Indie Thoughts: How much does it cost to publish a book independently?

Is The Guardian right?

Does it really cost $6,000 to publish a book independently?

Is that the price to become Hemmingway these days?

Lots of commenters at The Passive Voice said the numbers were rubbish. Far too high. They said this was yet another thinly-veiled bit of  flimflam The Guardian cooked up to depress indies and send aspiring authors into the arms of the zombie traditionalists.

I actually thought the piece was good.


Because I like numbers. I did get a Master’s degree in accounting, after all.

But is it just that numbers are sexy?

It’s true the shape of the number 3 can be glorious. 9 is a stunner as well. But the slopes and curves of these digits is not why I like them. Numbers, even if they’re bad numbers, allow you to start thinking about costs. They allow you to question whether they could be reduced. Or whether you’re getting any bang for your buck in a certain category. Heck, numbers allow you to discover whether you’re allocating way too much in one area and far too little in another.

I thought The Guardian did a great job breaking the costs out into categories and starting an examination. The question is: are the categories and amounts political fictions or real?

Comparing My Numbers

One way numbers do all the things I mentioned above is by letting you do comparisons. So I figured I’d compare The Guardian’s numbers with a set of my own. I’ve published four books independently. How do my costs stack up?

Here are the costs for the latest.

Cover: $500

  • $500 for illustration
  • $0 for cover design (I have a friend who is so incredibly generous with his time)
  • Cover for some genres can cost less. Some folks do it themselves. Most of those do-it-yourself covers look awful.
  • The zombie traditionalists can sometimes spend a few thousand. And when they do it right, they get some amazing, AMAZING, work.
  • Verdict: The Guardian’s number seems reasonable, but I’m thinking the range is a few hundred up to a few thousand for something that doesn’t give the average reader worms.

Editing: $0

  • My wife, former technical writer, current language arts teacher, is my editor. There are some other folks I’ve tapped as well.
  • If I didn’t have her, I’d need someone. My experience is that if you yourself are not an editor, and you try to do this, you’re going to end up with a poorly edited book. Even with her experience, we’re still finding it hard, and are working to get the process down. We might outsource this in the future.
  • I’ve gotten reasonable quotes, and they’re all around $600-900. And that’s just for a copy edit. You want other kind of editing, you’re going to pay more.
  • Verdict: The Guardian’s number is high, but not if you tap into a bunch of pros for multiple edits.

Formatting for POD and ebook: $120

  • I do the interiors myself, so the labor is free. If I had to pay, it could run anywhere from $100-$300 or more.
  • I pay a subscription fee for InDesign. If I release two books a year, it comes out to roughly $120/book.
  • I spent $300 taking a class on basic interior design principles. But that was just the beginning. I must have spent 50-70 hours, maybe more, last October and November, banging my head against the wall as I learned this. Luckily, all that thrashing about didn’t result in any medical bills. I’ve had to spend maybe 10-20 more since then learning advanced techniques and keeping the basics fresh.
  • Verdict: The Guardian didn’t even include this.

ISBN: $0

  • I owe my friend; without him, this would definitely be a cost. I’m such a free loader.
  • Verdict: The Guardian’s number is good.

Copyright Registration: $55

  • $20 bucks to mail 2 copies to the Copyright Registration Office
  • $35 processing fee
  • Yes, you do want to do this. For detail on why, see The Copyright Handbook by Stephen Fishman.
  • Verdict: Another miss

Print-on-demand fees: $0

  • I go with CreateSpace instead of Lightning Source
  • Verdict: Another miss

Notice what’s NOT up there that was in The Guardian article: reviews and review copies.

Why don’t I include them?

First, I would never pay for a Kirkus review. I wouldn’t because it appears such reviews mean little to readers. They don’t seem to generate much notice or desire to sample. Here’s what readers report matter to them. Such pre-publication reviews DO matter to store and library book buyers. But, as an indie, I’m not focusing on those channels.  Those channels are in the hands of the zombie traditionalists.

What about review copies?

You don’t need them to publish. All this review business is marketing. And you don’t need marketing to publish.

So what are my totals? I’ve included The Guardian numbers so you can see the differences.

Category My Costs Guardian Estimates
Cover $500 $750
Editing and proofing $0 $4,000
Ebook and POD Formatting $100 ?
ISBN $0 $125
Copyright Registration $55 ?
POD setup fees $0 ?
Reviews $825
Review Copies $300
TOTAL $655 $6,000

Whoa! The Guardian estimated a cost that’s ten times what it costs me. But I don’t think that’s a sign of some plot. If I’d paid an editor and cover designer and formatter and didn’t mooch my ISBNs, that could have added as much as $1,000-$2,000 to my total. I have friends who have paid more.

Furthermore, that’s just for the ebook and hard copy. Depending on if you publish an audio edition and how you do it, you could spend another $2,000-$3,000.

What does this tell you? It tells me that the reporter made a good start, but needed to do a bit more digging. It also tells me there’s a huge variability in the costs depending on the skills you and your friends possess. It also shows that this is a business. I doesn’t cost a gazillion dollars to publish. It’s not like the $200,000-500,000 you need to start some food franchises, but you’d better be prepared to fork over some cash and/or a lot of hard work.

In fact, when you consider that last point of sweat equity, the $655 is completely misleading because it does not capture the hours I spent, at least 20-60, doing my part of the cover, editing, and formatting. Nor the time spent by my wife or friends. There’s a huge opportunity cost there.

What’s the value of what I could have done with that time?

It’s for dang sure not reflected in the $655.


I didn’t include marketing in those costs above because marketing is its own beast. You can publish and do zero marketing. You can publish and do gobs. And just as with the publishing costs, marketing costs will vary based on what you can do in-house and what your situation is. It costs JK Rowling nothing to get covered in  every news outlet in the land. She sneezes, and we get a report about her. You and I are probably going to have to work harder to get noticed.

There are all sorts of marketing costs. Whatever those costs, marketing has a job to do. It’s got to pay for itself. It’s got to help pay for the cost of publishing. And it’s got to help me meet my goal of winning new readers and compensating me for my time.

There are lots of cost categories depending on what you decide to do:

  • Hard copies you sell at events
  • Travel and lodging required to attend events
  • Hard copies and postage for reviewers
  • Time writing blog posts
  • Promotions with folks like BookBub and BookSends
  • Giveaways
  • Etc.

The bottom line is that I think it’s good to separate these costs from publishing so you can measure their effectiveness against sales. Marketing is about revenue generation. These costs really have nothing to do with producing a book.

Books and Lemonade

I’m going to go off an a tangent here for a second. Some folks suggest that indie authors shouldn’t do much marketing. Especially if they only have one or two books out.

I find no evidence to support the idea that just writing the next book is all you need to do for readers to hear about you and beat a path to your door. It’s true you’ve got to write the next book. You must get new product out the door. Hey, I learned that when book 2 from the publisher fell into a black hole. But that doesn’t mean marketing and promotion are inappropriate,  wrong-headed, or a waste of time or money.

Let me ask you a question.

Let’s say Juanito is a no-name in the lemonade business. He’s just starting from scratch with dreams of becoming a big time lemonader. Who thinks it’s a good idea for him to open a lemonade stand in his back yard? Or better yet, in a closet in his basement? And when folks suggest that the stand might get more business if he lets the neighbors know about it or puts the stand in a place with a lot of foot traffic, who says, no, that’s a waste of time and money–the key to selling more lemonade is whipping more batches up in the kitchen?

In retail, you must get folks to notice your product and then persuade them to try it. Now, maybe you’ve got something going that’s generating all the notice and sampling you can handle.  Maybe you lucked out.

What percentage of indies are in that situation? Raise your hands, please.

What? We’re not all inundated with hordes of readers? We’re not  all swimming in gold? Imagine that.

The fact is that it’s tough to get notice. It’s tough to get people to try. But there are some things we can do to increase our odds. Selling books is a retail business. Retail lives and dies by visibility. Yeah, you need word of mouth. But you need to be noticed and sampled in large enough amounts to keep that word of mouth going.

What would you rather have? 100,000 people all over the country in many social networks (I’m not talking about Facebook) noticing and sampling and talking about your product, or would you rather have five?

In the brick and mortar world, there are lots of ways to get visibility without doing much TV or internet advertising. Ways to get notice include things as simple as signage and a store’s location. For example, you get a ton of eyeballs just situating your restaurant in the parking lot of a big destination shopping mall. You get eyeballs putting a sign on top of a 100 foot pole next to the freeway exit saying “Gas & Eats.” Online retailers get noticed in other ways.

Without blathering on about that (this was a post on publishing costs), let me just say that until customers begin to line up and start throwing hundred dollar bills at me, it appears I’m going to have to do what every other retail business has done for hundreds of years–get my lemonade stand out of the basement and into the park with lots of thirsty kids and moms.

EDIT 8/30/2014

While a number of folks are assuming the article was written as part of some vast conspiracy to undermine indie authors, David Gaughran posted some criticism in the article’s comment section that actually make sense.


The reason I’m so annoyed by the inaccuracies in this article is that this kind of misinformation is creates an information gap which allows shady operators to flourish.

Vanity press operators thrive because inexperienced authors think that self-publishing is either difficult or expensive. It’s neither of those things, and articles like this only serve to reinforce this false notion. That’s why I think this piece is irresponsible as well as inaccurate.

Companies like Author Solutions specifically target the most inexperience authors, the ones who know least about self-publishing and the industry in general, the ones who have fallen under the spell of various myths (like that self-publishing costs $6,000).

As a commenter said below, saying self-publishing costs $6,000 is like saying houses cost $10m. You can spend that much, but you don’t need to.

It costs me less than a third of that to publish a book, and I use a Big 5 cover designer as well as an editor with over ten years experience working for traditional publishers. Anyone can look at my books and immediately see that they are produced to professional standards.

You don’t even have to spend as much as I do to get a quality product. If authors are on a tighter budget, they can purchase a pre-made cover design. There are some wonderful pre-mades out there for as little as $40. You will have to invest a fair bit of time combing through the sites to find something suitable, but if you are on a shoestring budget it’s an option.

Same goes for content editing/developmental editing. All manuscripts will need a thorough copy edit, but you can get by without a specific content edit with successive round of beta readers. Again, this will require a time investment – writers usually trade beta reads of each other’s work. But if you’re on a tighter budget, it’s another way you can save money.

This is why this piece is so off. Even going the “deluxe” route shouldn’t cost more than $2,000. And if you don’t have $2,000, there are plenty of options where you can achieve a quality product, spending far less, if you are willing to put in a little time.

There are ways you can save money in other areas too. It’s a waste of money for an author (especially a new author) to buy a NetGalley membership for themselves. Authors can (and do) form collectives to buy a membership between them – often spending just $20 per person. I got a NetGalley spot for a month, for free, by bartering with another author. (I didn’t think it was quite worth $20, by the way, let alone $400).

If you need reviews, there are much better and cheaper ways. Submitting to book bloggers costs nothing (we usually send e-book copies or PDFs, rather than hard copies). Doing an e-book giveaway on LibraryThing costs nothing. Giving out electronic ARCs in advance of your release costs nothing. And all of these are much more effective than giving any kind of money to Kirkus, let alone $425.

But I guess it doesn’t matter how many experienced self-publishers (and editors who work with same) tell you that your figures are off, or that you don’t need ISBNs to self-publish, you are going to stick to your guns.

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