What Does it Cost to be a Successful Self-Published Author? The Dirty Costly Secrets.

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Many writers want to be published authors and tell me their goal isn’t to make money, it’s to share their story to bring others hope, to leave a legacy, to motivate, to share God’s word, to make people laugh or cry. 

At one point I felt the same way about making money from my writing. I wanted to write stories and it didn’t matter how much money I made.

But now I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to make money. I do. I want to cover my expenses. I want to be a successful entrepreneur, and I want to write stories that entertain, motivate, and inspire readers. And I don’t want to give my work away for free because it’s cost me too much to create. There’s a certain amount of pride that goes into learning the craft and building words in a way that others find entertaining.

How much money will I have to spend to cover my expenses or reach the top? Many businesses feed off of authors who have huge egos and want to see their names at the top. They’ll take your money if you let them. That’s why it’s important to know the costs before you get in and budget accordingly, budget reasonably.

Treat authorship as a business. Every new business has start-up costs and typically most don’t make money in the first year, some don’t make money in the first three years.  According to the website NOLO Law for All, “If your business made a profit in any three out of the past five consecutive years, it is presumed to have a profit motive. This means that if you claim a loss for the third straight year after starting your business, you may be inviting an audit.”  Give your business time. Be patient. (But write.)

Different authors will spend money in different ways–just like they do in life. How you spend your money is up to you, but knowing some of the costs can help. Here are a few I had in 2013. I hope you find them helpful.

1. Writer’s conferences – Plane tickets, gas allowances, meals, the conference fees, extra appointments, the cost of writing and editing your pitch or your book proposal, a new outfit, a tape recorder or any other supplies you tell yourself you need. This can be a huge expense, but is often a great gain too. You learn more about the author business and meet important people in the industry.

One of the best parts about self-publishing your book is that you no longer have to attend conferences to pitch agents and publishers, so there’s a huge savings if you don’t go to conferences. (You don’t have to write a book proposal either. Yay! I do recommend that you write an elevator pitch though because you’ll need that any time you’re talking about your book and at Amazon and other ad places.)

Even if you’re a self-published author, there’s a lot to gain from attending a writer’s conference. You learn about the industry and gain support from fellow authors by attending.

2. Books on publishing and the craft – Staying current in the author business is important just like it is in any career. You could cut costs here and peruse the internet for answers to publishing questions or use your local library, but there are occasional books you’d like to keep as references. Plan on how much you will spend a month and stick to your number.

3. Ads – Once your book is published you’ll have to spend money on advertising. (Make yourself a MEDIA PAGE so you can submit your books in a timely fashion.) The most popular place to advertise is BookBub, but it’s also the most expensive. The fees they charge are based on your genre. The more viewers they have at their site the more expensive their ad.

For instance, last October I placed an ad with them for CACHE a PREDATOR in the thriller category. It cost me $360 but I had over 3100 downloads of my novel that month. Placing an ad with them is effective, but costly. Yes, it paid for itself and moved my ranking to the #1 bestseller spot and #37 in overall Kindle ebooks. But here’s the BIG catch:  THEY HAVE TO APPROVE YOU. Yes, even if you’re a paying customer they can turn you down. They rejected CACHE a PREDATOR three times before they accepted it.

There are other places to advertise, too, but most don’t cost as much. (To see some effective ad places I’ve used click HERE.) Plan on a budget for ads every quarter and for each book. If you run a Kindle Count Down Deal it’ll be more effective if you run ads along with the sale. Your goals should be to a.) make double what you spent on an ad and b.) move to the #1 spot in your genre. Aim high! No harm in that!

Goodreads is another awesome site to place ads. They have a great site to teach authors how to use their site HERE. Plan on spending a good chunk of your day there to figure it all out. You won’t be sorry. I like the exposure I get there and the good thing is that I don’t pay a dime unless someone clicks on my book. More times than not they add my book to their TBR shelf too.

4. Book covers – Many cover artists range from around $300 – $400. I used Avalon Graphics. She worked with me until we had a “match.” Your artist is only as good as the information you give them. Be sure to read my post on book covers HERE. This is an expense you don’t want to skimp on. Readers judge books by their covers. Period.

5. Book trailers – These can cost little or a lot. You don’t have to create one, but the more exposure over the internet the better. Some people really like the visual of a good trailer. I know I do. If you design one yourself be careful about sharing music, movies, and photos. Don’t violate copyright laws. I hired this done and paid around $400. (The second novel I wrote I hired my cousin’s son design it, but we won’t talk about what I paid. It was one of those oops moments.)

6. Editors – This is where I’ve spent a huge chunk of money. I felt that it was one of the most important things. The editors I use cost around $2000. This is for a developmental and a line edit. You might be able to find an editor for less, but make sure you’re getting what you personally need to make your book the best it can be. (To watch a fun video on the differences of editing click on this You Tube Video.)

7. Formatting – Before you can load your novel you have to format it properly for Kindle, Nook, or iPads. A different format is required for Create Space. One author friend bought Joel Friedlander’s templates and saved money that way. Others have learned how to format themselves. I hired my formatter because I didn’t want to take the time to learn how and Joel didn’t have his templates back then. Plan on spending about $100 -$150 for this service, but it depends on how long your book is too.

8. Magazine subscriptions – Joining an organization that will help you learn tricks and tips in this biz can help, but don’t go overboard. If you find that the value isn’t what you thought it was, don’t resubscribe.

9. Contests – Once your novel is published you’ll want to enter contests so you can have bragging rights if it wins. Wouldn’t it sound amazing to see “Award-winning author” in front of your name or book title? Unfortunately it costs money to enter these contests. Some are $40 and others are $99. That adds up. Find the contests in your genre. This takes time and money. Find the ones in your region. Find the ones that accept Indie author entrants.

10. ISBN – Contact Bowker for these. When you load your book to Create Space you can use the ISBN they assign, but some people don’t recommend that option. I used CS’s ISBN because I believed it helped me get my books into libraries.  It costs $250 for 10 numbers.

11. Make your business an LLC, partnership, or corporation. This might take a few dollars too. You’ll also have to register with your state for local sales tax information if you plan on selling books at local stores or fairs. This fee varies.

12. Create Space – is FREE. You can load your book and sell it in the EXPANDED DISTRIBUTION channels (other countries) at no cost. Yep, it’s one freebie. You can also load your ebook at KINDLE PUBLISHING for FREE and join their “Select” category. This allows you a promo in either their Kindle Countdown Deal or their FREE PROMO once every 90 day period. This has helped me make it to “Bestseller” status.

13. Blog/Website Fees – Hosting a blog site and paying for domain names is a part of building your platform and shouldn’t be ignored. Typically these costs appear annually. HERE‘s a great article on the costs associated with a blog.

Also, you may have to pay a tech guy/gal who can teach you the ins and outs of WordPress or whichever blog host you choose. For instance, I had a problem that whenever I posted a link to an article a VIAGRA ad would appear. I was mortified and didn’t know the first step in solving this problem. I had to hire someone to help. 

14. Newsletter Service Fees – Mailchimp – Most authors have an automated newsletter they send out. I’ve found Mailchimp to be the most economical, but I’m still not a pro when it comes to understanding this service. The costs associated with this service vary depending on how many subscribers you have. I paid an initial $30 which gave me what I needed to start and that was over a year ago. However, I haven’t mailed my first newsletter yet.

15. Reviews – I’ve never paid anyone to read and review my novel. For more information on how I find reviewers you can read this post.

16. Blog Tours – I spend money on book promotional tours. In this situation, I work with one person who contacts up to 30 different blogs (or less) who review my novel, write reviews, conduct interviews, include excerpts, and basically blast my novel across the internet for a specific period of time. You can spend between $100 – $300 depending on the length of your promotional tour. I’ve used PROMOTIONAL BOOK TOURS and BECK VALLEY TOURS. (But book early because you may have to wait in line.)

17. FB and Twitter Parties – This can cost around $50 – $100. I’ve only done a FB party and had a blast, but it won’t sell books unless you have a great deal going. Typically these events are great for increasing your Goodreads TBR shelf, adding LIKES to your FB page, and increasing your Twitter and Pinterest followers, which might result in sales later on. These events draw a crowd of people who are sweepstakes/giveaway hunters. They want the prizes. Not always, but often. However, don’t misunderstand–all efforts to get your books name out there is good, but don’t expect to generate mega sales with these blasts.

18. TIME – The largest cost for the successful author is time. What’s your lost opportunity cost? If you’re going to lose your paying job by staying home to write, what will you lose? Is it worth the pay-cut in the long run? Can you live on nothing for 3-5 years? Do you have another source of income? Only you know how to answer those questions.

19. Audio Book – The costs for this vary based on the length of your novel. For a novel around 80,000 words plan on spending approximately $2000. This fee can be more or less depending on who you contract. I went with ACX.com with my first novel, but I haven’t published the audio version yet to report how long it took for me to recoup my expenses.

SUCCESS in any business is costly. Success takes patience, perseverance, motivation, and money, but remember that the most important thing for you as a writer is to keep writing because the costliest mistake is to stop writing.

Having realistic expectations is important to your success as an author. It helps to understand what they are.

What other expenses can you add to my list?

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  1. Great post Michelle. If authors read this it will save them a lot of headaches! BTW I love the cover for Eclair. Such a great book and series. I wish you every success!!

    • Hi Diana –
      Ha! Yes, this post might scare a few Indie-Goers. But it’s reality. Thanks for the compliment on Eclair’s cover and for stopping by today! I hope you’re doing well and survived the nasty weather your way!

  2. Michelle–As this post indicates, you exhibit both necessary components for being a successful author! You’re a talented writer AND a talented marketer with business savvy. Craft takes time. Marketing takes money. Bravo to you on doing a great job on both fronts! Keep it up.

  3. Hey nice post!

    I admit, I’ve never spent anywhere near that amount of money. Hooray for nonfiction! I will also say that there are a lot of authors skipping most of those steps and just trying to publish as many titles as quickly as possible. It’s kind of annoying because there’s a lot of garbage on Amazon and other vendors because of it, but I can’t say it’s ineffective from a business standpoint.

    But thanks to you, I know have several new ways to spend money, lol. 🙂 I must say, I do admire your dedication to excellence. It will no doubt pay off in the long run. Also, I could do an 80,000-word audiobook for less than $2000. Just sayin’!

    • Hi Matt!
      It’s awesome to “see” you here! Thanks for your comments. And you WILL do that audio book for me for less than $2000 because I want to hire your team–but not until I know where LINKS lands in the ABNA contest. I should know more next week.
      I noticed that you understand MAILCHIMP. Can I hire your team to help me with that? I have it connected, but I don’t have a clue what I’m doing and I really need to start publishing my newsletter. Can you help?
      I’m thrilled to have met you guys this weekend. It was the highlight of the trip!

  4. Fabulous post, Michelle! I admit I gulped a time or two–ten times, tops! But what a huge source of valuable information from someone who knows the ropes. Thanks for putting all this together.

    • Thanks, Beth! I’m going to teach a class (or two) on self-publishing so this is one that will go into that Power Point presentation. It took time to put it all together, but I thought it would help others and I think it has. Thanks for letting me know you found it valuable! I hope you’re enjoying some warmer weather now!

  5. Judy Pencek says:

    Thanks for all the information. I know I will be referring to it many times over the next few months as I decide whether to self publish or try the traditional route. I thought writing was the challenge- silly me. I loved your book Cache a Predator and can’t wait to read another of your books.

    • Hi Judy – Thanks for stopping by to read this post. Even if you decide to publish with a small press some of these same fees will apply, especially the “marketing” part. Thanks for the compliment on Cache a Predator. You’ll have to read SCATTERED LINKS next. It’s way different than CACHE, but readers are enjoying it. Yay! Let me know when you’re published so I can give your book a shout!

  6. Michelle, this was filled with advice I’ve not read elsewhere. With 11 children’s non-fic books, I’m always on the lookout for economical way to market them. Let me know when you will be leading a worshop on self-pubbing. I’ll spread the word and hope to attend! And thanks for promoting my 2 newest books on Twitter/FB. I appreciate it!

    • Hi Kayleen –
      Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad that you found this helpful.
      I think there’s a group of us who are teaching at the Roanoke Library next week, Thursday, April 17 at 6:30.
      We’re teaching “How to Self-Publish,” and I think this post will be part of my presentation. A few other authors from Ft. Wayne will present too.
      I only have 25 minutes.

  7. Great post! Love the blend of art and business sense. I wish more writers who want to self-pub took the time (and investment) to make their product the best it can be. I’ve seen/read several poor examples lately. Makes me sad. My biggest issue is with the ISBN number – buy on my own or use the what CS supplies. Still confusing as to which route is best.

    • Hi Lucy –

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree about the ISBN–it’s confusing to all of us. I decided to make a choice and perhaps I’ll change my mind later. I bought ten numbers at Bowker (but a lot of my fellow authors have bought 100 because it was the best “deal”) but when I loaded my books at Create Space I chose to go with their number because I believed it would help me in the libraries. However, I must admit that I’m not sure it’s going to help. There are pros and cons to using both. In the end, it’s usually the “simplest” way that works for me because I want to spend more time writing.

      Have a great day!

  8. Isabel says:

    This is am amazing and timely post. I finished writing my book last year and recently got it professionally edited. I even created my own ebook cover for it (although I think I might have to hire a professional since I want a back cover and spine ready so I could have a printed version of my book available for sale). I am overwhelmed by all the information out there and didn’t know what my next steps were. It’s really hard to get other self-pub authors to share this information, especially the “expenses” part of it. But you put it out there (just in time for me!). Thank you so much!

    • Hi Isabel – Congrats on completing your book and getting it professionally edited. Well done! You’re miles ahead of many other Indie-Goers. Please let me know if I can help you in any other way. You might want to read my post about book covers here too–make sure you BRAND your name the same way on all your books. You have a lot more books in you, right? Lol.


    • Michelle and others reading this post:
      Michelle did tell me months ago to take a look at her website/blog..
      WOW! After reading this…….today, I’m so glad yet could kick my butt for not doing this much earlier. It would have SAVED me my sanity for sure. However, I’m downloading and keeping as I continue to write. I must add: before you sign a contract with any publisher, make sure you understand 100% what you’re doing. Hire a lawyer who is knowledgeable with literary contracts. DON’T SIGN YOUR NAME to anything until you know what you’re signing up for! Michelle is awesome to provide valuable and informative information to new and established writers/authors. Many have stated the lack of assistance from others: This is so true because I’ve only had three established authors to offer any assistance to me. I’m an 2+ yrs. educator with basically no map for self-publishing. Yep, read several books and just shook my head. I also consider myself a very intelligent woman with extremely strong convictions that people should be honest, treat others the way they want to be treated. I’ve FOUND out that not everyone is HONEST or do they care how they treat others. However, God is good and Michelle is a voice that continues to assist others. She is honest, she cares and will reach out and answer emails. She has encouraged me and many others to KEEP writing as we travel down the unknown paths….do our homework by researching her written words she so graciously offers on social media. Thanks and God Bless you Michelle for your hard work, reaching out to others and most of all for being a honest woman that has a passion to not only produce excellent BOOKS but a woman that cares about others. Dr. Bonnie Vause, Ed. D. (Author of “FAST ESCAPE”) http://www.bonnievause.con

  9. Michelle,
    This is excellent information I wish I had READ/KNOWN months ago. You are an awesome writer/author and so willing to assist others. Thank you for your time and effort to extend a hand to new authors. I consider myself a very intelligent woman. Lately, I’ve had to “reconsider” my thinking process! However, I do know I’m an accomplished Special Education Teacher 25+ yrs. and have a passion for writing. I also will kindly admit : I know very little about publishing a book but I do have such a strong passion…a heart filled with words that I still feel are important and can reach others. I felt strongly that I needed the assistance of a publisher in order to be successful. NOW…after reading your postings…I was wrong. Please…to other: don’t sign your name to a contract unless you know 100% what you’re doing! Hire a lawyer to read over your contract first. It will save you from sleepless nights due to worrying if you’ve made the right choice. Don’t allow anyone to “take” your manuscript, publish your book if you don’t know the expenses that are occurring during “their” process to get you published. Make sure you know ALL expenses or you’ll have a running tab that will keep you in the RED for eternity! There are many awesome writers who want to publish, have a strong voice, intelligent people (in their line of work) but, not all of us are “versed” in the Literary/Author world of writing and publishing a book…and there are many publishers that know this and will take advantage of you. Now, there are many good publishing companies and I am glad. But, how many of the 6 Star Publishing Companies will most newbies ever speak with? Chances are you’re be contacted by a MIDDLE MAN who is using CS as their source to PRINT your book, you can do this yourself if you listen to Michelle and KEEP 100% of your royalties If you are aware of the contract and feel it is the route to go…then do so. But, make sure you are enlightened on ALL CHARGES or you will be hit with ongoing $$$ that is eating your % of YOUR royalties..
    It is so true as others have stated, there are few established authors/writers who will reach out and help newbies.
    Michelle, Your written words spoke to ‘me’ very clearly. I am downloading this information and will share with Eric who is also a very intelligent man and he is so proud to be one of your FANS ! He and I are both scratching our heads and “thinking”…..”What in the heck did we do wrong?” But, God is good and his mercy is extended to all that accept. I will do as you’ve stated and keep WRITING and figure this out! God Bless you Michelle and when will you be in the NC or VA area for a seminar/teaching? Dr. Bonnie Vause, Ed. D. (author of “FAST ESCAPE”) http://www.bonnievause.com

    • Hi Bonnie – I’m so sorry you’ve had a bad experience. I’m praying that you get things worked out so you can own your book again. I really appreciate your compliments and your support here at my blog and with my books.
      Please let me know how you’re doing.

  10. Approaching self-publishing like a business is great advice. When I first considered self-pub, I was stunned at the number of things I needed to pay attention to and learn–all the things on your list. Learning from writers like you and taking one step at a time helped me reach my goal of publishing 2 novels last year. As Indies, we are lucky to be part of a generous community so willing to share experience. Thanks

    • Hi Carol –
      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, we Indies have so much to learn. It’s never-ending. Please feel free to share here too. I’m still learning.

  11. Hi Michelle! I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book two years ago, after a lengthy time of attempting to get it published the “traditional” way. I was encouraged by another small book publisher to go the route of self-publishing and she provided me with direction and references. (One was my book designer who also did editing work) It takes a big commitment and one always has to be ready to promote and market the product! A good friend of mine remarks how often she sees me “peddling” my book ~ I like to think it’s passion that spins my wheels! lol
    One other cost that I believe should be added is promotional material: business cards, pens, postcards, posters for book-signings, etc. I always have something on hand to leave with a prospective client! My book won a Book of the Year Award in 2013 so there is a cost for the gold stickers as well! I have enjoyed learning the trade of self-publishing and plan on writing more! (Have to use up the 10 ISBNs that I purchased!) Thanks!

    • Hi Karen –

      How did I forget promotional materials? Yes! An author definitely needs them. I’m heading to Staples this morning to pick up a poster for a book signing today. I will add that expense to this post. Thanks!

      CONGRATS on the Book of the Year Award. Wow! What was the name of your book? It’s great to hear that the “peddling” pays off because it’s hard work!
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing this.


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