Starting out as an indie author: The costs of self-publishing

Starting out as an indie author

A couple months back, a certain Charlotte Ashley took issue with something the wonderful (and wonderfully successful) SF indie and KBoards author Hugh Howey* said, and in order to prove how wrong he was, she posted an amazingly inflated list of the expenses involved in self-publishing. She came up with a total publishing cost for an 80,000 word novel of $1900. Her numbers have already been taken apart by the good folks who follow the The Passive Voice. If you are inclined to do so, go and read her post and then the comments on PG’s blog. My more modest estimates will be waiting here when you get back. (BTW, if you have not already done so, I recommend subscribing to PG’s (Passive Guy) blog, and signing up for KBoards as well. You will learn much in both places that will help you as you move forward in self-publishing.)

While I have no interest here in joining the battle regarding Ashley’s numbers, her list offers a simple point of departure regarding potential publishing costs. This probably should have been my first post in this series, since when it comes down to it, in this post I’ll be going into a bunch of the things you have to look into before you start formatting your manuscript and deciding where to publish it. These are the questions (and expenses) to consider when you’re sitting on that brand-new potential world bestseller and wondering how to get it to all the millions of readers who are waiting for your stunning work of staggering genius. So with no further ado, here are the main price points to look into before publishing your novel.

Editing services – First you have to decide whether you want straight proofreading, (checking for spelling and grammar mistakes only), copy editing (generally proofreading plus consistency and other small errors), or content editing, which includes feedback on the structure of the story as a whole.

Most freelance editors charge per word; some charge per hour, making it very difficult to estimate what the cost of a complete manuscript would be. In the latter case, it’s very important to find an editor who will do a free sample in order to get an estimate of the final cost.

Prices for editing services vary wildly. Editors who are just starting out tend to offer their services at lower rates in order to attract customers from whom they can get referrals and testimonials for their web pages. Here again I would suggest signing up for Kboards and checking Writers’ Cafe for people offering editing services. At the same time, I would not recommend booking anyone just starting out who doesn’t offer a trial of at least the first 2,000 words.

From a quick glance through my bookmarks and Kboards, it looks like the minimum cost for proofreading a 80,000 word novel would be about $200.

I will go into whether or not you can safely do without editing services in another post in this series. But just a hint: most people should probably hire a proofreader — unless they have multiple, talented beta readers who are willing to do line edits. 🙂

Minimum proofreading cost for 80,000 words: $200

Book cover – Book covers can be a lot cheaper than you might think, given all the cover artists out there who sell pre-made covers at barely above cost. Like with the editing services mentioned above, this can be an attempt on the part of a designer starting out to find initial customers and build a reputation. A number of cover designers also offer designs rejected by customers as pre-mades — which doesn’t mean they’re bad, but they just weren’t the ones the authors liked best.

Here’s an example of what you can get when you buy a pre-made cover:

Island of Glass
Pre-made cover from Littera Designs

The cost of pre-made covers starts at about $25. If you’re interested in looking around to see what’s out there, I would once again recommend checking the threads of the Writers’ Cafe on Kboards for cover artists. There is a thread for pre-made covers here.

Of course, you have to have the perfect story for the cover. And buying such a cover might entail additional expenses. I have since hired Littera Designs for two more books in the series. 🙂

Other inexpensive options for getting a cover for your book are through Elance and Fiverr. I have not used either before, but I know several people who have used Fiverr and were quite happy with the results, for example Beth Camp and Christiana Miller.

Finally, if you have some Photoshop or Gimp skills, you can make your own covers. In that case, the only expense would be in time and licensing fees for stock art.

As with editing, I plan to go into cover options in more detail in another post in this series.

Minimum cover price: $5

Layout & Design – As I mentioned in “Preparing your manuscript for ebook retailers,” it’s getting progressively easier to create your own EPUB and MOBI files for uploading to the various ebook retailers. You may have to spend some money initially for software that will help or speed up the formatting process, but not even that is necessary if you can learn how to use the free tools. Naturally if you find yourself utterly defeated on the formatting front and/or you are a perfectionist swimming in money, you can have your ebook professionally formatted. As with editing, the cost tends to go by the length of the manuscript. As I have never used an ebook formatter, I’m unfamiliar with the prices they charge. This is also a service that can be booked through Fiverr, however — simply search for “ebook formatting.” (Layout for paperback Publish on Demand books is another level of difficulty entirely; for that reason, I intend to devote a complete post to POD formatting and options.)

Minimum layout cost: $0

Publicity – How are you going to get anyone to notice your book once you’ve thrown it out there into the cold, cruel world? Blog about it? How many regular readers do you have? Who will notice?

One option (which I have not yet tried) is to book a blog tour with someone who will arrange guest posts on book blogs in your genre. (If I ever dare the waters of a paid blog tour, I will be sure to post about my results.) Organized virtual book tours start at around $40. If you have writer friends who blog and write in your genre, you can trade cover reveals at no cost to either of you. Another marketing strategy is to try paid advertising. This is rather difficult, however, when the book is newly published and reviewless, since most sites that advertise ebooks have minimum review requirements.

Of course, you can always go with Charlotte Ashley’s suggestion and pay for a Kirkus Review for $425.

Minimum publicity cost: $0

Website – Some people maintain that it’s not professional to have a WordPress blog that is obviously free, like mine (you can tell because “WordPress” is in the URL). Better would be to have www.ruthnestvold.com. Well, I have that too, and it costs me about $60 a year for hosting. Personally, however, I doubt if it is really necessary. I know a number of successful writers who use free blogs as their web presence. Perhaps there are readers out there who decide not to buy a writer’s next book when they see that he or she has a free blog, but I suspect they’re in the minority. So it’s up to you whether you want to pay the money for your own domain or not. The important thing is that readers can find you if they want.

Minimum cost for a website: $0

Minimum total cost of self-publishing (subjective)

Seeing as the only expenses that I find absolutely necessary are an editor and a cover designer, that puts the minimum cost of self-publishing at a little over $200 for an 80,000 word novel. Some people would disagree with me that a self-publisher needs an editor or proofreader, which would leave cover design as the only necessary expense. Editing and covers can, of course, also be much more expensive. My pre-publication expenses for Shadow of Stone came to well over $600 — admittedly, a long book, making the editing price point more expensive. But I also wanted the same cover designer I booked for Yseult, and he had since raised his prices. I also did not want the embarrassment of publishing an unedited manuscript. (And yes, I did earn all that back.)

Such things, however, are naturally for each individual author to decide. When it comes down to it, it’s possible to spend absolutely nothing. Skip the editing, make the cover yourself with the free program Gimp and free stock art (but make sure the licensing allows you to use it for ebook covers), format it yourself with free tools, upload it to ebook retailers, and you have an ebook.

Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the professional services available that might give your book an edge among the many self-published ebooks on the market. A book that has been professionally edited and that has a professional cover may just have that edge.

Next week, I will go into more detail as to why I think editing is important — and who can probably skip the expense after all.

*If there is anyone who proves you can make money writing science fiction, Hugh Howey has to be it. So take heart, SF writers out there! There is still a market for visions of the future. 🙂

Other posts in this series:

Starting out as an indie author: preparing your manuscript for ebook retailers

Starting out as an indie author: Using distributors for getting into online bookstores

Starting out as an indie author: Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Xinxii (Using distributors, part 2)

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13 thoughts on “Starting out as an indie author: The costs of self-publishing”

      1. Me too! Although occasionally I dip into the comments of some of my favourite bloggers opinions on the matter … and walk away shaking my head, reminding myself of how many f**ks the average reader gives about our little firestorm, then I go write something. 🙂

  1. Good article; certainly more sensible than Charlotte Ashley’s hysterical money-burning advice. But I think the “minimum proofreading cost” should be another “$0.” Especially if you’re speaking strictly about proofreading, which is a purely mechanical task that anyone with a knowledge of written English can do. Finding typos and other flubs in your own writing can be difficult, but with the help of text-to-speech software it can be done and done well. I talk about this method and other issues of editing for self publishers in a blog post at http://www.the-indie-author.com/index_files/ProfessionalEditors.html

    1. Very good tip, I’ll have to look into that. I’m still hesitant to urge writers to skip having another pair of eyes go over their manuscript, though. I have the feeling there are too many folks who overestimate their abilities to correct their own writing. The text-to-speech method might well be a good way around the tendency we all have to not see our own mistakes when reading something we’ve recently written.

  2. This is great information, thank you for sharing how self-publishing can be done on the cheap! I do think there is some value in paying for a professional editor to edit (and proofread) the book though! Another set of eyes is a great way to make big improvements.

  3. Ebook formatting (disclaimer: which I do) for your average 70-85k word novel generally costs in the $100-175 range, depending on the number of formats/file types needed. It can vary due to complexity of layout, illustrations or number of images, special formatting needs: tables, extensive florishes, sidebars, extra back matter ads, linked endnotes, etc. Non-fiction can easily double that based on page count and complexity. You also left out the cost of an ISBN, which I recommend highly for long term discoverability. Never buy an individual number though, get a set to save money or buy them from someone who can provide them from their bulk block.

    1. May I quote you on the costs of ebook formatting? 🙂

      I have to admit I don’t agree on the ISBN, which is why I left it out. But I’m willing to be proven wrong. How does it help with discoverability?

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