The True Cost of Self-Publishing a Book
Michael Doane is the author of "The Crossing" and book strategist at Writing Inbound. When he’s not writing novels, he’s working with other authors to promote, launch, and sell their books. In this article, he talks about the budget he set for self-publishing his debut novel, "The Crossing" and how he was able to stick to it.
A couple of months ago, Reedsy put together a comprehensive infographic on what it costs to self-publish a book. The infographic breaks down costs associated with the various stages of editing as well as cover design and typesetting. According to the data, a 60,000 word book will cost you an average of $5,260 if you purchase each service individually. That’s a fair amount of money if you’re going into self-publishing for the first time and aren’t generating any revenue from your books yet.
While Reedsy has the data on average costs, I’d like to share what authors really care about: a story. My debut novel, The Crossing is just under 60,000 words, so I’m going to judge my own progress up against Reedsy’s $5,260 average.
When I got serious about publishing, I set a budget of $3,500 on editing and design services. This was money I had in my PayPal account from helping other authors market their books. That meant I had to find shortcuts and alternatives to cut costs and save myself money. One thing I wasn’t willing to compromise on, however, was quality.
This was going to be quite the challenge: save about 50% on professional publishing services and STILL come to market with a quality, professionally designed product that’s been vetted by top-notch editors. I also didn’t want to haggle with professionals by negotiating unnecessary discounts.
Spoiler alert: I was able to stay within budget.
The steps I took to get my book ready to self-publish
1. I started with myself…
The first thing I did was read my own book. I read it critically and made lots and lots of notes. Then I edited the thing. I cut about 15,000 words from the first draft and added an additional 7,000 words to the manuscript.
Then I did it again. I re-read, cut, and re-wrote. It’s not easy. Some may even call it soul-shattering. The thing is… it’s necessary.
I made "The Crossing" the best possible product I could make on my own before sharing it with anyone.
2. I shared with friends and family…
I have a funny story about the ending of "The Crossing"…
It is late, about 1am on a Tuesday night, and I have to get up for work at 5am the next morning. My wife, Emily, is always my first-reader and she is just finishing the first draft of the manuscript. She is so disappointed with the ending that she wakes me up, shaking me. “Mike, Mike. What the…!? This book is SO GOOD, but the ending…”
It was so bad, she said, she couldn’t sleep. I love my wife, so I got up and wrote her an acceptable ending. I was up until about 2am making it work. I brought it back to her and watched her read it. “This is better,” she said, “but still not the best it can be.”
It took three more tries and two editors to get to the best possible ending — the one that made her cry!
All this to say, it’s important to share with family and friends. Most of them will tell you they like it (giving you a slight boost in confidence). The best ones will be totally honest with you and encourage you to make art that’s beautiful and worthwhile.
3. I enlisted a small but dedicated group of beta readers…
My beta readers are my most important asset. Seriously.
I put it out there — on my blog and social media — that I was looking for people to read my book and provide feedback. About 50 people signed up and out of those 50, about 15 gave me good, valuable feedback.
I sent my manuscript for "The Crossing" to them no strings attached and, over a few months, scheduled calls and exchanged emails with them to solicit direct feedback. I had a very diverse group, who gave me amazing perspective on my work.
Once I was finished with all my calls and emails with my beta readers, I made yet another round of personal edits based on the feedback.
4. I hired an editor for an assessment…
At this point, I knew there was little more I could do on my own and with the honesty and encouragement of my friends, family, and beta readers. I turned to Reedsy and put out proposals for an editorial assessment.
I ended up hiring Rebecca Heyman, who was not the least expensive nor the most expensive of the five editors I’d reached out to.
While I don’t want to share exactly what I paid for her services, I’ll say that it was (what I thought at the time) a big chunk of change. I’ll also say that the big chunk of change was totally worth it.
Becca delivered an 8-page document detailing the parts of the narrative that worked and — more importantly — the parts of the narrative that didn’t work. We then had a pretty heated conversation via Skype about details and alternatives.
The best part of working with Becca is that she brought me back to earth, tore down the hard work I’d already done, and pointed me back to the drawing board.
What an editorial assessment does for an author is provide perspective. It gives you insights on your work from an experienced professional. Becca was able to create a comprehensive overview of my manuscript for "The Crossing" and help me refine it to a publishable work.
5. I went back to the drawing board…
I didn’t make all the edits Becca suggested (there’s that freedom of self-publishing coming into play), but what I did do was re-read the book with fresh eyes and tended to the problem areas that Becca pointed out. I ended up cutting and adding a lot more. Re-read, re-consider, re-write. That’s what it’s all about.
Then I recruited more beta readers and had a few from the original group have another go at it and give me feedback. This time they were giving me pointers on not only the narrative, but also grammar and spelling.
6. I hired a cover designer…
While my beta readers were busy reading, I went back to Reedsy and put out quotes for a cover designer. I ended up going with Matthew Cobb, who just so happens to be a Reedsy co-founder as well.
We spent time going back and forth on different iterations and I was able to have complete control over the final product.
7. I hired copyeditor/proofreader…
Since I used so many other resources, like my beta readers, for copyediting and content development, I put out a final round of proposals on Reedsy for a mix of copyediting and proofreading services. I ended up hiring Rachel Small.
Rachel’s profile mentioned that she dealt with YA, coming of age, and travel stories, so I knew I wanted to work with her before I even heard any responses back. I also read Reedsy author Stacey Dyer’s article about working with Rachel, which seemed like a wonderful, collaborative process. Luckily, Rachel came back with a quote on point with what I expected to pay.
At this point "The Crossing" was a pretty solid, final, and publishable narrative. I read through one more time, made most of the edits Rachel suggested, and made some tweaks to the narrative that the beta readers had suggested (such moving around chapters, and adding some overlooked elements).
8. I did my own typesetting
With the average cost of typesetting being $840 (according to Reedsy’s infographic), this could’ve easily been the expense that took me over budget. However, I used the free Reedsy Book Editor to do the typesetting for me. You simply copy and paste your chapters into the tool (or use it to write your book), then hit export and you get a nice print-ready PDF and ebook reader friendly ePub file.
So, what does self-publishing a book really cost?
Time! Writing, editing, learning how to publish, working with various editors and beta readers, sharing with friends and family and waiting for a response. Having your work torn down by editors so you can build it back up. Patience and effort. This is the true cost of self-publishing.
From the time my first draft was complete until the time the book was published, everything took about two years. I approached it like a second job and spent hundreds of hours, during nights and weekends, learning how to publish a book. But if you’re up to learning new processes, putting out the upfront investments, and working with a team of skilled professionals, the costs certainly are worth it.
Thankfully, I was able to stick to the budget I set for myself. According to my $3500 budget, I spent an average of $145 per month in expenses, and if I did extend past my budget to the average cost based on Reedsy’s infographic, it still would have only been about $219 per month. With my current sales numbers, I’m set to make back these costs within the next few months.
Here is some last minute advice for those who are ready to take the same path:
- Set a budget before anything else.
- Find an audience early.
- Promote to friends and family.
- Engage your beta readers.
- Hire a professional editor (or two).
- Get a well-designed cover.
- Learn as much as you can about the industry.
- Network with other authors.
If you’re a detail-oriented and you want to bypass the publishing industry’s red-tape, then self-publishing is definitely worth the cost. Just know that it’s a long road if you’re going to do it right — and come into it with an entrepreneur’s perspective, because you need to invest money if you want to create a beautiful product that will earn you money in return. Good luck!
Michael set himself the task to not cut corners, to create a book he would be proud of, but also to stay within his allocated self-publishing budget. And he did! What have been your experiences with taking on the cost of publishing yourself? Leave your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Michael in the comments below.