The True Cost of Self-Publishing a Book

Publishing your own book is relatively easy these days, but the process and costs involved are more than a little opaque. There are steps you won't realize you missed unless someone tells you, and there are ways to overspend on useless services.

In fact, there are many ways for questionable service providers like Author Solutions and Archway to take unwary authors for a ride, but the most important way they cheat authors is in making authors think they've gone through all the necessary steps while leaving out what can be the most important and costly steps (editing, editing, and editing).

This post is a follow up explanation for why I have called specific self-publishing services scams. I do not mean to apply this label to all services, just to the ones that charge a lot of money while failing to provide some very necessary work for turning a manuscript into a book.

Please do not take this post as a strict guide as to the cost of self-publishing; I am showing you what the costs were for one author and one book (with additional feedback provided by an editor). I'll also explain the steps involved and why each one is important.

Ideally a newbie self-publishing author should take away from this post an understanding of what kind of services they should expect to receive in exchange for the high fees charged by Author Solutions and Archway.

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So You've Written a Book

Let's start by assuming that a new author has finished a book and wants to publish it. For our purposes we will use a soon to be published novel by one author who I will call Sue.

Step One: You're Not Done Writing the Book

The first step in publishing a book is to find a developmental editor.  Every author, no matter how experienced, can benefit from having someone else read the manuscript and tell the author if the story makes sense, if it has any plot holes, or has other problems with the story.

The two grand charged by Author Solutions and Archway does not include this step, and for a good reason. This can be very expensive, with a developmental edit of a novel costing between $1,000 and $2,000 or possibly even more. Even with the high cost, this step is important because, assuming an author finds a good editor and listens to the editor, it could help prevent an author from publishing unprofessional crap.

Sue took a cheaper route and found beta readers, but still ended up paying her main beta reader for the time and energy which that reader put into providing feedback.

Cost: $400 to $4,000

Step Two: Copy Editing

Now that the manuscript is done, it's time to have another editor go through it and fix the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other errors that have crept in either through author oversight, the cat jumping on the keyboard or were perhaps were introduced by the developmental editor (whose focus was on fixing the story, not catching grammar errors).

The cost for copyediting varies based on length and content. Nonfiction can cost a heck of a lot more the cost of editing a novel, with some technical subjects requiring esoteric knowledge on the part of the editor. Luckily novels don't cost that much. Sue paid a copyeditor $35 an hour.

Again, the two grand charged by Author Solutions and Archway does not include this step, which is another sign that it is a scam.

Cost: $35 to $100 an hour

Step Three:  Cover Image

It is not so easy to estimate the cost of this step because authors have a number of options which can drive up the cost while also adding a lot of value.

A basic cover image could cost between $200 and $400, but an author might also decide to license fonts for the cover in order to give it a specific feel. The author might also pay someone to design the cover before it is made. This would be particularly useful for purposes of branding as well as making the book look professional (this will boost sales). And the author might want all their books to look alike to readers will recognize them, and that goes double for books in a series.

Cost:

Cover image: $200 to $400

Designer: Varies

Fonts$100 to $500

Step Four: Formatting

Now that you have a cover and a manuscript it is time to turn them into an ebook. This is one of the least expensive steps, and even making Epub, Kindle, and a Smashwords DOC should not cost you much.

Cost: $100 to $200

Step Five: What about Paper Books?

I don't have information on this yet, so I cannot comment. But like the other steps in publishing a book, an author can do this on their own.

Step Six: Uploading the eBook to eBookstores

It's a little difficult to estimate the costs of this step because it varies based on the amount of work the author wishes to do.

There are distributors like Smashwords who will take a small commission in exchange for distributing the ebook to Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and other ebookstores. Authors can also save money by uploading the ebook to one or more of these ebookstores on their own.

It's not uncommon for authors to upload to Kindle and Nook themselves and let Smashwords distribute to the rest of the ebookstores, though there is nor requirement for you to do so. Non-US authors might also find that the cheaper option could be to let Smashwords handle all the distribution (Amazon pays int'l. authors in US dollars by paper check, not electronic funds transfer).

Cost: Varies

Step Seven: Marketing and Promotion

At this point you have ebooks to sell and you want to promote them. Sorry, but that's a topic I can't cover here. Marketing your ebook is such a complex subject that it deserves a post of its own.

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If you've made it to the end of the post then you might be overwhelmed by the work involved. The sheer volume of text above might be enough to scare some authors into signing with a service like Author Solutions or Archway. That's your choice, but before you do that I'd recommend that you make sure that the service provides all the steps needed to publish your book.

Being a self-published author can require a degree of entrepreneurial spirit, so it is not for everyone.  I myself prefer the idea of the author doing all this by themselves. You can hire someone to do each of the steps mentioned above, and if you hire them yourself you will have greater control both over the immediate cost and quality as well as the eventual income.

image by TheGiantVermin

15 thoughts on “The True Cost of Self-Publishing a Book

  1. Getting into self-publishing is setting up a small business.
    And like any small business, you can start small and cheap… and get small results. Or you can start small and smart and invest strategically as you ramp up to bigger and better results.
    Like any business, it is important to study the business you’re getting into before you start writing checks or signing contracts.

    In publishing, there is one particular caveat that today must be observed: think looonng and hard before giving *anybody* a percentage of your product’s revenue. Then think it over again.

    Copyright these days is, as far as a writer is concerned, forever (life + 50-75 years, maybe more if the Disney’s of the world prevail) so everybody that gets a percentage gets it forever, unless you *explicitly* insist on clear and unambiguos expiration *dates*: Not conditions to end the deal, but actual hard-coded expiration dates.

    Most publishers and *all* the scam operators will balk at this.
    Make of the similarity what you will. :)

  2. Nice article, thanks. The scams certainly leave out the most expensive parts of the “full” process.

    Can’t comment on developmental editing; never done it. But professional copy editing is so expensive it’s tempting to skip, especially if one has absolutely no hope of ever recouping the cost. A couple of techniques I use to improve personal copy editing: (1) let the book sit untouched for a long time between drafts; (2) change the format, font, line width, and/or other factors *every* time you edit so that it looks different to your eye.

  3. See, this is the sort of thing that publishers need to come out and clearly show people. The development costs behind a book that do not matter whether it is digital or print. Of course, they also need to realize that they have to be transparent about the costs behind transportation, storage, and buying back remainders for print books. If the public can see this information clearly and in language they understand, they would understand why ebooks shouldn’t be free or $2. But the publishers would also be showing why the ebooks shouldn’t be $20.

  4. Some other suggestions: barter copy editing services with another author. It’s really hard to copyedit your own stuff. Also, use “read aloud” software to hear the typos and other mistakes you can’t see.

    While I have not used it myself, I understand Scrivener (software especially for writing books) provides decent conversions for epub and mobi/Kindle output.

  5. A subscription to the cloud version of Adobe InDesign CS6 is $19.99 a month. At that price, I believe you’re locked in for a year. An enterprising self-publisher could use Microsoft Word, but shame on them if they do. Add in a couple of books and/or online classes, like the ones at Linda.com, and call it another $100.

    So for print, a DIYer will spend $340 plus some time on the learning curve (YMMV).

  6. @Carmen: Relying on “read aloud” software to hear typos is dangerous. How do you tell the difference between, for example, here and hear, seem and seam, there and their, your and you’re, bee and be, etc?

        1. Yeah, I’m a huge believer in text-to-speech for proofreading. If you use software that highlights each word as it’s spoken, watch the screen as well as listen, and make a couple of passes over your document, you should be able to do _at least_ as good a job of proofreading your own work as anyone else could do.

          Of course, that only counts for finding typos. You still need to learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, etc. in order to do your own proofreading for those things.

  7. Great post! I’ve found that studying what the bestselling indie authors are doing can also be helpful. Many provide recommendations on who to use for editing, formatting, cover art, etc. Of course, it’s the author’s job to do their own research into these individuals and the products produced and make the decision.

  8. OMG – that is such good advice ! I have looked up some of the self-publishing books – from Trafford and Archway – and some of them AFTER editing are riddled with spelling errors, sentences that run forever, words that don’t make sense, and unfinished thoughts. And I imagine they get a lot of money from the writer. I am so glad I did my research. Love your column, thank you…

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