The Truth About My Self-Publishing Journey

I haven’t done one of these in a while, and I thought I’d post some real talk about the process!

There’s been growing interest in my book and the continuation of the series, which has been phenomenal! However, there’s a lot misconception about what it takes to publish a professional quality book, both traditionally and independently. I just thought I’d share some of the costs and experiences I had publishing to shine a sobering light on the industry and the reality of pursuing a career in writing.

Costs:

Both paths to publication are long and arduous, and rarely recoup the costs incurred to the publisher. The difference is if you’re traditionally published, your publisher will eat the cost if your book flops, but if you’re indie, those are yours alone. For example, The Mark of Amulii cost me around $7,000 to both publish and market, and that was (believe it or not) on the cheap side. I will likely never make that back as an indie, debut author. In fact, I’ve only sold around 300 books since it was released in November of last year, and while that’s better than no sales, it barely covers the cost of marketing, let alone putting me in the black. I, of course, knew this going into it. This is the cost of starting a self-publishing writing career.

The traditional route (going through the big four and their many imprints) is arguably the most rigorous, exclusionary time-suck any writer will ever experience. Most will not get an agent, which are, and have always been the gatekeepers of trad publishing. If you do manage to land an agent, chances of your book being picked up by a publisher wax and wane depending on what’s marketable at the time.

Traditional publishing is not my cup of tea for many reasons, but that’s a topic for another day. Though I had an agent interested in my manuscript, I ended up choosing the self-publishing route because I felt it was the best option for me. There were just too many unknowns and too much I’d have to give up going the trad route that I didn’t want to. Do I regret that decision knowing what I know now? Kind of, but not really.

So, what does it take to self-publish a book?

Truthfully? Not a lot. It’s so easy to upload anything to KDP and call it a book. It’s why self-published books have been synonymous with poor quality and not worth the paper they are printed on (or the cost of downloading it to Kindle). To that, I’ll agree to a certain extent, but this stigma unfortunately ostracizes a lot of indie authors that play by the rules and try to put their best work out there. It’s hard to wade through piles of poorly-edited books to get to that one’s that aren’t, as I’ve mentioned in a blog post I wrote a while ago.

So what does it take to self-publish a GOOD book?

And here’s where it gets hairy… and expensive. The Mark of Amulii—in my opinion—is a good book, not a GREAT book, but a good book. While I’d love it to be considered a great book, I’d have to be writing for years and publish a lot more before I can write a truly great book. As with anything, greatness takes practice, patience, and humility. Still, self-publishing a good first book is an amazing achievement, and one I could not have done without the aid of beta readers and editors. It doesn’t matter how good a writer is, every novel needs editors. If a book is not edited, it’s not finished, and I refuse to sell an unfinished product.

Editors cost money.

When I say editing, people assume that just entails someone going through your story and fixing a few spelling or grammar mistakes, but that’s not it at all. There are different levels of editing, and the more thorough, the more financially impactful. For example: I got The Mark of Amulii developmentally edited, line edited, and proofread. The total cost was $4,500, and that was ON THE CHEAP. As a self-published author on a budget, I needed to find good editors with lower rates. This is something traditionally published authors will never have to worry about.

Developmental editing:

This form of editing is the most thorough and expensive. The editor will basically work with the writer on the overall structure of the story. This is where writers will normally have to rewrite entire sections of their novels (or sometimes, unfortunately, the whole novel) as the editor takes a sledgehammer to the plot, characters, scenes, etc… Not using enough description? Too much? Plot doesn’t make sense? Characters are flat? You will not only have editor comments in your word document, but you will also have a multi-page editorial review highlighting all of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The costs of a developmental edit can range anywhere between $1500-$5,000, depending on the length of the novel and the editor’s experience. In my opinion, this was well worth the money and took my writing to the next level.

Line editing:

This form of editing is self-explanatory and is the second-most expensive. The editor goes line-by-line looking at voice, prose, cadence, word choice, continuity, etc… This can range from $1,000-$4,000 depending on length of the novel and editor.

Copy editing/Proof-reading:

This is what people think of when they think of ‘editing.’ Copy editing is more of a basic version of line editing and is more expensive than proof reading, and proof reading is exactly what it says it is. The proof reader will go through the manuscript and fix grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. The price ranges from $300-$1,000.

As you can see… it ain’t cheap! All novels need several rounds of professional edits before it goes live (I’m not even counting sensitivity readers). Traditionally published authors will have many professionals touching their books before it hits the shelves, but self-published authors need to vet and choose their editors carefully as we don’t have the budget to have 2 line edits done because the first editor wasn’t up to the task.

Book Covers:

Cover design is best left to the professionals, and they are the best form of marketing your book will have. A book with a beautiful cover will catch the eye of the reader, so you want to make sure that cover is as nice as possible. My cover, which included the dust cover design, web graphics, bookmark, cost me about $600. Covers can range from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars.

Beta Readers:

Arguably the most important part of the process before the book even touches the hands of a professional editor is the beta reading process. Having actual readers pick my story apart allows me to make changes to the story structure and plot before it progresses further down the pipeline. The more polished the manuscript, the less I have to pay in editing. It also gives me an idea of how the average reader views my story, which is incredibly valuable. This step is an absolute MUST for self-published authors, and it can take months as beta readers have lives too, and some will not even finish.

Rewrites and Revisions:

Obviously after beta reading sessions and professional edits come the rewrites and revisions. This is where the cost shifts from monetary to time. I usually end up rewriting an entire book after the first draft, and this can take months. After beta reads, I’ll end up rewriting large sections of the story. Combing through comments and fixing mistakes or changing certain plot aspects of a story can take months. After the developmental edit, again, the story may need to be overhauled. Each rewrite and revision refines the story, but also introduces new errors. When you’re dealing with a 100k + word novel, changing anything can have an unexpected domino effect on the story (and create plot holes), so it takes A LOT of time to go through this process thoroughly. Since I work full-time, my writing time is limited. What should take a few months can take me a year.

Interior Design and Blurb:

With The Mark of Amulii, I did these myself, but with my next book I will have them professionally done. I’ve learned my lesson as this was probably the most frustrating part of the process. I was told to have outside sources read through the manuscript and form a marketable blurb, but I didn’t want to spend the extra $200-$300 for someone to write a few paragraphs. But, as with the cover, the blurb is the second-best form of marketing for the book. The interior design is also important because the story has to be readable in both print and e-book format, and it needs to look just as professional as the outside.

Copyright/ISBN/Wide Distribution:

Since I chose to distribute wide (meaning I’m not locked into one marketplace like Amazon), I needed ISBN’s for each edition of my book. So, one for hardback, one for paperback, and one for digital. ISBN prices are over-inflated, costing $125 for ONE and nearly $300 for 10. I need 3 per book, so I buy them in 10’s. After the final draft of the manuscript is complete, I have to get it copyrighted which costs $100. All of this may as well be pennies compared to the cost of editing, but it still adds up. Publishing wide means going through IngramSpark, which I absolutely loath, but it is a necessary evil. It costs another $50-$75 to publish through them, and you have to pay $25 for any revision you have. I ended up spending around $200 because I found post-publishing mistakes that needed to be fixed.

Marketing:

The struggle doesn’t stop when I press the upload button, because now that the book is out there, no one’s going to read it unless it’s seen. Most of what I’ve made on my book has gone back into marketing, so the book hasn’t netted any profit which is not only frustrating, but it can be degrading if I’m having a particularly bad day. Luckily, I have friends and readers who have done a lot of word-of-mouth advertising for me, and I am very lucky to have an artist friend who has read my book and drawn my characters. I’ve spent around $600 in book giveaways and advertising those giveaways, and those don’t even guarantee to generate reviews or exposure

But even after all the giveaways, tens of thousands of interactions with my book ads, and all the marketing I’ve done on Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, I barely make any sales. This is the unfortunate truth of being an author in an age of many different forms of media that have much less time investment. No one wants to spend days or weeks reading the book when the movie can be watched in over an hour. And very few people are going to invest that time in a no-name author. Ask any new author out there, and you’ll get the same story. We’re all trying to find our niche and our precious, devoted readers, and doing that means a lot of time, hard work, and degrading marketing tactics. We do this while also avoiding predatory companies trying to take advantage of our perceived desperation.

The Sobering Conclusion: When will I publish the next book?

To answer the question above (and I’ve been asked this by a lot of people): With how hectic things are right now, I don’t know. This will all depend on if I deem it financially feasible to continue the self-publishing route or if I should try traditional. I’ll be moving to a new state soon, and I’ll be transitioning to independent contracting which means I’ll need to tighten the wallet. I may make good money at my job, but I don’t have bottomless pockets and tons of disposable income. I view writing as a career, not a hobby, and if I feel that there isn’t at least some chance of success, I won’t be able to continue. This may sound off-putting to some, but imagine if you spent several thousand dollars and a couple years pouring your soul into something that very few people were interested in. After reading everything that goes into publishing a finished book, if you were a writer, what would you do? Would I give up writing? Probably not. Writing is very therapeutic for me. Would I continue to publish? Also, probably not, at least not independently.

This is why I often ask my readers to leave reviews, because reviews are a form of marketing and validation. However, barely a tenth of readers will actually do this. People will send me messages telling me how much they enjoyed the book, and while that makes me smile, it won’t help me get my book to the top of any list. One review is worth the cost of 100 books. I make around $1-$2 per book, and if someone buys the book and doesn’t review it, it’s only $1-$2. However, if a reader leaves a review however good or bad it may be, it add validity to the product and more people will enticed to buy. How many times were you influenced to purchase one product over another based on the amount of reviews it received? The same goes for books.

The silver lining, and what you can do as a reader for any author you enjoy:

Many people do not realize just how important their opinions are, and I want to make this very clear: A book thrives or dies with reviews. It all comes down to funding in the end. I love it when readers get lost in my worlds; however, I also do this in hopes I can make traction and get my name out there so I can sell more books and dump more money into writing more quality books. Every weekend, weeknight, and spare hour goes into writing, and that would burn anyone out if all that hard work meant very little.

This may sound like complaining, but that’s not my intention. This is the harsh reality of being an author or any artist trying to market their craft (you know, to be able to support one’s self doing what one loves. The dream). So, throw support to your favorite artist or writer, either in financial support like Patreon, telling friends via word-of-mouth, or simply leaving a review on Goodreads or the online store you bought it at (or both). Any one of these is a game-changer, and could bolster the success of that person and guarantee you get more of what you love from that artist. 😉

Future Plans:

All is not doom and gloom. Depending on how things go, I may look into ideas of alternative funding for my writing, but that will mean having readers support me through other platforms. Despite the dark cloud over this article (you know, pesky reality), I remain optimistic, and this is because of all the feedback and love I’ve gotten from readers over the year. It’s been heart-warming to see how many people loved the story or even told me that it was the book they’ve been waiting to read. It was the entire reason I wrote it. I wanted to write a story I wanted to read, and I still love it to this day, first-book flaws and all.

I look forward to my next publishing adventure, and I hope to be able to push through the marketing/exposure hurdles and publish more in the coming years. As always, I’m thankful to all who have given me support! You’ve really helped more than you know.