Monday, February 24, 2014

Self Publishing: How much does it really cost?

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how easy self-publishing can be. Let’s be honest, there isn’t much to it: write a story, create a cover, and post it through the distributor of your choice. In fact, it’s so easy there isn’t any reason to suffer through querying traditional publishers, or even small Independent publishers. Their contribution to the polishing and publication of your work isn’t worth what you’ll lose in royalties.

Or is it?

I guess it all depends on your publishing goals.

What if you want a polished manuscript that flows well on the e-reading device and has a professional, eye-catching cover? Many authors have the time, patience, and skills to create their work from start to finish. I don’t.

I like to think that one of my strengths as a writer is knowing my limits. I’m not talking about writing; I’m referring to all the essential bits that go into finishing the work. When it comes to editing, I can’t see my own mistakes, be them grammar or otherwise. I don’t have the knowledge or skill to create a good cover, and we all know that everyone initially judges a book by its cover. While I am capable of formatting my own work for ePub and Mobi, it’s a time consuming process, especially if you’re creating the best possible, error-free, e-reading experience and don’t already own appropriate software. Uploading your Word or OpenOffice file to the desired distributor might seem like a good idea, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be left with blank pages, overlapping text, and odd fonts because your word processor couldn’t embed them. E-readers aren’t paper books; if files are formatted incorrectly, the reader isn’t going to have an enjoyable experience.

So – what is the real cost of self-publishing a short story? Let’s break it down.

According to the Professional Writer’s Association of Canada (PWAC), the least expensive rate for article writing is $0.10 a word... that means the copy for a 7000 word short story is worth a minimum of $700. (Keep this number in mind – I’m going to come back to it later

A professional editor charges between $30 and $60 an hour. Assuming that editor can review 2500 words an hour, and is working for an average of $40 an hour, that means a minimum of $120 for a 7000 word story  – keep in mind that this is only content editing. Depending on the condition of your manuscript, the editor may require additional hours to make it publishable.

Formatting the document for digital publication should be straightforward, except that word processors are not all created equal. Many leave behind bits of coding and unusual errors that disrupt the flow of the copy on an e-reader and wreak havoc with html links and bookmarks. The average package price for formatting is $125 which includes file clean-up, inclusion of the cover, meta-data, hyperlinks, ToC, and error-free file conversion to secure PDF, MOBI, and ePub. The longer the manuscript, the inclusion of images, and the more detailed the formatting, the more expensive the package is going to be.

I tried to make my own book cover – once. I bet a toddler with an etch-a-sketch could do better. Recently, a number of book cover design options have popped up on the internet. Prices range from $30 for a quick and easy pre-made cover (but there’s no real guarantee you won’t see that same basic cover on another book) to over $400 for a custom creation. In the past, I have paid approximately $200 for a unique cover, custom designed by a professional graphic artist.


Let’s add it all up:

$120 for editing
$125 for formatting
$200 for a professional cover.

But wait... what about promotional materials? And marketing? And Distribution? 

Yes – I can upload my short story to any number of distributors – KDP (Amazon), Kobo, Nook, Sony, Apple – or I can try to let Smashwords do the work for me. Smashwords uses “meat grinder” to convert Word files, but the conversion isn’t always smooth. Errors in formatting are frequent, resulting in unappealing books. If Smashwords is unable to convert your file to their standards, they won’t extend your book to their expanded distribution channels. But it’s free to upload files, and doesn’t cost anything for the conversion process, right?

Well, no, there’s a misconception to the “free” aspect.” There’s no upfront cost from the distributor to do the conversion (after you have already spent hours creating an error-free document). However, your indirect payment to the distributor depends on the sale price of the short story and the distributor’s non-negotiable royalty rate. If a book is priced under $3, then, on average, they keep 65% of the sell price. This means that a $0.99 short story earns me a profit of $0.35... but only after I have paid for the above expenses.

Remember the $700 price tag for the story itself? Let’s add that to the cost of the complete work for a grand total of $1145. How many e-books would I have to sell to earn this back? Keep in mind I only keep $0.35 for each book I sell.

3272 copies.

That’s a lot of e-books, before I see a profit...

Alternatively, providing my work is accepted, I can hand the reins over to a publisher, and take advantage of their team of editors, formatters, and cover designers. Hopefully, their marketing team will help me promote the work, and at the very least, my story will be available to the public at no cost to me, except for my initial investment (blood, sweat, and tears) of writing the story.

Now – let’s talk about why it’s such a bad idea for writers to give away their work for free...  


  1. Great article Jennifer. I am just shy of the $2000.00 mark for my short story, using your above formula. at the moment that represents 2 months salary for me as a retiree. There is no way my highly polished book would be on the market today, because I just don't have the skills to do it. At best it would be a poorly edited, poorly represented piece of trash.

    1. When I started putting the numbers together - I was a little shocked. I hadn't realized the value of what goes into producing a manuscript.

  2. "When it comes to editing, I can’t see my own mistakes, be them grammar or otherwise." Please tell me that was a joke, because if that was on accident, it was awesome. :-)

    Those numbers are quite shocking. I begin to see the hesitation people have to jump into this business without a backup plan. Good article.