Recently, fellow Missouri author Lisa Medley posted a blog post about the cost to self-publish her first book. Now, some folks have given her a little flack for paying for things she didn’t have to, and the amounts she paid and so on, without understanding the context of her choices. They’ve claimed some of her expenses were mistakes. But while she made some different decisions than I did, I think I’d rather have made her mistakes than mine. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lisa through a local writers’ group, and I was thrilled for her when Harlequin picked up her Reaper series a few years back, right around the time I was first published by Pendraig Publishing, a small press out of California. Oddly enough, we both had some similarities in our experiences, in that we both got picked up by publishers, and we were both disappointed by the results. And we BOTH went to self-publishing.
Now, here is where our experiences differ. First off, Lisa writes in the VERY competitive romance market, specifically in paranormal romance. I write urban fantasy and zombie fiction. Technically, the zombie novels are post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And I will tell you from a total lack of experience but from knowing folks who know the business…romance is an expensive genre to write in. Sci-fi and fantasy…not so much. So it stands to reason that though we’re both following a similar path to publishing, our costs were different.
Lisa broke her costs down pretty thoroughly for her first book, and I thought I would do something similar for my first self-published book. However, I’ll also break down some of the costs for one of my later books as well. Lisa chose to do a few things that I didn’t, mostly because she’s a class act and I’m a hack writer. So, where our paths differ, understand that my choices don’t reflect on a disagreement with hers or anything like that.
So, on with the show. Here’s how the expenses for Zompoc Survivor: Exodus played out.
Zompoc Survivor Exodus
Write the book: Time and energy, $0
Recruit beta readers in place of an editor: Time and energy, mention in acknowledgements, $0
Make cover myself: Time, effort, $0
Format myself on Smashwords & Amazon: Time, effort, headaches, stress, $0
Get ISBN number from Createspace for print copy: $0
Let Amazon assign ASIN instead of ISBN to e-book: $0
Createspace proof w/ slow boat to China level shipping: $6.36
Advertising via spamming on promo groups on Facebook: 2-4 hours daily, $0
10 copies from Createspace: $35.50
Prize shipping: $30
Total cost: Time, effort, Sanity, hair loss, $71.86
Now, notice one HUGE thing I did different from Lisa: I did a LOT of the work myself. Formatting, cover, editing, all me. Some folks might think this is a great idea. But while some folks have pointed out on Facebook that Lisa paid for some things that might not have been strictly necessary, I am here to tell you, she made the better decision!
First off, the editing. This is something no writer should try to handle on their own, in my personal opinion. Here, let me get on my soapbox and shout that out with a megaphone and some neon lights. DON’T DO IT! If you love your readers…if you want to ever HAVE readers, don’t edit your own work if you can avoid it. Even if you can’t avoid it, at least get some good beta readers. See, I was very lucky when I went searching for beta readers. I asked other successful writers who they had beta read their work, and I went to talk to those people. Best bad decision I ever made, that. One of those beta readers now has her own business as an editor and proofreader. So, I wasn’t smart, I was lucky.
Second dumb thing I did that ended up turning out okay: the cover. For my cover, I went through some of my photos and found one in my files that I could alter to the point you couldn’t tell who it was or where they really were with ease because of the composition of the photo. Then I took it from color to black and white and ran it through a water-color wash and BAM, instant iconic image for my cover. Then, I did one other smart thing. Remember how I talked to other successful authors about beta readers? Same thing here. I found out what worked and made the changes they suggested. And it worked. Of all my covers, it’s by far the most amateurish, and it shows. But again, luck favored me in many ways.
Finally, formatting. Dang, that was a learning process. I wish I knew then what I know now. The print version of ZS: Exodus doesn’t have page numbers because I didn’t know how to insert them. The front matter is painfully bare. It took several tries to get it to actually read the way I wanted to. And for the record: I still do it myself, and I still hate doing it. But I’m getting better at it.
So, my first book cost me less than $100 to self-publish, but as Lisa also points out in her blog, as the publisher, all of the responsibility for getting it done right was on me. And somehow, I was up to the task, even if it was entirely by accident. Because, like Lisa discovered, having the right people in your corner is crucial.
Now, here is another place where my experience differs slightly from Lisa’s. For ZS: Exodus, the bar to break even was low. So, I had some leeway to do something that I believe has had a tremendous impact on my career.
I practically gave my first book away. My initial price point was 99₵ and I kept it there for a month. Now, at that rate, I would have had to have sold just over 200 copies to break even. I sold over 2500 in the first month. Later on, when I raised my price to the full $2.99, my ranking was so high, I still recouped my costs several times over. However, even if I had spent more on the first book, I would have still done the same thing, because the high initial rankings got me sales at the higher price point. More importantly, the high volume made up for the loss in potential income with repeat readers.
In the end, ZS: Exodus ended up making me enough to hire professionals to handle the two things I should never touch again: editing and covers. When it came time to put ZS: Inferno out, I paid a LOT more for those two services, an easy $500-600 for editing and covers. I made that back in the first month it was out. In short, my second book presents (and thus sells) a lot better than my first book did because I spent more money on it.
So, the lesson here is that it IS possible to self-publish a book for less than $100. But it isn’t a good idea. Lisa’s initial offering presents a lot better than mine did. If you’re going to make mistakes, follow Lisa’s example and err on the side of quality. That’s the better decision. If you’re going to make my mistakes, you’re going to have to make them EXCEPTIONALLY well. As in the “you’re going to have to roll sevens three times in a row with loaded dice” kind of well. And trust me, you don't want to rely on luck more than skill.
Your first book is an investment, and truth be told, if I had to give one piece of hard to swallow advice, it would be this: Don’t expect to make a lot back on your first book. Your first book is an investment in your fan base, and your royalties from that book are an investment in your second book. Assume a loss early on that is going to pay off in spades in the long run.
What is that pay-off? Consistent sales. So far, I’ve self-published three books. Because of the investment in my first book with the low price point and high volume of sales (and a lot of luck), all three books have hit the top 100 in their genres in the first month they’ve come out. The first book attracted a strong fan base. The second and third got them to come back, and they brought friends.
In conclusion: Write a damn good book. Invest in it. Write another damn good book and invest in it. Repeat as necessary.