The Real Cost of Self-Publishing (Or How Not to Get Scammed.)

This landed in my inbox today and for some reason it really got under my skin.

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I get emails just like this almost every day. I usually just delete them and move on. But today I just want to pull on my ranty-pants, pull them up well past my belly button like some demented grandma and rant.

It does not cost three thousand dollars to publish a book!

If anyone tries to convince that you need to pay them 1500 dollars to self publish your book, that’s pretty high, but okay. If they try to convince you this is half price, they are scammers. Don’t pay these kinds of fees. It’s insane.

And it just gets worse. I’ve heard of people spending tens of thousands on “deluxe” publishing and promotions packages that do nothing other than take your money.

What does it really cost to self publish a book?

One of the beauties of self publishing is that a lot of the costs are up to you. There is a simple formula for most things in life:

Knowledge + Time + Money = Results

The great thing about this formula is that you need a certain amount of knowledge, time and money, but any of these things can be substituted for the others. Knowledge is power, if you are knowledgeable you can produce good results quickly for very little money. If you don’t have the knowledge but are willing to spend some time learning, you can do most of the steps of self publishing yourself and eventually get good results. If you have neither the knowledge or time, you can spend the money to pay a pro. It all comes down to choices.

Let’s break publishing down into five component parts and lay out the real costs for each. Publishing book requires editing the manuscript, formatting it, getting a cover, the actual publishing it and then promoting it.


You do need to edit your manuscript. In fact, you need a professional editor. A lot of writers resist this, put off by the cost or unwilling to admit they can’t do it themselves. The problem is that you can’t see your own mistakes. You need a second set of eyes, good professional eyes that know what they are looking for.

A professional editor requires money. There is no way around that, but the above formula still works for editing. Most editors offer at three different types of editing, content, line editing and proofreading. Which is right for you? If you have spent time learning your craft, if you understand story structure and are competent in basic grammar, you can get away with line editing or proofreading. If you have the time to let a manuscript sit and come back to it with new eyes, you can find more of your own mistakes. If you have taken the time to build a decent network of beta-readers, they will help you with content.

I still strongly recommend a good profession editor before you publish, no matter how many times you’ve been through the piece or how many beta-readers you use. A professional editor will almost always find things that could be improved.

How much does that cost? I hear quotes all over the place and it makes me think that all too many writers are being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous editors. I’ve personally paid as much as a thousand dollars or more. Other writers tell me they are regularly quoted prices in the three to five thousand dollars range.

My editor, Janet Fix at the Wordverve offers several packages ranging from a half penny a word to a 1.25 cents per word, depending on the level of editing. A penny a word means that a sixty thousand word novel will cost in the neighborhood of 600 dollars. Expensive, but well shy of the thousands that some people are quoted.

Another important caveat, always ask about what the packages include. I used a professional editing service once, early in my career. Not only was it one of the most expensive edit jobs I’ve had, if I wanted to re-submit my changes or to work with the editor to finalize the document I would have had to pay for another edit, at the same price. Don’t fall for that. Find a good editor that is willing to do at least couple passes, until you both agree on the final manuscript.


Formatting really isn’t that hard. This one area where I recommend knowledge and time replacing most or all the money investment. Formatting typically means making two versions of the manuscript, a print ready pdf for the printer and a file that can be converted to an ebook. Neither is particularly hard to do.

I have one huge bias when it comes to formatting, and while I admit it’s a bias it has worked so consistently for me that I use it as a rule. Don’t use Word. Whatever you think of Microsoft’s Word as a word processor or a writing program (it seems that most writers either love it or hate it), it’s not good for formatting.

If you are a Scrivener user, Scrivener does a great job on ebooks and a passable job for print. (Check out my tutorial on compiling in Scrivener here.) Free tools like Calibre can also be used to create ebooks. A workable print ready pdf can be created with open source software like OpenOffice or the way pros do, with InDesign. InDesign is more expensive and has a much steeper learning curve, but if you publish a lot or are planning a career, it might be worth learning. OpenOffice can make a decent looking book for the average indie author.

If you are technically challenged and the mere thought of learning to format a book makes you break out in hives, hire a professional formatter. My editor has one in her network. He runs a couple hundred dollars, which I find a bit high but he’s a professional graphic designer with years experience. Shopping around you can find formatters who will work for anywhere from fifty dollars to low hundreds, depending on what you want/need done. Again, I have had naive authors tell me they paid thousands for formatting and I shudder. Shop around, ask fellow authors for recommendations or check in with a local writer’s group about whether a quote sounds fair to them before you shell out thousands of dollars for anything.


A good cover is vital if you want your book to sell. It’s one of the areas where many writers are most willing to spend. There are two reasons for that, they acknowledge how important a good cover is and they know they don’t have the knowledge to do it themselves.

There are many reasons why it’s worth getting the knowledge, even if you continue to hire this task out. Knowing how to use a graphics program can save you a bunch of time and money on promotions. Having a basic understanding of design will help you know if a particular cover artist is worth the fee or not.

It does take time, though. There are two graphics program commonly used by the pros, Photoshop and GIMP. Neither are particularly user friendly and it takes hours of watching tutorials and trying things out to get a real sense of either program. Graphic design is an art form and you won’t develop an understanding overnight.

So this is one area where you are likely to going to spend money to have someone else create your cover. How much is that going to cost? Unfortunately, there are a number of factors and the legitimate cost of cover art can span twenty dollar premade covers to several hundred dollars. I’ve spent anywhere from seven hundred and fifty dollars for custom artwork to ten bucks for stock photos that I turned into a cover myself.

The biggest factor, in my opinion, is your genre. From a sales point of view, it’s more important that your cover show an understanding of the genre expectations than being an artistic masterpiece. Your target readers need to see your cover and know instantly that this is a book they might be interested in.

Erotica often features a scantily clad women on the cover. Erotic romance might have a hunky bare chested man. The “scary silhouette man” is so common on thrillers that it’s something of a cliche, but unlike writing cliches, cover cliches work.

What does this have to do with cost? Writers in certain genres can find stock photos and make their own covers pretty easily. The Best Boy Ever Made is YA with a large romance element. It has a simple stock photo cover and it one of my most consistent sellers. Other genres will require more work. Fantasy books often have illustrations, which is why I spent seven hundred and fifty dollars on commissioned art work for The Mage Chronicles.

This was one of my simplest covers, and yet it sells well month and month.

This was one of my simplest covers, and yet it sells well month and month.

Fantasy novels typically have illustrations. This is my most expensive cover, but I don't regret the cost one bit. It's gorgeous.

Fantasy novels typically have illustrations. This is my most expensive cover, but I don’t regret the cost one bit. It’s gorgeous.

Whether you are working with a designer that is using stock photos or directly with an artist, they should sell you the cover outright. I’ve talked to a few authors that were offered licensing deals instead. The result was that they had to go back to the artist and pay more money if they want to create merchandise based on the cover, or publish a new edition. Make sure you own the cover.


Amazon and other ebook retailers have made publishing so easy it’s almost sad to see authors pay someone else to do it for them. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) allows you to upload your own ebook and see it on the kindle in a matter of hours. Createspace, and Ingram Spark make creating a print on demand book so easy that creating the print ready pdf is really the hardest step. There are many tutorial online to walk you through the process.

Even if you are not tech savvy, you really need to learn this step. Think about this, if you pay someone else to upload your book to Amazon for you, you will have to continue to rely on them to make changes and run promotions. You also have to trust them to report your sales truthfully and pay your royalties. Do you really want to put all those tasks into the hands of some company that sent you an email that one time? More than anything else, this is what makes me so angry about those spam emails.

The only potential cost for publishing is the ISBN and more than a few indie authors are on the fence about whether they matter. Some sources insist that if you let Amazon or Createspace give you a free ISBN, then they are the publisher of record and you won’t be able to get into bookstores. Other sources say that isn’t true.

The biggest argument people give in favor of buying your own ISBN is that then you are the publisher of record and you can take that book and ISBN anywhere. This is a myth. Say you buy an ISBN and publish your book to Createspace. Later you decide to switch to You must unpublish the Createspace book and reissue your book as a new edition, which requires a new ISBN.

Then there is the whole question of whether or not ebooks even need an ISBN. Amazon allows you to publish without one. ISBN numbers are used to catalog books in libraries and collections and it’s uncertain whether or not there is any advantage to having one on your ebook, especially if you also have a print book which will have an ISBN by default.

Assuming you do want an ISBN, how much does that cost? ISBN’s are sold by Bowker. The more you buy, the cheaper. Currently its one hundred twenty five dollars for one ISBN or two hundred ninety five dollars for ten. A hundred go for around five hundred and some dollars. If you intend to publish and intend to use your own ISBN it really pays to save up and buy a package. It cuts your cost to less than thirty dollars each.

The bottom line is that paying someone hundreds or thousand of dollars to publish your book for you isn’t just a waste of money, it’s a dangerous business move. It puts the control of your book into someone else’s hands. It they are trustworthy, it’s a hassle. If they aren’t, you’re screwed.


Promotions are the most difficult part of being an author. Or perhaps more to the point, it’s the vaguest part. What works and what doesn’t? How should you promote and what should you avoid? No one seems to have any solid answers.

Part of the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to make a definite correlation between our actions and the sales we see. If I ended this post with a link to my book, ten people read this post and one clicks through and buys the book, I could quantify my efforts. I’ve yet to see that sort of correlation pop up. You blog. You post on social media. You run promotions. Somewhere down the line you see sales. Whether those sales happened because of your effort or would have happened anyway is anyone’s guess.

It’s no wonder that so many writers would be happy to pay a promoter to take of that hassle for them, if only they could afford it. But they can’t. Promotional services are some of the most expensive packages offered by these snake oil salesman. For just a few thousand dollars they will make sure your book is plastered everywhere. They will put a team of Keebler Elves to work around the clock promoting and promoting.

I will say two things about these services. I have yet to talk to a single writer in person who paid out from some promotional service and was happy with the results. I’ve also noticed over and over that the glowing testimonials I see online have one common feature; they are authors who are new to the program and can’t wait to see the results. I’ve never read a testimonial that said, “I spend three thousand with Company A three years ago, and I’ve been a full time writer ever since, thanks to them.” Instead they trick writer who have just shelled out for the service to write them a testimonial, knowing that a few months down the road those writers will be disappointed and cynical.


So that’s my rundown of the real cost of self publishing. My most expensive book so far has clocked in just shy of what the above company is calling half price, and I paid for a professional photo shoot for that cover. My average, even with a professional editor onboard, is under a thousand.  

Spend time networking online with fellow writers before putting any money down for any service. Find out what a reasonable price is, what results you should expect and be sure you can’t do it yourself. I really hate to see any writer scammed out of thousands of dollars by some unscrupulous publishing company.


The one place I would never skimp on is knowledge itself. Luckily indie authors are a great bunch of people who are happy to share their knowledge. Here a few books to get you started:


The Indie Author Survival Guide


Write. Publish. Repeat.


Think Like a Publisher.

Your First 1,000 Copies


Let’s get Digital


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2 Responses to The Real Cost of Self-Publishing (Or How Not to Get Scammed.)

  1. This is very helpful information for self-published authors. Most authors understand they need to invest in these things but aren’t sure what a “normal” price may be.

  2. Trevor says:

    I like the formula you’ve used – makes a lot of sense.

    I’m graphically challenged so prefer to outsource my covers to someone who knows at least vaguely what they’re doing.

    Formatting is fairly easy for Kindle, slightly less easy for print if you want the numbering to have the “traditional” Roman numerals for the intro part and then real numbers for the actual book. But maybe that’s just the perfectionist side of me coming out – most self published books I’ve seen don’t do that and quite a lot of traditionally published ones don’t either.

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