Breaking Down Self-Publishing

Since my June newsletter I’ve gotten a handful of requests from writers looking for a quick rundown on self-publishing costs. Whether self-publishing is worth it for you depends on a lot of factors. If you have a niche book and known audience, it can be a worthwhile endeavor. You can sell books directly from your website, or you can partner with companies like Lulu, Amazon, and other printers/distributors to sell your book.

This is going to be a long post, but if you’re considering self-publishing, there’s lots of valuable information in here. I’m comparing four possible routes you can take with self-publishing:
1. Lulu
2. CreateSpace
3. Lightning Source (LSI)
4. Traditional printing company (two examples below)

Our hypothetical book, for the purposes of this study, is a standard paperback. A trade paperback is generally 5.5 x 8.25 or 6 x 9, and approximately 250-300 pages (generally 80,000 words). Our list price is $16.00. Any variations on the traditional trade paperback model can cause your costs to fluctuate quite a bit.


The Basics
•It’s free to use.
•$99 if you buy their distribution package (there is a free alternative—which requires that you provide your own ISBN)

Charges and Fees
20% of the profit from a purchased item. The purchase price of all products includes a base cost for raw materials and printing service, which they calculate out for you and presumably they hold against royalties. Royalties on Lulu vary depending on your list price. The higher you price your book, the higher the royalty, but be careful not to price yourself out of the market! Royalties for our standard book are going to be approximately $2-$3 per book.

•Most value for the money, even with less royalties
•They offer assistance and have an active and helpful forum
•Good options on trim size and packages

•Their distribution relationship with Amazon is not very clear and seems to need to be better articulated on their site. If customers are buying from Lulu it’s a great set-up. If your consumers are Amazon worshippers, you might be better off with CreateSpace.

What you pay for:
•$99 for the distribution package (optional)
•proof copy + mailing = $30
•approximately $6/per standard trade book


The Basics
•It’s free—no set up, no charge for one of their ISBNs
•They offer a Pro Plan for $39 per book, which seems to offer a pretty good savings if you’re buying more than a handful of books.

Charges and Fees
•Without pro plan
Fixed Charge: $1.50 per book
Charge per Page: $0.02
$6.50 per book

•With Pro Plan
Fixed Charge: $0.85 per book
Charge per page: $0.012
$3.85 per book

Other costs:
•Proof copy of your book + shipping = $30
•Shipping costs for however many books you order

What they take:
If sold in the CreateSpace eStore: 20%
If sold on 40%

If sold in the CreateSpace eStore:
Their share: $7.70
Your share: $8.30

If sold on
Their share: $10.90
Your share: $5.10

•Their relationship with Amazon means that they take less royalties than Lulu to sell through Amazon. This can be reason enough to go with them, though the consensus is that Lulu is the most user-friendly service available to date.

•Less variation than Lulu where trim size is concerned
•No assistance—you have to know what you’re doing


Charges and fees
•$75-$150 title set-up fee (average out at $100)
•$1.30/unit + $.018 per page, so for our 250-page book = $4.50
•Total cost per book = $5.30
•Distribution fee: $12/year per title
•ISBNs from Bowker at $245.00 for a block of ten
•One-time fees: $112
•Another good option for ISBN/barcodes is Bar Code Graphics,which allows you to buy single ISBNs.

•They’re great if you’re ready to be a business rather than an author. They provide distribution relationships with third-party distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc., and so it’s easier to get into bookstores with LSI than with Lulu or CreateSpace.
•Good variety/options for trim sizes.
•Best consideration if you’re printing color interior.
•Respected in the industry since they’ve been around for a while and have long-standing relationships with traditional publishers. They’re owned by Ingram,which also owns a major distribution company.

•It’s more complicated, no question. They don’t offer assistance and you have to figure out the distribution situation, which aren’t such big considerations on Lulu or CreateSpace, in part because the major distribution on those sites is online venues.


I talked to two different authors whose experiences I’m going to share in this section. If you go this route, the biggest thing you’ll need are the printer’s specifications for printing, and with this option you will gain by ordering larger quantities of books. Printers won’t set you up with distribution relationships like the other options will, so this is a better choice for people who are planning on selling their books through their website, or who are interested primarily in corporate deals.

Author 1 is Annette Fix, author of The Break-Up Diet
Annette chose to establish her own imprint, which entailed getting a resale license and business license and working out a distribution arrangement to get her books into bookstores.

Annette’s costs:
•Block of ISBNs: $245
•Editing and design: $6,000 (with some admitted missteps)
•Printing costs: 2,100 copies printed by McNaughton & Gunn for approximately $2.14 per unit on a 285-page trade paperback that retails for $16.95.
•Shipping costs for stock sent to her (600 units) and to the distributor (1500 units).

Annette’s word of caution: “If I had known then what I know now about paying monthly storage fees to my distributor, and shipping costs and the invoicing/accounting/paperwork nightmares of maintaining my wholesale account with Baker & Taylor, I would’ve set up my book POD through Lightning Source.”

Author 2 is Rosie Sorenson, author of They Had Me at Meow Rosie wrote that she decided to go with a traditional printer because: “I wanted a special size (7.5 X 5.5) and I also wanted it in all color (cover, photos, and some colored text on each page.) I also wanted the photos placed near the text where each particular cat is mentioned – it takes a seasoned designer to do that. I looked at POD options and I couldn’t find anyone who could produce a book to my specifications.” She printed with Vaughan Printing in Nashville and had a great experience with them.

Rosie’s costs
•Because of the fact that her book is four-color throughout with lots of spot photographs and design elements, she paid a lot more than Annette per book. She paid approximately $8 per book and ordered an initially quantity of 1,000 books.
•Editorial: approximately $200-$300
•Design: $865.00
•1 ISBN/barcode with Bar Code Graphics
Rosie’s word of advice: “One thing which should probably be highlighted is that self-publishing is a whole lot more work than anyone could ever imagine—getting all the details right, developing a marketing plan, implementing the plan, etc. It’s definitely not for shy, introverted writers! The writer has to want success more than anythingand be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

*Note here that next month’s newsletter will cover the marketing side of self-publishing and will include Annette’s efforts to promote herself by sending out ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) and getting her book modeled at B&N, and Rosie’s tremendous success at getting her book reviewed and partnering with corporations who support her cause—cat rescue.


When you self-publish, you are not just sending your Word files to the printer. Besides having your work copyedited and proofread, you also want to have your book professionally designed. If you have any images in the interior that you do not own, make sure you secure permission to reprint those images. If you’re excerpting anything over 50-100 words from another source, make sure you get permission to excerpt. Other costs are nontraditional bindings, buying your own ISBN, getting barcodes made, and fulfillment if you choose to do your own fulfillment rather than partner with a distributor.


Editors and proofreaders can range in cost from as low as $20/hour to as high as $80/hour—and I’m sure there are those who charge more than that. you can estimate how many hours a copyediting and proofreading job should take with the following formulas:

Word count divided by 310 divided by 5 for heavy copyedit
Word count divided by 310 divided by 6 for medium copyedit
Word count divided by 310 divided by 7 for light copyedit

So a heavy copyedit for a 80,000 word manuscript would run:
80,000 ÷ 310 = 258.06 ÷ 5 = 51 hours

Word count divided by 310 divided by 8 for heavy proofread
Word count divided by 310 divided by 9 for medium proofread
Word count divided by 310 divided by 10 for light proofread

So a light proofread for a 80,000-word manuscript (running approximately 250 pages or longer) would run:
80,000 ÷ 310 = 258.06 ÷ 10 = 26 hours


There are lots of freelance designers out in the world, and you can find them through MediaBistro or by looking at the back cover of books you love. Designers’ names and even their websites are often on the books they’ve designed.

The Book Designers are a one-stop shop for everything from creative consultation to design samples to cover and interior design to helping you find a printer if one of the above mentioned options isn’t right for you. They do standard text-driven books and four-color design-heavy books, too. I got on the phone with them to ask about their pricing, and the basic range for our straightforward 250-page book is going to run in the $3,000 range. Sounds like it could be more or less depending on how many passes are needed on cover and/or interior—and design-heavy and color books are going to naturally be more expensive. They’re very responsive and samples of books they’ve worked on can be found on their site. Check them out.

You might be wondering why Rosie, author of They Had Me at Meow, only paid $865 for her design. It’s possible to find designers who charge less, and her book is very short. Although it has spot illustrations, she has a fairly simple design and she knew exactly what she wanted. The more you’re clear on your design expectations and the better you can convey this to your designer, the less money you’ll spend. Most design costs get ratcheted up when you need to see multiple variations of the interior and/or cover design. Knowing what you want in advance and prepping your designer with a cover memo and an interior design memo is a very good idea!

So what are your total costs going to be and can you really make a profit?

Lots of people say don’t go into self-publishing if you want to make a profit, while others would never touch a traditional publishing deal because they’ve had great success in marketing their work to their audience.

So, yes, it’s subjective and dependent on who you are and what you’re writing.

If you like to market yourself and feel comfortable in that role, self-publishing can be a good thing. If you don’t, you might want to reconsider.

If you know you have a built-in audience and you know where to find them, self-publishing could be a great option. If you have no idea who your readership is, or think your readership is “everyone,” don’t self-publish.

If you know upfront that you are going to be super invested in having your book look exactly the way you want it (ie, have specifics about the trim size, must have color photos), then self-publishing might be a great option. Publishers will often opt for the cheaper option and certain things you desire that are cost-prohibitive, meaning that you need to be prepared to compromise if you go with a traditional publisher.

Until next month.


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