The Costs of Self-Publishing (and How to Keep Them In Check)
We break down the costs of self-publishing for indie authors.
When you’re an indie author, you still need to do all the things to your book that a professional publisher would — editing, cover and interior design, ebook conversion and distribution. But chances are you don’t have the same resources or full-time staff.
This blog post will go over each component in the publishing process, and the costs associated with them. We’ll talk about how to get these crucial tasks done professionally, but on the cheap — so that you don’t end up spending more to produce a book than you make selling it.
Recent research by Smashwords suggests that the pricing sweet spot for an ebook is between $2.99 and $4.99.
That means if you spend $10,000 to get your book produced, you’ll have to sell 3,581 copies at $3.99 with a 70% royalty just to recoup your costs, before you make a dollar’s profit.
The good news is you don’t need to spend $10,000 to get your book ready to publish.
Start With Your Goals
How much you do spend should depend on your goals. These may be different for different authors. For instance, you might want to:
- Make a sideline income from your book.
- Build audience to leverage a traditional publishing deal for future books.
- Publish an important story (a family memoir, etc.).
- Market something else (a product or service) that generates revenue for you.
These goals will all have different budgets.
The Stages of Publishing
The main steps in the publishing process are: writing, editing, interior design, ebook conversion, cover design, ISBNs, distribution and printing.
The first step to publishing your book is writing it. This is one thing we’ll assume you’re doing yourself.
Cost: $0 (not including coffee)
The next part of bringing your book into the world is editing.
Editing is one area where, unless you have experience, you should absolutely hire a professional (or several). The quality of your first book will have a lot to do with its success in the ebookstores and in creating readers for your second book. But knowing which type of professionals to hire, when and for what purpose can save you big bucks.
Different types of editors do different types of editing, all of which may be necessary for your book.
You’ll need a developmental editor to help you structure and shape the work before you start writing and a line editor for your early drafts. Line editing involves lots of rewriting for tone, voice and content. There’s also style editing, in which copy editors address stylistic elements such as capitalization, preferred spellings, punctuation and references.
Bring in the copy editor, style editor and proofreader at the very end or you’ll end up paying double — because they’ll edit passages that will only be deleted or rewritten by a line editor anyway, and the line editor will add new copy that will need a future edit.
Another way to reduce costs is to minimize the amount of editing you need. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Attend critique groups. Not all the feedback you receive will be constructive, but some of it will help you rewrite parts of your book that an editor would otherwise help you restructure.
- Look for editors in your network. Do you have a valuable skill they might need? Consider trading goods or services.
- Before signing the contract, pay your editor to test-edit one chapter to make sure you and they are a good match. Switching editors mid-book can be costly.
- Enlist beta readers. Even once you have an edited version of your book, testing it out on real readers can help you find the last remaining flaws — for free — and put your most professional book forward. (Of course, you should take this feedback with a grain of salt — not everyone likes every book.)
Cost: Expect to pay a few thousand dollars for editing. Recently released data from Reedsy concluded that “a full edit [from all these types of editors] on an 80,000 word manuscript is likely going to cost you $3,300.” We’ve found that editing averages around $7.50/page (~$1,500-$2,000 / regular novel).
When you’re publishing a book, you need some specific types of files to submit your book to ebookstores. Specifically, you’ll need:
A MOBI file, for Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing
An EPUB file, for all the other ebookstores
These files need to meet complicated, proprietary standards, or they’ll be rejected by the ebookstores. Ebook developers who know these standards are not web developers. That’s because Web development is for browsers, whereas ebook development is for ereaders and ereader devices.
It’s important to know that there are not a lot of design elements you can control in an ebook, as there’s no such thing as a “page”. Ebooks are reflowable and devices like Kindle give users control over their font size, which controls how much text shows on one screen. Ebookstores are most concerned about the user experience, too, not the look, so even if you pay to have this done manually, there isn’t much room for fancy embellishments.
The easiest way to make a file that conforms to the ebookstores’ standards without needing to learn them or code for them is to use Pressbooks to turn your manuscript into ebook form. Your local library may have an instance of Pressbooks Public available for you to use. Otherwise, you can use Pressbooks.com to generate MOBI and EPUB files for $19.99 per book.
Cost: $0 if you use Pressbooks Public at a library; $19.99 per book if you use Pressbooks.com to generate your EPUB and MOBI files.
Interior Book Design and Formatting
For print-on-demand, you need a print-ready PDF “interior file” that meets certain specs. Having such a file designed manually can be costly because it’s time-consuming and requires a certain expertise in design, design software, book layout standards, and proprietary print production specifications. And if you find a typo or want to re-release a new revision, you’re going to have to pay again.
You could learn conventional design software, such as InDesign, but that can be time-consuming and frustrating as a writer. Plus, even if you can learn to use the traditional software, you won’t be bringing the same designer’s eye or knowledge of print and formatting standards.
This is another place Pressbooks can help. It will automagically turn your manuscript into a book format that will meet printers’ specifications, without you needing to learn manual layout or software.
Tip: However you get your book formatted, starting with a clean (unformatted) Word document will reduce the amount of time involved in cleaning up the original code.
Cost: Using Pressbooks to get print-ready files (free at some libraries or $99 at Pressbooks.com) typically saves you around $2500 of graphic design, though prices run from $750 to $7500.
This is the main marketing piece for your book, and it takes a designer’s eye to make something compelling.
You’ll need two types of covers:
An ebook cover, which will be both inside and also submitted separately from your book
A print cover, which will be high-res; contain front, back and spine; be set in the correct color space and PDF profile; and be separate from the interior file
Be sure to buy the designer’s source file, in case you want to make minor updates or revisions without paying for a whole new design in the future.
Cost: Expect to pay around $50 and up for a pro ebook cover and around $200 for a quality print cover. One way to trim these costs is to commission a high-res ebook cover, then use the Pressbooks cover generator to turn it into a print-ready cover.
You may or may not need an ISBN. This will depend on where you’re publishing, and on your goals. (If you’re doing a family memoir, this might not matter to you. If you’re starting your own publishing imprint, it should.)
But there are some reasons why you might want the ISBN. For instance, it adds another layer of professionalism. And if you want libraries or bookstores to be able to buy your book, you’re going to need it. If you’re distributing through Ingram, you typically will need one.
Some of the bookstores will give you an ISBN or let you buy a very inexpensive one that can only be used through them. And some of the ebookstores don’t require one.
If you do get an ISBN, you will need one for each format: print, ebook, and audiobook.
Cost: ISBNs are $125 apiece bought directly from Bowker. You can buy them from resellers, but they may list themselves as the publisher. Tip: If you’re going to do multiple books, consider buying a 10-pack for $295, which gives you 10 ISBNs for slightly more than the price of two.
Distribution is one thing that’s actually pretty easy to DIY. As long as you’re not distributing to the Apple store, you can spend just a few hours learning the ropes of each bookstore where you want your book (Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and print-on-demand (CreateSpace, IngramSpark or similar). Once you’ve done this once and gotten set up as a publisher in each venue, it should only take you a few minutes to upload future books.
You can also self-upload your book to libraries using SELF-e. It’s free and you don’t need a distributor.
There are several reasons to use a distributor, namely:
It’s a real pain to get your book in iBooks, so it’s worth it to pay someone else to go through this.
If you’re wanting bookstores to be able to stock your printed book, you should go through a distributor such as Ingram because they have purchasing arrangements with retailers. (That said, just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it will be easy. You’ll still need to convince them to take the book, and bookstores may not be willing to stock the books unless they can return them. If you enable this capability, it can cost you big in returns).
Cost: Distribution for ebook and print is $49 at IngramSpark, along with a percentage of sales. Plus, you will need an ISBN.
The good news is self-publishing no longer requires a huge upfront cost to print loads of your books anymore and store them in your garage to sell later.
Instead, you can print-on-demand and have them printed one at a time. The costs come out as you print.
A distributor such as IngramSpark can also get you into print-on-demand channels ($49). Or, you can use CreateSpace (free) to make your book available in print.
Cost: Printing costs can vary based on attributes of your book (size, page count, paper, color, printer, etc.), so you’ll want to calculate the costs before you price your book. Check out CreateSpace’s royalty calculator and these cost calculators from IngramSpark.
Back to Those Publishing Goals
The two components that add the most professionalism to your book are editing and cover design, so our advice is to put the bulk of your money there, no matter how thin your budget.
You can also try these other ways to save:
- Are any of your friends professionals with relevant skills who might be willing to trade or barter services, perhaps for editing or ebook cover design?
- Consider enlisting colleagues as beta readers for extra rounds of editing.
- Use Pressbooks to format your interior file and ebook, rather than having this done by a pro.
- Spend the money on a high-res ebook cover and let Pressbooks create a print cover from it.
- Consider going without an ISBN (depending on your goals for the book).
You can read more about the costs and processes involved in self-publishing in “The Indie Authors’ Guide to Self-Publishing: How to Get Your Book in Print, Ebookstores and Libraries.”
About Elizabeth Mays
Elizabeth Mays is the Director of Marketing and Operations for pressbooks.com and the author of The Pressbooks Guide to Self-Publishing. She has helped organizations compile, format and publish ebooks, is currently working on several open textbook projects, and has written and published several of her own books in Amazon.