How To (Self)Publish Books On a Budget (updated April 5. 2021)
It’s possible. And if it’s your first book, you might have no other choice. Unless you’re filthy rich, but again, then you should go somewhere else.
Disclaimer: I am not a publishing expert. On the contrary. Drafting this, on December 8th, 2020, I am still 10 days off releasing my debut book.
Update: I am now a slightly more experienced author, with two books self-published. You will s see these updates throughout the article, where I comment on things I have learned since the day I wrote the original blog post. I have chosen to keep the original text, so you can see the original and updated advice. Too get a glimpse into my journey.
The value I offer lies in my noviceness (if that’s even a word?). I look at this from someone in the middle of it. Trying to figure things out. I have tried a bunch of things, thrown both money and time out the window, and done many mistakes. And I still keep making them on a weekly basis.
My book has cost me approximately $1500 to release at the point of writing this.
Update: Final cost was $2000. I did another editorial run on it after it was published, and I have spent money promoting it. Since then I have published book two in the series, and that was considerably cheaper, coming in at $1000.
If I could rewind and start over today, I would have been able to make it 50% cheaper, if not more. (Update: As proven by book two)
A book, isn’t a book, isn’t a book
My book is a small book. It’s a season with six short episodes. The total word count, a whopping 13 000 words.
To put it in perspective: 50 000 words are defined as the entry point to novels, being around 250 printed pages. A relatively thin book.
Depending on the genre you write, the normal word count (rough estimate)is in the ballpark 60K — 100K.
Word count is important for publishing costs. More words = More expensive.
For my book, the small ninety-minute read, $1400 is too much, I should have spent around $600, or more likely $7–800.
For a full-sized novel, $1500 might even be cheap. So bear this in mind when reading on.
What you DO need to spend money on
Before I start being assertive, and I will be, trust me, I have to repeat my disclaimer: I am not a professional publisher or an experienced, published author. I write this before my first book is out.
Many of these tips aren’t something I have made up on my own, though. This is my ROI (Return On Investment) from all the money-wasting I have been doing over the last year.
I know that next time I publish a book (in three-months time from the release of this post), I will use this as my guiding principle to make sure it won’t cost more than it absolutely has to.
There are two things you NEED to spend money on. And it doesn’t matter how good you think you are. You need to invest in this:
Update: OK, I still believe what I am writing below, but I am a little more nuanced now. If you are an experienced writer with good knowledge of the craft, you can get by without a developmental edit. What I would have put up into the NEED category now is proofreading. After copy-edit, there will be several changes that you’ll have to make, and every change you do will possibly garner more mistakes. A professional proofreader makes sure the last kinks are out of your manuscript before you hit publish.
1. A Professional Editor
There are several ways to edit a book, some would argue six. I will focus on the two edits I think is the most important (three if you count proofreading, but more on that later):
- Developmental edit.
- Copy edit.
I won’t describe the difference here, but developmental edits are all about the big picture, and copy editing is about the prose, sentence structure, flow, and line-by-line edits.
I recommend investing in both.*
*I think they both are equally important. Especially starting out as an author, getting developmental edits is huge. It’s an exceptional learning experience. If you are on a tight budget and can’t afford both, I would learn to do decent developmental edits on my own (courses and books), and invest in an outstanding copy editor.
A good copy editor will not only flush out all the mistakes you didn’t know you had, but also suggest better wording, small structural (on a paragraph level) changes, and bump your manuscript up to the next level.
A small warning that has nothing to do with budget — Don’t think your returned manuscript from the editor is ready to be published. Make sure you have planned out enough time to go through the edits. You might have to go a second round as well. Again, trust me on this one.
A professional cover designer
No disclaimer here. This is a universal truth. Don’t be cheap when it comes to the cover design.
I have tried and failed, big time. As writing this, eight days from the publishing date, I am in the middle of inquiring a professional typographist to fix my cover. I am stressed out, big time.
Update: Editing this, I am four days off the release. I got a professional to fix it. But I will get it the day I have to upload it. No time for edits. I have to go with what she gives me. Nerve-wracking!
Update 2: I got it in time, and she has also worked on my second book as well, and a prequel. Getting a good cover designer is key.
It doesn’t matter what you think is pretty. You have made a product, and the buyers of those products are expecting a certain package. Are you writing a cozy mystery, well then you better be making a cozy mystery genre-specific cover. *Cozy mystery writer waving at you*.
These are the two big ones. A professional editor and a professional designer.
If I was to go back, I would have spent $500 on edits, and $300 on the cover.
Update: I still don’t have “proof of concept on my covers”. I might be in the middle of a big mistake, spending big money on an illustrator I love. The possibly wrong thing I am doing now is that I am deciding what to have on the cover. That MIGHT not be what the readers want and/or expect. I will keep on my planned path, but by the end of this year (2021) I will have to decide if I have to re-brand. This is why I STRONGLY recommend finding good, no, excellent cover designers right off the bat, and give them the task of finding out what you need to sell. And trust them, they know what they are doing.
What you SHOULD spend money on
These are things you can do yourself but will take a lot of time and frustration to get done right.
Keyword, categories, and competitor analyses.
Keywords and categories are extremely important to make your book visible to people that search for your type of book. In KDP (Amazon), you have two (but really ten if you ask nicely) categories. You also have to insert seven keywords. These are words or phrases people search for to find your type of book.
Competitor analysis is important to know who you are competing against. It’s important for keywords, categories, cover design, and target marketing.
I spent about $50 on all of this. And it wouldn’t surprise me if this will earn its way back to my pocket within not long. Since I am writing a series, I can also use this on my next books. A good investment, I am sure. If not, I will come back here and tell you.
Update: I am back, and I still believe this was a good investment. It made it super-easy for me on book two when I had everything from book one. And free!
Description, aka Blurb
The description is your sales pitch. Your 2–300 words to get potential buyers to press the button. It’s almost as important as the cover, but only almost.
“Tommy… Tommy, Tommy… I am a writer, surely I can write my own description!”
Yes. You probably can. But don’t think it’s that easy. I did. Eight pages full of bad blurbs later, and I squeezed out 50 good words. Then I got professional feedback that it was way too short.
You can write it yourself. But remember, this is the second to most important thing people look at when deciding to buy or not.
I am practicing blurbing, and one day I will be there. But right now I am not, and I was out of time, so I got someone to write it for me.
P.S.: I punched the air when I got the description back. It was so good that I wanted to buy my own book.
This is also in a way defined as editing. This is the final quality check before it gets published. If you have friends/family that are writers and/or vivid readers and preferably typo-hunters, you can use them.
If not, it can be a smart idea to spend some dough getting someone to proofread for you. Another thing about professional proofreaders (who often are editors btw, by) is the professional feedback. Friends and family often have a problem being frank with you.
The real readers are not only frank (or John, Alice, Marie, Stephen…), but brutal. Be prepared.
Update: As I said earlier. This is one I would definitively place in the NEED category now.
What you CAN wait with
This is what you probably shouldn’t spend any money on out the gate. Especially if you are writing a series and this is the first book.
Ads (AMS, Facebook, BookBub)
I have spent a good chunk on marketing, trying to learn the ropes. But I will not spend much on it before I release book number two. I learned that in the twelfth hour, ready to pull the trigger.
If you market book one aggressively, the readers won’t have a next book to read, and the cost/profit margin will be hard to keep in the black.
When you release book two, you can use deals to promote book one and get spillover to book two. Now the needle can start to move a little.
On book three, you can do book one free, book two at a discount, and book three at full price. Now you have what we in board gaming call an engine that can.
Don’t go crazy with marketing unless you have money to go crazy with. I am going to practice marketing in February. I know I will lose money, but it is a calculated loss for possible future earnings.
Update: Going through this project I have become very interested in marketing and promotion. I have read several great books, taken some good, bad, and great courses, and read numerous articles on promotion and marketing (NO, its not the same). I even considered (and still am) taking classes in digital marketing.
I found one author that gave me some no-bullshit advice when it came to marketing, and that is David Gaughran. I really recommend taking his free course starting from zero. It’s great value, and he keeps it real. He doesn’t try to sell you on anything, and this recommendation follows that trope, he doesn’t even know I recommend him: https://davidgaughran.com/
The same as ads. Many promotional sites require you to have reviews. You will probably don’t have that off the gate unless you have a review team or a huge following.
Save the money, and go hard on book two, harder on book three.
The best way of promoting your book is always to write the next.
Update: That one! The sentence above, right there 👆 is the best and most important sentence of this blog post. This is by far the best way of promoting.
Farewell and a bonus tip
Thank you for reading. I hope it wasn’t too messy with all the updates. If it is, please tell me. I will make version 2.0 of this article in the future, but I want more experience first.
And for the bonus tip. The number one rule of marketing:
Get a newsletter!
Make sure people that like your books have a place to hang out with you. That way you can start a relationship with your readers (no, not the angry wife/husband kind of relationship you dirty little…)
Remember — readers follow you, not the books you wrote. Be genuine, and don’t use your newsletter as a sales pitch. At least not obviously.
If you would like to know more about me and the publishing journey I’m on, look at my webpage and sign up for my newsletter. I promise you nothing less than borderline craziness.
Ses (Norwegian for see you later!)