On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: What Indie Production Actually Costs

Every few days I get someone making a comment on a topic and mentioning they can’t do such-and-such because it just costs too much. And I get at least one letter a week asking me how I can do so many books with the cost of editing.

To be honest, these questions always puzzle me. So let me dig into this a little.

My History

I used to have a publishing house, remember, folks? I was the publisher, actually, of Pulphouse Publishing Inc., ranked the 5th largest publisher of fantasy, science fiction, and horror in the nation for four or five years from 1989-1994. We had a two-story office building and at the peak I employed nineteen people in one capacity or another, from the shipping area to the printing to editorial. It was a beehive of a building, that was for sure.

And my monthly expenses just to keep the doors open, let alone the costs of production per book, would stagger you. I know it did me regularly.

So this new world of publishing is (in my opinion) book-publishing heaven. Not only is this new world faster by factors of a hundred or more, but the production costs don’t even come close to what was needed in 1990 to put out a book.

For example, from 1989 to 1992 we did a series of books at Pulphouse called “Author’s Choice Monthly.” The series let each author pick five or six stories, around 30,000 words, for a collection. We did one per month, sold them both in limited hardback form and unlimited trade paper form. We used the old warehouse method, meaning we had to guess ahead how many to have printed and bound. We did our own printing, then we had to haul the printed books an hour north to either a perfect bindery or the hardback bindery. Then we had to pick them up when done and bring them back to the office to be unloaded, packed, and shipped to stores and customers.

Let me put it this way as to costs. The price of the gas (for the 60 mile one way drive north to the binderies and back in 1990) for the van we used IS MORE than what WMG Publishing pays right now to put a collection of mine or Kris’s into electronic and trade paper edition.

That’s right, just the gas (in 1990 money) for 240 miles is more than I spend now for everything needed to get a collection into print.

Yes, this is publishing heaven. Trust me, I lived in the other place from 1987 through 1994.

And traditional publishers in New York still do. And that’s where so many of these beliefs come from. People who work the traditional side just can’t believe that a book can be done cheaply and yet professionally.

Trust me, coming from Pulphouse Publishing, at first I didn’t believe it either. But I was wrong.

Steps of Production and Each Step’s Costs

Every author is different. Every author has a different set of skills and a different configuration of friends and family around them to tap for help.

That said, let me try to detail out some basic costs if you do most everything yourself. Figure your own costs at each step.

I am talking at this point about doing your production and launching your book yourself. I will talk about other options later.

Writing Stage

I believe every writer should value their time and put a price on that time for writing. I have done a number of articles about that. But this article is talking about money out-of-pocket. And since I assume you would have your lights on and heat working in your home, there would be very little out-of-pocket money for writing.

However, on your accounting books, the value of your time is your biggest expense. Set yourself an hourly or daily wage and put that against the cost of the book.

So it would look like this:

— Cost of writing time, share of electricity, heat, and so on. (Example: 120 hours for a novel = 120 x $50.00 per hour (plus expenses) = $6,000.00)

— Out of Pocket Expenses for writing: None.

Proofing Stage

This is the area that seems to get new writers the most tied in knots. And that makes sense, actually.

Newer writers are focused on words only, on creating beautiful sentences, because that’s what their English teachers had them do. And granted, in the early days of writing, this focus isn’t a bad thing. All writers need to learn the basic writing rules before moving on into telling great stories and often breaking those learned rules to tell a better story.

That said, when a new writer looks at a book from a traditional publisher, they think it’s perfect BECAUSE IT IS IN PRINT. Now, of course, if you have been through numbers of books in the traditional system, you are just laughing now. If you have dealt with a proofreader paid for by your publisher who thought they could rewrite every sentence, you are laughing your ass off right now.

In real terms, sometimes traditional publisher helps a book with their editing and proofing and sometimes they hurt a book. And my gut sense is that it’s about 50/50 and you never know which 50 you are going to end up with on any book. Again, I’ve published over 100 books with traditional publishers. I can’t begin to tell you how many they made worse. And I can’t begin to tell you how many a great editor helped me fix details.

But even on the great jobs out of traditional publishers, there are no such things as “Perfect Books.”

Just doesn’t ever happen. And forget tastes in that equation. Every book has mistakes. Lots of them.

But new writers believe in the myth of the “Perfect Book” and thus, when wanting to publish their own book, think they need to pay tons of money to have so-called “professional” editors read their work.

Nope. Not needed. But you do need eyes on the manuscript. Especially early on when you haven’t figured out your own basic mistakes you make book after book.

So back to costs. My suggestion is use the barter system.

— Get another writer to read your book in exchange for reading that person’s book.

— Or have a friend who likes the genre you are working in read it and make a list of the typos in exchange for dinner.

— Or find a retired English teacher who loves to read and won’t rewrite you and pay them a few hundred to read and mark up your manuscript with their dusty red pen.

Here is what Kris and I do:

For short stories or collections or nonfiction work and many novels, we just trust each other as first readers. I read her work, she reads mine. We correct obvious mistakes. That’s it. A cost in time, but no money out. Do we miss stuff because both of us are not great at copyediting? Yup. Do we care that things get missed. Hell Yes!!  But this is a business and we just can’t do much beyond what we do. We write and release. Otherwise, we would both still be working day jobs and trying to fix the mistakes in our first books.

For some major novels, we do the same, and then we also have a wonderful friend read the book who we pay $150.00. She reads the book and often on backlist work, she also compares the file to the printed novel from New York. (And finds all kinds of mistakes in the printed novels as she goes along. Sometimes problems (that we had right in the file) were introduced somewhere in the process of publishing in New York.)

So our total costs for proofing:

— Short fiction and collections and many novels: Only time. (Count at your hourly rate for your accounting.) No out-of-pocket costs.

— Some Novels. Time and $150.00 cash out of pocket.

Cover Stage

If you are working on Microsoft Word and bought the Microsoft Office, it has a program included called PowerPoint which turns out is for slides and professional business presentations, but does wonderful covers. Quick, simple, easy to learn, and surprisingly powerful. (It gets a very bad rap from those who have spent years learning PhotoShop.)

No point in hiring someone to do a cover and then try to describe to that person what you want. Just learn how to do it yourself. Scary at first. But wonderfully easy once you pick it up. And you will spend less time doing the cover yourself than dealing with a person you hired.

So your first covers are going to take some extra time to learn things, and you will need to study covers to see what makes your cover look professional, but once you get going and have done a few and learned how to write blurbs and tag lines and such, covers get easy.

And always remember, it can be done again and fixed later very easily.

Besides your time, the art or photo for the cover is where the out-of-pocket cost comes in for each cover.

On any one of a dozen sites, find “royalty free” artwork which is basically the artist selling you use of the art for restricted reasons, which tends to always include book covers. On all the web sites that offer royalty free artwork and photos, read their licensing agreement carefully to make sure you can use what you are buying.

There are some fantastically professional artists on these sites. It’s a new way for artists to make a living by selling uses. Wonderful for them, wonderful for us.

For electronic publishing, you do not need a very high-resolution file, especially for PowerPoint. And the artist’s prices are determined on the size of the file you download. So go for a small file and cheap.

Most of the art I buy for short fiction covers or collection covers costs less than $10.00 to use.

However, on some novels, Kris and I have worked with some artists to get exactly what we want. We have paid anywhere from $100 to $500 per cover illustration. But that is only for very special projects. I do the layout.

But except for the special projects, all novels cover art has been in the $10.00 range as well.

So total costs are:

— Short stories, collections, and most novels: $10.00 plus time on your accounting sheet.

— A few special novels: $100 to $500 plus time on your accounting sheet.

Launching Your Book Stage

There are no costs at all for putting a book or story or collection up on Kindle, Pubit (for B&N), and Smashwords. There are other sites, but start with those three for now.

You have to spend some time writing a blurb and doing an author bio, but once you have those, it’s cut-and-paste.

So total costs are:

— No costs except a little time for blurb and author bio on your accounting sheet.


Ignoring the cost of your time for this calculation, your total out-of-pocket costs are as follows using Kris and my method:

— Writing Stage… $ 0.00

— Proofing Stage… $ 0.00 (to $150.00 for some special novels.)

— Cover Stage… $10.00 (to $500 for some special novels.)

— Launching Stage… $ 0.00

So your total costs run around $10.00 out of pocket for most short stories and collections and most novels.

That’s what we do.

Paper Books

If you want to add a trade paper edition, you will need to pay CreateSpace $25.00. And it will take more time and more learning to format your book correctly for paper and do a full wrap cover. But again it can be learned and only costs $25.00 extra, plus costs of the proof and books you buy at your publisher discount. (And by the way, I do spend $25.00 per month for Lynda.com for quick answers to questions on the different programs and tutorials on how to do some of the program steps.)


Why bother? Just move on and write the next book or story. And then the next and the next. Maybe announce it on Facebook once so your family can find it and put a listing on your web site, but that’s it. Any time you spend on this step is wasted writing time. Go write.

And if you spend a penny on this step before you have over fifty or more titles, you need to step back and really look at your marketing and business plan. There are very sound reasons to spend some money on promotion. But not early on.

Hiring Some Steps Done

This is very possible these days with many businesses running flat fee services for doing work for you. And if you have to have enough money to make it work.

From what I have heard, proofing runs from $150.00 to $500.00 for a full novel. Having a cover completely done will cost you from $200 to $500. But for heaven’s sake, figure out how to launch the book yourself to Kindle, Publit, and Smashwords. It’s simple and keeps the money in your control completely.

Huge Warning!!  Major scams are springing up all over, from agents to new businesses, offering to do this work for you for a percentage. Let me say this as simply as I can as a warning.


That’s an old habit writers got into for a number of decades in publishing with agents. It’s a horrid business practice and just damn stupid when it comes to the life of a copyright. And, of course, these scam artists will want to get all your income from your work before you see it. You let them do that and you deserve what you get. Sorry to be so blunt.


Looking at indie publishing from the outside is just flat scary. I had a publishing company and this stuff scared me. I knew how hard it was in the old traditional way of doing things. And how expensive it was in the warehouse model of distribution of paper books instead of the new POD version. My company went down in 2004 leaving me and Kris with almost a half million in debts we paid off by writing. Of course I was scared to even think about going to the publishing side again.

But electronic publishing is scary simple.

Does it take a learning curve? Yes. But so does Angry Birds. Actually, I think Angry Birds is harder to learn than electronic publishing.

We teach how to format, do a cover, and launch a story in ONE DAY at our Think Like a Publisher workshops here. The other days are for all the other stuff around it, including web sites and such. But the actual putting books up takes us a day to teach, with breaks. People in the class are launching their first books within a few hours.

So if you are making excuses to not learn this, it’s the fear talking.

I hear the following excuses all the time:

It costs too much.

I don’t have an art bone in my body. I can’t design covers. (You don’t design them, you find a cover you like and try to make your book look similar.)

And my favorite excuse:

I would rather write than spend the time learning how to publish. (Those writers either get taken by scam artists or give their work to agents and end up spending far more time rewriting for some agent than if they had just learned how to publish their own work and believed in themselves. Remember, agents don’t buy books, editors do. If you don’t want to indie publish, for heaven’s sake, send you work to editors, not agents.)

If you find yourself making excuses and not publishing, step back and figure out what you are really afraid of. (Like me. I was afraid of the huge debt until I learned how really inexpensive this process now is.)

Chances are your fear is not coming from the simple process of putting a manuscript into a certain Word.doc format or doing a cover on PowerPoint. Chances are the fear stopping you is in your own writing or in your own life.

Just saying…


This post was about the first major excuse of “it costs too much.” If you are letting the cost of publishing hold you back, you are just making up an excuse. Plain and simple. You can put out a novel for $10.00 in art off a royalty free site.

That’s right, with a little exchange and some learning, you can publish a novel or story or collection for $10.00 or less. And if you price your novel at $5.99 or $6.99, then you get your money back in two or three sales.

Of course, as I have said over and over, your time is valuable as well. And on your accounting sheet, do include your time and put a real dollar figure on it.

Value your time and your writing.

But don’t let out-of-pocket expenses be an excuse to not let readers find your work.

And by the way, don’t forget to have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal