My second novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016, publishes this week. Or, if you want to be more accurate, self-publishes this week. I elected to self-publish both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People (a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from childhood to adulthood) in part because I wanted to see if I could earn more money as a self-published author than I could through the traditional publishing process.
We’ll never really know whether I could have earned more money through the traditional publishing process, of course — but I’m very happy with my earnings as a self-published author. I’ve also been very careful about my expenses, because expenses are the difference between earnings and profit.
If you’re thinking about going the self-pub route, let’s discuss the expenses required to create a self-published book. I’m not counting the expenses involved in getting industry reviews, submitting your book for awards, setting up publicity and advertising, or going on a self-funded book tour — you’ll have to attend my Hugo House class on The Finances of Self-Publishing to learn more about those costs!
But if you’re curious about what it costs to get a self-published book on both real and virtual shelves, here are the line items you should add to your budget:
I’ll be the first to admit that I did not hire an editor for my books, but that’s because I’ve been an editor myself for six years. I’m trained in the trifecta of developmental editing (making sure the story communicates the writer’s intent), copyediting (making sure the story is internally consistent), and proofreading (making sure there aren’t any typos or spelling errors).
You may want to hire an editor (or multiple editors) for the developmental editing/copyediting/proofreading steps. Hugo House has a list of manuscript consultants who might be the perfect people for your project — and I’m one of the consultants on the list, so feel free to reach out!
If you plan to create print books — which I recommend you do, since many readers prefer print copies — you’re probably going to need to get your text professionally typeset. You might have the skills to DIY this part, but it’s complex, detailed work that requires a lot of industry knowledge. Do you know how to create a half-title page? Which parts of your front matter require page numbers? Can you identify (and fix) kerning issues?
I spent an hour trying to teach myself Adobe InDesign and then hired a designer, which was absolutely the right choice. She worked with me to develop beautiful print books that look virtually identical to traditionally-published paperbacks.
Some people choose to hire ebook designers as well. I haven’t found that to be necessary, as it’s very easy to build an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle Create service — and even easier to create an ePub copy through Apple Pages. However, hiring a designer can help you add visual detail and customization to your ebook that you won’t get through an online Kindle or ePub template service.
With both editors and designers, expect to pay some range of “several hundred dollars” for their services. Yes, it’s a lot of money upfront, and if you end up paying an editor or designer $600 or more, you’re going to need to do the work of filing a 1099 with the IRS. That’s all part of what it takes to work with professionals, though — and as a self-publisher, it’s to your advantage to be as professional as possible.
There are as many different ways to do cover design as there are self-published books. Most self-publishing advice blogs will recommend hiring someone to design your cover for you, under the assumption that writers won’t have the skills required to design an eye-catching, high-quality cover. However, a lot of authors choose to create their own covers — we’ve already spent months imagining what our book might look like, after all — and there are plenty of templates and services that’ll help you through the process, including Amazon’s Cover Creator.
In my case, I spent $100 to license an image from Canva that I used on both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People. I used Canva’s templates to design the ebook cover, and then my designer used those templates to develop the paperback cover design. Hard copy covers have to be designed separately from ebook covers because the dimensions are slightly different, so anticipate those costs as well!
If you’re selling physical copies of your book, you’re going to want to order print proofs to make sure your print copies look perfect. Yes, a good designer will be able to create near-perfect layouts, but there are errors you won’t notice until you have a print copy in your hands. My designer and I didn’t realize that the spine of The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 didn’t match the spine of The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1 until we got the Vol. 2 print proof. The text was maybe a millimeter or two off, but it needed to be fixed.
I use IngramSpark for my paperbacks, and it costs me around $30 per print proof. (Most of that cost actually goes towards shipping the book.) If you’re working with designers and proofreaders, you’ll all need your own proof copies, so multiply that by the number of people on your team.
These are the basic costs required in getting a self-published book ready for publication, although you might find yourself with additional costs not on this list (illustrators, sensitivity readers, etc.). If you’re interested in learning more about how to manage your costs and budget for the additional expenses required in launching a self-published book, well… I hope you attend my class!
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, the editor of The Billfold, and the host of the Writing & Money podcast. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, Scratch, The Write Life, The Freelancer, The Toast, and numerous other publications. The Biographies of Ordinary People is her debut novel, if you don’t count the speculative fiction epic she wrote when she was in high school.