The Real Costs of Self-Publishing


Linda head shotby Linda Formichelli

Self-publishing consists of whipping out a manuscript and sticking it up on Amazon, right? After all, self-publishing is all about doing it yourself! Who needs to hire cover designers, editors, proofreaders, and marketers?

Sure, you could churn out a quick draft, toss it onto Amazon, and cross your fingers. But smart readers can detect a lazy book from a mile off.

For example, I recently bought a 99-cent e-book that was at the top of its category on Amazon and that the author claimed was a bestseller. However, throughout the book the author bragged incessantly about how quickly he had written it, and would say things like, “I’m sure there are more examples but that’s all I feel like writing” and “I know that joke was lame but it’s all I could come up with!” After reading this book I felt so angry, and so disrespected as a reader, that I did something I had never done before, which was to RETURN A 99-CENT E-BOOK.

So if you want to be like this guy and write a 50-page e-book in a few hours and stick it on Amazon, and you have a big enough audience of raving fans to support that, sure…why not? But if you want your self-published book to appeal to discerning readers who are used to professionally done, traditionally published books full of good, fact-checked information— and you want that book to command a decent price—there’s a LOT more to the process.

That’s why I’m detailing here the work—and the exact amount of money—that’s gone into my new book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life—While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie.

So, let’s start at…the beginning!

The Big Idea

On New Year’s Eve 2015, I journaled about the year and decided to make a list of everything I had done, seen, and accomplished in the previous twelve months. When I took a look at the list I couldn’t believe how much I had done, from traveling to five foreign countries with my family, to running two businesses, to hosting three exchange students.

It didn’t feel really special to me at the time, because I just like to have a lot going on. But people are always asking me how I’m so productive and how I get so much done, and once I saw the whole list written out, I had the brainstorm to write a book detailing the process.

I especially wanted to address the cultural narrative that women are trying to do it all and burning themselves out in the process, and that they need to just relax and stop trying to be superwoman. I thought, “I like doing all these things! And yes, at times I’m stressed out, but is that really such a bad thing? Is it better to lead a full, meaningful, creative life where you grow every year and you experience some stress, or to lead a stress-free life but don’t do much of anything else? When you’re on your deathbed, which would you rather look back on? Which would make you feel prouder and more satisfied?” That was the basis of this book.

With my previous self-published books I probably did a lot more than many other self-published authors, such as having beta readers and hiring proofreaders, but I still cut corners in order to save money. For example, I normally choose a ready-made cover from a book-cover design site, or had one designed using a stock image I bought online. I also did all the marketing myself.

Our books sell fine, but judging from the quality of the information and the 4.5-star average reviews we get on almost every book we’ve written, I’ve always felt that we should be reaching MANY more readers…which means I’m probably not as good a marketer as I thought! I’m a writer. That’s what I’m best at.

For How to Do It All, I decided to go all-out and see if I could turn it into a bestseller in order to help the most people. A couple of years ago I wrote a book called Commit: How to Blast Through Problems & Reach Your Goals Through Massive Action—and I decided to follow my own advice and really commit myself and all my resources, to just this one project.

I was super-excited about the idea, and other people I told about it were excited too. I talked with a lot of women about what they wished they were doing more of in their life and what they felt they were missing, and I wanted to create an incredible book about it, and have it reach every single person who could use it.

The Launch Team

It just so happens I had recently been approached by a company that launches books for self-published authors, among other services. After some phone discussions, I hired the company at a cost of $7,500, which would be spread over the course of the launch.

The first thing we did was discuss options for the title of the book. I started out with simply How to Do It All, but that seemed so simple that I wasn’t sold on it, and I don’t think my launch team was either. So I spent some time coming up with a list of options.

I also researched best-selling self-help books and books that had been in Oprah’s Book Club, and came to the realization that simple titles are very powerful. How to Do It All reflected exactly what the book was about, so that’s what I went with.

As for the subtitle, I’m partial to longer, humorous, more descriptive subtitles. I wanted to get across the idea that doing it all is not a stress-free venture, but it is a lot of fun and worth doing nonetheless. For some reason I suddenly envisioned a Sharpie checking things off of my to-do list, and that’s where the Sharpie came from in the subtitle The Revolutionary 12-Month Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life—While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes out with a Sharpie.

My launch team manager suggested I start building a team of people who were excited about the book and who would help us spread the word. At the same time, I wanted to gather a group of beta readers to take a look at the manuscript when it was done. So I started out by reaching out to my list of about 8,000 subscribers to let them know that anyone who was interested in being a beta reader should join my special early-notification list for the book.

Of course, that meant I had to build a sales page for the book with a form where people could join that list, and then I needed to create a follow-up email that subscribers would get as soon as they signed up. That didn’t take very long, but it was just another bunch of tasks on my already full plate.

The Beta Readers

Once I had a couple-hundred people on that list, I was ready to build my team of beta readers. I used SurveyMonkey to create a survey for potential beta readers to complete. I had had beta readers on a previous book, Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, and I found that although people clamored to read the book in advance, some of them never sent me feedback once they had gotten the free advance copy, and a good half of them never reviewed the book on Amazon (or anywhere else). Of course, I never require that people leave positive reviews, but part of having beta readers is having them leave reviews to get the ball rolling when the book is launched.

So when I created this survey, I asked potential beta readers to let me know whether they would review the book, and if so, where. Of course, this wasn’t a requirement; if someone had previous experience as a beta reader or was a self-help book junkie, asking them to leave a review wasn’t as important. But just having that question in the form helped clarify with my beta readers that I would like them to review the book.

Other questions I asked included whether the person had beta-reading experience and for which books, what their favorite self help book was, and why they wanted to be a reader for this book. I wanted to make sure the majority of my beta readers were familiar with the self-help genre, and that they were passionate about reading my new book.

Once the survey closed, I had a meeting with my account manager at the launch company, and we chose the 21 readers we thought would be best for my book.

In the meantime, my launch team manager had been trying to convince me to start a closed Facebook group for my beta readers and early-notification-list members. I liked the idea and wanted to have a place to interact with beta readers and fans, but in October 2015 I had quit all social media. In order to start a Facebook group, I would have to reactivate my old profile, which I didn’t want to do. I loved being social-media-free and didn’t want to deal with messages, friend requests, notifications, and all that, and I also didn’t want my old posts on display.

My solution was to start a new, blank Facebook profile under a slightly different name and then use that to launch the group. I did that, and sent an invitation to my beta readers. I’m glad I listened to the launch team manager, because having this group has been a really great experience! I’ll talk a little more about how this group comes into play as we discuss the rest of the process.

The Marketing

While all this was going on, my launch team manager asked me to create a list of bloggers, podcasters, and other media people I know, who would be approached about interviewing me or reviewing the book. I wracked my brain to make this list, and my husband suggested I go through all the articles I’ve written in the past—I’ve written for over 150 magazines, so there are a LOT of them—to see who I’ve interviewed who might be interested in this book.

That was an amazing idea! As I went through my old interviews, I realized that in the past I had interviewed many well-known fitness models and authors, celebrities like Dr. Oz and Joy Behar, and many media people. I also knew many women’s magazine and health magazine editors, and plenty of bloggers. So they all went on the list.

I also approached Laura Vanderkam, author of the popular time-management books 168 Hours and I Know How She Does It, and asked if she’d write a cover blurb. Laura agreed, so I needed to send her the advance copy of the book when it was ready.

The Cover

Then there was the matter of the cover. I wanted to do something super-professional instead of my usual M.O. of choosing stock imagery, so I hired James from to create a custom cover based on my specifications. The cost for the cover was $400, which beings my costs to $7,900.

James sent me a long questionnaire about my preferences for color, imagery, and so on. I researched self-help book covers and noticed a lot of them were text only, and they often used bright colors like yellow and orange. One of the covers I sent to James as an example was the cover of The Power of Habit, which is deep yellow with simple, icon-like images. I wanted the cover of How to Do It All to be immediately recognizable as self-help, but also make it clear that this book is aimed at women, so I let James know that as well.

first set of Lindas coversWithin a couple of weeks, James had created four awesome prototypes. I liked them all and really wasn’t sure which one was best. One cover had a cool infinity symbol, but the title was hard to read and wouldn’t work as a thumbnail on Amazon. There were a couple of covers with Sharpie and highlighter imagery that I also liked, but my business partner, Diana, pointed out that they looked a lot like study guides. I agreed. If you already knew what my book was about, these covers were awesome, but if you were a shopper on Amazon and came across these covers, you wouldn’t have any idea that they were self-help books.

I decided to post the covers on my closed Facebook group and ask my beta readers what they thought. There was a lively discussion with a lot of amazing and thoughtful comments. Many readers preferred the Sharpie imagery in two of the covers, but also liked the boldness and colors of the plain text cover.

I reached out to James and asked him if there was some way to incorporate the Sharpie imagery into the plain text cover. I also asked him to make the cover a little more feminine so readers would immediately know this book is aimed at women.

Second set of Lindas coversWithin a week, James came back with four more covers. Each one had the same bold text, and my name was contained within a Sharpie under the title. He had also added some interesting flourishes in the corners.

I posted the new covers in the Facebook group and asked my readers what they thought. In the meantime, I had opened up at the Facebook group to everyone on my early notification list, so at this point I had around 150 members.

Again, there was a lively discussion. At the end, we seemed to have a tie between two of the covers: the one with the hot-pink background and the cover with the red-and-orange ombré effect. I made the executive decision to choose the one that I liked the best, which was the ombré cover.

Final coverAt around that time, Laura Vanderkam sent me her cover blurb, so I sent that to James and he incorporated it into the final cover.

But wait! I suddenly realized that because this book was going to be published in print form as well as in e-book form, I would need a wraparound cover for CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s print-on-demand service. I asked James about it and discovered it would be an additional $80 for the wraparound. So let’s add that to the total. Now we’re at $7,980.

Publishing How to Do It All in print format also meant I would need to get an ISBN for the cover. Diana had already purchased a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker. It cost $295 for the whole block but she expensed that to the company, so I didn’t pay for that personally. I went to Bowker and filled out all the information they needed, and got my ISBN.

The Writing (Finally!)

Notice that so far I have not talked about the actual writing of the book. The writing was going on while all this was happening.

It took about four weeks of intense work to finish the first rough draft. At one point I spent two days at a local hotel just so I would have the quiet time and mental space to really focus on the book. That’s when it really started coming together. I’m not going to include the cost of the hotel in the tally of book expenses because of course you can do without that.

I used the program Scrivener to write the book. The first thing I did was create an outline of the chapters I wanted to write, and then for each chapter I created a page in the Scrivener file. What I like about Scrivener is that you can easily move pages and sections around. I had already bought the program, which was $40, so I won’t include its cost in the tally of how much this book cost to write and produce.

I wrote the book in bits and pieces. I would write part of one chapter, then move to another chapter, then rearrange chapters, then talk to women I knew to get their input and ideas, then realize my chapter titles stank and redo them all. I also ended up repurposing a few blog posts I had written for my old wellness blog that never got off the ground, and a couple articles I had written for women’s magazines that had been killed.

When I gave Diana a very early draft to look at, she pointed out that it looked like just a collection of tips on time management and motivation. There was a big ol’ Do-It-All Plan, but the advice itself was all pretty basic. Diana commented that when she read the book pretending she didn’t know me, she really wanted to know what my secrets were. Her exact words were, “I want to know what this woman is on that lets her get so much done, and how can I get some of that?”

So I had to re-think the entire book. A lot of the original tips were strategies I had gleaned from my years of reading and experimenting with self-help—but in real life, I had tweaked all the strategies to fit my exact goal of doing it all. Also, I had combined many strategies and synthesized them into my own personal brand of productivity.

I rewrote the entire book with this in mind. Readers wouldn’t want a jumble of productivity tips, they would want my exact strategy for doing all that I had done.

Then I sent the book back to Diana, and a of couple days later we talked on the phone. Diana pointed out that a lot of my advice required spending money, which wouldn’t resonate with a lot of readers, and that I failed to mention free resources like the library. She also mentioned that when she read my book she didn’t get the same excited feeling she did when she had read my previous book, Commit.

Also, there was something about the 12-month plan I had developed that wasn’t working for her. After talking with a lot of women I had developed 12 goals that would be accomplished one month at a time, like traveling, volunteering, becoming well-read, creating an amazing home, and learning a new skill. However, even though I included lots of advice on how to reach each goal, the goals themselves were pretty nebulous, and Diana and I both believed they should provide more direction for readers who were unsure about what each goal meant to them.

So it was back to the drawing board. I made sure to include more options that didn’t cost money, and I also completely reworked the Plan. I decided a 12-month plan didn’t really work because while some goals could be accomplished quickly, others were more long-term in nature. That meant I had to take the words “12-month” out of the title, which I asked my cover designer to do.

I also decided to call each of the 12 big goals “desires,” and then within each desire were three specific levels of goals to go after. For example, in the desire “Cross a Finish Line,” the three goals were to finish a 5K, finish a half marathon, and finish a marathon. That way, if the reader was undecided on what “crossing a finish line” meant to her, she could just choose a goal that corresponded with her current level of fitness, and if she finished one goal, she could move onto the next one.

The Beta Reading and Proofreading

I really wanted to get the process moving, so I promised my beta readers that I would have the advance copy of the book ready by the following Friday; then I had to haul my butt to make it happen.

After revising the entire book, I did a final edit and created a PDF. I also created a form for beta readers to fill out. In the past I had sent my beta readers the entire book in Word format and let them have at it, but a lot of readers would go through and fix typos and formatting issues. I didn’t want them to waste their time on this because I had already lined up a proofreader and was going to pay to have the book professionally formatted as well.

Speaking of proofreading, that cost $476.25. So now we’re at $8,456.25.

In a week I got the forms back from my beta readers with almost 100% compliance, which was amazing! Having beta readers is just about the best thing I have ever done. These lovely readers—20 women and one man—offered some amazing insight and feedback. I printed every single form, and then I took about a page of handwritten notes on each beta reader’s feedback. Even better, many beta readers answered my questions about media that might want to interview me or review the book, and I compiled all that information and sent it off to my launch team.

I incorporated all the feedback into the new manuscript, which basically meant completely redoing the plan once again because they didn’t like the three levels of goals I had included for each desire. They said it was too constraining and they wanted the freedom to choose. So I moved those goals to the chapters that were dedicated to each desire, and made certain to stress each time that these were suggested options for readers who did not have any idea of what they’d like to do for that desire. For example, for the desire “learn a new skill,” if the reader was completely stymied by the idea of picking a skill to learn, she could choose one of the suggested goals—learning to knit, learning a language, learning to play an instrument—which I chose because they’re accessible to almost everyone and often inexpensive as well.

Other changes I made based on my beta readers’ astute feedback were:

  • Moved chapters around
  • Combined some chapters
  • De-braggified my Do-It-All Manifesto
  • Deleted a couple lame jokes
  • Removed almost all swear words
  • Got rid of most instances of the phrase “you need”
  • Added in many more ideas for how to accomplish each desire. For example, for the desire “Write,” I listed the many forms of writing the reader might want to try, from blogging to memoir to copywriting.

Another thing my beta readers asked was that I include the worksheets in the book, even though I had planned to make them free downloads. I’d been struggling with how to make this work because some of the worksheets would be used multiple times; for example, one worksheet could be used every day, and I didn’t want to have that many pages in the book devoted to worksheets. It would make the print book too long, and wouldn’t work for the e-book at all.

Based on my beta readers’ feedback, I decided to include each worksheet in the book just once. Then readers could create their own worksheets, copy the ones in of the print book on a photocopier, journal them, or just download them. What’s great about that is that even if readers are downloading the worksheets, they can still read the book and just glance ahead at the Appendix to check out the worksheets as they’re reading. This will help readers get an idea of what the Do-It-All Plan is like.

After I got all the feedback incorporated into the book, I wrote the front and back matter (copyright page, dedication, acknowledgements, and “about the author” page). I also needed to number the chapters and parts, which I hadn’t done earlier because I knew the order of the chapters was likely to change. And throughout the book, wherever I had mentioned a chapter, I had to change the placeholder text to the proper chapter number.

Eric and I each quickly read through the book one more time to catch any obvious errors, I did a spell check as well as a search-and-replace for double spaces, and I sent the new manuscript off to the proofreader.

I also sent the book to Diana, and she gave me a hearty thumbs-up, saying that now the book gave her the same excited feeling she had had when she read my previous book, Commit.

After How to Do It All came back from the proofreader, who made, oh, about a million corrections and suggestions. I redid the entire manuscript one final time based on his comments.

The Design and Layout

Around this time I also remembered I needed to have someone create the Kindle and ePub layouts for me. I went to Polgarus Studio, the company that had done my previous books. The price? $70. So now we’re at $8,526.25.

Of course, I needed to get the layout done for the print version of the book, and the editing process took so long that I had to pay for a rush job. I did some shopping around, and contacted Integrative Ink, the company that I liked most. With having to pay for the rush job and a few error corrections, the print layout cost $1,007.89. That brings us up to $9,534.14.

Earlier I mentioned the free downloadable worksheets, of which there are MANY. I hired designer Holt Haley-Walker to create these for me, and they look awesome! This cost $200, which means I’m at $9,734.14.

How it will work: The readers will be directed to a particular web page where they’ll enter their e-mail address. This will subscribe them to a special list that will automatically send them a link and password to the downloadable worksheets. I built the sign-up web page, created a sign-up form in my e-mail marketing system, created the password-protected page for the downloads, and uploaded the worksheets to that page.

And…More Marketing (Plus a Marketing Mishap)

My launch manager had me reach out to all the influencers on the list I had compiled earlier, to see if I could send them a copy of the book. I drafted an email, updated these people’s email addresses where necessary, tweaked each email for its recipient, and hit Send. I heard from some people right away, like Today Show nutritionist Joy Bauer, Mini Habits author Stephen Guise, and Jen Sincero, author of You Are a Badass. Some I never heard back from, like Dr. Oz (yes, I have interviewed him in the past).

In the meantime, I scored a bunch of guest posts and podcast interviews, so I was (and still am) busy working on all those.

In the middle of all this, I made the mother of all marketing snafus: I sent the completed book to my 20 beta readers as a thank-you. Then I used that email as a template to write a marketing message to my main list of 8,000 subscribers…and didn’t realize the book was still attached.

I didn’t realize what I had done until I started getting emails from subscribers saying, “Thanks for the free book!” Yikes!

I had an initial “Holy %^&*” moment as I wondered how angry my launch team was going to be. And then, I thought, “With the open rate my emails usually get, probably only 2,000 people will even open this email. I’m hoping to sell a heck of a lot more than 2,000 copies of this book! And maybe I can turn this into a marketing opportunity.”

I emailed my subscribers to let them know about the snafu, and asked that if they liked the book, to please let their friends know about it. I received many emails from subscribers who promised to spread the word and also to review How to Do It All…and some people said they liked the book so much they decided they would buy the print or Kindle version when it became available!

Crisis averted. Whew!

Then I had the brilliant idea to reach out to the 40 businesses I had mentioned in How to Do It All. To do this, I went to the websites, found out who the founder or CEO was, and entered a variety of permutations of their name into an email verifier app until I got a hit. Then I emailed them to let them know they were mentioned in my book, and to ask if they’d like a copy. This got a GREAT response!

Some people I reached out to requested PDF or Kindle books, but some chose the print version. I expedited 20 or so copies at a cost of about $15 each. That adds $300, which brings us to $10,034.14.

Ding-ding-ding! And I’ve hit $10,000! Not to mention that the launch team asked if I’d be willing to put $500 toward online advertising. (Of course I said yes.)

Today, I’m following up with everyone I sent a book to, and every podcaster or blogger who has hosted me, to ask if they’ll send an email to their subscriber list during launch week.

Other tasks I’ve completed in the last couple of weeks include building and writing a new website just for the book, writing Facebook swipe copy and book blurbs for people to use in their promotions, creating sharable funny images related to the book for my website’s media page, staying active in the Facebook Group, writing a long bio for Amazon and Goodreads, registering for Amazon Author Central accounts in several different countries, creating an author page on Goodreads, and much more.

The Tally So Far

So I’ve spent $10,034.14—and as of this writing on April 15, I haven’t earned a penny from the book, and haven’t done any other paid work except for a small Write for Magazines class, mentoring one client, and completing one trade magazine article assignment.

But based on my beta readers’ and early readers’ overwhelmingly positive feedback, and on the fact that I hired a launch team that knows way more about book marketing than I do, I have my fingers crossed that How to Do It All will be a big, ginormous, humongous hit—and that it will reach all the readers who can benefit from its message.

The book definitely has more of a chance at success than if I had gone with my first draft, designed the cover myself, skipped the proofreading, skimped on outreach, and taken on all the marketing myself. The outlay of time and money has been worth it so far in terms of producing a professional-looking book and getting lots of advance promo.

Let’s see what happens now!

Linda Formichelli is the author of the new book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life—While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie. Go to the book website to learn more, buy your copy, and score an invite to the secret Facebook Group.

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer living in the Raleigh area with her writer husband, ballet-dancing son, three rescue cats, and frequently an exchange student as well. She’s written for over 150 magazines, from Pizza Today to Woman’s Day; authored and co-authored over a dozen books, including The Renegade Writer and Becoming a Personal Trainer for Dummies (which she has always thought sounds like the reader is training dummies); and guest posted at top blogs like Copyblogger, Tiny Buddha, and Write to Done. Linda is also the co-founder of Renegade Writer Press, which publishes books for writers and other smart people.


2 thoughts on “The Real Costs of Self-Publishing

  1. Maureen

    Well written, honest, and practical. My mind is spinning with ideas. Sleep will have to wait.
    Thank-you for the article, Linda.


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