What Does Self-Publishing Cost: Competitive Self-Publisher

by | May 12, 2010

This is the last in the series of What Does Self-Publishing Cost posts. After a preview, we looked at two other models of self-publishing, each representing a range of choices that self-publishers can make when they start planning their publication. Here are the links to the rest of the series:

What Does Self-Publishing Cost: A Preview
What Does Self-Publishing Cost: DIY
What Does Self-Publishing Cost: Online Self-Publisher

Today we’ll look at the most ambitious self-publishers, the authors who set out to compete head to head with books from major publishers, to get reviews in the most prestigious newspapers and journals, and to eventually compete nationally in the marketplace. I’m calling these publishers Competitive Self-Publishers.

9 Cost Categories for Competitive Self-Publishing

  1. Company setup—Competitive self-publishers have a fully-formed business structure. It may be a sole proprietorship, a partnership or a corporation. Many already have businesses when they enter publishing, and use that company to launch their new endeavor. Our publisher will have proper accounting and understands the tax implications of business decisions. Since the Competitive Self-Publisher intends to sell across the distribution spectrum, this publisher will have to handle record keeping, invoicing, banking and collections. It’s also more likely he will fully outfit his publishing company with branding and peripherals like a logo design, stationary and other accouterments of a small business.

    Total: $500 – 1,500
  2. ISBNs—Costs here are pretty much the same as for the Online Self-Publisher. You still need ISBNs for all your editions, and the question remains of how many to buy, but the single ISBN is no longer an option.

    Considering the different formats this publisher will use, and the possibility of additional products, figure on at least ten ISBNs at a cost of $250 at myidentifiers.com. But in many cases, publishers will opt for the 100 ISBN plan, to fully prepare for a successful publishing future.

    Total: $250 – 575
  3. Manuscript preparation—The Competitive Self-Publisher may use office staff available to her in her business, or outsource the details of manuscript preparation, although many will do all manuscript preparation themselves.

    Total: $0 – 150
  4. Editing—The Competitive Self-Publisher approaches editing as a critical and necessary part of the publishing process. They find editors through other industry professionals, and may survey a variety of editors for prices and sample edits. Competitive Self-Publishers often get editors involved early in the process to help shape the manuscript as it develops. They will use most if not all of the editorial services that are so important to creating a really high quality book: developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading. For scientific, technical, historical or similar books, they will use editorial help for fact checking, bibliographic help, and other tasks in book creation.

    Repeating from the last post:

    Nothing is more difficult to estimate in the book process than editing. Recent books I’ve worked on have ranged from 45,000 to 227,000 words. Some are challenging in their language and aspirations, others are intended to be casual and conversational. Each author brings different communications skills to their books. Some books need a lot of fact checking, or have copious notes sections that have to be painstakingly formatted. Each of these factors influences the time it takes to edit the book, and therefore the expense.

    Here we’ll assume our self-publisher understands that a well-edited book is essential to reaching the wide audience she desires. She engages the services of an experienced book editor for her 65,000 word, 200 page 5.5″ x 8.5″ trade paperback, and brings in other editorial professionals as the book develops.

    Developmental editing: $1,500 – 6,000
    Copyediting: $2,500 – 5,000
    Proofreading: $750 – 1,500
    Indexing: $500 – 1,000

    Total: $5,250 – 13,500

  5. Design—Competitive Self-Publishers make a big leap in this category. They realize that competing toe-to-toe with books from major publishers requires them to turn the design of their book over to professionals. Both the product—the book’s interior—and it’s packaging—the cover—will receive the attention they deserve to fulfill the Competitive Self-Publisher’s aspirations for their book. He will rely on these professionals to take care of the myriad tasks in book production such as dealing with printers and preparing files for reproduction.

    Total: $1,500 – 5,000
  6. Review program—Make no mistake, Competitive Self-publishers will mount a vigorous review campaign for a book with potential review sources. From Prepublication reviewers, to national and local newspapers, magazines, specialty media, and trade associations are likely candidates for review copies. A media kit created with help from professionals will accompany the review books. It’s not unusual to see review mailings of 200-300 copies in an attempt to drive traffic and sales for a self-publisher who has their book in national distribution. Add to this an Advance Reader program for peer review or “blurb fishing” and you can see that the costs here add up quickly. Let’s plan on digital review or reader copies, too.

    Books: $700 – 1,000
    Packaging and shipping: $800 – 1,200
    Media kit: $250 – 1,500

    Total: $1,750 – 3,700
  7. Platform building—Our Competitive Self-Publisher will use as many methods of promotion and marketing as feasible for their budget, and platform-building will receive a lot of attention. An e-commerce enabled website, a blog around the topics of the book, as well as offline efforts like organizing seminars and workshops come into play. Using internet book marketing is a given, and web professionals will design the online properties needed by the self-publisher.

    Running autoresponders, opt-in programs, newsletters, seminars, workshops and speaking engagements are activities that can make a powerful difference to the success of a book. Here’s where the author’s reputation and authority in their niche contribute to spreading the word. Since this is such a big cateogry, let’s make it an estimate.

    Total: $1,500 – 7,500

  8. Proofing and Reproduction—Competitive Self-Publishers make another move away from the pack by much more frequently relying on offset book printing instead of digital. To fill the distribution chain and have books available in just the major metropolitan areas of the U.S. our publisher is going to print 2,000 books minimum. This will allow her to get a better-looking book, to use special finishes or unique trim sizes, to have a wider choice of materials, and to get a much lower production cost.

    Suppose we find a good deal among the abundance of high-quality short-run book printers, and we can get the unit cost down to $2.25, about 40% less than what the same book would cost in digital print-on-demand production. However, these cost savings come at the price of a steep upfront investment.

    Total: $5,000 – 7,500

  9. Fulfillment—The Competitive Self-Publisher may concentrate on digital sales, or driving buyers to online retailers like Amazon.com, but to truly compete, she knows she needs distribution. Since it’s virtually impossible at the moment for single-book self-publishers to get distribution, she will have to settle for setting up accounts with whatever wholesalers might take her book, and either do her own fulfillment, packing, shipping and invoicing bookstores, libraries and institutional buyers herself. It’s no longer enough to just buy the big box of Jiffy bags. The costs here are for storage and insurance on her inventory. Even if she puts the books with a fulfillment company, the costs are transactional, and don’t come into play in our financial planning.

    Total: $500 – 1,000

Let’s Add It All Up

The Competitive Self-Publisher is establishing a business. More than the others we’ve looked at in this series, this is a business proposition, and the expectation is to make a profit. Our publisher will make her decisions in consultation with editorial, design and marketing professionals, and the resulting book is intended more as a product or professional lever than as an act of creative self-expression.

Adding our nine categories, we have a total of $16,000 – 40,425. At this point it’s easy to see why you need to make a profit. Self-publishing at this level isn’t a hobby, it’s a business enterprise. Our Competitive Self-Publisher may be looking to establish her book as an authority with a long shelf life. This will help amortize the investment by returning profits for years to come. Or she might be rolling the dice, convinced she can attract enough media attention to make it into the spotlight for a rush of sales.

The commitment by any self-publisher is immense, but for the Competitive Self-Publisher it’s combined with a serious business investment.

Variations and a Final Thought

My range of figures is only meant to be representative. I think it’s entirely possible to produce a competitive book and get it into print closer to $10,000. On the other hand, I know that some people spend in excess of $50,000 to launch a book. When dealing with investments like this that are tied to the success or failure of a single product, it just seems prudent to get the best help you can afford.

Beyond the costs involved and the risks and rewards of playing in a big marketplace, this is also how the best books come into being. Book publishing, in its most developed form, seems to me to be a collaborative effort. Many talented and experienced people bringing their knowledge and creativity into play to produce something that no one person could achieve by themselves. When an author makes the decision to publish their own book they are—wittingly or not—jumping into just such a collaboration.

When it works, it can produce really outstanding contributions to our cultural life. There’s just nothing else quite like it.

Total Competitive Self-Publishing cost: $16,000 – 40,425

Takeaway: Competitive Self-Publishers invest in professionally-produced books and spend the money to compete on a national scale. They often produce superior books, making a lasting impact on society.

Image: Flickr.com / derek&kristi

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. KD

    How do these expenses work with taxes? Expenses like cover art or editing or ISBNs are required before selling even one book, but can they be deducted only as the books are sold? It looks like the self-publisher who is going to market books and fulfill orders themselves will have huge real expenses upfront, but no break on taxes until sales are realized. Is that correct, or can the initial expenses of producing even one book (such as software, or cover art, or editing) be entered on Schedule C somewhere I haven’t noticed?

  2. Ty Gray

    Joel, this series was well written. I have just written a memoir titled 23 Days about my journey as well as my rookie year of becoming a police officer. It has a theme of persistence, hope, and the power of forgiveness. After reading this series, I’ve concluded that I’m a hybrid between an online self-publisher and competitive self-publisher. You nailed it with this post. This is simply good stuff.

  3. Gary Allen VanRiper

    Hello Joel,

    Great comprehensive and realistic overview of the process for the true self-publisher. We were fortunate in that our initial investment was substantially less and we are in a geographical niche that made initial exposure for our work not only very manageable, but inexpensive as well. Last year we passed the 100,000 mark for copies old in our series and still does not seem to have peaked – and while we are very serious about it all (we are an Ltd.) this is still very much part-time for us. I have spoken at a number of conferences on this same subject and from all I have read here, your series on the subject is a keeper.

    gary vanriper

  4. Stephen Tiano

    Good piece, Joel. I always tell prospective clients that deciding to self-publish is a choice to go into business as a publisher. I elaborate that if they intend to sell more than the 100 copies or so that most self-published books sell, they’ll need to capitalize like a business and invest in their product, their book.

    Your numbers seem fair, tho’ for my end–design and page comp–they are, for occasional projects, a tad conservative.

    The important thing for self-publishers to consider is that, given the competitive environment for consumer dollars (and readers are consumers), one-size-fits-all templates and unimaginative layouts will make a greater hurdle to get to successful sales numbers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Stephen. The whole point of these 4 articles was to give people “ballpark” figures to work with, and I hope they did that. Certainly we’ve both seen a lot of books that don’t fit easily into a standard format, but the authors of those books seem to know that their books will require special work.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  5. Joel Friedlander

    Robert, thanks for the “backup.” I realize some people have other experiences or specific models they follow, but the world of books is very large and, doing the job I do I get to see a lot of different publishers pursuing this path in their own way. And I celebrate that.

    Someone said that if I put the “real” $numbers in, other suppliers would be resentful that I had “outed” them someway. But as you can probably tell, I really value transparency, and don’t see any reason why prospective self-publishers (or independent publishers) shouldn’t have the best information we can give them up front.

  6. Robert Collings

    I said it earlier and I’ll back up Irene’s comments; this is a must read article. And I’ll also back up Joel’s cost estimates based on our hiring of contractors.

    On self-publishing. In my view, only hobbyists self-publish. Anyone else publishing ‘alone’ is an independent publisher. And any indie publisher understands they are running a business.

    I am intrigued Joel why you were advised not the write this post, and Irene, why you got whipped with noodles :-)

  7. Joel Friedlander

    Irene, I really appreciate your comment. If you think about it, if you don’t pay yourself, it isn’t really a business, is it? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve produced books for people who simply gave them away—that’s what they wanted from the publishing process. But if we don’t “pay ourselves” in one way or another it’s more of a hobby than a business.

    I just came across your site recently. It’s a really terrific resource. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Irene Watson

    This is such a great article. Thank you for saying “how it really is.” I recently wrote one similar (without so much detail) and got whipped with a wet noodle by many self-publishing advocates. My angle was that authors have to count their time in as well, and pay themselves first. Many self-publishing advocates don’t agree with paying oneself, which to me, is not a wise business decision.

  9. Frances Grimble

    And what about costs for computer hardware and software, occasional accounting and legal services, office space, warehousing, taxes . . .

    I don’t have a clue where you got the figures you do provide.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Frances, the costs are just from my own experience working with clients, no more or less.

      I don’t include a lot of things, travel expenses, trade shows, entertainment, the list could go on and on. I don’t think that is really what this series is about. It’s for new people who would like to have an idea what they are looking at for costs at different points in the production continuum.

      Thanks for your comment.

  10. Joel Friedlander

    Robby, you are correct about marketing. I’ve seen budgets where 75% of the costs were in marketing, but because it’s so variable, it didn’t seem appropriate to consider it in this series. But yeah, that’s where the hard work is, for sure.

  11. Robby G

    Wow that’s a great break-down of the costs. Then there’s all the marketing costs you have to take into account to finally make the money back. But this was a very informative post, thanks.

  12. Robert Collings

    Best post on the cost of book production I’ve read. Finally, ‘real’ numbers. Rather than being a discouragement I hope it firms an author’s resolve.

    On the above comments re marketing I’d like to leave this thought from George Patterson Y&R exec Russel Howcroft: “If you can’t afford to market your product, should you even create it?”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Robert, thanks for that. I was “warned” not to publish this post, but it’s part of the whole picture and I think it’s so much better if people know, going in, what to expect. It’s the only rational way to go about self-publishing, no matter which route you choose.

  13. Mayowa

    This is rather startling.

    I’ve been considering self publishing for a while now (still mulling over the distribution/marketing issues) and this illuminates what resources are necessary very clearly.

    After reading, i thinking more mulling is necessary.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mayowa, this is only one path to publication. The links at the top of the article go through the same scenario at different levels of expense, down to about $0, so do take a look at those before making any decisions. And thanks for your comment!

      • Mayowa

        I went through the DIY one. Unless i’m possessed by the soul of Prince, the odds that i’ll be able to pull of all those steps at the high quality levels I want are pretty slim.

        I definitely want to be competitive ala today’s post. Methinks most writers (especially fiction writers) don’t have the financial might to handle these competitive costs.

        Which brings us right back to the nationwide marketing connundrum. More mulling perhaps?

        Thank you for this post and for the others. I have enjoyed them tremendously

        • Joel Friedlander


          Fiction is actually the least expensive type of book to put through this system. Once you get past the editorial process, that is. Because fiction usually has little formatting, sometimes even no chapter breaks, it bills at the low end of the design and layout range. But yes, that doesn’t eliminate all the other necessary steps. There are a host of DIY fiction authors pumping books out and I would suggest you go that route, because while they are doing that, they are gradually building a loyal cadre of readers who will be there whenever the bring something new out. Worth a thought.

          • Mayowa

            Oh that makes me feel better actually. I know of success stories like J.A Konrath who sell a ton of books on their own.

            I’m not entirely sure there any writers of literary fiction have had much self publishing success (perhaps an opportunity to be a trailblazer eh?).

            I might appear a tad hesitant here but i am busy doing tons of research (and of course mulling) on how to get nationwide exposure as a self published author. To be honest though everything i’ve come up with is in the manner of marketing stunts and not sustained campaigns.

            Thank you again for your encouragement!

  14. Leanne

    Very informative. Nice to take a peek at competitive self-publishing and fully understand why working with a publishing house is a better fit for me. Or at least at this time.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Leanne, it pays to know up front what this type of project will cost. And sure, taking over the responsibilities and expenses of getting a book into print is the primary reason we have the whole licensing/royalty arrangement in publishing. I appreciate your contribution, thanks.

  15. Maggie Dana

    Great article, Joel. For anyone considering self-publishing, this is a must-read.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Maggie. I think the whole series at least gives people a way to think realistically about their publishing plans.



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