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Self-publishing and book printing has become a saturated market in the last five years or so. A space once devoid of options now abounds with them. This is a great thing for authors looking for better quality and services, as competition has driven self-publishing services both old and new to strive for even greater excellence.

This competitive market doesn’t make the author’s job any easier though.

As if writing your manuscript wasn’t enough, to get it published you’ll need to edit, design, and layout the interior. And create a cover. With that done you’ll have a book, but just having a book published doesn’t equal sales, so you’ll have to begin the even more arduous process of marketing and promoting your book.

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Today I’m going to break down for you one of the scariest pieces of the self-publishing puzzle—budgeting.

Before the budget comes the goal

We have to begin this with a very important disclaimer. Publishing means different things to different people. Your goals will inform how much you should spend on your book.

You can publish a book for $0.00 dollars. Absolutely and completely free.

And if all you need is to have a book ready to be printed at a low cost or available at no cost as an ebook, this option is viable. But if you are publishing to sell your work, it is going to take some level of investment. I challenge all of you to find a successful self-published author who claims to have invested nothing in their book. If they exist, they are few and very far between.

Before you can consider how much it costs to publish, you need to know why you’re publishing. Without clearly defining for yourself the goal you won’t be successful. This isn’t a new concept. No one decides to build a skyscraper or an airplane and then just does it. They plan, they draft outlines and blueprints, they conceptualize and budget their resources.

For simplicities sake, let’s operate with a pretty common example: the fiction author. Our hypothetical author has a day job that pays the bills, but loves to write stories in their free time. Now our author wants to publish one of these stories.

Like most first-time authors, we’ll look at self-publishing because it offers guaranteed publishing and keeps control over the work in the author’s hands. Since most authors write for a specific, niche audience, self-publishing provides the means to keep costs and overhead down while focusing on selling to that group of readers we know are going to be interested in this book.

Let’s say the book is 200 pages and we want to self-publish with a goal of selling 500 copies in the first year.

How much is this book going to cost?

What does it really cost to publish a book?

For our price estimates, we’ll use the widely accepted Editorial Freelancer’s Association (EFA) ate chart. For reference, here’s a snapshot of the chart from their website:

Source: https://www.the-efa.org/rates/

The chart details pricing for a variety of publishing and editorial services. As a fiction author, you’ll need four services to get the book ready for publication:

  • Editing
  • Layout
  • Cover
  • Proofreading

Editing – This is the first step once the story is done. You’ll want to allow quite a bit of time for editing. Months at least, if not an entire year. Editing is one of the hardest aspects of publishing to pin down. It can vary from a simple process of correcting spelling and grammar (copy editing) to redesigning the story from the ground up (developmental editing). And everything in between.

The minimum level of editing is a single professional copy edit. If you have a solid group of friends and family who’ll be reading and giving notes, you can get away with just paying for a single review for spelling and grammar.

  • Editing Cost: $600

Layout – Some authors will be able to handle this themselves, others will need to hire a professional to design their file. Even though a fiction book might seem like a simple project, there is a lot that goes into designing and laying out a book.

Our author writes in Microsoft Word, but doesn’t have the level of expertise needed to layout the book, properly set margins, insert page numbering and design the front matter.

  • Layout Cost: $900

A note about the cost to layout a book: You might see that $900 and think it’s absurd to pay that much to layout the pages of your novel. Because laying out a novel is relatively easy for those well versed in the process, there’s a good chance you can find services for less than half that amount.

Book design can be found for as low as $200. So we’ll split the difference and assume a more reasonably priced book designer than EFA’s rates indicate.

  • REAL Layout Cost: $450

Cover – The price for your cover is going to vary. There are freelancers out there who can make a cover for as little as $200. Be sure when looking at different graphic designers to review their portfolio. Your cover is very important to selling your book. It is the first and often only visual representation your potential reader will see. It has to make the right impression.

Much like the cover design, you may be able to find a package deal from a service provider. If you want to publish both an ebook and print book, you can likely hire a graphic designer who offers both at a rate of around $500 for the entire project.

  • Cover Cost: $500

Proofreading – Much like the Cover, pricing for the proof can vary widely. A professional proofreader is going to have a system and know precisely what to look for, so if there is any one area to be sure you get a pro, this is it. The proofreader is likely to be the final look the book gets before going to print, and as such their input is crucial.

EFA estimates around $465 for a professional proofreader to give your book a full and thorough review. It’s likely you can find freelancers offering services at a reduced cost, but again I want to reiterate how important a quality proofreading is.

  • Proofreading Cost: $465

This gets us to a total of $1965—if we work from the high-end cost of the layout. I recommend planning your budget for your book around this to be safe.

The bottom line: You should plan a budget around $2000 to publish your book.

Post Publishing: The Marketing Question

Once you begin the publishing process, you also have to dive into marketing. Don’t put this off! I’ve said it before, as has every other publishing professional in the world: you cannot hope to be successful without priming some readers, building some hype, and delivering on your promise in a timely, professional manner.

Lucky for you, marketing a self-published book can be very cost effective. You’ll want to budget for a website domain—at around $20 per year—and a batch of books to get you started.

That brings us to a key question we haven’t touched on yet: printing and publishing costs.

Unlike some self-publishers, Lulu will allow you to publish at no cost. Working from the 200-page novel premise, a conservative estimate would be $5 printing cost per book. Because this is self-publishing and every book is printed on demand, you won’t need a lot of books immediately. But you’ll want some on hand at all times so you never miss a sale. Let’s start with 25 books at $125.

Now we have a final estimate for self-publishing your book:

$2110 to go from manuscript to published with 25 copies and some high estimates for services.

That’s a lot of money. Is this realistic?

That’s a tricky question. You can find service providers who offer package deals for less. In fact, Lulu’s Service Team offers a “Classic” publishing package for $999, less than half the price you see above. And a package of services could be the way to go for some authors. It all comes back to those goals.

Service packages will save you money, but you cede a degree of control to the service provider. Often you’ll have a file for the cover and interior at the end that you own, but further modifications or updates beyond those in your services contract will incur additional fees.

It is also worth noting that the EFA pricing estimates are quickly becoming outdated. As self-publishing grows more and more cost-effective, the freelance market for services to publish has grown too. These freelancers and professionals are offering services at ever decreasing price points to remain competitive with big service providers. And with a freelancer, you have an individual designer you can work with, often directly by phone or email.

In the end, it’s most important to know your options. You can piece together services from a variety of freelancers, exerting more control but also having to coordinate the process and potentially pay more. Or you can hire a service provider to do the work for you and extract yourself from the process entirely.

Meeting Goals

Okay, so you’ve got a goal to sell 500 books in a year, and you’re estimating about $2,000 to get the book published (a high estimate). If you sell your book at $9.99, with a $5 print cost, your revenue will be $4.99. Shave off $1 for Lulu’s share and you stand to earn about $4 per sale (on Lulu). Amazon and other retailers will offer much less revenue, but can still lead to sales. Plus, you can always sell direct by hand and earn the full $4.99 per sale, or discount the books and earn a little less.

Let’s imagine your marketing plan is in place and well executed, you’re speaking to a wide range of interested potential readers, and get 100 sales on Lulu, 150 by hand, and the remaining 250 on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. That’s your 500-book goal! Now let’s do the math on that:

If you hit your goal to sell 500 books in the first year, you would need to spend less than $1,200 on publishing to have a reasonable chance of profiting from your book. This, of course, ignores the long terms sales—even if you miss 500 books in a year, you could very well exceed that figure over a longer term. And if your marketing plan is in place and running throughout the process, you should see a continued residual income from book sales over time.

But what this means in practical terms is that, if you want to self-publish and realize a profit, you absolutely need to invest in publishing, and you have to have a plan in place with a realistic expectation of how many books you can sell in a year.

Putting it all together

Budgeting is all about having goals. Selling 500 books in a year is an attainable goal for most writers—but it won’t happen without a devotion of time, money, and energy to your book. The cost to publish may seem prohibitive, but if your goal is to sell books, some kind of initial investment is almost always required.