What Does Self-Publishing Cost? A Preview

by Joel Friedlander on April 7, 2010 · 27 comments

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Ed: Here are links to the other articles in this series:
What Does Self-Publishing Cost: DIY
What Does Self-Publishing Cost: Online Self-Publisher
What Does Self-Publishing Cost: Competitive Self-Publisher

One of the first questions people ask when they think they may want to self-publish is: What’s it going to cost? It doesn’t matter if the author is producing a cookbook for a fundraiser, or plans to end up on Oprah’s couch, we need to know how much we’ll have to spend to get our book into print.

I’ve found it difficult to answer this question without a fairly involved conversation with an author first. I need to find out the author’s goals for her book, get a sense of what kind of marketer she will be, judge as best I can whether her goals are realistic given the budget available. Then, and only then, can I put together an estimate.

But wouldn’t it be great to have a way to categorize the different costs involved in self-publishing? That’s what I’ve tried to do here. And by looking at three distinct paths authors can take to publication, I can create a set of cost factors you can use in planning for your own book’s publication.

Here’s how I’ve broken down the costs:

9 Cost Categories for Self-Publishing

  1. Company setup—Most self-publishers are doing this for the first time, and most don’t have a company structure in place. Although you can’t assign these costs directly to the individual book you’re starting with, you still have to pay or you won’t have a publishing company at all.
  2. ISBNs—Although years ago this was an insignificant cost, the new reality is that Bowker, who administers the ISBN program in the United States, has decided this will be a cost factor that penalizes one-book publishers. But hey, you can’t fight city hall, can you?
  3. Manuscript preparation—Are there costs to get the manuscript to the point where it can be handed over to an editor? Fact checking, adding a bibliography, rounding up artwork or illustrations are examples of the kinds of costs in this category. I don’t include here developmental editing, which is a manuscript development cost, not so much a publishing cost.
  4. Editing—The editing process on any book might be long and involved, or it may be a read-through for grammar and usage, for typographical errors. It’s a truism that every book needs editing, and editing can be a major cost in getting ready for print.
  5. Design—Someone will have to design the cover for your book, and someone will have to at least do a layout for the interior. There are many ways to go about this step, and most of them cost something.
  6. Review program—For authors who intend to sell into the retail book channel, book reviews are critical. They also come at a cost.
  7. Platform building—Most self-publishers are relying on the internet for both customers and sales. This effort needs to start with an author’s platform, and there are costs there too.
  8. Proofing and Reproduction—Whether using offset printing or digital printing with print on demand distribution, this may be the single largest cost in your plan. We have to nail it down.
  9. Fulfillment—In some of the models we’ll look at, storing, invoicing and shipping your books are costs that have to be taken into account.

Three Paths to Publication

In looking over the 9 Cost Categories above, I can see that different authors will approach these tasks differently depending on the path they’ve chosen. I’ve separated these into three approaches:

  1. The hobbyist, do-it-yourself, lowest-cost path to publication
  2. The online bookseller, seeking to maximize profits with minimal cost
  3. The fully competitive publisher, who intends to compete agressively in their niche in all parts of the distribution chain

Each of these publishers will approach the cost categories differently. That’s as it should be, because different goals animate their different strategies.

In the series of articles to follow, I’ll look at how each category impacts the cost of your publishing project in each of the three publishing scenarios. We’ll look at actual costs and attempt to come up with a bottom line number for a “typical” book going through each process.

I think this will be a useful exercise. Times change, options multiply, aims get more focused. With the information we’ll develop, any author ought to be able to calculate for themselves the costs for their book. They will be able to answer the question: What will it cost?

If I’ve left out any costs that should be included here, please let me know in the comments.

Takeaway: Although every book is different, costs for the three paths to publication can be calculated in advance.

Image: Flickr.com by Squeaky Marmot

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    { 19 comments… read them below or add one }

    Crystal August 23, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    LOL – I just messaged you and immediately afterwards noticed the links at the top of your article for the other posts in this series! :)


    Crystal August 23, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Hi Joel – I love your posts and find them incredibly helpful as I’m in the middle of publishing my own book. I am finding it tricky to navigate your posts though. At the end of each you make reference to more posts to come (like the “series of articles to follow” in this post) but I’m not seeing any links to those or even a button to take me to the next chronological post. Is there an easier way to find your related posts? I so appreciate the information you share – I don’t want to miss anything.


    Katherine February 16, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Hi Joel checking you site out and have one question almost ready to print my books for a book size 8.5×11 what margins to the left of my books should I use if I am printing pages with a graphic diagram 7*7, 7 cm in width and 7 cm length. would love to know for I am almost ready for printing many books inside is done pretty much.


    Joel Friedlander February 17, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Impossible to say from the information provided.


    lara May 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm


    I am nearly at the publishing stage and am working with an illustrator who needs the trim size of the book. Is there a best size for a MG book I can use. I am going to say 5×8″. what do you think?


    Joel Friedlander May 24, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Lara. Not sure what “MG” refers to, but you might want to check this out: How to Pick the Size of Your Book


    Joe A January 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm


    Thanks for this great article. When you talk about establishing a publishing company do you mean actually registering a sole proprietorship company?
    Thanks a million.


    Joel Friedlander January 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Joe, not necessarily. The first publishing company I owned was a Subchapter S Corporation, so how you organize the company is up to you. What I’m referring to here is creating a business entity of some kind rather than publishing under your own name (i.e. “published by Joe A”).

    Hope that helps.


    Derek Oscarson December 30, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Looking forward to you expanding on this topic, Joel. I’m currently trying to figure out how to offer (price) design, editing and setup services to indie authors who would otherwise have no idea where to start. Self-publishing is truly great but I have a feeling it’s going to be another one of those things in modern life where just because you can do it yourself doesn’t mean you will be happy with the result or that the end product will be on the same level of craftsmanship than a traditional publishing house. Or, that in some situations it’s easier or more cost-effective to hire a designer/editor team.

    This seems to be the Darwinian evolution of publishing in real time. People are still frequently going to need a designer and an editor to lend credibility to their work. For myself, it’s a matter of how to structure an agreement with potential authors so that in the absence of big house interest, their book can get published and they can make a nice profit.

    Or do you think I am overestimating the market for design and editing help for self-publishing authors?


    Joel Friedlander December 30, 2010 at 10:18 am


    If you look in the {TRACKBACKS} section at the bottom of this post you’ll see links to the rest of the articles in this series.

    There are generally two groups of self-publishers: those who are committed to DIY processes for most if not all of their book publishing tasks, and those who are committed to turning out a professional-level book who use freelance editors, designers and other providers to achieve that aim. These two groups are not mutually exclusive, but they have both been in existence for quite a while.

    As more authors move toward indie publishing, I feel there will be a growing need for designers, editors and other publishing professionals to help them reach their goals.


    Marie October 5, 2010 at 6:23 am

    Don’t forget distribution costs, including listings on websites and online stores. Some publishing services include this as a percentage of the book cost, but that percentage may only list you with them.

    And you may have this as part of fulfillment but even if someone uses POD, they will need to have a quantity of books printed and shipped to them so they have them on hand for book signings, speaking events, conferences, etc. So, there’s the cost of the books, shipping storing at least a couple of boxes, and then gas and accommodations for events. This isn’t unique to self-published authors, but no one seems to tell self-published authors they’ll be picking up their own tab for all this.


    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Marie, part of the reason for this whole series was to bring together lots of costs associated with getting your book to press. Thanks for your helpful comment.


    David Sheets July 27, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Joel, great article. I have enjoyed your posts and just set up an RSS feed to make sure I get a chance to check them all out. POD publishers who can actually print only one book at a time, without set up fees, change fees and hidden fees now exist, and the unit price for one book is very economical when compared to not having to risk the cost of inventory, warehousing, fulfillment, and obsolescence. See http://www.snowfallpress.com for more info.


    Hattye July 16, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I am interested in self publishing…I have talked with one on-line publisher and browsed another’s website…

    I found your articles to be helpful and perhaps I’ll be able to make my mind up from your opinions. Thanks and look forward to reading your articles in the future.


    Joel Friedlander July 16, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks, Hattye. If you have any questions you can leave them in the comments or email me. Enjoy.


    Joel April 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Evelyn, the best thing you can do for yourself is continue to get as much information as possible, it will really help you make good choices. Thanks for reading!


    Evelyn April 14, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    I find myself at the crossroads of self publishing, so I will be watching for each new article to aid with my decision.


    Joel April 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Marla. I’ll be rolling them out one at a time starting next week. Appreciate your interest!


    Marla April 8, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Great idea for an article series. Looking forward to reading them!


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