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These days, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and e-books have transformed the book-buying experience. Similarly, they have changed the book-writing and -publishing experiences, too. While it’s now easier than ever for a writer to become a self-published author, some people think that authors who go this route do so because they don’t have the star power or writing quality needed for the traditional publishing route—and that they won’t recoup the steady profits that a traditional book contract would yield. None of this is entirely true—at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Still, it’s important to note that writers who do self-publish have to take on a lot of the work that a traditional publisher would do. Proofreading, copyediting, formatting, and cover art are all now the responsibility of the author—who might not be particularly good at any of these key elements of traditional publishing. And marketing still needs to be done to get the word out to would-be book buyers.
So, all that said, is self-publishing really worth the hassle—and the money? Are there any profits to be found, after all? Below, four insiders in the self-publishing world explain how the professional and financial costs of this method stack up against traditional publishing.
Ellen Violette of BooksOpenDoors.com offers online classes and coaching to help writers self-publish their books. Some of her past clients were total newbies, while others had tried the traditional publishing route before and considered this the next best move. As a book strategist, Violette often gets asked if self-publishing can truly be lucrative. She says that first depends on an author’s goals and strategies. And second, it depends on how much an author has to invest in the entire process.
“To go with a traditional publisher, an author will need a book proposal, so publishers can see that this person can sell books,” Violette explains. “If the author doesn’t know how to create a book proposal, they may hire a book-proposal writer to do it for them. This can run a few thousand dollars. And only about 5 percent of authors ever get a book deal.”
Even if a book never gets picked up by a publisher, Violette says the exercise of writing a book proposal will give the author valuable information to determine if they should push for a traditional publisher or go it alone with self-publishing. She warns that self-published writers must have the funds to pay to have their book edited and formatted, and to have a professional cover made. Each of these services can range between a few dollars to upward of $10,000 each, depending on how long the book is and the original writing quality.
Services such as fiverr.com can make it affordable to find high-quality help, but each author has to stick to a budget that makes the most sense for their likely returns. Violette adds that there are free book cover templates and free sites for formatting, which can also keep costs low. Overall, though, she reminds that while some authors make well into the six figures, others make nothing at all from self-publishing. Where self-publishing always wins, however, is in author control over their book and their careers.
“A traditional publisher will decide on the final cover and title, as well as what stays in the book and what goes,” Violette explains. “Second, you give up the publishing rights, so the publisher is the one who has access to your listings, and you need their permission to make marketing decisions about your book.”
But, just as each book is different, so too are the price points for bringing a book to market. She says that authors with negotiating power for control might be better off with traditional publishing, but those whose deals seem undermining might find self-publishing to be a good alternative.
Michelle Person is the founder of J, which focuses on creating children’s books that address the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Person has over 20 years of experience in education, from Teach for America to KIPP. Since 2017, she has self-published six books available on Amazon and other retailers. When asked if self publishing was worth it, she gave a resounding yes.
“Traditional publishing sounds great,” Person admits. “You get a big advance. Someone else is doing your promotions, and all you do is sit back and watch the money roll in. But what they don’t tell you is that the advance is a loan that you are expected to pay back; they are billing you for those promotions, and you literally have zero control over your content once you sign it over to them. With self-publishing, yes, there is more money and time on the front end, but I retain 100 percent of my profits, which means I don’t have to sell as many units to make money. And I have 100 percent control over my brand and my content.”
On average, Person spends between $1,000-$1,500 to have a 32-page children’s book illustrated and formatted. With organic marketing (no paid ads), she says she can recoup upfront expenses within about 90 days. With everything beyond that being profit, she says she is making a return on investment.
“I have a solid evergreen product that I can repackage and market for years,” Person confirms. With this income stream churning in the background, she can focus the bulk of her time on workshops and curriculum writing to help improve student achievement among children of color. Given her aims, Person says that self-publishing is well worth the toil.
Julie McCarron is a Los Angeles-based celebrity ghostwriter who has taken up the pen to be the voice of authors via both the traditional and self-published routes. Indeed, many of the books out on the market that claim to be written by celebs are really co-written, side-by-side with a professional author like McCarron (who explains that she is sometimes credited on the cover as “written with,” but is more often a true, unnamed “ghost”). McCarron says that self-published books might eventually earn money, but that doesn’t always give authors the credibility they want, especially from their peers who have secured a traditional book deal.
“When an agent with a celebrity client and a guaranteed Big Five publisher is interviewing writers, I always throw my hat in the ring,” McCarron says. “Many famous people get huge book advances starting in the six figures; I try to negotiate a percentage of that advance. Or, I charge a flat fee with no participation in royalties. The game has changed, so I now work on many self-published books. The upside is there are no managers, no editors, no rushed deadlines, and authors get to say exactly what they want, how they want. But it isn’t the same as working in the publishing business.” How so? Many self-published authors who have a great book still find their cost-to-revenue ratio upside down, she explains.
“Let me sum it up for you: You will pay anywhere from nothing to $20K to self-publish and sell under 100 copies 99 percent of the time,” McCarron says flatly. She questions the real value of having a book on the shelves, if it doesn’t come with the profitability or cachet that published authors often covet.
Luke Palder is the CEO of ProofreadingServices.com, and some of his biggest clients are authors seeking to self-publish their academic and trade books. When asked how a writer can price their self-published project to make sure that they make their money back, Palder says the reality is that most writers will not directly make back their investment in the self-publishing process through book sales—those who, he explains, generally fall into one of three buckets:
“The first frame their return on investment as the joy of having self-published,” Palder says. “That means that they are thrilled to have accomplished a life goal, and any money they make in the process is icing on the cake. The second are expert marketers. Above all, that means they have built up a mailing list. And the third group uses their book to sell something else that’s a much bigger-ticket item. This strategy is common with self-help authors and CEOs of companies.”
Palder says that upfront costs for editing and proofreading usually tally around $1,000 for budget-conscious writers, but it is an expense that most self-published authors are willing to pay if they’ve been toiling over a book for years. But Palder reminds aspiring authors that in order to sell books, publishing companies do an awful lot of marketing. They go out of their way to find readers and to convince perfect strangers to pick up your title, versus another one with a similar topic. To stay competitive, self-published writers need to invest in marketing too. This might mean paying for a social media manager to grow your personal following and email list, or hiring a copywriter to make captions even catchier—or to write enticing book descriptions for your Amazon sales page.
Palder says that the old adage “If you build it, they will come” is not a phrase that applies to self-publishing. Deliberate and active marketing are the best ways to earn profit from self-publishing.