You’ve written your book and you’ve figured out that you want to self-publish, but all those people saying you can just self-publish for free sound too good to be true, right? Well, you can publish for very little, but what you put in may be all that you get out of it. And you want your book to sell and be noticed and reviewed and attract readers who will be clamoring for more.
To do that, you’ve got to put money into the project.
But how much money do you have to put in?
Enough to ensure that the quality is up to the standards of discerning readers who can tell when someone has or hasn’t put the effort into their book.
I’ve calculated the bare minimum here that you’ll need to invest in your book to create a quality product that will attract potential readers.
But truthfully, the biggest investment you’ll make into your self-published venture will be your time and energy. The hustle is real, yo, and this book won’t go anywhere if you don’t put yourself into it.
A great book x (money + time + energy) = sales.
(All figures are in USD, and we’re assuming your book is 80K words. I’m choosing the lowest possible price to make a point, but I would recommend being very conservative in your estimates when you’re budgeting for yourself; pick the highest estimate and hopefully you’ll actually come in under budget.)
So how does the money side break down?
Ok, obviously I’m biased, but editing is the place where you cannot skimp on the budget and it’s definitely something you cannot ignore entirely. Betas — even really freakin’ good betas — and critique partners can’t replace a seasoned editor who knows the market, knows your genre, and knows language inside and out. The majority of your budget should be allocated to editing because you are going to be judged on your words and how you put a story together. An editor can help you refine the story, clean up your words, and make your book the best it can be.
What you can do to try to minimize your editing costs is to make sure you’ve been ruthless with your words – do you need ALL of them? In some cases, the answer might be yes and you have a 100K-word book on your hands, which is totally fine. But in other cases, you can cut extraneous scenes or chapters or places where you tell too much instead of show, for example, to bring your word count down. (I’ve cut 10K from manuscripts before in edits.) So get feedback before you send your work to an editor – send it to betas and critique partners and encourage them to tell you what needs to be pared down or away. And be brutal in your self-edits too and cut where you need to.
I’ve researched editing costs and compared multiple freelance editors’ prices, specifically for romance, and they can be all over the map, depending on what kind of editing you’d like, how long your MS is, the editor’s experience and expertise, and how they calculate their rates (per word? per page? per hour?). You'll want to go for an editor who considers quality paramount; someone off of Fiverr who’ll do a 120K MS for $50 is either a) massively underselling and undervaluing their skills, or b) not going to be able to give your MS the time, attention, and quality it deserves. Look for testimonials and ask other author friends for recommendations for an editor who knows her stuff. (Hi.)
For an 80K book, you’re looking at a minimum of $500, but realistically, it might be anywhere between $500-$1500. This is where the bulk of your self-publishing budget should go.
Not hiring a proofreader is often seen as a cost-cutting measure, but be very wary about this. Once you see a typo in the printed copy of your book, you can never unsee it. So if you’re prone to typos and misspellings, I’d encourage you to hire a proofreader. If you’re not and/or you have an exceptionally eagle-eyed editor, you might feel comfortable going without. Ideally, a proofreader is not your editor, but someone who has not seen your completely edited manuscript before and can look at it with fresh eyes.
With a fair amount of caution, I will call this $0, but do spend the money if you think you need it.
We all know the saying about judging a book by its cover, but let’s be real, we all do it. I’ve definitely been seduced by a gorgeous cover before and read books that I may have otherwise breezed right by without a second thought. Cover design is another place where you shouldn’t skimp, in my opinion. You don’t want to end up those cover disaster websites where the book you poured your heart and soul into gets mocked solely on the basis of its cover!
Unless you are a trained graphic designer or a confident Photoshop whiz with a great eye, do not DIY your cover. A beautiful, eye-catching cover is an invaluable marketing tool, and it’s the first impression your book makes on a potential reader.
A pro book cover designer, like an editor, should be an expert in your genre and understand what kind of covers attract attention and why, so again, you probably don’t want to go to Fiverr or something like it to find a graphic designer who doesn’t know the market.
There are good options for images for self-published books, though. Lots of cover designers have offering premade covers (this is why you often see multiple romance novels with the same covers, but with a different colour dress or hair on the models), which are a relatively inexpensive option. You can also go custom and work with the designer to create a unique cover for your book that exactly reflects the content.
If you’re only doing an ebook, you can find good premade covers for around $50+. If you’re doing ebook and print, you’ll need a back cover design as well which will cost a bit more, say $80+.
Custom work will run you around $300 (and up) and may also include promo graphics for social media, bookmarks, etc.
Laying out your book for ebook or for print is easy enough to learn; there are lots of ebooks and websites and YouTube tutorials to help with this. (I taught myself how to format via YouTube.) Amazon and other distribution channels will also provide templates and tutorials on how to format your book. It is, however, an incredibly fiddly and sometimes time-consuming task, especially the first time. Is it worth your time to learn and DIY or is your time better spent writing your next masterpiece? You decide.
The average price for formatting is around $50. But this is one of the few tasks you can DIY, so we’ll call this $0.
A lot of the costs to publish will depend on the format(s) of your book (ebook, print, both?) and the distribution channels you’re using to sell them. There’s an argument to be made to use both Amazon/Createspace and another distributor like Ingram Spark, Draft2Digital, or Smashwords to sell your books to a wide audience around the world. Here’s a good article (from 2016) that explains why you might want to use both. (If you want to understand IngramSpark better, this interview by Joanna Penn is really helpful.)
Selling through Amazon is free, but IngramSpark costs $49.
If you’re just putting your book out in ebook format, it’s $0 for you! No ISBN needed.
If you’re putting out print copies, yes, you need an ISBN. Amazon and other distributors will offer you an ISBN, for free or for cheap, when you publish with them, but you can only use their ISBNs in their channel; you’ll need a new one if you switch to a different distributor for the same book. Buying one from Bowker is expensive, but it’s yours and you can maximize distribution through multiple channels this way with just one ISBN to deal with.
Buying ISBNs in bulk is much more affordable, especially if you’re planning on writing more books, but the upfront cost is big: one ISBN costs $125, or you can get ten for $295.
You’ll want to have a print proof copy before your paperback goes live to make sure that everything looks right and is laid out properly, which means paying for the book itself and shipping to you. If there are mistakes and you need another proof copy, costs start adding up quickly.
Let’s say $40 for the books and shipping.
Not a necessary expense, but if you’re at all concerned about plagiarism of your work, having the copyright gives you a bit more security. (Not a ton, in all honesty, but some.)
If you go for this option, it’s $35. I’d call this $0, though.
Yep, you definitely need one to refer your readers to and to get them on your mailing list. You can start out with a free Wordpress site, but your own domain (i.e. yourname.com) looks more professional (make sure to snag that domain before someone else does if you have a common name!).
Budget about $200/year for website fees.
Where do your readers hang out online? Are they on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads? Obviously it’s free to be on these platforms, but you might want to look into targeted ads to show your potential readers there that your book is out and they should buy it! There is a steep learning curve with ads on these platforms, so I’d stick to building your base organically by putting out content and engaging with people to bring them to your dedicated author page/handle while also promoting your book.
Let’s call this $0 for now, but know that these platforms are places you can put money into eventually.
Reviews and giveaways
Time to get that book out into the world! Research bloggers and reviewers who might be interested in your work and have the same audience that you’re looking for. Blog tours can be pretty grassroots (read: free), but you have to hustle and put the work into finding the right sites for your book. Where you’ll spend money is getting books to reviewers – some reviewers only accept paper copies, not ebooks, so you’ll have to ship the book to them – and providing giveaway copies for contests that will intrigue potential readers. This can get expensive fast between buying paper copies and shipping them, so figure out how many books you can realistically offer and how many places you can visit on your blog tour.
Budget at least $300 for this.
For ebook only: $1,099
For ebook and print: $1,464
So be prepared to invest – at minimum – these amounts in your ebook or your ebook/print book.
Unless you are extraordinarily lucky and/or have hit on an amazing promotional tactic, it’s likely you might not make money on your first book. That’s ok! Continuing to write and publish and creating a backlist that will make you money over time is the long game here. Don’t quit the day job yet (or maybe ever). But do keep writing and keep publishing to garner fans, reviews, and support to push onwards.