Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Going Indie Will Cost You: Part 3 of Why Self-Publishing Is Better Than You Think

I've had many people ask me what everything costs when one decides to self-publish, and sadly there is no straightforward answer. Instead of trying to estimate what someone might spend on self-publishing a book, I'll tell you my own experience.

First of all, let's straighten out one thing: I am not considering any of the packages you can buy to self-publish your book - the ones that cost thousands of dollars and provide a cover artist, editor, marketer, etc. That's a great way to go if you want, but for me, it was pretty much taking all the self out of self-publishing. So everything I talk about below pertains to doing everything yourself, including hiring out artists and editors if needed.

Some of you might laugh at these numbers, but they are what they are and I'm happy to share them so you have a realistic expectation of self-publishing. You might spend more. You might spend less. Everyone and every project is different! I know some of my fellow Indie writers have sold more copies than myself, and some have sold less. It makes me happy to see that everyone is different and that it is truly up to the writer's own devices on what they sell, how they sell it, and how well it does.

*First, I used CreateSpace, a Print-On-Demand publisher (POD). Print-On-Demand simply means that the publisher, like CreateSpace, doesn't print and ship your book until someone purchases it. This literally means the book costs you nothing out-of-pocket - you and the publisher make a profit off each sale. Self-publishing with a small press costs MUCH more because you must pay for all of your print copies up front and then sell them. POD publishing is taking off, and there's a good reason why!

TOTAL SALES (first 6 weeks): 151 copies

TOTAL REVENUE (first 6 weeks): $1,066.47

TOTAL SPENT (first 6 weeks): $1,240.92


Now, you must understand these numbers keep changing. The total I spend changes every time I pay postage on signed books I send out, and that will change the amount I have left to earn. But I do think that as time goes by, the gap between the two will get larger and larger until my revenue is much higher than what I spent on the book.

Here's a breakdown of the costs for you:

COVER: $217.35
(This is the cost of stock photography for the background, as well as the cost of the dress I had custom made, and props. I did not have to pay the model or the seamstress for the dress - only for materials. Because of the kindness of others volunteering their time and talents, this cut down on costs)

POSTAGE: $267.26
(Shipping overseas can get expensive, but most of this was paid by the customers, so it was not directly coming out of my pocket. This also includes shipping materials - bubble mailers and labels, etc.)

(This includes giveaway items and advertising on Facebook)

BOOKS: $446.50
(These are physical copies I've sold by hand or by mail, as well as free copies for reviews and giveaways. Consequently, I make the most profit, even with double-shipping, to sell copies by hand, but over half of my sales are ebooks and books sold through Amazon, so I make a different profit off each kind of sale)

(This is usually not wise, I'll admit, but I happen to know some amazing people)

SWAG: $85.47
(This includes bookmarks and business cards...hint: does practically FREE business cards...)

(All I paid for was food at Costco. Talk about simple)

(Yes, that's right. $39.00 to publish my book. Everything else up above was completely unnecessary. I could have paid this $39.00 and that was it. Oh, and you can choose not to pay $39.00 if you want. It gets you the Expanded Distribution Channel service through Amazon. I'll discuss this later)

Now, that being all said, let's look over some things. If you wanted to self-publish and completely forgo print copies - selling only ebooks, you'd cut down on a lot of cost. Even if you sell print copies, you do not have to sell them by hand as I have done for some of my sales. You can simply sell them through Amazon or CreateSpace or Lulu or whatever print-on-demand publisher you've used.

So, now that I've shared all of that lovely information with you (it's unnerving to share all this, by the way), I'll give you an idea of what you should spend money on if you decide to self-publish.

Quite honestly, you can self-publish your book COMPLETELY FREE. A lot of people do this. I don't think it's very smart to do that, but that's just my opinion. Publishing a book is a huge deal, and you should treat it as such. If you are uncomfortable pouring some money into your work, you probably shouldn't be self-publishing.

If you are going to self-publish, you should absolutely, most definitely spend your money on at least these things:

*update - someone whom I respect as a self-published author, made it clear to me that perhaps I shouldn't imply that you HAVE to do these things. She is 100% right. You really don't have to do these things, but in my opinion, doing these things may help your chances at getting your book more noticed. Just my opinion. As this person always says, and I agree with her 100%, the QUALITY of the book INSIDE is what matters!!! Therefore, I do think getting a good editor is important, or at least making sure your work truly is ready to put out there.

Either pay a designer or buy stock photography or something to make your cover look professional. If you can't make it look professional yourself, hire someone. Your cover says a lot about how you feel about your work. Readers pick up on that in about 5-billionths of a second. You have about 5-billionths of a second to make a reader go "Oh, I want to read that book!" or "Oh, I hate that cover. It looks amateur, so the book is probably amateur." However untrue that may be, it's sadly true in this day and age.

Do not underestimate this. This might be where you spend most of your money, actually. Unless you seriously know what you're doing or you know someone you completely trust to edit your work, hire an editor.

Do not underestimate the power of social networking! This can cost money when you start to advertise your book. There are reviewers you can pay to review your book. You can advertise on Facebook for relatively cheap. You'll want to do giveaways. You'll probably want bookmarks and business cards if you're sending out print copies of your book.

If you're self-publishing, the most important thing is to be professional. Professionals advertise. Advertising is how you sell copies. It's probably going to cost you some money.

Here are some fantastic links you should check out:

SELF-PUBLISHING: Maybe You're Not So Vain After All? by Anne R. Allen

The Indie Author Revolution by Seth Mullins

ISBNs Don't Matter As Much As You Probably Think They Do, But You Might Want To Start Owning Your Own Anyway by April Hamilton

Kindle Author Interview: Mary McDonald on Kindle Author

Will Self-Publishing Make You Die? by Livia Blackburne 

CreateSpace Self Publishing, Create Space Book Photos by Lisa Shea

8 Reasons Self-Publishing is Entering a Golden Age by Joel Friedlander 

Empty Validation by Zoe Winters 

Vanity Press Goes Digital by Geoffrey A. Fowler and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg

 Jamie DeBree has been kind enough to share the following here. This post is originally found on her author site, here. Jamie is the author of the recently released romance novella, Tempest.

Self-Publishing: Be Prepared
by Jamie DeBree

I made a lot of mistakes when I decided to self-publish Tempest. Mostly because rather than researching the heck out of how to do it first (like I do with most things), I just decided to jump in with both feet and pick it up as I go. I didn't do too badly, but there are still some things that would have gone much more smoothly had I thought them out ahead of time.

Don't set a public release date until you have finished revising/editing your work. My reason for doing this was to set a very public deadline and force myself to get the work done. It worked great to motivate me, and if I'd only done an ebook as originally planned, it would have been fine. Unfortunately, deciding to add a print copy set my delivery time line back – which leads to the next thing I should have done early...

Decide early what formats you're going to publish in. I originally planned to release Tempest only in ebook format. Then I discovered that the majority of my regular readers still prefer print books. Because those are the people most likely to help me get the word out, I impulsively decided to release print copies as well. It turns out that print takes a lot longer to format and get approved/ordered – so if you want to do a print release, plan well in advance. Give yourself a month to six weeks to format, upload, fix any issues, and order proof and sales copies when dealing with print publishing. Ebook publishing goes far more quickly – you can format and upload an ebook in less than a week. 

Double-check your formatting and proofreading. My biggest mistake was switching the order of two chapters when I formatted Tempest for print, and then copying that error across all of my ebook formats. I caught it before the final print copy, but not before several e-copies had already sold. My plan for next time is to format and order a proof of the print copy first, read that carefully to mark and fix any mistakes, and then use that file as the basis for my ebook copies. I'm confident that will catch the majority of mistakes and make for a much cleaner release next time. 

Order any print copies you plan to sell from your home at least one week ahead of the release date. My readers have been very patient in waiting for print copies to get here for signatures, but it's been a long wait. 

Don't forget the small stuff. I really dropped the ball on this one. The print copy has a dedication in it, but I forgot to add it into the ebook copies altogether until I had to redo them because of the chapter switch. I'm still not entirely sure it made it into all copies. I completely dropped the ball on acknowledgments, though I did remember to give credit to my editor and cover artist. These are things that will be far better thought out and included as a matter of course in later works. 

Be proactive getting review copies out. I offered 20 ebooks free for review, and had only one person accept it. Later, I heard that a lot of people simply hadn't been aware of the offer – it was listed on my web site and I mentioned it a few times, but I should have made a bigger point of getting the word out. I think doing that would have been very helpful in getting more initial reviews, so I'll be doing more of that next time, for sure. 

I think those were my biggest mistakes for my first self-publishing experience, and hopefully my sharing them will help someone else not to make the same ones.

I have really enjoyed my experience so far with self-publishing. It has been fun and exciting, but a lot of work. I'm pretty sure I'd like to try and publish through a small publisher, as well, and I'm not sure an agent or a large publisher are good options for me. I have the resources, talents, and drive for self-publishing. You might, too, but be honest with yourself before you jump in.

What is the bottom line here? Mostly likely, self-publishing is going to cost you money, time, heartache, and a lot of patience and determination. And most likely, you're not going to make a lot of money off self-publishing. AT FIRST... 

Why Self-Publishing Is Better Than You Think Series

Do You Want to Jump the Fence? - August 26th
The Vase - September 1st
What Going Indie Will Cost You - September 8th
Whither The Author-Artiste? - September 9th
Influences & Self-Publishing Might Just Stink For You - September 16th 
The Absolute Nightmare (or not!) of Formatting a Print Book - September 22nd
Cheaper Than Kinko's - September 23rd 
Don't Listen to Me - September 30th


  1. Thanks for sharing, this is great info!

  2. Great post. I'm fascinated by self-publishing. I have already edited one self-pubbed book and would love to do more!

    My friend Jill Battaglia is an art photographer and sells many of her photos for book covers. You can see her work on - her photos are absolutely sumptuous! Sites like this are great for finding wonderful photography to purchase - it won't be cheap, but it may be easier than setting up a photo shoot (and having a dress made - wow!) (BTW Jill doesn't know I'm plugging her - I just think talent should be broadcast...)

  3. Rick: You're welcome!

    Jane: Thank you so much for that info! It's this kind of dialogue I'd like to happen here - everyone sharing what they can for the benefit of everyone.

    Jill's site looks fantastic!

    I know it would have been easier to do my cover another way - and cheaper. But I am a photographer and I really wanted to do the cover myself all from scratch. Now I have a great dress hanging in my closet... :)

  4. Thanks so much for sharing all this information Michelle. It's good to see hard numbers. And thanks to Jamie for all her insight as well. Great post.

    And congratulations again on CINDERS!

  5. Looks like you are on the right track. Keep going, your are going to do amazing as long as you have a definite goal set you can achive anything.

  6. This is great information and gives me a little hope. {Not that I have anything to sell right now} I've been wanting to read Cinders {You've done a great job advertising it} and I want to know which way helps you out the most? Amazon or buying directly through you? Let me know and I'll send you some money :)

  7. Anne: Thanks for stopping by!

    Allison: Thank you! Doing this has shown me I can achieve more than I thought. :)

    Chanelle: Aww, you're so sweet! I don't think going Indie is right for most people, but there are a few where it's a perfect fit. If you think you might be one of them, go for it!

    Buying directly through me benefits me the most. I actually have one "blemished" signed copy left if you're interested in getting it. Click here for more information.

    If you don't want a blemished copy (and it's not very blemished, anyway), I'll be getting a new shipment within the next week and a half. You can put your order in now to secure your copy. Click here for more info.

  8. Michelle, you probably helped a lot of people with this detailed post. You've spelled out the plan and costs and results so well.
    Each of these steps will help to create a more professional result. CINDERS is so professional in every aspect--writing, editing, design. You're a poster girl for how to do it right, and I wish you lots of success with this.

  9. Tricia: I really hope this helps some people. It took a lot of convincing myself to share these numbers publicly. A lot of convincing...

    I kept telling myself it would do more harm to not share them. I hope I'm right! I would have killed to have a post like this before I made my decision to self-publish Cinders.

  10. Daggone. I think I would have made up numbers that generally reflected the idea. You're brave.

  11. Nevets: Since part of my decision to self-publish Cinders came because I wanted to give our readers here an honest look at self-publishing, I figured the real sales was the only way to go.

  12. This is a refreshing look at self-publishing. Thank you for letting us in on the break down. I hope to see another analysis, say in 6 months? Where the numbers are much more in your favor.

  13. Thanks so much...and I'd love to have further updates. Fascinating!

  14. Michelle, I know it takes a lot of courage to broadcast your personal numbers like this. Thank you so much for doing it. I think it's so rare that people get this kind of information, especially in the traditionally publishing world where it seems like there are far too many secrets. This is awesome, and I wish you continued success.

  15. Extremely interesting post (and series), thanks Michelle. And the links you included were very useful too!

  16. T.Anne: I'm really happy to hear the word "refreshing", thanks. I'm not sure if I'll provide more numbers in 6 months but I don't see why I couldn't. I might just forget, is all, and they might be very sad, haha.

    Damsel: Thanks for stopping by! It IS fascinating, I'll admit!

    Domey: I suppose that's why this feels so "wrong" to put out there - because of all the secrets people keep in publishing, it seems. Quite frankly, I think that's part of what feeds the stigmas and elitist attitudes and negative feelings out there. Thank YOU for all of your support! You are a huge reason any of this has happened.

    Judy: Thanks for checking it out! The links are very useful, I hope. I've been saving them up for awhile. They are all excellent articles and filled with great information for anyone considering this.

  17. T.Anne: I'm really happy to hear the word "refreshing", thanks. I'm not sure if I'll provide more numbers in 6 months but I don't see why I couldn't. I might just forget, is all, and they might be very sad, haha.

    Damsel: Thanks for stopping by! It IS fascinating, I'll admit!

    Domey: I suppose that's why this feels so "wrong" to put out there - because of all the secrets people keep in publishing, it seems. Quite frankly, I think that's part of what feeds the stigmas and elitist attitudes and negative feelings out there. Thank YOU for all of your support! You are a huge reason any of this has happened.

    Judy: Thanks for checking it out! The links are very useful, I hope. I've been saving them up for awhile. They are all excellent articles and filled with great information for anyone considering this.

  18. Domey: Oh, I meant to say that I do understand why there are secrets kept in publishing. Not every author has the same publishing contract and same amount of money poured into their work. It's all a business, so really bad things could come out if everyone knew everyone else's numbers. I do feel, however, that attitudes could change drastically about what is shared.

  19. Michelle, Something that has always puzzled me was that movies announce how much money they make (or at least someone announces it for them) but book profits are much harder to find. I don't know if there would be bad consequences to publishing the numbers, but it gives me a feeling of secrecy that I'm suspicious of.

  20. Domey: Oh, I know exactly what you're saying. It makes me suspicious, too. I don't see ANY problem with bottom-line numbers being shared. I think that should definitely happen. Then again, it puts a lot of focus on the money-end of things, which I hate focusing on because a lot of times it's the poorly-grossing under-advertised, under-appreciated movies that are actually very, very good, and the high-grossing movies that suck. I suppose books might be the same way. :)

  21. I think there's a cultural thing, too. It's largely a matter of perception, but I think people typically view movie income as corporate yet see book income as more like individual authors' salaries, which would be impolite to talk about in American culture.

    Then again, we do talk about celebrities' incomes with abandon.

    Then again again, authors are rarely celebrities.

  22. Nevets: That's a very good point, yes. I can see where that would get sticky and impolite and downright bad.

  23. Glad my post could be useful, Michelle - and thanks for sharing your numbers. I'm seriously considering doing that myself...but still working up the chutzpah. ;-) Good for you for putting it all out there - a realistic look at what all goes into self-publishing is really important for anyone considering going this route, IMO.

    And I agree with you - two most important things are editing and a professional cover. Without doubt. My covers are well worth the money...and social networking has made me very fortunate in connecting with my editor.

    As an aside - that post of mine is on my business blog - Beyond the Words rather than The Variety Pages (which is my writing blog).

    Self-pubbing was kind of like getting a tattoo for me - nerve-wracking at first, a little painful during, and very addictive after. ;-)

  24. Jamie: Ack! Sorry! I'll fix that link right away. There were a lot of link in here. I knew I'd get at least one wrong, haha.

    And yes, I think it's beneficial for self-published writers to share this kind of information. It might be unnerving, but think about who you're helping. :)

  25. Michelle, thanks for explaining your self-publishing journey in a clear, to the point way. I hate there's a stigma against self-publishing, but I think that's changing, slowing, but it's happening.

  26. A word about the cover. I wonder if the importance of a good cover is only based on first reads. Presumably, Michelle, you'll get multiple waves of buyers. The first wave is probably your friends and family and people who are deciding based on external factors other than the writing. But, after that first wave, I'd imagine word of mouth would be the most important things. I know when I love a book or think it will appeal to a certain audience, I work hard to get the word out. And if, say, the cover was less than perfect, I'd make sure to tell people something like, "Yeah, the cover isn't so hot, but the book is great." So, perhaps the importance of a cover is only important in the beginning.

  27. Wow, excellent write-up Michelle.
    Thanks for the info.


  28. THANK YOU for putting this out there, Michelle. I know it was unnerving to share $$$ data, but most people are so cagey about this that it is hard to find good info. I hope to do the same with my own book. I'm going to re-read this again when I have more time.

  29. I have a few self-published books where the cover is so bad, I've had to hide it with a blank sheet of paper.
    For sake of my bleeding eyeballs, please, please get a decent cover. If you can't afford anything, put the title on a solid background. But do not, I BEG you, publish your book with a picture that looks like a six year old drew it with crayons and has your name in 8-pt font, lime green outlined in red. I AM ON MY KNEES. I will help anyone here with a cover if they want to self-publish for free if it means one less ugly cover in the world. I am serious.

    So, respectfully, I submit that the cover is the 2nd most important thing about the book which must be good. Above even editing. In a pinch, plain is better than garish.

  30. Tara, thanks for saying that. I know it's shallow of me, but the cover really does help set the mood and tone. I don't picture people or places in a way that is modeled off the cover, but the cover establishes the ambience.

    My experience reading Grisham with the old marble covers felt different than reading Grisham with movie covers or other later designs.

    Call me silly, if you wish, but it's not something I can change. It's a psychological response.

  31. Crimey: I think the stigma is really with bad writing and not self-publishing, but self-publishing is where it gets pinned, sadly.

    Davin: I'm in agreement with you on that. I think the cover is really important for first impressions and beyond that it's icing.

    Donna: Thank you for stopping by!

    Tara: Thanks for reading and understanding why I'm fretting about it all. And that's very sweet of you to offer cover help!

  32. That's awfully brave of you to share your numbers here, Michelle. Thanks for being willing to let us all in on the financials!

    It seems a lot of work, sure, but your dedication to the process and the product really shows in the end result. The book's lovely.

  33. Tara, you are so right. Good stock photographs are easily purchased, and sites like 99designs ensure that a simple, effective cover design need not cost the earth. A good design creates a brand for your writing and tells the prospective reader that s/he's in for a treat.

    Although, as a word nerd, I urge writers to use an editor (if it's only a proofreading pass by a friend with good grammar and spelling!) Nothing says "professional writer" like correct punctuation.

  34. Jane: So you do editorial work? I'm going to have to check out your site if you have one. I've been trying to keep a list of freelance editors...

  35. Michelle, you caught me out. Setting up a proper commercial site has been on my to-do list forever... but what with working for clients and working on my WIP, it never happens. I tend to get referrals!

    Anyone can email me at with 5 random double-spaced sample pages (not the uber-polished ones from the first chapter ;)) and a total word count - I will get back to them ASAP with a no-obligation estimate for the work, my terms & conditions, plus their corrected sample pages to give an idea of the work involved.

    As you know, there are plenty of good editors out there, from single freelancers to large factory-style websites. All have their advantages & disadvantages, and I would encourage writers to get more than one quote and weigh their options. Finding the right fit is key!

  36. Jane: I'm sending you an email! I have a list of dream editors, but some of them are far out of my price range, sadly. I'm happy I've found you, though. You're right about it needing to be a good fit.

  37. fantastic article! Your cover, bookmarks, business cards are gorgeous!

    I self-published because I'm all about immediate gratification & a control freak ~ it has been a great experience. I'm still learning the marketing piece but am in no hurry ~ I was happy just to have actually seen a writing project through completion. It's great to see others taking some of the stigma out of self-publishing.

  38. Dawn: Thank you!!! Isn't self-publishing wonderful? The freedom is lovely!

  39. *sigh* So I'll just say it, even though I know it will make me seem delusional. I get everything you've said about self-publishing, and it holds a strong appeal for both my artistic side and my management side.


    When I look at your numbers (which I think are great, BTW), it just strikes home for the me the big problem: you can't make your living at it.

    And as much of a will o the wisp as it might be, I just have to believe I can make a living doing this. I know it's hard. I know it's not common. I know I sound like a either daydreamer or an arrogant SOB, but as nice as self-publishing looks for someone pursuing writing as an artistic endeavor, or pursuit among many, going that route for me would feel like a crushing defeat.

    Not because there's anything wrong with it. Not because I think less of self-published books or authors. I definitely do not.

    But because, for me personally, it would definitely be a second-best, a selling short of my dreams, a compromise just to get something out there because I was tired of the struggle.

    I hope I didn't just comment-jack your thread for personal emotional release. lol

  40. Ah, THIS is cutting to the chase!
    Thanks tons, Michele. This is what we all need to know.

  41. Thank you so much for being so completely honest and sharing all of this with us, Michelle- it really is very much appreciated!


  42. Nevets: Aim high for your dreams!!!! Seriously, don't ever settle for anything less. I haven't. I did exactly what I wanted with Cinders, and I'll just say that new doors are opening. Very exciting ones... :)

    Paperback: You're welcome! Thank you for stopping by to read. I'm glad this could be helpful.

    February: You're welcome! It was hard to decide if I wanted to share this. I thought I might get some crap about it, and I have, but not here in this space. I love our readers. :)

  43. Michelle, I know you haven't! :) That's one of the reasons I'd managed to keep my mouth shut so far. I don't want anyone to think that I objectively believe that self-publishing=selling your dreams short. There is no equation there, except in my own psychology.

    Bru, welcome back to circulation. Hope you're feeling better.

  44. Nevets: Thanks. :) I sometimes think I'm crazy for wanting to do all this marketing. It's a lot of work, but when all is said and done I'm having way too much fun to second-guess myself.

  45. Just to quickly address Nevet's remarks - there is no "quick" way to make money in publishing, either traditionally or self-pub. Odds are a first advance for a traditional contract isn't going to be enough to quit the day job either. Maybe not even the second one, depending on whether you sell through or not.

    I honestly believe I can make a living self-publishing, even though my first book hasn't sold even as much as Michelle's. It's all about backlist (note, I didn't say marketing, I said *backlist*). But it takes time to become established no matter how you go about it.

    My point being - you can't extrapolate from these numbers whether or not Michelle will be able to make a living writing off self-publishing, or any kind of publishing just yet. Patience is key - I believe you have to have at least 3 books out before you can even begin to predict what the future might hold.

    Don't give up hope. Jump in whichever publishing arena floats your boat, and go for it. :-)

  46. Jamie: Thank you for your comment. I don't think there is any quick way, either. Obviously my numbers here are no indication of whether or not someone could make a living at this because so many factors will come into play later.

    It's important to remain realistic with all of this. I've always been skeptical when other writers say they want to earn a living writing novels and they seem to imply that it will happen quickly. Like most self-employment, these things take a lot of time and investment.

  47. this is a great post, and i linked it in one of my blog posts with a bit of commentary, but enlightening, I agree you can't skimp on details, otherwise in my mind as well, you can give more people who DON'T like self-publishing more to complain about. Bravo!


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