One of the first questions aspiring authors have is, how much does it cost to self-publish. Some people treat it like, since you are your own publisher now, you have to replicate traditional publishing and do everything they do, just now with the expenses being all on you!
That seems like a raw deal - not only do you miss out on any advance, that you get in traditional deals, you have to take all the risk on you and outlay money with no guarantees.
But it doesn't have to be that way! The best thing about Self Publishing is that it opens up so much flexibility. We don't have to simply replicate the traditional model. The way we create and consume content is changing, and we get to shape how it goes.
Self publishing is not just the second choice for people who got tired of waiting for their traditional chance - for many of us indie and self-publishers, it is our first choice! A choice of freedom, and a smart, intentional business decision.
You are completely free to pick and choose what works for you and your readers. What process creates a writing career you love, and books readers love?
That gets to be different for everyone.
So when it comes to how much self-publishing costs, there is no one answer. Anywhere from totally free, to thousands of dollars. You decide how much to invest.
Depending on how much you do yourself and how much you outsource, you will spend anywhere from < $200 to $3000+ per book.
You can also do it for free - it just means learning every single aspect yourself. Maybe a few once off expenses, like buying design or formatting software.
Self-publishing for free is definitely possible - but may or may not be the right path for you. Let's look at what goes into it.
So how do you choose how much to invest?
There are a few main factors that will affect cost:
- How much you DIY:
As money invested goes down, your own time & energy investment goes up. It's up to you to find your own balance of what works best for you, and what maximises your returns.
- The level of experience you hire:
Beginning editors & designers will have lower prices. But they also come with less experience, so you will need to be more hands on in the process. Whereas a more experienced professional, that you form a good relationship with, you may be able to just let them do their thing and trust the results.
- The complexity of your needs:
If you are writing longer books, more technical books, graphic heavy books (e.g. cookbooks) with complex formatting requirements, in a genre that tends towards more complex cover design etc. then it will cost more to hire for these things.
- Whether you spend more time on organic platform growth, or money on ads.
It's possible to market without spending much, if anything at all. It just means you'll have to dedicate more time to building your platform, creating content and engaging with your audience. Where ads, though not a total replacement for other engagement and platform building, can be a faster path to getting known once you learn to do it right.
The Balance of Time & Effort VS Money
All of these aspects relate to the investment ratio of your own time, or your money. You might think - I don't want to spend hundreds on a cover design! But then, how long will it take you to learn to create a design that works to sell your book, if you do it yourself? Is that worth it to you?
It might be. Especially if you enjoy it.
But you might realise, with the hours you spend on learning design and fiddling around with a cover until you get it right, that you could have just about written another book! And maybe you'd be better off just paying for it!
How much you spend is up to you.
You could do it all for basically free, or a few low costs for buying stock images for your cover, software for formatting etc. But then instead of money you're investing time & energy to learn the non-writing aspects, and practice them enough to do them well.
Or you could hire pros for everything, so you can spend more time focused on the writing. But then you are putting yourself under pressure to earn back that investment. And you are putting a lot of things in the hands of others, by not learning to do it yourself.
Putting in the time now, to learn the non-writing skills of self-publishing, is a long term investment that can pay off in many ways. So you always have the flexibility to pick-and-mix just how much you hire out, and how much you do yourself.
Learning is never wasted.
Even if over time you invest in professional services more and more, as your income grows, the time you spent getting good at all the different aspects of self publishing is never wasted. It will help you:
- make good decisions,
- hire better people
- have a really hands on understanding of every aspect of your business
- know where investment brings the most return,
Once you've had a hand in all the different aspects, you will know what you enjoy and what you hate.
You'll know where a little extra invested money will save you A LOT of time and energy you can spend better on other things.
And where a little extra DIY effort on your part, will save you a A LOT of money, better spent on other things.
It's worth noting the your "sweat equity" - the time and effort you invest into publishing your book instead of financial investment - will never reach zero.
Obviously you've got the write the thing. But besides that, you will still have to manage the business side of your books to an extent, even if you hire people. You will still have to do some editing and rewriting, you will still need to be informed on your audience and market. You will still have to build and engage with your platform.
(This is not that different to most traditional publish deals either.)
No matter how you publish, being hands-on and well versed in all aspects of your business, will always pay off.
So there's a point at which your money investment is over capitalising, and has fewer returns, other than to push up the amount you need to hustle to recoup your financial investment!
What is worth spending money on?
You need to figure out your budget, and then allocate to the areas that will make the most impact for you.
> Consider your own strengths and weakness.
- Can you put on the different hats? Editor, designer, publisher. What do you feel capable of learning? What feels too far out of your wheelhouse?
- Can you do it well? You can learn to get better at almost all aspects of publishing. But do you feel you can learn to do it well? (Or well enough to satisfy your audience - different genres and different audiences will have different expectations.)
- Do you WANT to? What you enjoy matters too! You want to create a writing and publishing career you love, not feel like a slave to it. So even if you can do something, is it worth your time, energy, sanity?
(Conversely, even if you can afford to pay someone else to do something, do you actually prefer to do it yourself?? There are many aspects of self-publishing I find fun, and enjoy the challenge of learning to do them well. To me, I'd feel like I was missing out if I just paid others to do everything!)
> And what does your audience want?
Different genres, niches, topics and readerships will demand or desire different things. Some will just want more books. Good stories, but as fast as possible!
Some audiences will expect, or topics demand, higher levels of professionalism and readers may be happy to wait longer for a more highly polished book.
Expectations are changing a lot. Self publishing creates a direct line with fewer middle-men between you and your audience. So engage with them.
> WHAT IS YOUR PUBLISHING STRATEGY? DO YOU KNOW THE LIFETIME VALUE OF YOUR BOOKS?
Once you know your market and a good release schedule - and it might take a bit of time and experience to figure this out - you will have a better idea of how much you expect to make with each book you release.
Obviously, books have a potentially unlimited life - you can keep selling them forever. But most likely, they will have a peak and then a taper off.
You will get a feel for what kind of life your books have, and how much investment per book makes sense for you to maximise your profits.
e.g. If you write in trends that drop off quickly, you might choose a strategy where you spend less time and money on each book, so you can write and release faster to capitalise on changing trends.
Or if you write in a very niche market where there is a cap on sales, because the audience is small, you don't want to over capitalise on each book - you just want to write more books.
VS if you write in a sticky genre where books sell for a long time, or where there is an huge audience with almost uncapped sale potential, or you are writing a series that is gaining a lot of popularity, it might be worth spending more on each book to really maximise and boost them as far as they can go.
(This will likely change over time too - as you become a better writer, more skilled at publishing, and more well known author, future books will have a higher lifetime value. And this may boost continued sales of your back catalogue as well.)
I would often recommend, when you're starting out, invest more "sweat equity" and less money, until you get a good feel for it all, and then increase the amount of money you spend as you go, once you've started making sales.
But be honest with your self-assessment of how much you feel you can do successfully yourself.
Because there is a level at which, no matter how much effort you put in yourself, you won't get off the ground at all if you're not hitting the right marks.
There is a lot you can learn to do. But if you just find you cannot get the hang of cover design, for example, then you are going to really struggle to get the sales you need, to create the income you want, to then start paying for cover design!
So it may mean biting the bullet earlier than you'd like, spending at least a bit of money in order to get off the ground. A few key investments could mean the difference between languishing for years, struggling for every little sale - vs. gaining momentum right from the start and keeping yourself on an upwards trajectory.
Know your readers inside and out.
Know your market.
And find the sweet spot that works for you, when it comes to how much you invest, and what the return is - in both career satisfaction and income!