The “Expense” of Self-Publishing (My Experience)

I’m republishing something I wrote about my experience with the cost of self-publishing (it was a reply to my post titled “Let’s be Serious Now, Shall We?”). I’m doing this because   I happened to read at least 3 comments (@ blogs) about the “high cost” of self-publishing today.  My experience might provide some counterpoint to those remarks.

The following has been slightly re-edited from the original:

“I’ve been astonished by how INexpensive it’s been to get quality professional assistance for my cover and formatting. Mark Coker suggested people I could hire for the cover and formatting (for ebook); I thought it was wonderful to have recommendations from an expert like Mark. The lists for formatting and cover weren’t long and I looked into cover design first. All of the people were obviously talented but one more than the others struck a chord with me and I contacted her (bear in mind this is very subjective; the others were outstanding artists but I was looking for a specific “feel” so this is no negative reflection on the others). I chose DigitalDonna.com (Donna Casey) and I could not have been happier; working with her was a joy, her ideas were wonderful, and she’s fast as lightning. Further, she worked with a friend of mine who provided a picture. The story about how the cover came to be is a short story in itself but let me tell you what I thought was going to be a long drawn out painful experience was nothing of the sort. And her fee knocked me over; I thought I read wrong. I’ve spent more on a fancy lunch in Chicago. When I realized I was going to publish a paperback I needed a back cover and Donna expedited that and made enhancements I never thought about and I had the cover in hours (I should have asked for both when I asked for the ebook cover & she did offer it but stupid me declined; I should have listened to her). The cost of that was again so nominal it was amazing.

For formatting I went “down to New Zealand” and worked with Pat Rosier and she was also a true pro; rapid turnaround time, perfect product, and inexpensive. When I had weird formatting problems that showed up on downloads from Amazon Pat said I needed a “Kindle specialist.” (There’s another story here and it’s very odd; I’ve mentioned it elsewhere but if anyone is interested let me know — I’ll share.) So, this cost me a bit more money but I was desperate and I found a gal named “Hitch” owner of Booknook.com and she was another absolutely delightful person and she bailed me out quickly and her fee was more than fair and reasonable.

I’ve figured it out and the cost for an ebook cover and formatting came in under $175 (US).

Now, I’m the kind of person who learned a long time ago that time is money; when I was a paralegal and the attys saw me doing anything my secretary should have done they hit the roof. As a paralegal doing legal research they billed me out to the client at about $150/hr. (incredible, but true and this was 8-10 yrs ago). If I was doing what they hired the secy to do (which was easy enough for me to do because I was a legal secy yrs and yrs ago) then that meant I wasn’t working as a paralegal and billing clients! I still use this model, believing my time is money so I need to find areas where it’s better spent and leave other things for people to do who have the skills I may lack or who function in areas I don’t need to enter. In other words, sometimes spending money is quite cost effective.

I have no art talent and know nothing about how it’s digitalized so it would take me a year (at least) to create what would only be a really lousy cover. I’m more comfortable formatting documents but that’s a lot more of a specialized skill than formatting a business letter and would take me at least 5-6 hrs to probably get the hang of it — so I had to ask myself if I couldn’t find a more productive way to use my time than mucking about with formatting… I decided my time was far more well spent writing content for my web page or reading about promotion & marketing. 

Authors need to think about these things and know they can get great services for less than several people enjoying a big night on the town — and that’s almost any town. My “major” expense (and I hate to use the term “major”) came with the paperback but I caught a $100 discount offer at CreateSpace, brought over my own cover (that Donna Casey created in about 2 hrs once she already had the front and the CS team said I needed to allowed 4 weeks for them to make!) and by bringing over my cover (formatted for paperback, front, back and spine etc.) I knocked off another $150. I was really frugal when shopping at CS and purchased their minimal services but opted into the ProPlan for only $39 more (to expand distribution). My paperback, which I have to tell you looks FANTASTIC, cost slightly over $500 because of the savings re: the discount offer and that I had a cover already made (and this price includes the slight charge for Donna to create the cover CS needed for the paperback).

BTW: I formatted the ms for the print book; that was well within my comfort range.

I know the term “very expensive” is relative but my experience is that you can self-publish an ebook with a pro cover and pro formatting for a truly nominal amount and even go into print for less than you might pay for an average 3-day vacation at an ordinary hotel in a ho-hum city and cheap airfare.

I paid more to AT&T for my web design and shared hosting package than I paid to self-publish my ebook and produce a paperback. 

Art Mills (who wrote the very compelling book “The Empty Lot Next Door”) told me he had a totally different experience with his print company, XLibris. He would not recommend them to anyone and freely says so. I was appalled when he told me his experience. So if I’m giving a plug for CreateSpace, so be it; my experience was great (and I love their author support and tracking system that goes with even their most nominal package and their people are top notch when it comes to customer service and response time). CreateSpace has treated me as if I was the most famous and successful author in America; really, I’ve been so impressed with them.”

28 Comments

  1. Mari Miniatt says:

    A way to save a bit of money if you have talented people around you.

    I broke one of the “rules” about self publishing by asking my husband to do the artwork for free. You are not suppose to ask family or friends, but you can if they can do the following.

    1. Treat your work the same as any job they get, keeping it just as professional.
    2. Don’t turn any discussions into how to tweak the work in to personal arguments.
    3. Tell you no, if it is something they cannot do.

    Case in point: my husbands illustrations look great for my horror novel, but if we self publish my fantasy he has already asked me to find a different artist. What I want, he can do, but not in the time period I would need it done.

    One area I would not skimp on is the editing. Although, my oldest is going into Journalism and I have been giving him small jobs (short stories and the like) When it comes to the big jobs, I get a professional.

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      Great reply. The only rules should be what really work for you (coupled with common sense). I didn’t mention the expense of editing because I wanted to speak to the very end of the book process — when the book is ready to be published. I consider editing part of the “writing” process, not the publishing process. Maybe I should speak to it though. It certainly raises the cost. Thanks!

  2. Dave Bricker says:

    Good article. You may wish to distinguish between using Vanity Publishers like XLibris who charge set fees for publishing services, and true self-publishing which is where you own your own ISBN numbers and produce your own book with as much or as little assistance as you like from artists and typesetters before printing with CreateSpace or Amazon. Both of these latter companies offer distribution to Amazon et al so they do go beyond printing, but they take no royalties and make their income from printing books on-demand. For those willing to invest in quality, you can shop around for a designer and typesetter, find someone who fits your budget, and create a better book than a vanity press generally will.

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      Thanks, Dave. yes, we need to make those distinctions very clear. People are no doubt getting sick of this but I can’t help it (I guess I’m still so excited; I’m like a little kid about it!) — January Moon is a beautiful-looking book. My husband was honestly amazed. He said “I had NO expectation it was ever going to look like this; this is amazing.” We took books off the shelf (big names like Grisham) and compared JM to them and this is the truth: those trationally printed books looked flippin’ cheesy in comparison. First of all, the cover is a heavy stock and it’s glossy (laminated). It does not easily tear, crease, fold, or wear. I’m happy I chose the 6 x 9 instead of the 5 by whatever and I’m pleased with the white paper I chose (looks more dramatic against the black cover with the white moon and I think it’s easier on the eyes). I chose a very readable font & pitch and line spacing. I worried about page length a LOT. I wrote a pretty hefty book at about 125K words and since pg length drives the cost of production I worried but when I asked for larger pitch and slightly wider line spacing I found it only added 3-4 pgs in overall length. With the pages that precede the story (copyright notice, thanks to fam & friends, etc.) I ended up with 380 pages (it appears to have 362 pages but that’s because the counting is off in that this d/n reflect the Prologue and the other pgs I mentioned). The pricing is still good and cost-effective for me to sell books and make money.

    2. Do you have experience with going through a designer and typesetter? I don’t, and I don’t think any of the authors who contribute posts to this blog do. Is this a post you’d be willing to guest write for us?

      1. Maureen Gill says:

        Ruth, are you asking me?

        1. No. I’m asking Dave Bricker.

          Personally, I don’t see what the point is to go through a typsetter, etc in the area to get my book into a paperback set up when CreateSpace makes it so easy and is cheap. Plus, you don’t have to worry about storing your books and trying to sell them via person to person contact. I’d much rather focus on ebooks and print on demand. It’s cheaper and easier, but since Dave mentioned the other option, I figure he could write a guest post on this blog about it to educate anyone who might want to go that route.

  3. Thanks for the updates….good to hear Ruth’s praise of createspace …its a refreshing change against some of the forums out there. Dave

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      Yes, I’m very impressed with CreateSpace (were you referring to me vs Ruth? I’m confused; I don’t want to speak for her). Anyway, I do recommend CS. Thanks!

  4. The most expensive step for me is the editing. As Mari said, it’s the one step you don’t want to skimp on (or worse, skip!). I do my own formatting, so if all I had to pay for was the cover, then I agree, the cost to publish an eBook would be low. Add in a good professional editor and the cost is significantly higher.

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      Ah yes “editing!” I’d say it can be exorbitant and I mentioned it above in another reply. I deliberately separate it from the end-process, the actual publication part. I put editing in with writing; just my preference. But if you factor in the cost of that, then it certainly impacts cost. I have no knowledge about it other than when I spoke to a couple of people about their fees I choked. I could get my hips replaced for less (well, almost). And also, let’s note the difference between editing and proof reading. I think a lot of people confuse the two. They are not the same.

      1. By editing, I meant working with an editor to improve your story and writing. I proofread the “galleys” myself.

        I don’t think it matters whether you lump editing (by a third party) in with the writing or production phase. It’s an expense, either way.

        1. Maureen Gill says:

          I understand and agree to an extent but again I wanted to just speak to the expense “out the door” in re: those companies who actually convert the ms to e-books and print.

          But I also wanted to separate it b/c when it’s tossed into the self-pub discussion it inflates the price and skews the data and here’s my reasoning why I think that: people who argue against self-pubbing sometimes throw in the cost and (seems to me anyway) also imply the self-pubbed author has the added expense of editing which they seem to think they would be spared if they were traditionally published. I would argue this is not necessarily so and that the cost of editing is equally borne by those who may be agented and those who are not.

          Why?

          Because if the work isn’t well edited the agent is going to pass or toss it back. Work has to arrive as pefect as possible. If the agent then comes back and wants changes well that’s different but I doubt very, very, very much a work in need of serious editing or proof reading will catch their eye and earn their interest SO I would say that anyone, whether hoping to be agented or otherwise, must produce a polished, professional ms.

          In that regard, it is an expense equally shared.

          Ironically, the ONLY alternative an author has to publish a work that cries out for pro editing/proofing is in the indie world. Unfortunately, too many authors have self-pubbed without editing/proofing their work appropriately (by pros or otherwise) and they really tick me off b/c they’re the people who have created much of the stigma about self-published works.

          1. I agree with you on your last point (about self-pubbed writers who don’t polish their work).

            I disagree that traditionally published authors have the same editing expenses as self-published authors do. Yes, a piece has to be polished before it’s submitted to an agent or publishing house, but a decent writer can polish a story herself. I don’t use a professional editor to polish my work. I use one so that my polished story will be even better when it’s published.

            The people who point out that self-publishing involves up-front costs have a valid point. Self-publishers who want to produce quality books have to pay for services normally covered by a traditional publisher, and those services can be expensive. I don’t see the point of hiding that from writers who are considering the self-publishing route.

            1. Maureen Gill says:

              Hiding? I’m sure we’re not trying to hide anything. I’m so about full disclosure I’ve been sharing personal numbers here. But if you want to spell it out that’s OK w/me; I’ve heard people talk about paying anywhere from a few thousand dollars to well over $5K in editing. My personal feeling is if you need $5K in editing you need to reconsider if you really should be an author. And I personally know someone (I’ll refrain from saying who because it’s a sensitive subject with him) who finally, after writing about 8 books, got himself traditionally published. He told me the difference was that he “finally coughed up” the money to have his book edited. He paid $7,500. He’s a wealthy man and seemed quite pleased with the outcome. That’s his call. Now he is going to that same editor and giving him all of his earlier ms’s and then expects they’ll be published.

              He referred me to this same guy, one of the best names in the biz, big name authors. I have NO doubt he’s good but I also find it curious how agents have cozy deals with some of these people and there’s a symbiosis that’s worrisome.

              I have a tendency to think that if you need to pay $7.5K to get your book published you need to call your editor what he or she really is and that’s a GHOSTWRITER. Be even more honest and say you co-wrote the book with him/her.

              Now I’m all for scrupulous proof reading and beta readers. Some beta readers expect to be paid; some not. But I’ll always wonder what kind of a ms someone gave someone that cost $7K to make publication ready. When I was teaching college there were always those students who bought term papers too! Sometimes I wonder if this editing isn’t similar.

              I just think the expensive burden of editing has to be factored into the equation no matter how you publish and I’d suggest it’s an exceedingly rare author who gets picked up by an agent with a ms in need of editing. I hear ALL the time that agents return ms’s back to writers with suggestions they get edited.

              And I’d add this that an agent/publisher’s editing isn’t always a good thing. I was deep into discussion with an agent and he wanted me to edit out a part that it now seems is striking a lot of resonance with my readers. Ryne Pearson told us about the damage done to his work “Top Ten” by a publisher who took control and edited sections out of the book that Ryne wanted in.

              But yeah, it’s an expense — I just say it’s an expense that some people have to pony up either way. And the pub’s do nothing for free; if they pay for something they take it out somewhere else, like maybe in the advances.

              Thanks for sharing!

              1. Hiding may have been a little strong. 🙂 But we shouldn’t allow those who argue against self-publishing to dictate what we will and will not mention when we’re offering guidance to others.

                “I’d suggest it’s an exceedingly rare author who gets picked up by an agent with a ms in need of editing.”

                If that were the case, publishing houses wouldn’t employ editors. *All* manuscripts are in need of editing.

                I agree that some writers have their manuscripts edited before they submit them to agents/publishers, but most don’t, including those who get contracts. They don’t have to factor in the expense of paying for an editor.

                Anyway, I just wanted to point out that editing costs should be taken into account when calculating how much it will cost to self-publish a book. It can be an expensive step–not 7K expensive(!), but often more expensive than the cover design and other steps.

                1. Maureen Gill says:

                  I understand and absolutely appreciate your feedback! Thanks!

                  1. If you barter services, editing doesn’t have to cost anything. I’ve seen crappy editing done at big and small publishing houses, so I’m not overly impressed with their ability to edit.

                    At a writer’s conference I attended two years ago, the agents and editors said they want polished up ms because the economy is hurting the publishing houses, and if they can get by with less editing (to save on costs), they will pick the more polished ms. It makes sense. I doubt a ms in need of an editing overhaul will be accepted. Simple fixes are one thing but a ms that’s burdened with errors won’t make it past the query stage, imo.

  5. I think your right Sarah, the editing is probably the most expensive. Personally I only have a secondary education., no college or University background so I have to pay for these services. Being self-employed, big mortgage, credit cards etc then it is EXPENSIVE! It’s all relative, we all live within or beyond our means sometimes. For me it’s a case of saving up and getting someone who is used to doing these areas of expertise to do them for me.

    Unless you are multi talented, i agree with some of Ruths and Maureen’s comments too.

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      As I just posted to Sarah’s comment I also think we need to be clear about the difference between editing and proof reading. I’m definitely thinking we need more discussion about the two… 🙂

  6. I’ll share my experience since I’ve done both cheap and horribly expensive. I went with vanity presses such as iUniverse back in the day, and back in 2002, it was $199 to have it all done (formatting, professional cover, ISBN, etc). Not too long after that, they’d raise the price little by little and by winter 2008, I was paying about $1000 for each book I was publishing through Outskirts Press. I could have published for around $799 if I chose a template book cover instead of having a professional one done for me. After publishing many books (I think it was 14), I had racked up $10,000 worth of expenses and the books were so highly priced, no one wanted to buy them.

    So then I experimented with Lulu and CreateSpace and found CreateSpace more to my liking. I spent a good six months learning how to properly format my interior book file and bought a book cover software program for $199 to make the covers myself. After spending $10,000 on publishing books, I am very cheap now.

    I bought an image to represent me as a publisher that I put on the back of every paperback. Then I buy the front cover image, put a title on it and add my name. It takes all of 10 minutes these days, and the front cover image costs about $10 at dreamstime.com or shutterstock.com. So I spent $10 for a cover.

    Then I learned about Kindle and Smashwords from The Creative Penn website (www.thecreativepenn.com), and learned to do my own formatting to get into premium distribution. It was important to me that I learn how to do it all myself because I don’t want to rely on anyone to do anything for me. (Years of having the vanity presses maintain ultimate control over my work has made me determined to do it all myself.) Note: my formatting is not as professional with all the indents in there, but it’s clean and neat and I actually prefer a space after each paragraph when reading on my Kindle, so it works for me. I don’t have trouble with getting premium distribution at Smashwords either.

    As for editing, I use the barter system. I send my manuscript to one or two trusted readers and have them read it over. In exchange, they get a free paperback version of my book when it’s out. I read over it again before I publish it. They offered to proof it over, and I took them up on it with the disclaimer that they would only get a paperback out of it. I have one in particular who is really good. I sent her all of my books which turned out to be over $100 when you factor in shipping, but that was a one time fee.

    I have no trouble using family or friends to barter services for. I’ll have my husband read over my sci-fi thriller to pick out any loopholes or inconsistencies in my plot because he’s good at that. He got to buy an iphone for Christmas in return. I asked a friend to make a cover for one of my books and proofread her book in return. I have paid Joleene Naylor to do some services for me, and for a personally drawn cover for my fantasy series, it cost me a total of $200 for four front covers. I’m only doing ebooks with those. I see this as utilizing the talent surrounding me.

    I decided to stop doing paperbacks (at least publicly) because those don’t bring in enough to warrant the $39 per title at CreateSpace to opt in for their distribution and to increase my royalty rate. Having published about fifteen or so titles over there and not making the $39 per book back in royalties, it’s been a losing factor for me. So this year, I’m only doing my own private copy. (My proofreader will be the only person getting the paperback version as well.) I make much more off my ebooks, so I’m focusing on what brings in money.

    Anyway, in total, I spent $10 per book I publish these days, and that cost is for the front cover image. Everything else is done myself, free, or bartered. 😀 For me, this was the best route, esp. when I plan to publish 6-8 books this year. (I said ‘plan’. We’ll see what actually happens, and two are completed and being proofed as we speak.) So 6-8 books under $100 is my plan.

    1. Maureen Gill says:

      Ruth, I’m floored at what you say about CS; $39? You must be factoring in the upfront cost and deciding what you needed to charge per book. I didn’t do that kind of accounting because if you do then where is the adjustment? I mean is it a constant downward spiral? Is the first book $500 and then the cost of the POD per book and then if on Amazon their fee so that the book could conceivably be $509.31? It gets way too complicated.

      I compared by book to others in the same genre, similar length, etc. Factoring in that I’m still an unknown I knew I certainly did not intend to be more expensive than a well known author. I saw that newly released print books ranged from $9.99 to $19.99 and some a bit more.

      I’ll write something that explains where I went from there…. but the bottom line is that my book is selling at Amazon.com for $14.99 and it’s selling; it started to move within a few days and I haven’t done advertising yet except for emails, FB, blogging like this, and some word of mouth.

      Again, more later.

      As always, thanks for sharing!! I always love your input.

      1. I lowered my price to $7.99 to be competitive with other romance books. I’ve only made $168 or something in that ballpark last year off paperback sales. Since I published four books and paid $156 with the $39 per paperback title to lower the price for the consumer, I barely made enough to recoup my costs. I could price my books at $10 I guess, but since I sell so little now, I don’t see the point. Raising my ebooks from $0.99 to $2.99 has already cost me a couple hundred per month in ebook royalties, so I would expect raising the paperback price to not be that lucrative of a venture either. (Plus, I get hit up for ‘signed paperback copies’ that people resent buying from me so this will help eliminate that email complaint and simplify my life.) This is why I think putting out everything for free has ultimately bit me in the butt. 😀 People start assuming I’m obligated to give out free paperbacks too. Second to the complaints about putting sex in my books is the complaints regarding the fact that I am now asking to be paid for my work. If I had started out right, I’d be better off today. That’s why my pen name only gave away one 4,000 word short for free and nothing else. 😀

  7. I published my books at CreateSpace for the cost of the 2 proof copies (I always find things to change when I read the first one!), but I got lucky and could do my own cover/etc and/or had volunteers. For instance I have a wonderful lady who does my editing for free, and I’ve corralled three beta readers for copy editing. My original design layout was done by another friend, though I ended up tweaking it quite a bit. So, yeah, I get quite aggravated when I read about how expensive it is, too!

    1. Mari Miniatt says:

      The $39 is optional at Createspace. It opens up more markets for you. The actual cost is the printing cost to the author. So if you order your own copies the cost per book is very reasonable. Mine work out to about $4.50 a copy with shipping cost. So if I sell the book personally I am still making a good profit.
      They want you to renew that extended market plan every year for $5 a title. But this year they waived the fee for me, which was nice.

      Another expense, the ISBNs. I recommend buying the 10 package deal, especially if you are planning more than one books. Its around $250. The more you buy from Bowker, the cheaper they get, but how many of us have a 1,000 books. Yet, like editing this is one that you should not skimp on. If you get a “free” one from Createspace or other printers, they actually are listed as publisher. Which might not seem like a big deal, but if they go under, you can’t reprint that title with that same ISBN. I made sure to own my own numbers So I can move the book where ever I wanted.

      Editing. I love my editor. He charges $2 a page double space. I can send him what I can afford at the time. Usually 10 – 30 a time. It takes longer, but it feels better on my wallet.

      1. Maureen Gill says:

        Excellent point: always own your own work. No exceptions.

        Smashwords assigned the ISBN and it was free and CreateSpace did too I believe. I don’t think I’ve paid for an ISBN.

        I certainly earn more money when a book is purchased directly from CreateSpace at their e-store. I was a bit torn about this at first; didn’t know if I should direct people to CS (and earn more $) or Amazon (and earn less). I decided Amazon is the Booking Selling God. If I’m going to make money, it will be via Amazon.

        So books CS books sold on Amazon have the cost of their creation per book (x1) + Amazon’s fee (x2) subtracted from whatever you set your book at; my book earnings are net x1 & x2 and all I can say is that @ $14.99 a book on Amazon I’m content.

  8. I just republished a post by Stephannie Beman that explains the difference between editing, proofreading, etc. She wrote it last year. 😀

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