What Does Self-Publishing Cost: DIY

by Joel Friedlander on April 19, 2010 · 49 comments

thebookdesigner.com cost of self-publishingIn my earlier article I looked at a framework to determine what it costs to self-publish. I described 9 cost categories and three paths to publication as a way to organize the costs for different kinds of self-publishers.

After all, not everyone wants the same kind of book, nor do people publish for all the same reasons. It seems practical to help people decide which category they’re in and look at the costs for each approach.

Today I’m going to collect the kinds of costs a self-publisher might encounter if they want to keep their cash outlay to the absolute minimum, doing much if not all of the work themselves. These are the DIY self-publishers.

9 Cost Categories for DIY Self-Publishing

  1. Company setup—The choice here is to establish a sole proprietorship or to simply publish your book under your own name, without any company structure. The cost of establishing a company vary, but the minimum cost would be whatever you are required to pay to register a business name.

    Here it costs $42 plus about another $40 for the classified ads you need to run as a public notice. These costs aren’t strictly necessary, but if the self-publisher is treating her publication like a business at all, she will take this step.

    Total: $0 – 84
  2. ISBNs—Another way to control costs is to print with one of the services that will supply you with an ISBN. For someone with a book project but a small budget, this can be a considerable expense at a minimum of $125.

    You only need an ISBN if you intend to sell your book through a book trade channel, such as Amazon.com. If you don’t plan to make your book available through those channels, or if the book is strictly for private or personal use—for instance a fundraiser—you can skip the ISBN completely.

    On the other hand, if you’re concerned about the future publishing possibilities for your book, and that you might someday want to take the book to another printer or service provider, you should think about buying the ISBN up front.

    Total: $0 – 125
  3. Manuscript preparation—At the DIY end of self-publishing, the author will do all manuscript preparation, usually using their favorite word processor.

    Total: $0
  4. Editing—If our DIY self-publisher can find someone to look over the manuscript for errors, it will likely be on a free or barter basis. There probably won’t be any editing except self-editing, so expenses here are pretty much eliminated.

    Total: $0
  5. Design—The DIY self-publisher is the designer of the book as well. Some publisher services companies provide templates that authors can download and use with programs like Microsoft Word. And some have cover generators to help create a decent-looking cover. But the principle here is that the author completes all these tasks on his own, with or without the help of customer service staffers.

    Total: $0
  6. Review program—Reviews for the DIY self-publisher will probably be limited to online reviewers, where a PDF of the book can be submitted at no fee. In my experience, most of these books are not submitted to reviewers with any regularity, saving more money.

    Total: $0
  7. Platform building—The DIY self-publisher who wants to spread her work, find new readers and sell some books will look to online resources to do her author platform building. Typically this will involve a blog at one of the free blog hosting sites, and a lot of time spent online.

    Total: $0
  8. Proofing and Reproduction—Virtually all DIY self-publishers will use digital printing through print on demand suppliers to manufacture their book. A copy of the book essentially acts as the proof if one is considered necessary. Since these services—like Lulu—only charge for the books you actually buy, you could say that there is no cost here. But let’s assume our self-publisher orders 5 copies of her 200-page book, and that we consider this part of the expense of getting into print.

    Total: $27.50
  9. Fulfillment—Books sold will be by hand, through the self-publisher’s website, or on retailer websites. The first two options could encounter costs for packing and shipping, but they are transaction costs, not included in getting into print.

    Total: $0

Let’s Add It All Up

Each publisher has different goals for their book, but for many getting into print at the lowest possible cost is a major consideration.

Adding our nine categories, we have a range of $27.50 (plus shipping, of course) to $236.50 if you go for the ISBN and company set up. This plan is completely reasonable, and shows just how far we’ve gone to eliminate the obstacles to publishing your book.

Keep in mind that a book coming out of this process will be an amateur production. It wasn’t editing, designed or produced by publishing professionals, and it’s very likely to show it. But you will be in print, the proud owner of 5 copies of your book, with the possibility that many more people will discover you.

Total DIY Self-Publishing Cost: $27.50 – 236.50

Takeaway: It’s entirely possible to get a book into print for almost nothing. The effort, ingenuity, and talent of the author-publisher are what will determine the final quality of the book.

Image: Flickr.com/photos8.com

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    { 42 comments… read them below or add one }

    Rik Roots August 11, 2014 at 11:41 am

    My Lord, is this thread still going? Goes to show how useful, and enduring, the information in these blog posts turned out to be.

    Joel: “Rik, you might be interested in Googling “the 80-20 principle” and see if this is the best way to use your time.” In unexpected ways, it turned out to be the start of a new career path for me. 4 years down the road, I’m working as a web developer in the heart of Tech London – even though I’m far too old to skateboard to work.

    Keep the flame burning, Joel, and remember those of us who have fallen by the wayside!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 11, 2014 at 11:58 am

    That’s funny, Rik, but it sounds like you’re on a great path. Thanks for the update and best of luck.

    Reply

    Mary May 24, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Firstly, I apologize if you’ve answered this question in another article.
    I have written the book and have the design and everything but I don’t want to use a on-demand-publisher. I would like to have inventory that I distribute. With that being the case, is there a printing company that you would recommend or have seen/heard good results about? I read your article about 48hourbooks but I don’t have a real rush order.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 24, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Mary, you can still order books for your own inventory from any of the major print on demand vendors like CreateSpace or Ingram Spark or Lightning Source. You just place a “publisher” order and I recommend this because you only have to order the number of books you need (I get a carton at a time, since there’s a discount when you order whole cartons) and only keep on hand what I need.

    Reply

    hetu February 12, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    please have more useful article regarding cost of republishing
    i want to learn more from the point of accounting

    Reply

    Manuel January 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    I have searched high and low and cannot seem to get a definite answer as far as going about and get printing a single copy of my written work with no intent at distribution/sale. I would like to know how much would it cost to print a single book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Manuel, simply open an account at CreateSpace or Lulu, upload your book and order one copy. You will only pay for the one copy and the cost of shipping it.

    Reply

    Eric DelaBarre August 25, 2011 at 6:13 am

    And here we have the sole reason SELF PUBLISHING has a black eye in the book trade! You say editing can cost $0 “if our DIY self-publisher can find someone to look over the manuscript for errors, it will likely be on a free or barter basis.”

    A good editor STARTS at $2500 and goes up from there. Why would you skip the most important step? That’s like building a house and skipping the part where you use nails.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Eric,

    This series of posts attempts to lay out the costs incurred in self-publishing. It acknowledges that there are many roads people travel to get into print. I’ve written often and extensively here about the need for proper editing. And in the other parts of this series you’ll see that editing accounts for a significant part of the expenses. You’ll find links to all the posts here:

    What Does Self-Publishing Cost? A Preview

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    A Critic August 30, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    “That’s like building a house and skipping the part where you use nails.”

    If you build a house using stone, cordwood, earth, cob, strawbales, or a number of other alternative building methods you can skip the part where you use nails. While your local government and most people won’t approve, you can also skip the engineer and the general contractor and the construction crew etc – and get a house that is far more durable, waterproof, fireproof, attractive, etc at a far lower cost.

    Reply

    Davis October 1, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Where may I purchase “Creators of Rosetta Stones” by David Mordant published by Publiself Publishers?

    Reply

    Tara S. Nichols September 6, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I agree that time and energy put into promoting your book is valuable, but I do the same amount of work promoting my books that go through a publisher. Putting my work up on a site like Smashwords, or 1romanceebooks is very inexpensive. I believe e book publishing has been over looked. It has a market that reaches readers in a fast and economical fashion. To publish my own stories, I expect to spend $0-$25.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 6, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Hi Tara, thanks for your comment. This series was specifically aimed at comparing different versions of print publishing. I believe there are also different models of ebook publishing, which could also be analysed. And good luck with your book, I really admire the DIY authors who take on all the jobs of publication.

    Reply

    Paula May 21, 2010 at 7:46 am

    this is one of the diciest issues with DIY and self publishing. What is your time worth? I agree with Rik that often the time we spend learning is valuable and cannot be quantified easily into one category or another. But when we tell newbies that something can be done for free, i get squirmy… I heard recently that “time is the new money.”

    I love this whole thread because it shows a range of options…. and Joel, there is another one… that is about people who spend way more than the $20-40k you suggested for professional. I’d love to know what the traditional publishers use as costs to get to the same point…. somehow I”d bet it’s over $50k and closer to $100-150k (depending on the book of course)…

    good thread.

    ph

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Paula,

    Yes, see Rik’s comment just above yours for another take on this question. The DIY movement in self-publishing is very strong right now. You have probably read comments on this thread from some people who, because they have spent their entire career in the “old model” just don’t “get” what these authors are doing, how dedicated they are, and that the DIY mentality is really part of their whole approach to publishing.

    Maybe I need another post for the “super dooper” books? Aren’t most of those budgets really outside the publication of the book? Usually it seems like people are paying that kind of money for PR or advertising, not so much publishing.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Reply

    Rik Roots May 21, 2010 at 5:28 am

    Enjoyed reading your later couple of posts in this series, but thought I’d come back to this post to offer some further thoughts on the promotions costs.

    I’ve just spent 4 weeks developing a Facebook application to promote my book (link to app hidden sneakily in my name) – say around 150hrs work. Of that, say half of the time has been coding work, which could (should?) have been outsourced to a webcoding professional, who may have been able to do it a lot quicker.

    On the upside, the exercise has given me a valuable new skill – I now know how to integrate a webpage into a Facebook app. So, monetary cost of the exercise is $0, with no guarantee of additional earnings from the promotional effort. The costs in resources/time was heavy, but I think worth it for the new skill. So maybe the unquantifiable promotion costs in resources for the self-pubber can be balanced by equally unquantifiable learning benefits which could lead to new revenue streams in addition to publishing the book?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 21, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Rik,

    I am very familiar with this phenomenon, having often done something similar in the past—learning new skills to get something done, hoping to capitalize on those skills later.

    From the vantage point I have now, I think I would have been better off in many cases following a different path. Usually it wasn’t a premeditated, calculated course of action; it was the easiest thing for me, despite the long and often frustrating hours of study and trial-and-error.

    Rik, you might be interested in Googling “the 80-20 principle” and see if this is the best way to use your time.

    Thanks for reporting back, you’ve added to the conversation.

    Reply

    Kay May 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Editing is important! I would not recommend skimping on editing and on design.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Good point, Kay, because the single biggest complaint about do-it-yourself books is the lack of editing. I would put this even before design. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Frances Grimble May 17, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Joel,

    I understand about comparing different types of self-publishing. The problem is, many self-publishers fail to consider the ordinary costs of running a business and do not budget for them beforehand. Many of them believe they can simply be authors who somehow produce and sell a book without learning the skills either to produce the book or run a business. Definitely not true if you want to actually sell books.

    My books are not all that specialized by self-publishing standards. Yes, the are niche books, but niche books are (with some reason) considered the easiest ones for self-publishers to market. Yes, they are highly illustrated but that is not especially unusual; many kinds of books are illustrated.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I think the difference now is that the bar to entry into the self-publishing field has been lowered so substantially. I’ve seen quite decent-looking books done in Microsoft Word and printed at Lulu or Createspace and for which the author/publisher spent virtually nothing.

    Will these people succeed at the business of publishing? I don’t know, I think the jury’s out. Some will make the transition to dealing with their publishing endeavor as a business, many will continue to treat it as a hobby, many will be disappointed.

    But there are hundreds, thousands of people doing this, many of whom have never heard of a “pantone fan” and would be astonished to learn that they need one. That’s today’s reality, and it’s not like when I first self-published at all.

    I like some of the changes that are happening, and I celebrate the books these authors produce. The answer, as far as I can see, is education, so that’s what I’m doing. I appreciate you presenting your point of view.

    Reply

    Frances Grimble May 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Oh yes–other costs you forgot to include are periodic professional legal and accounting services, and local business taxes.

    Basically, I don’t think your breakdown of DIY costs has much validity.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Frances, those costs didn’t seem necessary to include. There are many ordinary business expenses not covered here, since this is largely a comparison between different types of self-publishing.

    The costs are valid from my experience, sorry you didn’t find them useful. This is mostly aimed at beginners to give them an idea of the kinds of costs they might encounter, it’s not an attempt to be exhaustive about setting up and operating a business.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment again.

    Reply

    Frances Grimble May 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    I’ve DIY self-published eight books (one a second edition of another, so I have seven in print), and have two more almost ready to go to the printer. I’ve run my business for almost 16 years, and have cycled several hundred thousand dollars through it. My main cost, aside from huge amounts of my own time, is offset printing; I’ve never published print-on-demand or e-books.

    My books are carried by Ingram, are sold through brick-and-mortar as well as online bookstores, and are also sold through some non-bookstore retailers. And I make a profit on them. While I’ve had to learn a great deal to produce these books, they are by no means amateur efforts. It does help that I worked for larger book and magazine publishers, and as a tech writer for a couple of large computer companies, for ten years before starting my own business.

    The DIY route is not easy to do well, but cannot be dismissed as always amateur. I do agree that self-publishing, AKA vanity press companies, should be avoided. I would never consider using one.

    I would add that since time is money, and since marketing is where you can sink an almost infinite amount of time, it is essential to target it very carefully. For my business, running a blog and/or online forum is a waste of time, likewise most of the “social networking” marketing strategy.

    Reply

    Frances Grimble May 16, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Oh yes–my books have a lot of interior graphics. I have had to invest in a production-quality scanner, a fancy laser printer for proofs, a good monitor, and other computer hardware. Likewise, I use the Corel Photopaint/Draw package (as good as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and easier to use), Adobe InDesign, Dreamweaver, Acrobat, and some other publishing software.

    Note that book publishers, like most other businesses, also need a word-processing program, a spreadsheet program, an accounting program, a database program, antivirus software, a backup system, etc. On a quick glance I didn’t see any computer costs in your DIY list. Nor costs for a lot of necessary things like a Pantone fan, fonts, books on how to use software that does not come with manufacturer’s manuals, professional courses (I completed a university post-BA program in publishing early on), etc.

    It would not be cost effective for me to pay for all this to produce one book, but I amortize the costs over several books. I use my hardware for as long as it works well. My computer has lasted four years and I just bought a replacement. I leapfrog over software releases, upgrading every two or three versions rather than every version. And of course I amortize the costs of courses, etc., over my entire book-publishing career.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Thanks so much for adding to this conversation, Frances. I know your books are highly specialized and painstakingly produced. I don’t think you really fall into this particular model of self-publishing, since most of the people I’ve been encountering pursuing DIY publishing are using digital printing and print on demand distribution. Whether this model turns out to be profitable in the long term remains to be seen. But it’s undeniable that it’s allowed many thousands of people who would not have been able to publish to see their work in print.

    Your practical experience will be helpful to many people.

    Reply

    Dusk Peterson May 7, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I guess I should have waited to read this post before commenting on your other post about costs, since much of what I commented there, you say here. I would only suggest here that the lines between different types of self-publishers can be rather grey. A self-publisher might do a particular job themselves because they are a hobbyist, or they might do it because they have previous experience with that skill. They might market only online because they’re DIY, or they might do so simply because that’s where the readers for their particular genre are most easily found.

    I do like that you’re exploring a variety of techniques of self-publishing, for a variety of goals. That’s a refreshing approach.

    Reply

    Joel April 23, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Carolyn, Paula does that for me too!

    The “cheap” method is being used by a lot of people, which is why I wanted to address it even though, if enough people decided to go DIY, I would be out of business I guess and have to go back to the lemonade stand idea.

    Avoiding the “self-publishing companies” will do as much for your mood as avoiding the bank manager. It’s all good!

    Thanks for brightening my day.

    Reply

    Carolyn McAndrew April 23, 2010 at 5:34 am

    OK until that last post by Paula I was on a downhill slide into a seriously morbid mood, questioning my intellect and instincts not to mention the integrity of a certain self publishing company. Never mind the numerous conversations with my bank manager as to the direction of my mortgage, although I somehow suspect they don’t share my concerns.
    I’ll certainly keep all this in mind for next time, although I think it would be fair to mention the “cheap” price of publishing a book is fine if you don’t actually plan on selling any.
    I think a print run of a 1000 books or so would bring a sparkle to the eyes of any self publishers bank manager.
    I’ll definitely be doing it all on my lonesome the next time I publish a book or two. Great article again Joel I’ll look forward to the rest of the series.
    Thanks Carolyn

    Reply

    Joel April 21, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Paula,

    How delightful to have your comment. As you can see, this is post #2 in a 4-part series. Here’s the lowdown from the original post:

    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

    Of course you are absolutely correct, the person who starts out with no specific knowledge of book design, marketing, printing, promotion, distribution, retail chain, discounts or anything else will have a steep learning curve in front of them. But it’s undeniable that a lot of authors have taken to this DIY model simply because that’s what they can afford. Since this is viable—if you put in the time to learn the skills needed—I thought it was a good place to start.

    Stay tuned for the next one! And don’t be a stranger, I value your input.

    Reply

    Paula April 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    i both love and hate these “how cheap can we do it” articles. i agree with most of how you’ve laid it out and what others have said, but it reminds me of the early days of the web — oh, it’s fast, easy, and free…. and that was true if:

    – you already knew what you were doing (fast + easy)
    – you don’t count your time and energy as a resource equal in value to money

    but what i would really like to know is what is the average cost of a professionally produced book? At an event I was moderating last week one of the panelists threw out $10,000-15,000 to invest in your book — production, editing, marketing. My guess is $20,000 is probably a good number and may even be on the low side.

    I know of several self publishers who have spent between $40,000 and $150,000 on their efforts. I also believe these projects had a lot of false starts and monies being spent in naive ways.

    Is there an average? What is realistic?

    thanks for letting me take up so much space.

    ph

    Reply

    Joel April 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Bubble, you have put your finger on the problem, and that’s why I ended with “…will be an amateur production. It wasn’t edited, designed or produced by publishing professionals, and it’s very likely to show it.”

    But there are a lot of people following this model. There are two more posts to come in this series in which we’ll look at how costs increase along with the ambitions of the author. Stay tuned.

    Reply

    BubbleCow April 21, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Can I suggest that zero cost on 4. Editing may be a mistake. For me the key factors to limiting a books appeal is the pre-production. As a professional editor I have never come across a book that was not improved by a good edit. Proofreading can be carried out by a team of friends but the lack of a professional edit is a mistake. If it was not important, then why do professional publisher spend so much time and effort in editing books prior to release AND why would a self publisher not do this?

    Reply

    Joel April 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Christy, I’m going to get into some of those costs in the next post in this series. How about jiffy bags—we used to spend a fortune on them!

    Reply

    Christy Pinheiro April 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Very interesting post. The hidden costs are what kill you. The web domains, the constant promotion, the editing (or else your reviews will be terrible– I know from experience!), the postage and delivery. All these pennies add up to dollars and then add up to thousands of dollars!

    The little costs sneak away from you.

    Reply

    Joel April 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    James, yes, you replace the cost of having other people work on your book by working on it yourself. Since most authors aren’t really up to speed on book design, typesetting, editing, printing and marketing, this approach, although feasible, may not produce the best book in the end. But I thought it was important—and empowering—to know that yes, you can do this without a lot of money. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    James Ashman April 19, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Yes, completely accurate for the complete DIY only way without help. I’ve actually spent only about $20 so far on a second self-pub book. This requires tons of effort, and so much extra time that in some cases paying a professional would be far faster. But, with a good eye for design and editing, the coat of diy is almost nil.

    Reply

    Joel April 19, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Rik, thanks for your detailed comment. Your cost is basically identical to my low cost figure, in which you simply buy 5 copies of the book. And I discussed the pros and cons of buying your own ISBN vs taking the ones LuLu and others will assign to you. And certainly you are correct in that promotion, even if you aren’t spending any money, takes a lot of time.

    Marcio, this post is specifically designed to look at the costs of do-it-yourself self-publishing. The following two posts will look at plans where the publisher invests more in design and promotion. Watch for them! And thanks for visiting.

    Reply

    Lauren C Tyson August 11, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Joel,
    Great blog, and will enlist your help at some point. For now, please tell me the titles of “the following two posts” referred to above in your reply to Rik. There is so much info on your blog, I am getting a bit lost navigating. Thank you. Lauren

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 11, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Lauren,

    I know, it can be daunting to find stuff here sometimes. See this post that has links to all the articles in this series:

    Cost of Self-Publishing, Preview

    Reply

    Marcio Duarte April 19, 2010 at 5:23 am

    I know you’re considering the authors that want to keep the costs as low as possible, but do you really think it’s interesting to let the design part entirely in the author’s responsibility? I agree it’s perfectly possible to save money with today’s self-publishing tools (some good ones are free, like Scribus), but in today’s competitive self-publishing market, I would leave this task in the hands of a professional. Most authors are good writers, not good designers.

    As Rik said above, promotion work it’s the big hidden cost, and a really good design could improve sales with it’s own merits, and actually save money in the end.

    Reply

    Rik Roots April 19, 2010 at 4:22 am

    Thanks for the very interesting post.

    The total overt cost of publishing my book was £20 (less than $30), which was the cost of buying proof copies of the book from Lulu – I’d suggest that buying proof copies is an essential expense when relying on POD technology, and an author may need to go through several cycles of upload/review before being fully satisfied with their book product.

    On ISBNs, some venues (eg Authonomy) are supplying free ISBNs for eBooks published by them. As an ISBN is specific to the format of the book – hardcopy, trade paperback and eBook versions can’t share the same ISBN – an author will need to buy a block of ISBNs if they want their book to be published in several formats.

    The big, hidden cost is the platform building – for the book to sell, promotion work will take a lot of time that could be otherwise used earning cash (or writing the next book). But no effort in this area quickly translates into no sales.

    Reply

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