What Does Self-Publishing Cost: Online Self-Publisher

by | Apr 23, 2010

thebookdesinger.com self-publishing costs for online booksellersThis is a continuation of the What Does Self-Publishing Cost series:

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

Today let’s look at the next level of ambition, the author who decides to publish and seriously attempt to sell books in an economical way. Let’s call this publisher the Online Self-Publisher.

9 Cost Categories for Online Self-Publishing

  1. Company setup—It’s more likely this self-publisher will formally organize her company, probably as a sole proprietorship. She’ll pay attention to costs and have some way of accounting for sales and expenses, doing it herself. Taxes are getting complicated so it’s probable our publisher will need tax help at the end of the year too. All these costs are due to the added complexity of selling book wholesale and retail and the effect on your personal income and tax liabilities. At the beginning you may have an offsetting loss on your taxes since your business will likely spend more than it takes in just to get your book ready for publication.

    Total: $100 – 300
  2. ISBNs—You’ll definitely need ISBNs since you can’t sell through online merchants like Amazon.com or BN.com without one. The question now becomes: how many ISBNs to buy?

    One ISBN will cost you $125 at the myidentifiers website run by Bowker to sell these oh-so-precious numbers. But if you plan on ebook editions and, in the back of your mind you’re thinking that if this book sells, you’ve got another one you could follow up with, you need more. Ten ISBNs will cost you $250, but you’ll be prepared for a couple of years of publishing to get you going.

    Total: $250
  3. Manuscript preparation—The Online Self-Publisher will likely do as the DIY self publisher did, and do all manuscript preparation themselves.

    Total: $0
  4. Editing—The Online Self-Publisher knows that editing is important, and will try to find an editor to help organize, or to “polish up” their manuscript. Although some authors will use a fuller range of editorial talent, starting with developmental editing, typically the limited budget of the Online Self-Publisher will dictate a light but thorough review of the manuscript by someone who has at least has professional editing experience

    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.

    Let’s say our self-publisher finds an editor on a writing forum, or through a writer’s group, or through a service like elance.com. And let’s also stay with my model book, a 65,000 word, 200 page 5.5″ x 8.5″ trade paperback. This will give us at least a framework for what the editorial cost might be, $700-1,500.

    We can add to this the cost of a basic proofreading. In many cases the Online Self-Publisher herself, or a friend, will proofread the book. In my experience it’s unwise to skip this step. $0 – $500

    Total: $700-2,000
  5. Design—Online Self-Publishers know that a book that looks decent will be more appealing than one that looks like your nephew did it in Apple Works. She will budget for a cover designer but will probably skip an interior design, preferring to stay with the DIY model in the interest of saving money. At a minimum, the publisher will have to learn to submit files to the Print on Demand provider, or pay someone to do it for her.

    Total: $200 – 500
  6. Review program—Reviews for the Online self-publisher will typically be limited to online reviewers, where a PDF of the book can be submitted at no cost. But it’s also likely that he will run a small review campaign offline as well. Prepublication reviewers, specialty media, local newspapers and any trade associations are likely candidates for review copies and a DIY media kit. Due to the expense of packing, mailing and digitally-printed books, this can add up pretty quickly. Lets assume 24 books split between reviewers and authorities or other authors who might supply blurbs to help in promotion.

    Cost of one book: $3.50. Add a Jiffy bag: $1.79. Add media mail postage: $2.38. Oh, and something for the rest of the paperwork that gets sent with review copies: $1.00. That’s a total of $8.67, or $208 for 24 copies.

    Total: $200 – 300

  7. Platform building—In addition to the free resources for building her author platform, our new internet marketer may also consult with a search-engine optimization expert to help with online visibility, or opt for custom work to be done on her website or blog. Remember, this will be the main hub of her business, and she may even install some ecommerce capabilities to be able to take orders directly on her website. Making excerpts available, capturing names and email addresses for mailing lists and other tasks are commonly outsourced to freelance technicians. Our budget should account for some mix of these tasks. Let’s make it an estimate, since the options are extremely broad.

    Total: $200 – 500
  8. Proofing and Reproduction—Like our DIY self-publishers, Online self-publishers will use digital printing through print on demand suppliers to manufacture their book. However, some of these publishers will have moved from author services companies like Createspace to a more manufacturing-oriented and economical supplier like Lightning Source. There are setup costs associated with this move, and some fees you would not have to pay the author service companies. However, if you expect to sell any quantity of books you will quickly make up this expense in the savings on per-book prices. We’ll also include an initial order of 50 books to the publisher for direct sales and other promotional uses.

    Total: $300 – 400
  9. Fulfillment—Book sales through online retailers require no fulfillment expense on the part of the Online self-publisher. Using a fulfillment service to pack and ship orders is far too expensive for the quantity of books sold, so the Online self-publisher will likely do her own fulfillment. Hey, she bought that big box of Jiffy bags for the review campaign, remember? Here’s where we use the rest of the box.

    Total: $0

Let’s Add It All Up

The Online self-publisher is serious about putting out decent books and trying to sell them using lots of tools at her disposal. Adding our nine categories, we have a total of $1,950 – 4,250. This is a significant business expense but, considering that you are starting a new business and simultaneously developing a new product and the means to market it, I would come to a different conclusion.

By far the largest investment of the Online self-publisher—or any of the other self-publishers, for that matter—is the time and effort it takes to put this whole project together. The time to understand enough about the parts to have some idea of how they fit together. The time to research, meet and talk to people, to work on all the incidental projects that come up in the course of the publishing journey.

This is truly what will make or break the publication of your book. The commitment you make and the actions that come from it are far more important than the money you will invest, and will go farther to determining the success of your book.

Total Online self-publishing cost: $1,950 – 4,250

Takeaway: Online self-publishers can produce quite acceptable books at a reasonable cost. While there may be inconsistencies and a lack of finesse in the book interior, a diligent self-publisher should be able to turn out a book of decent quality to sell online.

Image: Flickr.com / derek&kristi

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Stephen Tiano

    Congrats, Jenna! You’ve obviously done a lot of things correctly. 100 copies wasn’t my guess, but stats from some of the companies that provide services to self-publishers. I’d consider your success more than fair, especially if sales are 2,500 to date and the book is still selling.

    To a certain extent, you’ve had some really good luck, too. For instance, you always run the risk that a public domain photo will be used by someone else for another (perhaps even unsavory) purpose that you wouldn’t want your book inadvertently connected to.

    Obviously, I wouldn’t advise everyone to do it your way. I am, after all, a freelance book designer. But you apparently knew what you’re doing. For instance, I would definitely caution anyone about using friends to read your book and “provide feedback.” That isn’t (in most cases) the same as having someone who knows about substantive editing read and critique your book. Nor is it the same as having a copy editor check for punctuation and spelling.

    But if you’re pleased with your final product and you’ve beaten statistic, than I’d say you’ve done well. I usually tell people thinking of self-publishing to look at the enterprise as establishing a business that needs to be properly financed to afford the professional tools and the kind of source materials or services to maximize your product.

    And then, of course, a really focused marketing plan is advisable, too.

    I wonder how many more copies you’d have sold/would sell if you’d done it my way? I’d like to think, yes, enough to way more than cover the expense.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well said, Stephen. Then Jenna would have a print book to sell too. Doing books professionally simply widens the universe into which you can sell. If the book is well written and adequately promoted the investment will usually pay for itself, in my opinion.

  2. Jenna Anderson

    Thank you for the well wishes. I’ve read your other article. I believe your viewpoint on the DIY method of self-publishing is quite different from mine. But it’s all good – having lots of opinions and methods is what causes things to evolve.

    Stephen – I consider my success fair. My sales are lower than a lot of self-published authors I know. People reading this blog need to be aware that for my fairly successful title your numbers are off by approximately 2500 sales. These sales were over a nine month period. BUT I really hate throwing numbers around. My sample source could be small and recent. Your sample source could be large and span years. Oh well, as I said above – it’s all good.

  3. Stephen Tiano

    Whew! Now I understand why the overwhelming majority of self-published books sell less than 100 copies.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, there are all different levels of publishing, aren’t there? People are inventing their own standards, their own rationales all the time. But when you want to go into the marketplace for real, well . . .

  4. Jenna Anderson

    (Sorry for the long comment.)

    My situation may be very different then the one you describe above, but my total output for an ebook was $15. You’ll probably be able to do an entire week of blog posts based on my tactics below.

    The reason why I’m posting a response to your numbers is I’d like to offer up another view to writers who may find the totals you give a bit scary.

    Company set up – $0 – No company, just me. I’m clearly stating to all this is a self-published ebook.

    ISBN – $0 – I did not purchase one and am on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc… If you say this is required – I must have missed it as well as the people at these stores. :-) I’m sure the poor man’s copyright is not advised by you, but that is the route I took for my story. “All Right Reserved …etc…”

    Manuscript Prep – $0 – Done by me with help from online friends. I agree with Dusk – don’t hurry with this step. My next title will get more attention in this area.

    Editing – $0 – I have lots of great friends that volunteered to read my story and provide feedback. After the first round or two of changes I sent it to two friends to do line edits. I admit I will spend more time on this for my next book since some typos slipped by and were in the published piece. Since it’s only in eform – the correction of these is a snap.

    Design – $15 Starbucks gift certificate – I love my cover. I found a public domain photo and asked a graphic designer at my work to create the artwork. He didn’t ask for money but I thought I should give him something. I do not have this title in print so I don’t think other design features apply.

    Reviews – $0 – I emailed my novella to a number of blogs, friends, and other authors. You said: “But it’s also likely that he will run a small review campaign offline as well.” – No, I didn’t and won’t.

    Platform Building – $0 – I do spend a lot of time plugging my book online via Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Kindleboards, etc. It is a time commitment but I haven’t laid out any money. Plus, it’s a ton of fun talking to readers.

    Proofing and Reproduction – $0 – only because there is not a physical version of my story available. With the millions of Kindle, Nook, and Smartphone owners out there I do not see this as a problem. I would love to have a book in print someday.

    Total cost = $15.

    Is my book considered less polished because of all of these DIY tactics – maybe. When it’s sitting side by side on the virtual shelf with a book someone paid $3000 to self-publish will the reader know the difference? I don’t think so.

    I love having a story out there for people to buy. I’ve received wonderful feedback from readers and made great friends. And – I was in the black in less than three weeks.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, Jenna, I love that you have your story out there too, and your industry in finding a unique way to use the resources at your disposal to publish your book.

      You would probably be a better fit for the costs I outlined in one of the other articles in this series, What Does Self-Publishing Cost: DIY? where I describe pretty much the same scenario you’ve outlined here, but for print books, and ending up at a low-end cost of $27.50.

      Thanks for taking the time to detail your costs. I may later do an additional post about ebooks, but I didn’t include them for this series because I was comparing different approaches to print publishing.

      Best of luck with your book!

  5. Dusk Peterson

    I think costs are going to vary depending on genre (and format, but I assume you’re discussing POD only here).

    My costs:

    1) $0. I’m still at the C-EZ stage – I’m not making anywhere near enough money to worry about tax consultants.

    2) $375 for ten ISBNs, though I should have held off till Bowker lowered its prices.

    3) $0, for the reasons you mention.

    4) $0. This is the one area where I’ve cut corners, the reason being that, after nine years participating in a fiction community, I’ve found plenty of volunteer editors who are of the same quality – or much better – than those I used to encounter when I was being published in national magazines. Naturally, this is a case of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours”; I give back to the community my editing time. (I’ve done editing professionally, but I’ve encountered plenty of good amateur editors in that community.)

    5) $0. I design the covers myself, using a simple, self-designed template similar to that of the Penguin Black Classics series. The artwork is in the public domain or is Creative Commons licensed. However, you might have mentioned here the cost of design software. Fortunately, I received InDesign free as a gift.

    6) $0. Most of my fiction is in a genre where the vast majority of reviewers are online reviewers.

    7) $0. I opted for a very simple design for my two Websites, for accessibility reasons as well as because I’m of the Simple Is Better perspective where Web design is concerned. I know better the relevant search engine terms for my genres than any search engine expert I could hire. My fiction community – which is where many of my readers are – is exceedingly well versed in matters of blogging and e-mail lists; I learned everything I needed to know from the members of that community.

    8) About $100 per book at Lightning Source. I don’t need promotional copies, since my reviewers are online, and I’m not interested in doing direct sales myself.

    9) $0, as you say.

    Total: About $400. I’m not saying I’m typical – most self-publishers couldn’t and shouldn’t do some of the tasks I do for myself, and many authors aren’t in a writing community where they could find good volunteer editors. And I’m sure that there are some areas where I’m falling short without knowing it. I do think that, if a self-publisher has little or no experience in a particular area, they should seriously consider seeking out a professional or teach themselves to produce professional-quality work. In fact, the area where I’d most strongly urge this (next to editing and cover design) is interior design; I’ve seen too many self-published books with wonderful content that are ruined by wretched interior design.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Dusk, sorry to have not replied before. Thanks very much for detailing your own costs. I think the solution you found for your cover designs was quite a good one, and they are effective and brand your books as a series. I’ll be interested in how your books sell with your approach and also interested in the way you will use your SEO skills to help bring traffic to your site. Good luck!

    • David Bergsland

      I thought I’d run my costs though they are unusual.

      I have a copy of the Creative Suite 5.5 Design Premium (If you do not, you can take an accredited course in InDesign and get the Design Standard suite for under $200 and the Premium Suite [with Dreamweaver] for under $500.)

      1) Company: A sole proprietorship has been free in every state I have lived in.

      2) Free. I use Lulu’s and Createspace’s free ones

      3) Zero

      4) I work with editors and trade.

      5) Design covers myself (been a graphic designer for 40 years)

      6) Use online reviewers

      7) I use WordPress which is free from the ISP I use

      8) $10 or so per proof. Usually only one now, but I used to do 2 or three. My promo copies are ebooks.

      9) Zero

      Total cost: A lot of time and about $10 to $50 per book as I may need a proof from both Lulu and Createspace. Maybe a couple versions each: large format, coil-bound workbooks, and so on.

      Plus, a lot of time studying typography and book design and there are book costs there, plus the costs of computer upgrades, et al.

      But to get started, you can do it very cheaply. It just takes longer. I’ve been doing full-time for a little over two years now. The income starts slow and builds.

  6. Leonard Fernandes

    Hello Joel,

    I visit your blog quite often being a provider of self-publishing services ourselves. The insights that you provide have helped us a lot and for them I am grateful.

    After reading this post of yours, I was curious to understand what someone in India might spend on a similar set of services. That prompted me to write a blog entry of my own. Considering the fact that we have many customers from Europe and North America, I felt compelled to put in a dollar figure too.

    The link for that blog entry is https://bit.ly/9EctYg

    I hope you continue to write on topics such as these – they do benefit the likes of us.

    Thank you!

    Warm Regards from India,

    Leonard Fernandes
    CinnamonTeal Publishing

    • Joel Friedlander

      Leonard, thanks for your comment. I see that the translation of the services outlined here come out to considerably less in India. I hope you continue to get something from the blog, and please continue to contribute your unique perspective to the conversation.

  7. Gwynneth Beasley

    NO fruit yet but I will be sure to share when I have news!

  8. Joel

    Hi Gwynneth, sorry your comments got caught in my spam filter, but glad to have you here.

    Yes, I think you are right in the mix as an “online self-publisher” and I’m sure the profile more or less fits. Obviously, making up these categories is a bit contrived but I find it really helps in organizing things like these costs.

    It sounds like you’re right in the thick of publication, and I know I’d love to hear how your efforts have borne fruit.

  9. Gwynneth Beasley

    HI Joel. I am loving this series of posts. I just self published 6 children’s books for about $2k using a mixture of the DIY and online publishing models outlines. It has taked 8 months from start of writing to availability on amazon. I look forward to your post on hiring professionals!

  10. Vincent Nguyen

    I really appreciate your in depth reply Joel.
    It helps to give me a good idea for how I want to structure my marketing campaign.

    Looking forward reading your future posts Joel.

    Have a great weekend!

  11. Joel

    Vincent, that’s tough to predict. I just did a project that went incredibly fast, two – three weeks start to finish. There are other projects that go on for 6 or 9 months because of extensive editing, complex layouts or authors who enter the production cycle not realizing they haven’t actually finished their book yet. It’s not unusual for a project to take 3 or 4 months, although i would say the typical book I’m involved with, depending on how much editing is needed, takes about 8 weeks. Hope that helps, and thanks for being part of the conversation.

  12. Joel

    Thanks, Julia. There will be a lot more about hiring professionals in the next post in this series. Should be out next week.

  13. Vincent Nguyen

    Thank you for the cost break down for online self-publishing Joel. Gives me a better perspective on costs.
    How long is an average process from manuscript to finished book Joel?
    Considering the self-publisher is starting from just the finished manuscript.

  14. Julia M Lindsey

    Great overview of the cost to publish. Many new authors do not realize the importance of hiring quality professionals to help them with the publishing process.

  15. Gwynneth Beasley

    Hi Joel,

    I have just self published 6 childrens books using createspace. I have paid only for BDA Books to design them, Social Identities to pimp my sites (pending), a charge for createspace to include my books in an expanded distribution list and a lot of books for peer reviews and giveaways (pending). The total cost of all this has been about $2000 (AUS). (I think I fit in between your DIY and online categories.) It seems to me I could spend endless amounts of money doing things more and more professionally and I look forward to your next post in this series!



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