Spreadsheets to Galleys: How to Budget Your Self-Published Book

New Year, New Spreadsheets by SaraE

After I wrote recently about why self-publishers need to use professional editors, a number of folks emailed and commented, asking just how much such an endeavor would cost. It was a tough question to answer — I know what I would charge for many services, but it’s difficult to say what the market cost might be, especially for services that I myself don’t regularly provide. Understandably, some correspondents were anxious, wondering if they should jump in, not knowing what the whole process might cost.

This week on PBS.org, Miral Sattar, CEO of the publishing-services marketplace site BiblioCrunch, posted what I found to be a quite thorough rundown of what it might cost to put a self-published book through as professional as possible a publishing process.

She posited a fairly typical book, weighing in at around 70,000 words. She made no further stipulations — fiction vs. non-fiction, for example, or thoroughly workshopped, researched, and rewritten (I was obsessed about the need to rewrite my essay as a student, still remember) vs. hastely pulled together. The style, genre, and initial quality of the prose do make a huge difference in terms of the kind and amount of editorial work that needs to be done, obviously. Ms. Sattar was trying to explore a median case.

She based her standards and pricing on the Editorial Freelancers Association’s posted rate sheet, which is as close to an industry standard as exists.

Here in brief is Sattar’s rundown (each entry has a low and a high end estimate):

Service: Low-end est.: High-end est.:
Developmental Editing: $2,520 $18,200
Copyediting: $840 $7,000
Cover Design: $150 $3,500
Ebook & Print Layout: $0 $2,500
ISBN: $125 $250+
Distribution: $0 (% of gross $)
Pre-publication Reviews: $0 $970+
Marketing/PR: $100 $5,000+

Totaling that up, Sattar estimates a low-end total cost of $3,735, and a high-end total of $37,420 or more.

That probably made some of you catch your breath.

I would like to speak to some of the assumptions — so don’t hyperventilate just yet.

First of all, commercial publishers spend more than $4000 to bring even the least expensive title to market, and can spend millions at the high end. They’re your competition. Don’t sell yourself short by cutting corners — without a reason.

I will say too that I think all of Sattar’s numbers make sense in and of themselves (with a couple of exceptions). Even so, I’m not sure that, taken together, they necessarily represent a hard-and-fast range.

Let’s examine those points individually:

  • Developmental editing: This is the biggest portion of the production budget, and for good reason, since without a well-thought-through and well-built foundation, no book will ever have the impact the author is looking for. As Sattar puts it, “Not having an editor is like not QA’ing a software product or not testing a drug before it goes out onto the market.”
    Even so, Sattar’s estimates feel a bit high to me for two reasons: first, she added $5/hour to the EFA rates — generous but, in my experience, unrealistic; second, the low-end estimate seems to assume that all manuscripts need a full developmental edit. If the author has been working with a writing group or sharing the manuscript with other experts in the field, that may not be true. I have to say, too, that the high-end number sounds more in line with what I would expect to charge for co-writing (aka ghostwriting) a book rather than editing one.
  • Copyediting: This felt more accurate — though if a mid-length book needs 140 hours of work (that’s about two pages per hour), I wouldn’t consider that a copy edit; it would mean that I’d be doing a heck of a lot more than just cleaning up the language.
  • Cover design: Yup. You can potentially find a designer who will toss off a generic cover for even less than $150 with public-domain art — but you’ll get what you pay for. It may be true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t stop people from doing just that every day. (That said, spending top dollar on a cover for a book that’s still a mess inside probably isn’t going to help you sell many copies either.)
  • Print and ebook formatting: This was one of the entries that I had the biggest problem with.
    Yes, you can indeed convert your manuscript into ebook format using Calibre, Apple’s Pages, OpenOffice, Scrivener, or a service like Smashwords (which uses a stripped-down, older version of Calibre). That doesn’t mean it’s going to look good without some real work. With a book that’s straight prose — a novel, say — containing no images, tables, or any complicated text formatting beyond perhaps chapter heads, that will probably work fine — if you know how lay out a book with all of the parts in the proper order. (A guide like The Chicago Manual of Style can be a real help here.)
    If, on the other hand, you want to do anything more complex (like an illustrated book, for example, or poetry, or a scientific or business text that includes charts and tables) or you want to play around with typography (adding drop caps or specific fonts), you are absolutely going to need to spend time tweaking and refining the file. You’ll often need to create multiple versions of the ebook for different formats, since what works on a Kobo or the iOS app iBooks won’t necessarily display the same way on a Nook or on Adobe Digital Editions, and almost certainly won’t on a Kindle (though that’s getting better). You can use Sigil — it’s a wonderful open-source WYSIWYG ePub editor that I use every day — but the learning curve is not inconsiderable.
    Unless you know a fair amount about HTML, CSS, and the ePub 2 and 3 formats, you’re going to have to spend quite a while getting the ebook to look the way you want on every device. And then you’re going to have to port the file over to the .mobi/Kindle format, which will require even more tweaking. So don’t forget to budget in your own time. How much is all of that time worth to you? Make the decision of whether to convert yourself or to outsource based on that cost-benefit equation.
    Even more than that: unless you really, really know what you are doing do not plan on laying out a print book without professional assistance. There are so many things that can go wrong with creating a print edition — even with the advent of print-on-demand (POD) and easy revision — that planning on taking the low-end path here seems to me a penny-wise-pound-foolish decision. A good book designer — along with a good editor and a good cover designer — can be your best friend.
    If you truly don’t want to go to the expense and your book is fairly straight-forward, design-wise, I highly recommend investing in one of the low-cost layouts from Book Design Templates. These templates are pre-designed to allow you to convert your Microsoft Word document into a press-ready file. Will the book win design awards? Probably not — but it will look professional.
  • Proofreading: This is my other biggest problem with Sattar’s mostly excellent run-down — she left out this essential step in the editorial process. Proofreading happens once the ebook has been designed or the print edition laid out but before it goes to press. New errors can creep in — inadvertent line breaks or deletions, or incorrect headers, for example. The design can create visual problems for the text (rivers, widows, orphans, and other print-design headaches). This is also the last opportunity to clean up any lurking style problems such as misspellings, grammar errors, or improper punctuation.
    Proofreaders are special folks: they have eyes for fine detail, and they work fast, so they aren’t terribly expensive. (They’re not supposed to rewrite the text, but rather to make sure that what’s there is what’s supposed to be there.) According to the EFA rate sheet, a proofread of that 70,000-word book (no longer a manuscript!) would run approximately $650–$1100. Plan on spending that — you’ll be glad you did.
  • Distribution and Printing: Sattar is absolutely right here. There’s no need to spend money on paid distribution (one of my main beefs with publishing “services” like BookBaby), and for most self-published authors it makes no sense to start by incurring the expense of an offset print run.
    One exception would be if the book includes high-quality images, which POD won’t generally reproduce well. Another would be if you’ve gone the high-end route with everything else, banking on creating a best-seller. If your business plan for the book assumes that you’re going to sell thousands of copies, you might consider spending the up-front money to print and house them, since the per-copy printing cost will be so much lower. At the very least, it’s an incentive to make sure that you follow through on that plan!
  • Reviews: Sattar is almost certainly right here as well; it irks me, however, that an independent publisher-author should have to pay to be reviewed. Paid reviews create a huge ethical dilemma — and commercial publishers aren’t forced to jump the same hurdle with the large review services. Also, there is some question whether such reviews are really helpful. (Another, potentially less ethically fraught approach is to use a review distributor like NetGalley, a paid service that offers advance review copies of books to its army of unpaid blogger-subscribers).
  • Marketing/PR: Again, Sattar is absolutely right. As she says, “This is probably the toughest part after you’ve written the book.” You can do nothing, hoping the book finds readers on its own. You can spend thousands on professional marketing services. As commercial publishers have found over and over again, there’s no sure-fire way to maximize your marketing dollars (though doing nothing and hoping for the best is almost certainly a terrible idea).

Most authors are writing out of passion; it’s a labor of love. I’d argue that this is even more true for authors who want to self-publish.

Yet it is important to remember that publishing a book is also business. That means making the best business decisions that you can — about the words, about the package of the book itself, and about how to market it — in order to have your book find its audience and have the affect them that you are looking for. Making those decisions in a vacuum is never a good idea – it’s too easy to waste time when you should have spent money or throw away money when a little time and effort would have done far more good. Hopefully this has helped you to approach these decisions a bit better prepared.

Image: “New Year, New Spreadsheets” by SaraE @ flickr.com. Used under a Creative Commons license.
David Kudler and Stillpoint Digital Press are not affiliated in with any of the sites or services mentioned herein.

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