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How much does it cost to be an indie author? - Tallulah Lucy
Girl with a book
Blog,  Publishing

How much does it cost to be an indie author?

I’ve just received the quote for printing Keyflame in March and I can’t believe this is finally really happening! While working out cost per unit, shipping and how many units I could afford to send to advance reviewers, I realised just how much more goes into publishing than I knew the first time I got a book printed. That got me thinking, it would be super useful to have a list of costs for self publishing somewhere.

So here’s some transparency because I know how overwhelming all of this can seem when you’re starting out and I totally don’t mind letting you see my books (accounting books! The other books come later :))

First of all, a disclaimer: this is written in 2019 from South Africa and a lot of my pricing will be based on what I, personally, can get here in Cape Town. I’ve tried to use international Dollar prices wherever possible, but there are some fees that will differ from country to country such as local printing and ISBN.

Second disclaimer: you can technically be an indie author for free. You can technically write up a first draft in Google Docs, slap it in a KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) template, upload it to Amazon and call yourself an author. What I’m addressing here is the business of publishing as an author who chooses to invest in the product with a view to continuing to produce products of a high standard and perhaps maybe turn this into a career.

(Also you will likely be able to find all of the below cheaper. This is based on what the people I trust charge.)

Cost of writing the book

This is where book production starts and this can be done completely free, or using specialised software. I wrote my first draft in Google Docs. Many writers swear by Scrivener which is $40 for Windows and $45 for Mac. If you feel more at home writing in Microsoft Word, it’s $69.99/year for the Home office suite.

You might also want to consider some AI-driven editing software to catch clunky sentences and repeated words. This can help you produce a cleaner first draft, especially if English is a second language or if this is your first book.

ProWritingAid is $50 a year and I prefer it to Grammarly Premium which is $139.95 a year. Both have free versions, but they are extremely limited.

Something that a lot of authors are starting to do because of speed and efficiency (not to mention avoiding wrist pain) is dictate their novels verbally. There is basic diction software included in all office suites now (including Scrivener if I’m not mistaken), but the one that most authors I know swear by is called Dragon Naturally Speaking and it’s $179.99 once off.

I ditched the bells and whistles and my cost for writing the book was a fat $0.

Cost of editing the book

Editing is going to be your major expense and in my opinion it’s so worth it. A book is a tool for translating imagination into language, and it’s kind of impossible to tell how good a translation is if you’re the one sending the message.

Your first step is the free step: finding people to “beta read” for you. The ideal beta is someone who reads a lot of books in the genre you’re writing, is familiar with the tropes and conventions and is willing to buy books. Basically if you can find someone who would have bought your book anyway and get feedback from them, that will be far more useful than someone who posts memes about how horrible your genre is 🙂 The best place to find betas is in writing groups where you can offer to trade feedback, but try to get some betas who are not writers as well. Writers see the strings behind the puppet show and that means that they know how they would have written something and what the “rules” are, and judge the book differently from how someone who’s just a reader.

Some indie authors publish immediately after this stage, but I can’t imagine having the confidence to do that.

The next step is a developmental edit. This is giving the book to someone who understands story structure (and, again, understands your genre) and can help refine the plot and pacing. Some authors choose to skip this step, but I think it’s especially valuable early in your career when you’re still learning.

After that, you get a copy edit which checks for inconsistencies and general spelling and grammatical issues.

Then you get even more refined and get a line edit, which looks at each and every sentence to make sure that there aren’t too many annoying repeated words and that everything makes sense.

My friend and editor, Nerine, breaks down the types of editing in this helpful blog post.

Many editors will offer combo packages. They also might use different terms for the stages such as “assessment” for developmental or proofreading for line editing. Chat to the editor about exactly what you’ll be getting.

I did a skills trade for my Keyflame edits, but my editor is very well-priced considering her experience and her usual price are $5/1000 words for developmental and $10/1000 for copy.

Because it’s good to get as many different eyes on your work as possible, I asked an author friend who is training to be an editor to do the line edits. She’s betaed for me before, but I specifically asked her not to beta this time so she’d come at the story fresh :). She was also willing to work for skills trade, but a line edit will usually be about $12/1000 words.

You’ll notice that the deeper the edit, the more it will cost. You may decide to use beta readers for the early edits, pay for line editing and ask friends to proof.

I was fortunate to have two friends willing to proofread for me. One was actually a proofreader at a publisher, and the other is a school teacher who loves spotting typos. Bear in mind when asking friends to proofread that proofreading requires a particular sort of switch in the brain that enables the person to see words as they are, rather than as the brain translates them. Not everyone can proofread, and the more proofreaders you can get, the better.

Professional proofreading costs $3 – $4 per 1000 words.

Going through all the rounds of edits you’d get at a publisher can quickly wrack up a huge bill, but as you can see from my example it might not always be necessary to pay for every step of the way – at least not with cash.

 

Cost of cover design

The price of cover design really comes down to what your budget is. A $500 cover will sell better than a $30 cover. That’s pretty much the range you’re looking at, with a few outliers.

Please don’t do your cover yourself, and please don’t ask your “artist friend” to do your cover. A book cover is a very particular kind of art form because it has to communicate the contents of the book, the genre and keep up with trends.

As you probably know, I’m a cover designer so I was able to do my own cover. I only did it because I’m trying to keep costs low. In future, when I can rely on making many more sales, I will hire someone else to do my covers because of that fresh eyes thing! The author is the worst judge of what communicates their book most effectively.

(And as a side note: asking friends for their opinions was zero help. I had two cover versions and asked six friends. Three loved option A and three loved option B. And neither liked the other much at all.)

If you have no option but to do your cover yourself, spend a lot of time researching. Look at the colours, fonts, styles on the bestseller lists in your genre and teach yourself how to produce those effects professionally. Don’t do something artsy and different unless you’re writing something artsy and different.

Photoshop costs $10 a month, and a Udemy course to use it costs about $150 if you don’t catch it on sale. (I caught it on sale and paid $10). You can get a book, or Skillshare sub for about the same (Skillshare Premium is currently $15 a month, but $8.25 per month if you pay annually). You’ll also have to buy stock images and possibly fonts. I paid $23 for my font.

So my cost for the cover (which I did myself) was about $40.

A cheaper option, if you want to work with a professional, is to check if they do premade covers. Premades are covers created ahead of time when the designer has capacity and are available at a discounted rate.

 

Cost of internal layout and e-book formatting

KDP (Amazon’s self publishing platform) provides free templates for this and you can also use Draft 2 Digital or Reedsy, regardless of whether you distribute through them.

If you have a Mac, Vellum is the software of choice for layout among authors I know. It costs $249.99 once off to create unlimited e-books and print books.

You may also wish to hire someone to do your book for you. My friend Masha, who’s also one of my most trusted beta readers, is doing mine. Were it not for our⁠—you guessed it⁠—skill trade arrangement, her services would have cost about $99 for an ebook and $250 for print.

 

Cost of ISBN

ISBNs in South Africa are free. If you do a print run of over 100 books, you need to post a copy to each of the National Libraries, which would cost you. You will need an ISBN for each format of your book (e.g. print and e-book).

You can also get a free ISBN through Amazon if you plan to distribute through them.

My US author friends tend to use Bowker and they charge $125 per ISBN, but you can get a set of 10 for $295, so most people I know do that.

 

Cost of printing a book

You needn’t worry about this at all if you don’t want to. Some authors choose not to produce print copies of their books. If you publish through KDP,  Amazon will print copies as people order and you don’t have to keep print copies, especially if you live somewhere where it’s cheap to get Amazon deliveries 🙂

You might want to print somewhere other than Amazon. I intend to use Ingram Spark which distributes to libraries and book stores (and Amazon too). It costs $49 to list your print book on Ingram Spark and you have to pay again if you discover typos and want to upload the file again.

You might also want to print local copies. This cost will very a lot depending on where you are because factors like availability of paper and ink come into play. For a book of about 600 pages, my cost per unit will be about R100 ($6.50).

 

Cost of marketing a book

If no one knows about your book, how are they supposed to buy it? It’s a misnomer that books get discovered accidentally and become instant successes. Even books like Fifty Shades of Grey had huge marketing budgets behind them (not to mention years of hard work by the author to build a fanfic following).

Marketing is divided into two categories: organic and paid.

Organic marketing

Organic marketing is sometimes referred to as “free” but that’s not entirely true. Although, it can be. Examples of organic marketing are growing your Facebook and Twitter following, sending out newsletters, making book videos on YouTube, chatting to influencers, being interviewed on blogs and podcasts.

Some costs you might encounter by organic marketing (not paying for actual ads):

  • Email service providers: I use MailerLite which starts free, but is $10 a month after you surpass 1,000 subscribers and the more subscribers you get, the more you pay.
  • Website hosting (for a blog): This site is on WordPress. I pay just over $3 a month for hosting, $14.50 a year for the domain name, $14.50 a year for an SSL certificate and $12 a year for spam filtering. Total: $77/year.
  • Shipping costs to send units to reviewers: about $7 per package by courier.
  • Stock photos: You can get a Freepik premium subscription for $11 a month (mostly good for fun vectors and textures) that allows 100 downloads a day or a DepositPhotos subscription for $10 a month that allows 10 photos for the month (better for people photos). There are lots of other options, but that’s what I pay for.
  • Apps for creating and tracking: This will depend on your own needs. I pay $2 a month for an app that helps me manage Instagram, I’ve paid $5 once off for an app that adds video effects to still photos, and I’ve paid $1 – $2 for a variety of filters in another app for Instagram. It comes down to what you need and what you want to do.
  • Additionally, you may wish to host tie-in short stories or review copies on a site like Bookfunnel ($20 a year), Prolific Works ($0-$50 a month) or Booksprout ($0 – $20 a month). I use StoryOrigin which is still in beta so currently free.

Paid advertising

Paid advertising can gobble up everything in your bank account if you’re not careful. My advice here is: be strategic. If you only have one book out, do you really want to spend a fortune on ads? Or does it make more sense to spend money on ads when someone who purchases book one has a whole series to look forward to?

Some examples of paid marketing spend:

  • Facebook ads
  • Amazon ads
  • Newsletter features with places like Bookbub
  • Sponsored Facebook posts

The cost for these is really just what you’re willing to spend and the below is an example and is by no means a blueprint for a successful paid strategy. You can find whole books dedicated to that subject.

 

Cost of audiobook production

You have a number of options for audiobooks. The cheapest is using ACX (owned by Audible) and finding a narrator willing to do royalty share (you’ll be locked into an exclusivity contract for seven years). There are other contracts available from fully paid to part royalty share.

The second popular option is Findaway Voices that allows you do do part profit share with narrators or even do your own audiobook recordings.

If you decide to do your own recordings, bear in mind that the quality requirements are very stringent. You will need to invest in equipment, vocal training and possibly studio time.

Audiobook production costs between $2,000 and $4,000 depending on the narrator and length of the book. If you hire a studio space to do your own production in Cape Town it will cost about R800 ($53) an hour. Production time is not the same as audiobook time as you will stutter and stumble and have to re-record sections, so the cost might end up being very similar to paying a narrator if you have a long book like I do!

(Below prices are rough estimates)

 

Sundry expenses

Here are some expenses you might not have thought about!

  • Keyword tools: One tool that’s often recommended to help with selecting Amazon keywords is Publisher Rocket which is $97 once off. This helps people find your book on Amazon when typing a query into search.
  • Accountant: Self publishing can get confusing when it comes to tax. I hired an accountant to help me with filing tax for my cover business and will use him for my book publishing too. It costs me just over $100 a year.
  • Association membership: You might want to join an association to do with your genre. This cost will vary.
  • Events (markets and conventions): cost will vary.
  • Physical marketing for events (swag, banners, sweets)
  • Education: This can be anything between $10 a month to a $600 premium course.

Some example costs:


 

I hope this post has given you more insight into how expensive being an indie author can be.

Self publishing can easily cost $10,000 if you hire professionals for every step of the way and buy all the best tools. But, as you’ve seen, there are ways to mitigate these costs.

Tips for saving money when self publishing

  • Form an association to trade skills with other professionals. It’s not exactly free (because time is money, and you have to put in a lot of time to provide value), but it’s easier on the bank account.
  • Maintain a good beta list to cut out some of the stages of editing
  • Put the hours into learning how to do as much as possible yourself – professionally. There are lots of free resources online.
  • Start building your brand early. Get a blog going, be active on social media, start collecting email addresses. This way you’ll already have an audience when your book comes out and can save on marketing.
  • Run lean. This is start-up jargon for spending as little as possible. Skip the fancy writers’ software and the fancy layout and research tools for your first few projects and invest in them later when you have the cash.

How I’d prioritise what to spend money on:

  1. Editing – even if it’s a single round. Because bad reviews will kill your writing career before it even starts. But! Make sure they’re a good editor. Get word-of-mouth recommendations and don’t be afraid to ask for a sample.
  2. Cover – because people do judge books by their covers.
  3. Marketing – because without marketing, no one’s ever going to read your book, and the rest will be wasted.
  4. Everything else.

Lastly, it helps to think of publishing as a business that you’re investing in rather than a way to make money quickly. I don’t come from a wealthy background, so every part of Keyflame’s production has been paid for with either hours of work (traded marketing or cover design), or… with hours of work (from my day job or covers). I’m aware that I won’t make back those hours with a single book, or even a few. But one day in the far future, I aim to have a bunch of high quality products up for sale and readers who are discovering me every day and eagerly awaiting the next release :).

If all of the above seems overwhelming, there’s no shame in it. Traditional publishing is a cheaper alternative that allows you to focus on the writing and not worry about all that other stuff.

If you’re still struggling to decide whether to self publish, these two posts might also help:

Should you self publish or go traditional?

Is self publishing a bad idea?

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