It can be hard for writers to get a handle on how much publishing a book might cost. Given that I’ve recently published my debut novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken, I thought I’d take this opportunity to answer the question I posed in my previous post on profiting from your passion: How much does it cost to publish a book?
As I wrote in that post, one useful resource is Dana Sitar’s contribution to The Write Life, which showcases four different authors’ publishing costs. Although precise figures weren’t given by every author for every category, we can see that, while self-publishing isn’t necessarily cheap, the costs involved can vary greatly: by my calculations, these four spent between $170 and $2,277 on self-publishing their books.
Derek Murphy puts the average indie author spend between $2,000 and $5,000, while Reedsy estimates costs up to $8,000 – far more than most independently published books ever make. (According to Chris McMullen, most indie authors are doing well to sell 100 to 250 copies of their self-published titles. Ever.) Most ebooks on Amazon cost $4.99-$9.99.
Doing the maths
The modal self-published author, Clayton Childress reports in Under The Cover earns less in sales than they spend on costs. And it’s not hard to see why.
At the 70% royalties that are available in most (but not all) regions, you’d need to sell 286 copies of a $9.99 book to recoup $2,000 worth of costs – more than the upper end of McMullen’s estimate that most books sell over a lifetime. If you’re only charging $4.99, you’d have to sell 571 – more than double the figure most indie authors can optimistically hope for. And if you charge just 99c, as estimates suggest almost a third of Amazon books cost, which receives only a 35% royalty rate, well, you’d have to sell a whopping 5,882 books – nearly sixty times more than the average indie book will ever sell. Are you really that confident that your marketing will pay off?
Things get even more ridiculous when we consider the $8,000 figure. To break even, you’d need to sell:
- 1,114 copies at $9.99 (around five to ten times the average indie book)
- 2,294 copies at $4.99 (around ten to twenty times the average indie book)
- 23,529 copies at 99c (around one to two hundred times the average indie book sells)
Maybe you’re confident that your book can sell that many copies. But as one agent reports, the average book published by one of the big publishers will sell around 10,000 copies. Some may sell far more, but others sell far less. If it’s your debut novel, you should be especially wary of over-investing. Data from BookScan analysed by Lincoln Michel suggests that first-time authors generally only sell half as many books as their counterparts who have multiple books under their belt. And that’s with all of the promotion and connections that a big publisher can thrown behind it. Are you really confident your 99c Kindle book can sell more than twice that many copies?
And that’s before you consider the tax you’d have to pay. Meaning, depending on your region, you’d likely have to sell even more. Even those authors who keep their costs much lower have a hard time, says Childress. While the modal author spends on average $685, they earn less than $500 in sales.
Duet Rubato author and editor Claerie Kavanaugh (@claeriekeditor) describes the difference between different kinds of editors in her helpful #tiptuesday posts on Instagram. (Make sure to follow her for more tips every Tuesday!)
A developmental editor (also known as a ‘manuscript critique’ or ‘content editor’) provides the most in-depth edits in terms of story. Kavanaugh says ‘This type of editor will read your manuscript and edit for plot, character, or setting issues’.
According to Reedsy, developmental editing costs around $1,400, or $7 per page. That’s about $2,100 AUD. For a novel the length of Number Eight Crispy Chicken, the price is closer to $1,900 (or around $2,750 AUD). Some authors may also employ a line editor, who‘helps to ensure your book has the intended emotional impact, tone, and atmosphere for each scene and gets rid of redundancies, cliches, and generalizations’, which adds further costs.
A copy editor ‘will check for grammatical errors, incorrect punctuation, and stylistic consistency’ explains Kavanaugh.
Copy editing is slightly cheaper, and costs around $1,020 USD, or $5 per page. That’s about $1,400 AUD at the current exchange rates. Once more, though, Reedsy’s estimates seem to be a little on the low-ish side, as they are for a 60,000 word novel. Most novels are around the 80,000 word mark. For a novel the length of Number Eight Crispy Chicken, the price would be closer to $1,315 (or around $1,900 AUD). You can plug your own novel’s length into the Reedsy site to calculate your own costs.
A proofreader ‘will read your manuscript after it has gone through all the previous rounds of editing to check for typos, omissions, missing words, and awkward word or page breaks.’
Proofreading, Reedsy says, should come to about $600, or $3 per page. For Number Eight Crispy Chicken, the price would have been around $775 (or $1130 AUD).
So, did I end up spending $5,780 on getting Number Eight Crispy Chicken edited?
No, far from it.
To put that into context, that constitutes about a third of my yearly income.
Here’s what I did instead:
Developmental editing: Rather than spending almost three grand on a developmental editor, I had several good friends who are keen readers and fans of the genre to act as ‘alpha readers’ and give me feedback on an early draft. Using my own research background and the many, many books I read about the craft of writing, I developed a short questionnaire that would get to the heart of what I wanted to know about my book in terms of the plot, characters, and setting. I always tell my friends they are invaluable, and they really proved it!
Cost: FREE (/acknowledgement in the book, eternal gratitude!)
Copy editing: Like C. Hope Clark and Dana Sitar, I made use of beta readers, advertising on social media for fellow authors interested in doing a swap. Since I have a background in academia and have edited several books before, I felt confident that I could help others, and I received some really useful feedback from my fellow authors – and even better, developed some lasting friendships!
Cost: FREE (/time to read and give feedback on their work, which is a learning experience in itself, and acknowledgement in the book)
Proofreading: I’m extremely fortunate that my husband was an English major and worked for many years as a technical writer, so he very kindly proofread the final version of my manuscript after I’d done all I could with it.
Cost: FREE (/acknowledgement in the book, eternal gratitude!)
Quid pro quo
By no means am I suggesting that paying a professional editor for their services is a bad idea. Few things turn a reader off faster than sloppy grammer, poor speelings; and and miss-placed punktuating.! (See what I did there?!) In my personal situation, having spent the last decade writing academic books and articles and knowing a few professional writers, I felt comfortable going the DIY route. But I know not everyone is this fortunate.
Provided you can afford it (without going into debt, or causing your other financial commitments and goals, such as paying your mortgage or feeding your kids to suffer!) then engaging the services of a professional editor(s) can be a very sensible move.
Decide on your budget by deciding first whether you are looking to a) make a profit, b) simply break even, or c) just create the best quality work you can. (Read through my last post for help on this) Never spend more than you can afford to lose, and check @claeriekeditor‘s advice on finding a professional, experienced and qualified editor, and well as what kind(s) you need.
If you can’t afford to pay an editor, ask around or advertise to see if you can find someone who might be willing to edit your work in exchange for another skill you might have. There are lots of skills you can swap – ironing, housework, babysitting, transcription, research, social media marketing, hairdressing, gardening, car washing, lawn mowing, household repairs, computer support, website building… the list goes on and on. Think about what you have to offer. But don’t expect editors (or designers, or anyone!) to work for free. They’re contributing to your labor of love, not the other way around. At a minimum, try to find an arrangement that is mutually beneficial.
Cover Design and Graphics
According to Reedsy, cover design can cost anywhere between $300 for a novice, up to $1,500 for the services of an experienced professional. That’s almost $2,200 AUD. And according to Under the Cover, some authors even spend up to $2,000 (or more than $3,000 AUD!) on author photographs.
Here’s what I did instead:
Once again, I’m very fortunate that my multi-talented husband is also an experienced designer who has worked on cover design before. I researched what other books in my genre looked like (both perennial favourites and successful new releases), collected a variety of inspirational images, and we brainstormed the design for Number Eight Crispy Chicken together. Once he’d come up with some initial designs, I posted them on social media for feedback from those who had never read the book (important to get initial impressions, as sometimes it’s easy to get too caught up in trying to represent all the detail of the story).
We took into account the results from the polls I conducted, made a few tweaks, and then unveiled the finished product!
All of the design work was conducted using the free open-source program InkScape. And my author photo? I took and edited it myself!
Daring to DIY
There are a lot of reasons why authors shouldn’t make their own covers. But I’d argue that there are just as many reasons why authors shouldn’t spend money they can’t afford to lose on expensive cover designs. While some, like C. Hope Clark, report finding discounted rates ($250, or $360 AUD), the average price paid by the authors surveyed by Dana Sitar appears to be closer to $400 (or $580 AUD). To put that into perspective, I’d have to sell well over the 100 copies sold by the average book in its lifetime just to cover the cost of the front cover.
That’s one expensive cover.
Of course, not everyone has a designer husband! But there are free DIY options. I used Canva to make the cover for my non-fiction book You Stole My Heart… Do I have to take your name? (And I think it looks pretty good!)
I also use this free-to-use site to create the graphics for promotion. You can find ideas on front cover design, back cover design, and spine design, and back cover design on my author blog, and, like Dana Sitar, get feedback from The Book Designer.
Reedsy defines the formatting of a book as its interior design and typesetting, and estimates this laying out costs $805 on average ($1,170 AUD). While 17% of authors on Reedsy, like all of those surveyed by Dana Sitar, paid less than $500 for formatting, a whopping 35% paid more than $1,000, and around half of those authors paid more than $1,500 (approximately $2,200 AUD).
Here’s what I did instead:
Like Sitar herself, I took a DIY approach. I decided to go ‘wide’ with publishing, distributing Number Eight Crispy Chicken not only via Amazon, but to a variety of retailers including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, through Smashwords.
Formatting and uploading the paperback version of my book to Amazon took me three days. The Kindle version was slightly faster. Smashwords estimates that it will take about 30 to 60 minutes to read their style guide (which is free, and you should definitely read), and one to three hours to format the manuscript. I don’t have to tell you that it took me a lot longer. I’m glad I didn’t have to do all of the different retailers individually. Honestly, if there was one part of the part of the process I would have loved to pay someone to do, it would probably be this one!
According to Reedsy, most authors spend around $50-$200 (nearly $300 AUD) on their marketing campaigns, ‘which is a pretty reasonable range for first-timers’. Sure, it might not be ‘that much’ – but if you’ve already spent almost nine grand on various publishing costs, it’s just one more straw to add to that poor camel’s already straining back.
The ‘low-cost’ options suggested by Reedsy include:
1. Promotion on social media (Cost: free: ‘This is particularly effective if you already have a large following!’)
2. Marketing through your blog and mailing list (Cost: $50 per year + $9.99 per month = $250 AUD/year: but this will also only be effective ‘if you have readership’ already)
3. Facebook advertising (Cost: at least $5/day: ‘be warned… the expenses can really rack up.’ For a promotional launch the length of that I’m doing for Number Eight Crispy Chicken, this would mean a minimum spend of over $100AUD)
4. Price promotions on Amazon (Cost: your soul! I jest, but this does involve enrolling in KDP Select and making your ebook Amazon-exclusive for 90 days. Although Reedsy lists the cost as ‘free’, you also need to account for the potential opportunity costs – every not every discounted book you sell means the loss of a full price sale, but some do.)
5. Other third-party promotions. You can contact book review blogs and promotional services to get others to spread the word about your book. (Cost: Reedsy quotes $0 for a review (although, as I reveal on my author blog, the cost to authors can be immense) and $5-50 for promotional listings, or up to $75AUD)
Authors surveyed by Dana Sitar reported other outlays for stationery (postcards, rack cards, business cards, and stickers), fees to enter awards, and exorbitant costs for setting up at bookstores.
Here’s what I did instead:
I am more time than dollar rich. So I spent a lot of time over the past few months compiling a list of promotional sites which can be used for low cost or even, free, which I’ve shared with my Street Team. Again, taking a leaf out of Dana Sitar’s book, I relied on a little help from friends to get the word out about Number Eight Crispy Chicken.
As Discoverability author Kristine Kathryn Rusch warns, most promotional ideas won’t work until you have several books under your belt. And this includes free ideas. Paid advertising, she suggests, tends to be a waste of time and money unless you’ve already published ten or more books in the same series or genre.
For those of us just starting out, Rusch suggests focusing on honing your craft, ensuring your book has a good blurb, cover, and well-designed interior, and is available in multiple formats (ebook, paperback, and preferably audiobook). They should also be available in every venue you can access, and that booksellers can call up a catalogue from a major distributor like Ingrams or Baker and Taylor and order your book. In other words, concentrate on making a great book rather than marketing a mediocre one.
My only ‘marketing’-related cost has been around $16 for the domain name for my website. Since my husband and I already pay for hosting, there was no additional cost involved.
One surprisingly expensive cost that no one seems to talk about is the price of ISBNs. Paying the initial set-up fee and selecting the most reasonably priced (for my purposes) pack set me back $535, or $5.35 per ISBN – three of which I’ve had to use already for the different versions of Number Eight Crispy Chicken (Amazon paperback, Smashwords, and Kindle). That’s a total cost for this book of $16.05. (I do plan to use at least two more soon, and the rest for future novels)
How much it really costs to publish a book
So how much did I spend? $2,000? $5,000? $8,000?
No. My costs to bring Number Eight Crispy Chicken into the world, total $32.05. Allowing me to turn a profit on day one, with zero marketing spend.
Not a huge profit, mind you. Not even enough to buy a Crispy Chicken burger.
But I’m so happy to be able to celebrate the release of my book and not be bogged down by financial worries.
Have you ever published a book? How much did it cost you, and what tips do you have? Let me know below!