it sits somewhat dormant, and has lost any bit of momentum it has had (if any). How do i get it rolling again, and get it back up on the radar? I would like just for it to pay for itself (if possible), and anything else would just be gravy. Thanks for your time. J.A. Elliott

    • To be frank, Elliott, marketing and promotion are most effective when the audience is already hungry for whatever you’re selling. It’s why laundry detergent manufacturer’s use “New and Improved!” Nobody wants “new” detergent, but people do like it “improved.” It’s why movie makers get name brand stars. Consumers respond best to known quantities. For marketing and promotion to work for books, it has to trigger some kind of recognition in readers. It’s why big budgets are usually a poor investment with first books. But as you write more books, and build an audience–and that can be slow–readers who like your later books will seek out your earlier books, and that’s when they will pay off. Almost every “overnight success” I know has been publishing for at least a decade and has a decent sized body of work under their belt before something launches them into the public eye.

      You don’t need to spend money on marketing and promotion. You need to write more books. Work on building a fan base. Use social media to connect with readers. Write more books. Develop a network of fellow indie writers and develop your other-than-writing skills. Write more books. There are no shortcuts.

  8. Thank you so much for this advice. It makes sense. I self-published a book written in a free “Book Writing” class that started with organizing ideas and ended with formatting, covers, editing, font type, and the suggestion that each author begin a blog on WordPress. It was a wonderful 16-week course, and very thorough. What I didn’t understand at the time was where to focus the bit of money I had. I hired a friend to “edit.” (Note the quotes…there’s a reason for them. I don’t recommend this!), Other than the money I paid her, I think the first book cost $7.52. I thought that was reasonable. Once it came to publicity, though, I was at a total loss.

    I really like the idea of writing several books before doing much for PR. This approach makes sense. I will keep it in mind. Thank you so much for all the great info.


  9. I am your intended audience.

    Or at least I feel that this post has been written specifically for me, and has had the impact not unlike taking the post, exporting it to my printer, printing out enough copies so that the output could be rolled onto a resonably weighted and satisfyingly solid cylinder THEN applied with significant force, repeatedly, to my nose – all while a voice says sternly “Stop it, just STOP it”.

    I have a first book, and it has been out for about a year. It’s good. Not just my opinion, but that of a number of folk who have independently contacted me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Some have gone out of their way to write reviews and blog posts about it.

    A year in, while I am satisfied that it IS a pretty good thing, I’m tired of it.

    I’m tired of talking about it.
    I’m tired of my weekly sojourn to KDP and Creatspace to see how the sales are.
    I’m tired of the lack of support on social media, even though I take great pains to NOT beg for shares.
    I’m tired of books like mine (and a million other authors) that are NOT shared within posts, because there are far more important issues to discuss – like fluffy cats, purile memes, and pastel coloured eCards resplendent with 1920’s/50’s line drawings and pithy comments.
    In short, I’m just tired.

    In all the angst I’ve felt over my first book, I’ve managed to cobble together 45k words toward my next, but am constantly distracted by the desire to make sure that I am doing everything I can about the first.

    I think the situation is actually affecting my health.

    And it is entirely my fault.

    Time to disconnect somewhat and get back to doing the thing I started out to do in the first place.

    Write something. Then write something else.

    Thanks for the post. Truly.

    • It’s a shared insanity, A.T.H. Trust me, you are so not alone. But 45k? That’s excellent. Keep the words rolling and keep going forward.

      • 45K sounds excellent but I’m only in love with 35000 of them. The rest I am on speaking terms with, and am about to let them know that it might be time that they left. That it isn’t them, it’s me. That they might be happier in another story.

        I have a renewed focus now.

        This post couldn’t have come at a better time.

  10. Great post! Being more ‘customer-centric’ can only help. The business of creativity is evolving and the expression of creativity and commercial success need not be mutually exclusive. You are so right in stating that independent authors need to think more about what the readers value. I feel, we also need to embrace general business principles, consider return on investment and our own motivation for writing – creative expression, hobby, extra cash, career. First we need to write, but as you say, once we have a product to market, to market it successfully, we need to spend more time researching, goal setting, planning, measuring, refining, promoting this product than in the past. It leaves me wondering, does the business of self publishing take us too far away from our writing or is it a natural progression? Will we have to be author, publisher and entrepreneur to survive? And, if that is the case, what is this splintering of activity do to the quality of the products we turn out?

    • Let’s call this the question of the hour, LA. Isn’t it the “myth” that “true” writers/artists can’t be business people? Every myth is based in part on fact or history. But then again, it could be self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creative, so we tell ourselves we aren’t supposed to bother with business. Who knows,really? I’ve seen too many excellent creative writers who are also excellent business people to think the creative/businessy person is impossible. I also know a lot of really bad business people, in all fields. Maybe it’s more a matter of personality and motivation. I imagine time will tell. History also says that self-publishers have created enduring classics in literature. Charles Dickens, for example. Traditional publishing actually has a very short history compared to the history of published literature. Times have changed and technology has opened up publishing in ways nobody could have predicted even 20 years ago. Even five years ago, the idea of a self-published novel making the major best seller lists would have been unthinkable. Granted, popularity is not an indicator of an enduring classic, but the ease of self-publishing does increase the chances that the next great American Novel will NOT end up languishing in a drawer.

      So it’s wait and see, I suppose. Plus, writers can now use all that time once spent on awaiting editorial decisions to do their planning, managing, promoting, etc. Now there’s a time suck I hope I never have to endure again. 😀

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  12. Great post! I do like the idea of going back and fixing things when you have the earnings. The financial success of your book is directly related to the amount you spent on it. I did everything myself except editing so it made money right away. I consider my first book more of an experiment in self-publishing to see how it all works. But in an ideal world, there are things I’d like to tweak in a monied future.
    It seems cruel that there are so many services out there willing to take advantage of novice writers with cash. But posts like this with more common sense than sales pitch are really great. Thanks, Jaye.

  13. Thank you for this thoughtful article. Really good. What are the REAL costs of Self-Publishing? is actually a good question; and I have also written an extensive article on this as it relates to self publishing a printed physical book. The reason I wrote that article, is because as a Self-Publishing Coach and teacher, I want authors-in-the-making to be aware that self-publishing is NOT FREE! Most self-publishing PRINTING COMPANIES advertise their services as FREE and I suppose technically this is true….But a good book cover on Createspace, for example, is $399 all the way up to an Illustrated cover at $1200. THIS is not FREE! Of course 98% of all normal people can’t make their own book cover to complicated printer’s specifications, so they hire it done! And this is just the book cover. It does not include the interior book layout and design, or even the editing or proofreading! Of course I am talking printed books here, which is my primary focus. So really just think people should know what they are getting into; and that self publishing is really not altogether FREE!

    • You’re right, Deborah. Nothing is free, and certainly not self-publishing. One will spend either Cash or Time, and usually both. My recommendation to writers is to make a budget and figure out how to spend it to greatest effect. Creativity counts. Just because Createspace charges so much for a cover doesn’t mean everybody does. Same goes for the interior work. If a writer has more Time than Cash, they can learn how to style an ebook. For around $50 they can get a top-pro template for print formatting from Joel Friedlander. I can turn an ebook cover into a print cover (for print on demand) for around $40. It’s not brain surgery.
      It seems to me that the bigger and more impersonal the service, the more it charges. And many don’t do that great a job either. I don’t get that. I, too, coach writers–with this blog and one on one–and once they find out how many resources are available and how easy it is to follow the steps. Mostly what I do is encourage independence and creativity and steer them away from the many, many, MANY “self-publishing services” that overcharge for substandard work.

  14. A very well-reasoned and informative article, thanks. I (almost) disagree on just one fairly minor point. Although you dismiss professional editing as something of an extravagance, to me it is the main plus traditional mainstream publishers retain over self-publishers. Whenever I read an otherwise fine ebook I am sometimes appalled by silly spelling mistakes and by faulty grammar. I agree it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to have a book edited properly, but I consider it a worthwhile expense. It still makes me cringe when I think back to when I was an independent publisher back in the 1990s, when an amazing amount of errors slipped through the net, despite employing copy and style editors…

    • Yes and no, OP. Concept editing (which is the part I consider an extravagance–sometimes) is something that few fiction writers need after they’ve written a few books. If they pay attention to what the editor is saying, they learn to develop their own stories. Even without a solid developmental editor, most writers tend to go from rough to solid to good to great all on their own just from practice. In the case of genre fictions writers, beta readers can serve a valuable function. They have strong opinions and are well read in their genre. Smart writers learn to listen productively and their work improves because of it. A big plus with beta readers (as opposed to house editors) is the lack of the constrictions imposed by marketing departments (which I believe have harmed more writers than they’ve ever helped).

      Copy editors and proofreaders, on the other hand, those are essential. Writers on a tight budget need to be creative and be willing to put in sweat equity. They can trade chores with other writers. They can take a class, get a good style manual and develop a cynical eye about their writing in order to learn how to be their own copy editor (Self-publishing is NOT for the lazy.) Proofreading is not expensive. I do a lot–a LOT!–of proofreading since that’s a part of production I insist upon. If during production or proofreading, I discover the writer needs a copy editor, I tell them. In 90% of the cases when I point out to the writer where they are getting in their own way, they can fix the problem areas themselves.

      Overall, a writer on a budget CAN save money on the editorial side. It doesn’t mean they can skip it.

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