Key Book Production Costs for Self-Published Authors

Jordan Dane

After James Scott Bell’s excellent post “We Are All Long Tail Marketers Now”, several side discussions took place in the comments regarding my self-published novel – BLOOD SCORE now available through the Amazon Kindle Select Program (my first time using this program). I’ll have the book discounted until August 1. (I love how the TKZ community gets involved with each post. Thank you.) Questions came up about my editing and production experiences with this novel since it is outside my traditionally published works.

As I mentioned in my comments on Jim’s post, the business end has always been a drain for me. Self-pubbing involves more than promo. It’s production of the actual book and the promo is ongoing (as it is for me with traditional publishers too), but with indie I’m in control of my production schedule, retail pricing and subrights decisions, and can capitalize on promo ops when I want to. Being a hybrid author, straddling traditional and indie publishing, gives me more options and many “irons in the fire.” I have many more points mentioned in another post I did on the subject. On my group YA blog ADR3NALIN3, I did a post on the “Ten Reasons Why I Am Self-Publishing.” 

I wanted to dip my toe into the waters of indie with a non-fiction book as well as a short story anthology so I would know what was involved in production and to build up my contacts for service providers. My upcoming full-length novel project will be more about learning promotion. I’ve got loads of personal bookmarks for service providers, but the marketing side of the business needed work on my part. I’ve created a Self-Pub Resource tab on my YA blog-Fringe Dweller. I hope to update it as I go along. For now it encompasses review sites for digital books. That resource tab will be a work in progress as I go.

Basically, here are the indie production costs as I see them:

1.) Edits: $500-$1800+ – This is a tough one to estimate, but important. I’ve seen this cost higher, depending on if you need a book doctor or not. It depends on how much work needs to be done and who you use as editor. A good editor is worth their weight in sales, so shop wisely. Beta readers will only get you so far. Having said that, I’ve had some good and terrible copy editors on my traditionally published books. Being traditionally pubbed does NOT guarantee you will get a good one. At least with indie books, you can make the decision on who to use on current and future projects. 

For this project I used authors/editors Alicia Dean and Kathy Wheeler. They helped with formatting and editing and made that effort painless and fun.

2.) Cover $150-400 – This range depends if you are doing a version for print or just digital. The print design costs more because it involves the design of a spine and back cover. You can do a cheaper cover by merely paying for one digital image from iStock or some other provider and add font and do it yourself graphically (not recommended), but a cover needs to look good on a thumbnail and a bad design can kill sales. On BLOOD SCORE, I used Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth, the designer. I’ve used her for blog header designs and bookmarks and now covers. She’s a German designer who works for publishers too. Her costs are reasonable on all fronts and she’s easy to work with and fast, but there are many cover designers out there now. Look through portfolios to find one you like.

3.) Formatting $100-150 – You can do this yourself, but I’ve never tried it. There are software programs, but haven’t tried that either

4.) Promotion $50-Whatever – This is totally up to you. There are many free sites that promo ebooks now (that are focused on ereaders), but there are also bundlers who will charge you $50 or so to post promo to 45 sites, etc. I’m hoping to try this with BLOOD SCORE.

5.) ISBN #s – this is an investment for future books. I bought 10 numbers, which keeps the cost down. I think the individual book price is higher to retain your own ISBN#, or you can use the one that Amazon or others assign you for free, but I prefer to have control of my own ISBNs. So this ISBN cost can cost you nothing, unless you decide you want control like I did. So spread $250 across ten books if you retain your own ISBNs.

So all in, you might pay $800 – $2400 (excluding ISBN costs), but you can manage your price to earn 35% – 70% royalty with a better monthly cash flow where you can control the price and promo ops. Using a price of $0.99 you’d earn 35%, but $2.99 or better and your royalty would be 70%. For a novel length book, I might discount it to $.99 for a certain period on release, but then move it up to $4.99. Hard to say what breakeven would be without real sales figures behind it, but you can play with the math. 

$4.99 at 70% royalty, you’d have to sell 229 – 687 books to clear the cost range I mentioned. Mind you, this does NOT take into account any promo ad costs and assumes only one price at the higher royalty rate. If you were to move that price point to $2.99 at 70% royalty, your sales would have to be 382 – 1148 to breakeven.

A writer friend of mine shot me some real numbers. (I’m also on an indie writers loop where I hear lots of good info.) It takes having a number of good books to build up your “virtual shelf” of offerings and build your readership. Again, I repeat. Good books. But my crime fiction author acquaintance is seeing $7,000 – $10,000 per month for 8 novels or so, and this will grow as new material gets added. This author crafts a solid book and writes full time. 

For me, I like having traditional contracts to fill, but I want the more immediate cash flow too, rather than waiting for royalty statements every 9 months (by the time they reach you). (Antiquated accounting methods and reporting systems for traditional publishers, in a digital age when sales are more immediate through Amazon and other online retailers, are more things that I hope will change.)

The last thing I’d like to talk about is the value of “a la carte” subrights (ie foreign rights, audio, print vs digital). In many deals, these rights are lumped in and assumed to be part of the deal, but should this continue as advances drop? Or if advances drop, shouldn’t the royalty percentage increase to offset the lower upfront money? Subrights have value to the indie author. (Here’s a LINK to a post I did on self-publishing in audio, for example.) If an author gets an offer, but the advance is marginal or too low to tie up copyrights for years (something I am presently experiencing on my back list), do you have options? 

You can certainly turn the deal down. That’s one option. I did this with BLOOD SCORE when I got an offer to buy it from a big house. After my experiences, the offer wasn’t good enough to deal with the aftermath of a rights tie up into infinity. 

Even if an advance is $10,000-15,000/book, that might not be enough if the terms of the contract are onerous over the long haul. Successful thriller Barry Eisler turned down a deal from a traditional house for $500,000+. That boggled my brain, but no one knows the terms of that deal that made Barry change his mind. He’s a real marketing guru and has a solid readership. Deals are subjective.

These days this is a personal decision each author has to make, but if publishers would negotiate on terms, a marginal advance deal might work if the number of years for digital rights can be limited before they would automatically revert back to the author (ie 2-3 yrs only) or if UK rights were granted but digital rights in the US are retained. Some successful indie authors have retained digital rights, but sold print rights (ie John Locke to Simon and Schuster). With “out of the box” thinking and a little negotiating, some of these marginal deals can be done if the parties agree on specific terms, but I’m not sure traditional houses are open to such change yet.

Food for thought and discussion at TKZ:

1.) If an advance is too low to tie up copy rights, what terms do you think can be negotiated to make the deal happen? Do you think the publishing industry is changing in this regard?

2.) If you’re an aspiring author, would you sign a contract at ANY advance to be published, or do certain contractual terms matter to you?

17 thoughts on “Key Book Production Costs for Self-Published Authors

  1. Great article, Jordan

    I’ve self pubbed two novels – I never even bothered sending out queries, as what’s most important to me is getting my work out within a reasonable time frame and having creative control over the content, covers, blurb, etc.

    Like you, I hired top-notch editors and designers, and spent somewhere in the range you advise above.

    In terms of future contracts:

    (1) I wouldn’t sign anything that tied up my copyright in the title for more than a few years. I would negotiate on print vs ebook though, eg a hybrid “Hugh Howey” sort of deal where the publisher kept print rights and I kept digital.

    (2) I am new to the publishing game, and therefore have never had the “I must get published” fear that existed before the Kindle came along. A publishing contract, for me, means just that – a contract. Nothing more. I don’t feel I need the kudos or validation, it all comes down to profits at the end of the day. If I thought I could make more from a publishing deal, I would take it.

    For me, key terms would be copyright length, when/if the rights would revert, transparency of payments, etc. It would have to be either (a) a pretty big advance, or (b) a contract that specified some hefty marketing budget to make signing up worthwhile.


    • Great input, Nick. The industry is heading toward an evaluation of worth and contract terms and subrights values should be reexamined in an a la carte manner, and not just thrown in because that’s the way it’s always been done. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

    • Nick: Interesting how writers from all around the world can hang out together in places like TKZ. I just read your comments about using a cover designer. The Panic and Departed covers are winners that caught my eye.

  2. Hi Jordan. Good post. My comment is sort of tangential to your post but important, I think, for anyone considering self-pubbing eBooks.

    If you have an agent or are considering one, be VERY CAREFUL if you sign an agency contract. Here’s why:

    Some literary agencies include in their author-agent agreements or in the book publishing contracts they negotiate an “interminable agency” clause. Such a clause grants the agent the exclusive, irrevocable right to represent the works subject to the agreement for the ENTIRE TERM of those works’ copyright. Some agents use the phrase “agency coupled with an interest” in their contracts.

    This means that even if your publishing contract says you own the e-rights, your agent can still collect royalties if YOU publish it and even if you sever your relationship with said agent. Even if you or your NEW agent negotiates say, a movie deal, the first agent still has rights to income.

    This is not a practice of “bad” agents — it was pioneered by William Morris and many top agents use it — but it is increasingly being considered archaic and unfair. It also creates hell for heirs.

    The Authors Guild and several writers’ groups, including the Romance Writers of America, have been fighting against this clause but most authors don’t even know it exists — even in their own contracts.

    Caveat scribus!

    • Great advice, Kris. Agents are scrambling to redefine their services. That’s not a bad thing. All of us must adapt, but an agent has to add value to a self-publishing author if they want a fee. That means the agent needs to sell subrights and be creative in terms of negotiating contracts to add value worth the fee.

  3. The business end does seem daunting and a huge energy drain. Thanks JD for your current and past input with this subject. Good solid choices are based on knowledge and recon. Not fantasy and dreams. In writing, we work so hard and invest so much of ourselves simply to give it away (throw it away) to “backbiters and syndicators” and be forever sorry for doing so.

    There are so many “houses” out there attempting to appeal to a new writer’s vanity and insecurity–blowing smoke and promising nothing–for signing up (and sending them “front” money).

    Your words of wisdom (been there/done that) are gems to be treasured.

    My opinion is that self-pubbing through Amazon (or whatever) is worth a shot for new writers. And as you continually point out, worth a shot for seasoned pros, too.

    • Thanks, Jim. The experience of learning the nuts & bolts of publishing gives an author options and an appreciation for what a publisher can and can’t do for you. Knowledge is power.

  4. Great cover design! It’s good to know that you think hiring a good editor is essential even in a self-published work.

    • Even writing for a large publisher, I had a couple of really bad copy editors who drove me crazy. I even held my book hostage to insure I wouldn’t get this one guy back and thought I might have to hire Guido to dump him in the East River. My house acknowledged he could be a challenge before they contracted with a better copy editor outside their house. She was a dream to work with and knew how to edit without destroying an author’s voice.

      Hiring a good freelance editor (and there are really good ones out there) can make a significant difference in your work. It’s reassuring to have a professional eye on your book to enhance it. It’s a collaboration that, when it works, the book is always made better because of it.

      Thanks, FL. And thanks for noticing the cover. I absolutely loved it and Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs does work with many publishers and is priced reasonably. Love her!

  5. Interesting posts here, and they provide me with an interesting calibration on my own writing business.
    Here’s a financial summary: $50-$100 for ebook formatting, $100 for the cover, and $50-$100 for gifting to reviewers (generally my only promotional tool that’s not free). I run on a shoestring budget.
    My main savings is in editing. I’ll probably hear numerous complaints about that “shortcut,” but look at my books before you start throwing stones. Content editing is part of my writing (or what’s a word processor for?). I’ve developed useful algorithms for copy editing that take me far beyond spell- and grammar-checkers. (I’m also a reviewer and realize some people don’t even do that.) I criticize myself much more than any editor would, I’m sure. Between my formatter, cover artist, and me, we have an efficient book business that produces a good product–maybe not the best, but the best I can afford.
    BTW, I once thought about offering my copy and content editing skills (book doctor?), but decided that it would take too much time away from my own writing. I also review books and write blog posts–there are only so many hours in a day!

  6. Great post, Jordan.

    In answer to your questions:
    1. The only thing that will move the Big 5 to negotiate terms is if your indie novel is already selling at the stratospheric level. Other than that, what’s their incentive to do anything? As long as writers think that by being traditionally published, they’ve “arrived”, the Big 5 will do everything they can to subjugate them.

    2.I wouldn’t sign a traditional contract on a bet. I used to seek them, thinking I would “gain admission” to a select group of “real” writers, but now I see the trad contracts are one-way tickets into slavery.

    You said, “Antiquated accounting methods and reporting systems for traditional publishers, in a digital age when sales are more immediate through Amazon and other online retailers, are more things that I hope will change.”

    Don’t hold your breath. Why should they change their antiquated accounting methods? To make it easier for the writer to understand? Why would they want to do that? The royalty methods and statements are indecipherable precisely so writers won’t understand how they’re getting screwed.

  7. Hey Mike. I heard a sales number that gets a large publisher’s attention for an indie book is 50,000+. But I look at indie publishing as another way to get noticed, while you’re learning to ropes and earning money. An author can better evaluate what a house could bring to the table too.

    I don’t see a trad publishing contract as slavery. The option clause isn’t onerous for most people, as far as producing a proposal for the next book. An author just needs to do their due diligence and value their rights in a way they don’t giveaway their rights.

    Thanks, Mike.

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