By Amanda Clay
When I first started on the path of self-publishing, something I found a bit shocking was how candid everyone was in talking about money.
In the Facebook groups, at the conferences, authors were discussing how much they’d made and how much they’d spent to get there. I don’t know about you, but as an aspiring writer, money was something that always seemed shameful to think about.
After all, a real artist could never put a price on their work! (Spoiler, yes, yes they can.)
If you’ve heard me speak before, this will sound familiar—No one is saying you have to write for the money (because it’s true you might not make much). But if you want to make a full-time living at it then you should at least expect to get paid for your work.
So maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid to talk about it like a business.
Let’s dig into the dollars and cents.
Is there even any money to be made self-publishing anymore?
Unequivocally yes. Dreams are made every day in this business. When done right. I cannot emphasize the “done right” part enough.
You’ve probably heard something like “the average self-published book makes $300 or less in its lifetime.” That’s probably accurate. Most people who attempt it don’t know what they’re doing. Just like most people who submit books to agents get rejected.
Self-publishing gets a lot of flak because “anyone can do it.” True, there are no gatekeepers. But you know what else anyone can do with time and capital? Open an Italian bistro. Or a rubber nipple store. But if you don’t know the first thing about pasta, or the niche market of synthetic nipples, you’re going to fail.
The harsh reality is most businesses fail. And even those that succeed usually lose money for the first three years. Because business is HARD. Artistic businesses might be even harder.
BUT, BUT, BUT! With the right combination of craft, marketing acumen, and with a little bit of market timing, you can make a living self-publishing (sometimes a very, very good living).
Ok. So, what does it cost to self-publish a book? How much will that book then make you?
It’s kind of impossible to give you exact numbers because it can really vary. But I can give you some ballpark figures. I’m going to speak in averages here. Like any business there are unicorns that will break the mold. But we don’t build our business models on unicorns, no matter how much we love rainbows.
To simplify, let’s talk about the biggest money maker for Indies—Kindle books.
Self-published Kindle books are typically priced between $2.99 and $4.99 on Amazon. You earn roughly 70% royalties on each sale. So, on that lower end, you will earn approximately two dollars for every sale of a $2.99 book.
If you sold 68 books every day for a year, you’d earn $50,000. Hey, that’s not bad. Up the sale price to $4.99 and you only need to sell 36 books a day.
Why wouldn’t you always just sell your books for more? Well, it comes down to pricing strategies. A slightly complicated facet of marketing we’ll tackle another time.
Let’s pretend we have the marketing capabilities to easily sell 68 copies a day. How much of that is actually profit?
In general, you’re looking at three main upfront publishing costs:
These costs can really vary depending on genre, length and who you work with, but we’ll break it down to some averages.
Covers can run anywhere from $49 for a basic premade romance cover to $1,000 for custom fantasy artwork.
Like most things, spending a little more usually gets you higher quality. Your cover is the first thing readers see. This is NOT the place to skimp. Despite what they say, everyone 100% judges a book on its cover.
If you want something custom, I would aim to spend a total of about $300–$400 for an ebook and print cover package.
If you’re more flexible, pre-made covers are a fantastic way to save money. Some really top designers I know sell premades for around $100. If an artist is just starting out or has a lot of inventory, they may even sell them for less.
How do you know if the cover is any good? Go to Amazon and scour the recent top-selling books in your genre. Study the covers. You don’t want an exact replica, but yours should be in the family with theme, colors and fonts. Keep in mind, covers go through trends that change every few years. What sold five years ago might not today. So, it’s important to look at recent top sellers, not that book that’s been on the best-seller charts for a decade.
NOTE: Please, please, unless you are an experienced BOOK designer, do NOT attempt to design your own cover. It will show and it will not do you any favors.
Interested in designing your own covers? Great! Go spend at least a year learning how to do it. Until then, back away from the Photoshop.
Next up, the equally important…
There are three main types of editing you’ll want to consider, all with vast price ranges depending on length, genre, etc.
Here is where you’ll likely fall for a 75,000-word book.
Developmental Editing: $500-$3000
Copy/Line Editing: $250-$1500
Now keep in mind you may not always need developmental editing. I used it more in the beginning of my career and will every so often if I’m struggling with my plot. However, a solid copy edit and a final proof are absolutes every time.
Why the huge variation in price? Like cover design, you’re going to have editors who are just starting out and willing to work for less, and more experienced editors who have the résumé to charge more.
Are the experienced editors better? Yes and no. With experience always comes a more thorough understanding of the craft. I know some pricy editors absolutely worth their weight in gold. But a brand new editor may still have a fantastic grasp of story and grammar. Even if you’re just starting out and, on a budget, you should be able to find someone who can work with you.
Keep in mind, it’s critical you find an editor who understands your genre. If your editor has never read a romance, say, they aren’t going to understand the essential tropes of that genre, even if they’ve been slashing words for twenty years.
Ok, now the thing that can really eat your budget if you’re not careful.
Sigh, this is a tough one. And so much will depend on your personal budget. An author earning a million a year may spend $100,000 a year on ads. Someone just starting out might only be able to swing a few bucks a day.
But, like any business, marketing is an essential part of success. You need to set aside some money in order to gain visibility. If you don’t advertise, readers will never see your book. For a new book, $10 a day is a great place to start with some Amazon ads.
If you really have no budget at all, consider waiting to publish until you’ve saved a few hundred bucks. There are ways to market organically (i.e., free) but it takes a lot of time, dedication, and networking with readers and other authors in your genre.
The how-tos of advertising are far too much for this blog post. In fact, learning ads is an entire course worth of material (and there is no shortage of courses on the subject). If you want some advice on where to start, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll point you in the right direction.
Ok, so where do we stand with the numbers?
Assuming you’ve written a beautiful 75,000-word murder mystery and don’t need a developmental editor.
Custom Cover: $300
Line Edits: $800
Marketing: $300 ($10 a day for a month)
Upfront cost: $1,800
So at a $2 per sale profit (70% of $2.99), you will need to sell 900 books to recoup your cost. At $3.50 profit (70% of $4.99) you will need to sell 514 books.
That might seem daunting. And in the beginning, it kind of is. You might lose money at first. Actually, you probably will lose money or break even on your first book. (Psst: Big publishers lose money on books all the time. Blockbuster authors like Dan Brown give them some wiggle room to take chances on new authors).
But as you build a readership, you’ll start to see a small profit on book two. If you keep at it, every book you launch will be even more successful than the last!
As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.
Amanda J. Clay is the Amazon best-selling author of gripping romantic thrillers and suspense with unforgettable characters. A Northern California native, she currently lives in Denver, CO.
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