How Much Does it Cost to Self-Publish (And Is it Worth the Money?)

12161807051268435489dadim_piggybank.svg.medIt’s Jen again, coming to you from another drizzly, overcast day – though I’m not complaining, as the last few days it’s been bright sunny skies and gorgeous fall colors. A little rain now and again comes with the territory.

I promise I won’t make a habit of always talking business, but after the interest in my post on self-publishing last month, I decided I would follow up this month with a post that actually looks at the numbers involved in self-publishing. I know… Numbers aren’t sexy. They’re not creative. As we all know, however, they are necessary in evaluating whether or not a venture makes sense. Yes — even when it’s a writing venture.

I’ll begin by saying that I think it’s a good idea to try to incur as little expense up front as possible when self-publishing, simply because it will usually take between three to five books before you start to see much of a profit. Regardless of how much money you put into that first book, unless it’s a standalone novel with a phenomenal setup, you’re not going to get a lot of traction initially. So, just keep that in mind and consider holding off on purchasing much in the way of advertising, marketing, or promotional materials until you’re ready to launch the second or third book. Initially, your biggest expenses should be on the production side of things – specifically, editing, cover design, and formatting.

So, with that in mind, what are the expenses you can expect to incur when independently publishing your novel?

Cover design
Ebook & print formatting
Marketing & promotional materials

You’ll notice that on that list, I don’t include printing costs. That’s my own preference, but personally I’ve found that it makes little sense to fund a large print run when you can go with Print on Demand through Createspace, BookBaby, or IngramSpark, and pay little more per book than you would for a print run of 500 – 1,000 books with a printing company. My novels run about 300 pages, and I rarely pay more than $4.30 per book through CreateSpace, including shipping. During particularly lean times, that meant I could scrounge for $50 to pay for ten books when I was doing a signing, but otherwise I didn’t have to worry about it, and I didn’t have boxes and boxes of books moldering in my basement. If you have an aggressive marketing plan and a good network of independent booksellers, you may consider going with a larger print run; without those two things, however, it’s very hard to move print on your own.

So, how much can you expect to spend on that lengthy list?

Editing. Depending on your own skill as an editor, your contacts in the business, and the quality of your beta readers, this can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. I run a very busy editing business myself, and charge $30 per 1,000 words for a comprehensive edit that includes content edit, copy edit, two revisions, and final proofread. For more experienced writers, I do a beta read for $5 per 1,000 words and then a straight copy edit for $16 per 1,000 words. I occasionally barter my services with others in the business; if you have the right contacts and not a lot of cash up front, that’s a possibility to consider when looking for your own editor. Others do charge less than I do; just be careful when choosing an editor, as going with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing can be disastrous. For more on how to choose an editor, you can check out this Q&A I did with Joanna Penn, of The Creative Penn.

Cover design. When I first started out, I paid $99 to, and was very happy with the quality of the work they did for me. Since that time, I actually paid for a complete cover overhaul of my existing novels, and went through, paying $495 per cover (their prices have since gone up by about $100). I have recently switched cover artists again because I wanted to work with someone who would give me original art rather than stock images. I now work with Jeremy John Parker, and pay a bit more for an original cover. Clearly, there’s a broad range here. My advice is simply to make sure you don’t skimp and try to design the cover yourself. Get someone who knows the business and understands design, and be prepared to pony up at least a little cash to get it right.

Ebook formatting. You can hire an ebook formatter for upwards of $100, or you can purchase Scrivener Writing Software for $40 – $45 (depending on whether you have a PC or Mac) and format your book(s) yourself for all of the major ebook retailers. I purchased Scrivener and then bought the course Learn Scrivener Fast by Joseph Michael for an additional $300, which proved to be a very worthwhile investment. Now, I’m able to do all ebook and print formatting myself with minimal steps and no headaches, and I can make updates and re-upload to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and the other sales outlets I use, without having to hire a middle man and wait for him to do it for me.

Advertising. Over the course of the past year, I’ve spent about $1500 in advertising through BookBub and NoiseTrade. BookBub is fairly pricy and quite selective about the titles they’ll take on, but if you’re well reviewed and are able to score a spot with them, it’s absolutely worth the cost. I’m considering doing some advertising on Facebook, but haven’t committed to that just yet. I’m still working on establishing a larger advertiser pool from which to choose, but right now I’ve found BookBub to be the most effective by a wide margin.

Conferences. If you’re hoping to get an agent or simply want to make connections among fellow writers or readers in your genre, I think conferences are definitely worth the time and expense. However, for self-published authors, income is reliant on how efficiently you can actually write, edit, and publish a novel, so beware of making too many commitments that could infringe on your writing time.

Marketing and promotional materials. As Kate mentioned in her post, “Can You Afford to Get Published,” traditionally published novelists are also responsible for purchasing their own marketing and promotional materials. With VistaPrint, NextDayFlyers, and a whole host of other inexpensive companies on the web, however, you don’t have to break the bank to have custom bookmarks, magnets, or more high-end SWAG for your loyal readers. It’s easy to go crazy with this stuff, so just keep a close eye on your bottom line and remember that readers are far more interested in you writing another great book than them scoring a free pen and matching bookmark.

Education. Next to cover design, this past year I’ve spent the most on education. I’m a big fan of online, well-reviewed courses on publishing and marketing your work, since I can complete those courses on my own time and typically get a lot of value for my money. In 2015, I completed a few smaller courses, but the biggest expenditures were on the aforementioned Learn Scrivener Fast, as well as Nick Stephenson’s stellar course, Your First 10K Readers. I’m currently taking Joanna Penn’s Creative Freedom course, which has a series of free videos to introduce you to the topics she covers in the course itself. If you have the resources available to you, I highly recommend taking either Your First 10K Readers or Creative Freedom. Both offer practical, timely tips that have already paid off for me.

Software. I purchased Scrivener this past year, subscribe to DropBox, and I also pay for a monthly subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which includes PhotoShop, PhotoShop Elements, InDesign, and Illustrator. Creative Cloud comes in at $50 a month, so it’s not cheap, but I use it to design my own promotional materials, website stuff, and continue to use it to format my print books. I highly recommend Scrivener and I love DropBox, but unless you have design experience or really want the headaches inherent in learning Adobe’s innumerable tricks of the trade, I recommend foregoing that particular expense.

Okay… So, now you’ve got the costs involved in publishing your own work. The next, obvious question is: Is it worth it? Financially, does all of this make sense or should you just bite the bullet and try to find a traditional publisher?

Keep in mind, first and foremost, that everyone has different experiences and different results in any endeavor. What I’ve done may not work for you; what you do may not work for me. I can only tell you my own experience…which has been good. Personally, I’ve consistently increased my profit margin each year since first publishing in 2012, and this year I more than doubled my previous annual earning record from a traditional job, from book sales alone.  I’m able to work at my own pace, publish when I please, and I don’t have to panic if a title under-performs, since I know I’m not going to pull the plug on myself for lackluster profits.

Would it be worth it for you? Only you (and time) can answer that question, but to help out you may want to refer back to my post, “Setting Yourself Up for Self-Publishing Success,” to make sure this is really a road you’re prepared to travel. And if there are any questions I haven’t covered, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer!


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6 Responses to How Much Does it Cost to Self-Publish (And Is it Worth the Money?)

  1. Carl Johnson says:

    I have self-published one nonfiction book, “From Beer To Beards, Boston Baseball’s 2011-2013 Roller Coaster Ride” which follows the Red Sox from Worst to First in those years. I have been marketing it myself and have sold about 400 copies. I am a long way from financially breaking even on the book and don’t expect that I will ever show a profit. I am fortunate being retired and not relying on my writing for my livelihood. The second baseball book is in the works as is my first novel, based on my experiences as a Police Officer and Administrator. I cannot imagine the hassle of submitting proposal after proposal to traditional publishers only to be rejected after months of waiting. My advice to any new writer who can afford to invest the time and money is to start out with self publishing and hope that your ability and product will lead to traditional publishing and those dreamed of advances.

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks so much for your insight, Carl. I agree, traditional publishing isn’t for everyone — though some individuals are well-suited to it and do very well. I invariably tell my editing clients that they have to take some time to evaluate their strengths before they decide which road they go down. I’m glad to hear you’ve found the path that works best for you — good luck with your upcoming releases!

  2. Jen, great post, covering all the bases. I’ve been traditionally published and am now self-publishing, as you know. I’ve self-published 8 books so far. Some of the stress of traditional publishing is gone, such as waiting for an editor to say yay or nay or wondering if you’ll get a great cover and great backing. But there’s the stress of making those decisions yourself. As someone else said, and I’m paraphrasing, the advantage of self-publishing is that the author is in total control, and the disadvantage is that the author is in total control.

    • Jen Blood says:

      I completely agree, Susan! This whole thing is tricky business, and while I love the freedom, every big (and small, for that matter) decision is agony. Any way you slice it, being an author these days is not for the weak of heart.

  3. Thanks, Jen. Practical advice all around. There seems to be a wide spectrum in the investments an author has to make – ranging from the fully self-published author to the small-press-with-limited- support author to the various levels of support offered by larger traditional houses. Which is why it’s so helpful to have overviews like yours that help the whole range.

  4. Judy says:

    I’ve actually self-published one novel from start to finish. I paid an editor who had edited a novel of mine for a small press, and she gave me a great deal. My husband designed the cover and the promo materials, and I formatted the book myself for CreateSpace. Being a recovering techie helped with the formatting issues. I try to go to two conferences a year, and am saving up for BookBub. I give quite a few copies away for PR purposes and that’s the most expensive part so far. I have found Facebook to be a TOTAL WASTE OF PR DOLLARS, and I recently signed up for a month of Tweet Your Book or something to that effect which was about as useful as Facebook ads. To sum it up, I did not spend a great deal on publishing expense but I haven’t reaped much profit either. e-book sales are where such money as there is comes from. I found it helpful to start off with some pretty decent Amazon revues which only cost a copy of the ebook. They were well worth it. My “real” publisher didn’t offer anything in the way of PR or getting reviews so I spent about as much on a small-press publishing experience as self-publishing, but the profits on self-publishing have been better.

    Judy Copek

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