• Chris OBrien

Self-publishing: DIY costs start to add up

There's a misconception in the world of publishing that organizes author costs like this:

  • Traditional - Publisher pays the author

  • Hybrid - Author pays the publisher

  • Self-Publishing - Totally free

And while the first two parts are true, the self-publishing option--if you are going for a professional looking book--is anything but free. I'm going to use my upcoming book Here or There as an example so you can see real-life numbers from 2019. No theories. No abstract ballpark ranges. This is what I paid out of pocket.

Grammar editing via Grammarly - $140

I debated including this, because I use Grammarly for other writing projects throughout the year. This wasn't a one time purchase for Here or There.

But I do believe all wide release books (meaning you're putting it out there for more than just friends and family) should run through a pretty thorough grammar check before shipping out. It's annoying and kind of painful, but one of the most common knocks against self-published titles is how many out there are filled with typos and bad grammar. So, to stand out in a positive light, strive for perfection.

It's really a frustrating truth about writing a book, you've labored together 30,000, 50,000, 100,000 words but one typo stands out like a sore thumb. As writers, we really do need to hit at least 99.9% on the spell check. And grammar punctuation is weird because you notice when its not there and cant really put a finger to whats missing just that it doesnt look right (spot any grammar errors in that sentence?)

The truth is, I can't afford a professional editor. Let's say they charge a common rate for the industry, 1 penny per word. Here or There is 42,000 words meaning the cost would be $420.

With Grammarly, I know there will be a few commas that were misplaced, some that should have been added in, some past-tense/present tense issues, sentences ending with a preposition, etc., but paying another $300+ wasn't a financial sacrifice I was willing to make.

Cartoons in the book - $300

I have cartoons in between each chapter. My friend and our Lead Artist, Kimberly Galitz, created these. Realistically, these would have cost me $600+ if I was not working with a friend and founding partner.

Cover Design - $250

Similar situation to the cartoons, I worked with a friend who gave me a discount. This level of quality on a freelance site like 99Designs could have easily run into the $500 - $1,000 range.

Formatting the book - $157

Once all of the reviews and revisions were complete, I sent the Word Document to a freelancer on Fiverr. He formatted the book into both a print file (for paperback) and ebook.

My assumption is he uses a software called Vellum. It is something I could buy and use myself but there are two barriers:

Only available for Mac - I have a Google Chromebook

More Expensive - They offer two subscription models. Create unlimited Ebooks + Paperbacks for $249.99. Or, if you only want to do unlimited ebooks, that's $199.99. Good deal for a publisher with multiple titles, not so good for an individual project.

I also looked on 99 Designs, didn't know they offered interior book formatting as well as cover designs. Their price range is $299 - $800.

My $157 Fiverr purchase is starting to look pretty good...

Except I did have to wait a week. And then I needed some adjustments, so add another 3-5 days. I could go in and make the edits myself, but it's not possible on the free version of Microsoft Word, that's another $70 to upgrade to the version with all of the features. If you already have a PC with Windows installed, no problem. If you have a Chromebook or a Mac, time to run the debit/credit card again.

Buying an ISBN - $85

If you look at the back of any book, the ISBN is that little number right above the bar code.

If you are publishing on Amazon KDP, nothing to worry about. This part is free. But for Here or There, I chose to use IngramSpark. The reason: I walked into a local bookstore, asked the owner how do they order self-published or small independent press books, she said IngramSpark. After doing some more research, it does appear that local bookstores prefer using the IngramSpark system/catalog vs. Amazon KDP.

Downside - Have to pay $85 for the ISBN. And you have to pay $85 again if you're doing an ebook, each format (print and digital) needs its own ISBN.

I looked at what it would cost to buy the ISBN outside of IngramSpark. I went to the site ISBN.org by Bowker. On their site, one ISBN costs $125. You can buy a package of 10 for $295 which, hey, if you like to buy in bulk and stock up for your next books, that's a nice per-ISBN discount.

Total Spend - $932

Those numbers really hurt to type into the calculator. This project cost me just under $1,000.

And that's without any marketing costs, buying copies of the book, etc.

It's a tough investment to make from a pure ROI perspective, because Here or There will maybe sell 100 copies. Even if I were making $10 per book (which is high), that's still just barely breaking even. But, for me, it's still totally worth it. I want this book to be the best it can possibly be and share it with friends, family, and whoever else stumbles upon it online or in a bookstore. If I end up losing $200 or $500, to me that's money well spent. I'm basically choosing to do this instead of buying a Playstation 4.

And maybe your book doesn't need cartoons, so take off $300. Now you're down to $632. But remember, cover design could be more expensive than $250 and then if you're looking for a writing coach, copy editing, developmental editing, those things can be another $2,000 - $5,000.

It definitely adds up and the process of formatting, making sure the cover design fits the exact size of the book, making sure the page numbers and chapter titles look right, it can be pretty frustrating. And there is this nagging thought of, "Am I doing it right?" It's the same uneasiness I feel when doing DIY jobs around the house or why I pay for an oil change vs. doing it myself.

Because of the frustration, cost, and time commitment associated with all of these steps above, there are several services popping up now that will do all of this for you. They differ from a hybrid publisher because they are not helping out with editing and they usually set up an account for you on Ingram or Amazon rather than publishing your book under their name. These can be considered "Self-publishing +"

In our next post we'll ask the question, "Self-publishing: When should I pay for help?" We will dive into the numbers again, show what's a fair and reasonable cost to pay and also show how to avoid vanity publishers who sneak into this space and charge way too much.

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