Self-publishing on a tight budget
The costs to self-publish a book can add up in a hurry.
But the most expensive parts in the process are found in two specific areas.
Professional Editing - This can run $500 - $5,000 depending on who you're going to, their level of experience, and the number of words/pages in your manuscript.
Constructing a Physical Book - $300 - $1,000 for the cover, another $150 to get the dimensions right on the cover, $150 - $300 for the interior layout.
This creates the difficult self-publishing equation, especially for first-time authors. In terms of sales on a self-published book, the most likely outcome is selling 100 copies or less.
So, even if the author is able to make $10 per book (which is really high, it's normally closer to $3-4), the author may end up spending $1,000 - $3,000+ more than they ultimately make.
It becomes a tough debate, because what's the better outcome for the author; have the book out there, sell a few dozen copies, and be down $2,500 or never have the book out there at all because a literary agent said no.
The literary agent's reasoning isn't always about the quality of the work. They are evaluating the potential audience. A lot of times their verdict is simply: This won't sell enough copies for us to land a publisher. It sucks to say, but a lot of times the literary agent is right. They earned their role as gatekeeper for this specific reason. They protect the publisher from making risky bets on books that could lose money. It's hard as a first-time author the same way it's hard for a first-time restaurant owner or first-time small business owner. Investors, publishers, gatekeepers like to see a longer resume.
I'll save that debate for another post (quick note - I always lean getting the book out there vs. waiting for someone to give the green light). Today I want to show a couple of other routes you can use that will get your book out there, but protect you from taking a big financial hit.
The encouraging truth: you can do a lot with $50 - $200.
Readers will forgive a lot in a book (especially if they know the author). A slow first chapter. A slow first 100 pages. They are even willing to roll with some plot holes.
But it's really hard to get someone to ignore frequent grammar mistakes.
So, what can you use for free? If your computer comes with Microsoft Word, that protects you from spelling mistakes. Helps with a little bit of the grammar too.
You can also use the free version of Grammarly to start catching more advanced errors.
What Long Overdue recommends - Buy the Premium version of Grammarly for $139.95. Comes out to be $11.66 a month. Using this on your manuscript will achieve a near-professional level quality for grammar.
You could also just sign up for one month at $29.95 then cancel your membership. We like the yearly option because you can have this in place for everything else you write - blog posts, emails, cover letters/resumes, etc.
Ebook cover design
As mentioned earlier, producing a high-quality physical book cover can get really expensive. For example, we are big fans of the freelance site 99 Designs but, as you can see here, $299 is the minimum to get in the door. Can go as high as $999.
That dynamic changes with an ebook. You can find quality ebook covers on the freelance site Fiverr in the $10 - $30 range. Take a look at all of these options to choose from.
As you can see, it wasn't breathtaking by any means (and the real image was less blurry, this is from a screenshot on the Amazon page). I'm sure there's another ebook out there with a similar design because the person used the same Canva template. But it got the job done. And cost me nothing.
What Long Overdue Recommends - Similar to Grammarly, I would go ahead and buy the yearly Premium membership to Canva. This comes out to be $12.95 per month. You'll end up having a lot of fun in Canva. Not only can you use this for designing ebook covers, but you can start making more engaging posts for Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. You can start turning your blog posts into well-designed magazine articles. Canva quickly turns you into your own one-person ad agency, magazine designer, ebook publisher. A lot of the projects I used to reach out to Fiverr for I now do through Canva.
Publish an Ebook on Amazon
With Amazon, you don't have to pay for the ISBN (this can be $50 - $100).
It's remarkably easy. Upload your Word Doc. Upload your Cover Design file. Write in your description of the book, pick the genre, pick the price. Wait 24 - 72 hours. And there it is. Available for sale to anyone in the world.
But here's what I would do and what I wish I did on earlier ebooks. On one of the first pages, in the introduction section, share with the reader what your goal is. Say something like:
"Hey, I've spent a few years working on this story and I think it's 90% of the way there. Before committing to the physical book, which to me feels more like a permanent and final step, I wanted to get this book out there for feedback. It would mean a lot to hear your thoughts on my book (the good, the bad, the ugly). I promise you won't hurt my feelings, my goal is to make this better before making the physical book. Thank you for choosing this book and I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Email me at (firstname.lastname@example.org)"
And then set your price at $0.99. See what happens. You can also run free book promotions (I'll have more on this in a separate post) where people can download a free copy for a set number of days (max is 5 days per three months, I believe).
Instead of paying money to someone to proofread/test drive your book, you're now getting paid for it (albeit less than a dollar, but still). I think there are a lot of readers who would love to be part of that process. And the humility of asking for their help, the chances are you will receive really good, maybe tough love but ultimately friendly notes rather than mean-spirited emails. (If someone spends a dollar to buy your book, takes the time to read it, then sends something brutally mean that doesn't help the work get better, I have to wonder what's going on in that person's head. I wouldn't put much value in that feedback).
Note - You could put this request at the end of the book, too, so that people read the story first as a book before looking at it with a critical eye. Sometimes the critical eye starts looking for things that are wrong vs. just enjoying a good story.
Do I have a bestseller?
If you self-publish this ebook and it sells 1,000 copies in the first couple of weeks, now it's time to start emailing a bunch of literary agents and publishers ASAP. Get this book out in physical form (or hey, you could just do that whole process yourself). Now you know the return on investment.
But if it follows the more common path, sells 10 copies in Week 1, four more in Week 2, a few weeks of zero copies, then maybe one copy here and there, now you at least have a gauge of what the potential audience might be. This doesn't mean don't publish a physical book, but it may be a nice barometer to say, "Ok, I'm comfortable spending $500 on making this physical book happen, not $3,000."
I'm old school. I still like the finish line being a physical book you can hold in your hands. But that can be an expensive path to take, or do all at once, and I don't want people to be blindsided at the end of their journey with empty checking accounts or credit card debt.
So, if you're looking for a less expensive option, definitely utilize resources like Grammarly, Fiverr, Canva, and Amazon KDP as a way to get your story out there.