One of the major benefits of self-publishing is that you can do it (virtually) for FREE.
And, if you set a reasonable list price, the royalty rates are very high.
So with high royalties and minimal costs, if you can stimulate any sales at all, you should easily make something.
There is very little risk.
However, the number of authors who are investing big $$$ in self-publishing and who are losing big $$$ because their self-publishing expenses greatly outweigh their profits is staggering.
HOW MUCH DOES SELF-PUBLISHING COST?
It can cost next to nothing:
- Zero set-up fees at print-on-demand indie publishing companies like CreateSpace.
- Zero set-up fees at most major e-book publishing services like Kindle Direct Publishing, Nook, and Kobo.
- Minimal cost to order one or more printed proofs for paperback books.
If it costs you next to nothing, you don’t have to sell many books to start making a profit.
But many authors aren’t spending next to nothing. Many are actually spending big money self-publishing their books.
- Some are spending hundreds, like $200 to $500. This isn’t too bad, but it will take hundreds of sales just to break even. It’s a risk.
- I’m amazed by how many spend $1000 to $5000. If they don’t sell thousands of books, it will be a bad investment. If they never sell 100 books, it will be a great loss. It’s a huge risk.
- Can you believe that some indie authors spend more than $5000, sometimes over $10,000, publishing a single book? That boggles my mind.
INDIE PUBLISHING COSTS
One problem is that there are so many ways to invest money on self-published books.
Many authors are acquiring major expenses:
- Cover design can cost $100 to $1000 (or more) for a custom cover. You can get one for $50 or less that’s pre-made. Or you can pay $5 and up for images and make your own cover. Or you can find free images that allow commercial use (but if you do, you really want 300 DPI, especially for a print book).
- Professional illustrations inside the book cost additional money on top of the cover (though sometimes you can negotiate interior illustrations at a discount when purchased with the cover).
- Editing can cost anywhere from $100 to $2000 (or more), depending on (A) the qualifications and experience of the editor, and (B) the type of editing services that you need. Simple proofreading is the least expensive option. You can even hire this from CreateSpace. If you need help with storyline suggestions, the writing itself, or formatting on top of editing, costs can grow significantly.
- Book formatting is another major expense that one can invest in. It can be expensive. But you can also do it for free. Especially, if you plan to publish several books, you can save big $$$ by taking the time to learn and do this yourself.
- Authors also invest in e-book conversion services. Learning to format your own books can save you money twice: once with the print edition, and again with the e-book.
- You can also publish an audio book with the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). If you write in a genre that appeals to truck drivers, for example, this can be a compelling option.
- If you would like to have your book translated to Spanish, French, or Chinese, for example, you can pay good $$$ for translation services. Make sure the language is supported at Amazon before you spend the money! Definitely, do not rely on Google Translate to do this for you (it will be far from satisfactory to translate a book this way).
- A variety of fees can come with designing a website (though you can get a free website at WordPress and design it yourself). You can register a domain name, pay money to avoid advertisements, upgrade for custom features, pay for web hosting, hire a web designer, or pay for a host of enticing services that many website builders offer.
- Although much of the most effective marketing can be done by the author for free, there are many marketing expenses that one can acquire: advertising fees, press release distribution, video trailer design, bookmarks, promotional items, contest expenses, bookstore signing fees, etc. If you want to really spend big $$$ on marketing, hire a famous publicist.
- If you publish with an imprint of your own choosing that isn’t simply your last name, you may need to register a DBA (doing business as) or starting an LLC. You can spend big money if you wish to trademark the name. (Legal Zoom can help with many legal issues, such as filing DBA’s or trademark applications.)
- Authors can really break the bank publishing with vanity presses. You can publish for free with many self-publishing services, like CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, Nook Press, Kobo Writing Life, and Smashwords. Traditional publishers, if they accept your proposal, won’t charge you any fees (though maybe it would be worthwhile for you to hire a contract attorney once you receive a legitimate offer). Vanity presses, on the other hand, involve hefty start-up fees.
Even the little expenses can add up. The lower the cost, the easier it is spend the money, but after you pay for several of these, it can get expensive:
- Paying for printed proofs plus shipping/handling. One proof can cost as little as about $7 if it’s short, black and white, and shipped in the United States. If it’s in color or several pages, the cost goes up, and for international authors, shipping can be quite expensive (Ingram Spark may be an attractive alternative for UK authors).
- Some publishing services, like Ingram Spark or Lightning Source, charge setup fees.
- Sometimes setup fees grow if you opt for additional features, like enabling additional sales channels (CreateSpace, though, now offers free Expanded Distribution).
- It costs $35 (in the US) to register for a copyright. It’s not necessary: Your copyright starts as soon as your work exists in print, whether or not you register. But copyright registration entices many authors, as it’s one extra step toward protecting your rights, and it makes it easier to convince Amazon, for example, that you are indeed the copyright holder, should the question arise.
- You can spend $9.99 to $575 buying ISBN‘s from Bowker (in the US), for example. (You can also get a free ISBN from CreateSpace, or a free ISBN for your e-book at Smashwords. Don’t use your CreateSpace ISBN for your e-book, and you shouldn’t use your Smashwords ISBN for Kindle, for example. You don’t need an ISBN for Kindle, though, as you’ll receive a free ASIN.) Some of these options are tempting. $9.99 at CreateSpace lets you use your own imprint. Buying in bulk with Bowker lowers your cost if you prefer the benefits of buying your own ISBN directly (or if you’re not publishing at CreateSpace). It can get really expensive if you publish several books, since each edition of your book needs a different ISBN. Then if you make major changes, you’re supposed to create a new edition with a new ISBN (perhaps not necessary with the free CreateSpace ISBN or free Kindle ASIN).
- How about a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN)? You can get one from CreateSpace for $25 (but be sure to do this before your proof is approved), for example. Of course, it’s hard for self-published authors to get into libraries…
- Stocking up for a reading or signing, or to sell in person, requires purchasing several author copies in advance.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU INVEST?
If you invest in absolutely everything that you can invest in when self-publishing a book, you could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars. Very few books of any kind will recover such deep expenses.
Is this an expense that really makes sense? That’s a question you should ask yourself every step of the way.
You should try to lay off most of the expenses that I listed above, if at all possible.
Treat it like shopping at the grocery store on a limited budget:
- Figure your total expense before spending any money.
- Cross non-essential items off your list.
- Find cheaper alternatives. (With grocery shopping, you might go with a non-branded alternative. Do the same with your publishing expenses.)
- Set a reasonable budget. Stay within your budget no matter what.
- Calculate how many books you must sell just to break even. If there aren’t reasonable prospects for this (do your research!), cross things off your shopping list.
- If it’s not on your list, don’t buy it.
- See the money-saving tips that follow. (It’s like shopping for groceries with coupons.)
Here are some money-saving tips:
- Do all the formatting yourself. There is an abundance of free material (even on my blog) to help with this. When you need help, visit the CreateSpace or KDP community forum and politely ask a specific question. It’s amazing how often a formatting expert replies with a helpful response. Anything that you can do for free, and do reasonably well, will save you big money. Formatting will save you two ways with print and e-book editions. Extra effort spent on your first book will save you much more money in the long run when you publish several more books.
- Do you really need a LCCN? Indie books are highly unlikely to wind up on library shelves unless you actively market for this channel and have great ideas for how to do this effectively. Throwing money out there and hoping is not a marketing strategy.
- Market your books yourself for free. Throwing money at advertising isn’t a band-aid for marketing ignorance. The truth is, when it comes to book marketing (which doesn’t work the same as commercial advertising of brands seen on t.v., although branding is important), free and very low cost marketing done by the author tends to be far more effective than paid marketing services.
- Many people and businesses are eager to accept your money. They definitely profit when you pay them. The more money you invest to self-publish your book, the more likely you’ll wind up in a deficit. They know your hopes and dreams (big sales, good reviews), and they know your fears (no sales, bad reviews, newbie mistakes), and they will use this effectively to sell you things that you don’t really need. Be wary.
- Keep your expenses to a bare minimum until you have several books out. Don’t break the bank on your first book. (Yes, you want to make a great impression, but settle for making the best impression you can on a low budget. Yes, you can do this.) The more similar books you have out, the more effective marketing tends to be. Plus, if your first few books are getting some steady sales, this will boost your confidence that you can sell books (and it will give you a realistic guide for how much of your expense you can recover).
- Most expenses can wait until you start making a profit (but not editing, as that will get you some bad reviews). Don’t bother with an audio book or translation, for example, until you’ve earned enough royalties to pay for these services without taking a net loss.
- Start out with a free WordPress website. Don’t upgrade or pay for any fees until you’re making a profit from your book royalties, though you can grab your domain name in the initial stages, if it’s available.
- Keep your business expenses to a minimum. In the beginning, you have no idea how many sales you will have. You can register for a DBA if you plan to publish many books, but LLC, trademark , or other expenses can wait until you see how sales are going (though if you want legal advice, you should consult with an attorney).
- If you know people with great language skills, you may be able to recruit them to help with proofreading (perhaps for a reasonable fee). Especially, if they enjoy your writing, it can be a win-win situation. But don’t be a lazy writer (worrying about mistakes later: the fewer mistakes there are, the easier it will be to eliminate all but a few) and don’t rely on others to catch your mistakes (they are your responsibility). Use text-to-speech to listen to your book: It will help you catch mistakes that you don’t “see.”
WHAT SERVICES DO YOU NEED?
There are only two big expenses that I would recommend considering when you’re just starting out. Most other expenses can wait until you see how things are going.
Don’t dig yourself into a hole. Wait until you’re making a profit, then consider investing some of your profits. This way, you won’t suffer a loss.
These two services can make a huge difference in some cases, and therefore they are well worth considering:
- Cover design. It’s critical for marketing to have a cover that (A) appeals to your readers and (B) clearly signifies the precise genre or subject. If you can achieve these two goals yourself, that’s great. If you’re a nonfiction author, making the title clear (and relevant) in the thumbnail is more important than the picture, and thus it’s easier for nonfiction authors to design fairly effective covers by themselves. Most fiction authors who don’t have graphic design skills really need to spend $100 to $300 on a highly effective cover. But if the book is lousy, a great cover won’t sell it. If you have a great novel and don’t excel at graphic arts, then I do recommend finding an artist who can deliver a fantastic cover at a reasonable price.
- Editing. Most authors need to pay $50 to $200 for basic proofreading (and they need to do the research to find a proofreader who can do this job quite well). Those mistakes can deter your sales. The last thing you want is a review to complain about mistakes and to have a Look Inside that confirms what the review says. There are writers with excellent language skills, but even they often miss mistakes in their own writing because they read what they intended instead of what’s actually there. Text-to-speech can help to some degree. Use Word’s spellcheck to catch obvious mistakes, but don’t rely on it (there are many mistakes that it will miss). You definitely need additional pairs of eyes that can reliably help you out. Editors might convince you that it’s worth spending $500 to $2000, especially if you need storyline help, better character development, or serious writing help. But it’s a tough call. That’s a huge investment, and many books won’t make that $500 back. When you’re starting out, you really need to save where you can and invest wisely.
You may have heard that it takes money to make money, but what you might not have heard is that many authors are spending more money than they will ever earn from their royalties. By the way, this includes traditional authors, too.
Be smart with your money. Any investment is a risk. Wait until you’re making a profit, then investing some of the profits allows you to experiment with services without suffering a loss.
Be patient. Think long-term. Wait until you have several books out and history of sales to judge by before investing good money to self-publish a new book.
Do your research before investing money on a service. Check out the designer’s portfolio. Contact authors who’ve used their services and discuss their experience. Ask for a free sample (e.g. edit one chapter of your book), and consult help judging the quality. Do a cover reveal at various stages of the design. Seek brutal feedback on your writing and cover in the early stages. Ask questions before purchasing the service. Study your contract.
Remember that throwing money out there and hoping is not a marketing strategy.
Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers
- Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
- Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
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