Monday, March 10, 2014

Indie Publishing: The Numbers To Get You Started

I don't think it's a secret that indie publishing in on the minds of many a writer these days, especially us midlisters who don't garner as much benefit from traditional publishing as lead titles or bestsellers. Since I originally announced that I would be publishing RELAX, I'M A NINJA myself, I've gotten many queries from writer friends and acquaintances who are curious about the process, time investment, and cost of getting that book out there.

Also, attending some conferences, I've heard fairly inaccurate information from traditional publishing about just how much cost (they usually over exaggerate this) and how much time (they usually under exaggerate this) it really takes. It actually drove me a little bit batty that I couldn't chime in and set the record straight. So I'm doing it here.

First, let's start with the misconceptions surrounding the TIME it takes.

1. You can publish a novel really fast if you go indie!
True and False. It really depends on how you plan to go about putting your work out there. While it is true that you can upload your novel direct to Kindle within a few days, this assumption disregards the preparation you have to put in.

At minimum, you have to at least FORMAT your novel for Kindle in order for it to appear properly on the device/app. If you do this yourself, it can be tedious and you will make mistakes the first time around. If you pay someone, you have to wait for them to do it. And that's just for Kindle. There are separate formats your book has to be in for iBooks, Nook, Kobi, etc. It is a whole process to upload all those and make sure they're right.

And if you are offering print copy options, it can take a lot longer to prep your novel. You of course have to at least do minimum layout work for the inside, choosing the print size of the novel (5.25x8, 5.25x8.25, 6x9, and more). There is also a full cover to design, instead of just a front cover if you go ebook only. You have to write cover copy. After you upload the novel, it takes up to 6 weeks for all the distributors to get it into their system.

That's the MINIMUM for those formats. Most indies go much further than that. The biggest factor of course being paying for a professional editor to put their book through the wringer. This can take many months, and that's after you get in your editor's queue. Because freelance editors are busy and they don't just drop everything to do your book. Indies also most often seek out a professional designer for their covers and interiors, and the design process can take a month or more. There is cover stock to find and purchase, along with fonts to find/buy and possible illustrations to commission if you are going that direction. Then there are layout proofs and all that jazz.

Especially if it's your first time going indie, this can all take even longer because there's a learning curve. And…this is only the half of it. The making-the-book part, never mind the writing part and the business part and the marketing part.

2. So how long does it really take?
I see veteran indies able to go through the editing, designing, formatting process in 2-3 months. Because they have the kinks worked out, have their templates set, and they know to schedule time with their editors and designers in advance. Yes, this is still much shorter than a traditional publisher (who puts out hundreds of books a season where an indie is putting out maybe 1 or 2 at best a season), but it's still a ton of work and time.

As a noob to this, it's taken me a lot longer. I'll have taken almost 9 months to put my first out, though I think I could have done it in 6 months if I didn't have other responsibilities with my traditional publishers.

NOTE: This doesn't even include the time it would take you to acquire a business license (which I recommend if you are considering publishing more than one novel yourself). Depending on your state, it can take up to a few months to work out all the approvals and get that shiny piece of paper. Mine personally took 3 months to iron out all the issues (after it's easy because you just renew each year).
To sum, here are times for each indie publishing thing if you "do it right," as they say:
Business License: 1-3 months
Editing: 1-3 months
Design: 1-2 months
Formatting: 1-4 weeks
Uploading To Distributors: 3-6 weeks 

Next up, here are the general COSTS surrounding indie. I'm using costs for what I've learned are about the minimum you can get away with and turn out a good product. This isn't the "cheapest," but like I said the emphasis is on a good to amazing product. Of course you can do everything yourself and pay less, but well, most serious indies don't do that.

3. How much can I expect to pay for my first indie novel?
It seems to average around $1500 for most people to turn out a respectable product. Adding up my costs, I'm about there. A little over because I chose to work through Lightning Source, which has fees for uploading your novel.

4. Where does that money go?
The biggest costs are editing and design, but there are also some costs people don't consider. Here is my basic breakdown.
Editing: $500+ (For a comprehensive editing process—big picture to line edits to copy edits. You can pay for less, for example just copy edits cost less, but it's in your best interest to get the full treatment.)
Cover Design: $150-300+ (Many designers charge less for an ebook only, because it's just the front cover. But a full paperback will cost more and then a full jacket for a hardcover costs the most.)
Cover Stock: $20-150+ (If you want an image on your cover that isn't yours, yes, you have to pay for it. Your designer will most likely not pay for it, or they will add the cost of the cover stock to your tab, so to speak. Also, if you commission art or a photo shoot it will likely cost more.)
Cover/Interior Fonts: $0-$100s+ (You can find some fonts for free commercial use, but there are many fonts that you have to pay for if you are using them commercially. They really vary on price and can be ridiculously expensive [like in the $1000s in some cases]. The font on RELAX, I'M A NINJA? I got lucky because it only cost $20.)
Interior Design: $50-100+ (This is for print book only, but you want the design to be nice and professional. If you do it yourself, you better learn what is standard for the industry on margins, gutters, leading, font size, indentation, etc.)
Ebook Formatting: $50+ (If you don't want to deal with learning every single ebook format, I highly recommend paying a pro to do it for you. They will be much faster and accurate.)
Business License: $30-100+ (It really depends on your state and city, but it's the government and of course there are fees.)
Business Name: $20+ (If your choose to register a business name, there is usually a fee attached to it.)
ISBNs: $125-250+ (Yes, you have to buy those! There are some ebook formats that don't require an ISBN, but if you want to be found in the system you really want one. The thing is, it's costs $125 for ONE ISBN, but $250 for TEN. And if you're doing print and ebook, you need a different ISBN for each format…so really you should just buy ten.)
Marketing: $0-$1000s+ (This is where it can get really crazy if you have the cash. And this isn't entirely necessary but I'm including it for kicks. There's the standard bookmarks and such. You can pay for ads on like GoodReads or I've heard some people pay for Blog Tours. You can pay to get reviewed by trades reviewers like Kirkus. You can shell out cash to get on NetGalley.)
Book Inventory: $100+ (If you want copies of your own novel to hand sell, you have to pay the distributor for them upfront. Plus shipping. It can get very pricey to keep a lot of your novels on hand [which is why the e-distributing is so awesome].)
5. How much do I have to sell to earn back my costs?
Ah, this is the magical question, right? I have The Maths for you! Well, the basic math. I'm not gonna do the in-depth because it's too early and also I just hate math.

So, we'll do ebook sales on Kindle only (you can usually price your paperback to give you about the same return). As indie, you get 70% royalty on Kindle (Usually 60-70% in other formats). I will present to you a few prices and the accompanying numbers to recoup your investment.

Ebook at $4.99: You will receive $3.49 in royalty per sale, thus you need to sell 430 books to make back $1500.

Ebook at $3.99: You will receive $2.79 in royalty per sale, thus you need to sell 538 books to make back $1500.

Ebook at $2.99: You will get $2.09 a sale, and need to sell 718 books to make back $1500.

NOTE: If you sell your novel below $2.99, you forfeit the 70% royalty rate for a much lower one.

And those are the basics! I will not get into what is or isn't more advantageous when it comes to indie vs. traditional—I only wanted to provide the information people now often ask me. No one can tell you which is the right way for you, and as a hybrid I really do believe there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. If you have any questions, I will happily answer them in comments or direct you to smarter people.


  1. whew. that just made my head spin. bless you for writing it :)

    I know it's not out yet (BOO) but the real question: is it worth it? :)

    1. Emily, yeah I don't think I can fully answer that question yet since we're still a few months out from publication. Because while I don't want it to, I'm pretty sure sales will contribute to my overall answer:)

      But when it comes to mentally and emotionally, I would say it has been worth it for me in that respect. It has been a great and hard learning experience, and I feel like I've grown a lot from it. Having a project I'm in complete control over has also been a shockingly big confidence booster. Honestly, it's been a lot more fun than I expected it to be, and I feel like I've refund my love for writing/publishing.

      But it hasn't been all daisies and sunshine either (it's publishing after all). The money IS a hard thing for me. I don't have a lot of it, so putting in that investment has been scary. It was a stretch on our budget. It's been a pain to deal with the business side and taxes and learning all that. There are little hiccups along the way (right now my cover didn't get approved because of a CYMK issue with over saturation…yay to figuring out something else!).

      So yeah, I think it's still a hard question to answer. But "worth it" is something I've been trying to get rid of in my mindset when it comes to books. So often it isn't "worth it," but that doesn't mean the work is meritless, either. Writing and publishing…it'll always be an act of love regardless of indie or traditional routes.

  2. Great information! Thank you for sharing it (one of the things I love about this blog is how honest you are about every aspect of writing . . .)

  3. Oh my goodness, depending where one resides dies the cost also fluctuate ie getting a business license?

    1. Keisha, since most everything is done online, I don't think the cost of the design/edits fluctuate really. It's more that some people charge more than others, and you get to decide you want to pay.

      As far as business licenses, yes, they vary from state to state and city to city. You need to find out what your particular city requires. Also, the types of licenses usually cost different amounts (sole proprietor vs LLC for example).

  4. Good round up! I agree that a lot of indie pros overestimate the costs (I've seen a couple people recently say $5000!). And your first book is almost always the most expensive.

    As I've published more books, I've found ways to cut my costs. My cover designer is cheap, fast and awesome, and doesn't charge me for individual images. has tons of free fonts for commercial use. I already knew CSS and HTML, and I had lots of time capital on hand, so I learned ebook formatting and print formatting. Major advantage: I never have to ask someone else to update my books and wait for them to get around to it.

    I only wanted to self-publish if I was going to do it for the long haul, so I bit the bullet and bought a BIG chunk of ISBNs. I would've burned through 10 in a year easily, so it'll save me money in the long run. I think this is what you're saying, but just to clarify, it's my understanding that all ebooks can have the same ISBN due to some court decisions. I just use ASINs on Amazon and the ISBN on the ePub.

    And fortunately aside from the yearly renewal fees, setting up your business isn't a cost that has to be calculated into every book. (Also, if you're not selling books directly--i.e. you're only selling books through Amazon, Kobo, etc.)

    Editing is still my single biggest line-item of course (aside from printing, and don't get me started there). Cutting costs in that department is another story, of course. If I had an unlimited budget, this is where I'd spend even more, though.

    So excited for you!

    1. Oh, I forgot to finish my thought: I *think* if you're only selling through Amazon, Kobo, etc., and not selling any ebooks or print books from your site or in person, you may not have to even set up a business, but you'll need to check on the laws in your jurisdiction.

  5. Great stuff, Natalie, thanks for sharing.

    Just one note, and maybe I'm alone here, but when I see the phrase 'cover stock' I think paper, not pictures. To me, cover stock is a type/weight of paper typically used for, well, covers. Like I said, I may be the only one who thinks that way. Thanks again!

  6. Hi Natalie!
    A fellow author and blogger, Leandra referred me to your blog, and I can't thank her enough! One glance at this post and I thought my heart would stop...
    I then spent the next three hours working on a few of the tasks you listed. Thankfully, most of what you recommended, I have already done. But there were a few other tidbits I needed to take care of. My debut novel is set to launch in three weeks. And I really didn't want to push the launch date back because of my lack of preparation.
    So thanks again, Natalie! I'm looking forward to reading your books!

    Anna Soliveres

  7. Congratulations, Natalie, on all of your books. I've been following your helpful blog for a really long time, and I love getting your perspective from both sides of publishing. One thing I'll add... Many of items you list in the process can be done simultaneously. For example, while I'm writing a third book in my series right now, I'm already thinking about cover design and speaking with a designer (It helps that I already have a theme for my series, so I'm not needing a complete manuscript to know what my 3rd cover should look like). Also, I've already scheduled my comprehensive edits. While my editor has my book, I'll be setting up and brainstorming the launch and other marketing stuff. I format my own books, which is very, very helpful. If there's a mistake in the formatting, I don't have to wait on a formatter to fix the mistake (or pay the formatter again). I've heard some horror stories on this, so I always advise writers to get recommendations on formatters.

    I wish you all the best as you prepare to launch your first indie! As far as the question above about it being "worth it?" I think you're going to find it exhilarating and unbelievably rewarding. And I'm not just talking in terms of sales. I can't wait to see some of your post-indie-pulishing thoughts.

  8. Very useful info, Natalie. I've got my first self-published book due out this year, and I'm taking on a lot of it myself, or by calling in favours. I've hired a professional editor, and that's looking like my largest single expense so far. I enjoy playing around with fonts and layouts, so I'm going to try my hand at the interior design, and I've got some artist contacts I can plug for the cover.

    I'm also planning to release an e-serial next year, so it's interesting to see how lower prices affect royalties.

  9. Congrats on your first indie novel! I love testing out books that authors term quirky. I'll agree with Heather that the work flow gets faster and simpler after the first novel, after you know your team and know what works for you.

    I'm not sure why you mention that it takes 3-6 weeks to distribute. On most of the sites if you upload directly it takes 24 hours.

    And, really, Indie publishing is like a small business. If an author is "lucky" than a first book takes off. But self publishing is about building backlist and using one book to market the rest in the series. They say small businesses take 3-5 years to start earning profit.

    Best of luck!!

    1. Laura I said 3-6 weeks because some sites do have time attached to them. Like with Lightning Source, which I'm using for print, it takes more time for the distribution to get set up. And if a writer chooses to go through like Smashwords I hear it can take time for all the formats to show up on the various sites.

  10. This is really interesting. I appreciate the practical round up. It helps make that choice easier.