Can you afford to be an indie author? As independent authors, we have to be aware of the way cost plays into self-publishing. Cost can mean the difference between turning book publishing into a business versus having a very expensive hobby. The question is, how much is too much? When do you know if your books are bringing in a positive return on investment?

Truth be told, some authors make back the investment they made into their books, while the percentage of authors who don’t make back their money is larger. As I enter my 4th year of writing and publishing, I’m taking a hard look at the cost of book publishing versus what I can recoup back. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do want to break down expenses a bit and help you figure out when too much is too much.

Time

Let’s start with the time commitment. When you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. The time commitment is certainly something to factor in when you’re writing. Do you have the time? Are there any relationships or other business commitments that will suffer?

Book cover

My very first book cover and associating book swag cost $900. While I loved the cover, I realized, if I want to write and publishing 2-3 books a year, paying $900 per book cover doesn’t work for me. There’s no shame in stepping back and taking a hard look at finances and knowing you need to make a change.

Personally, I decided my budget for cover art a max of $300, and after some searching, I found some fantastic designers with price points that meet my budget. In fact, the response to my covers were so encouraging, I had my new designer redo the $900 book cover.

Sometimes we associate price with quality and that’s not always true. There are pre-made covers that I’ve seen as low as $50 while custom covers range from $250 – $3000. Your budget is up to you, and so you shouldn’t feel pressured to hire a designer in a certain price range if it doesn’t fit your budget.

Editing

In 2015 before the release of my first novel, The Five Warriors, I wasn’t going to hire an editor. I know, I know, what was I thinking? I can see the look of shock and horror on your face now, but no worries, I listened to my beta readers and proceeded with hiring a proofreader for about $600. Since then my budget has stayed around $1000 or less for book. With 2-3 books coming out every year, editing costs tend to add up.

To help maximize editing, I focus on self-edits. I have my advanced readers send me mistakes they find, and use programs like ProWritingAid to help me catch errors before I send the book out for professional editing. The more I read through the notes and comments from editors, the more I learn about my style and how to consistently improve my writing. Although my writing continues to improve, professional editing isn’t something I want to give up, but understanding my budget helps me to choose. Additionally, I’m finding that often I just need a proofread instead of a line-edit, and that helps to bring the price down. My editing budget is typically around $1,000 depending on the editor I’m working with.

Launch plan

This isn’t to scare you, but quite frankly, a good book launch plan is $1,000. While I won’t break it down to 100% for you, I do want to hit you with some hard facts. You don’t have to do a book launch, heck, you don’t even have to market your books. But if you believe you can hit publish and then sit back and work on your next book, without doing any marketing, you are setting yourself up for failure. During a book launch you should be gaining reviews, running ads, posting on social media…basically telling the world about your book. They aren’t going to magically find you. You have to do the work to make your book visible and let people find you.

On the other had, what if you don’t have $1,000 to spend launching your book?

Check out these 7 things to do that cost little to no money.

Ongoing marketing

This is where you need a budget. Personally I have a book marketing budget of about $200 a month, this tends to range up to $1000 when I have a new release coming out or am involved in other promotions. I know once that $200 budget is empty, I have to focus on other ways to bring in revenue. Now I will say my books do pay for their own book marketing budget and bring in the funds. If you don’t have the funds newsletter swaps, giveaways and contest and email marketing are all ways to grow your author platform.

Newsletter Swaps

This doesn’t cost you anything and is a great way to get your book in front of readers in your target audience. As an epic fantasy author, I keep my eye open for other epic fantasy authors I can do a newsletter swap with. What is a newsletter swap? I promote their book in an email to my email list. Plain and simple. Here’s an example.

Giveaways and Contests

Typically, giveaways and contents have an upfront cost while your reap the benefits in the long-term. Now that you have a budget you can determine if the cost is worth it for you. Is giving aways a $25 Gift Card going to break the budget? Is paying $25 – $50 for a list of 2,000 – 4,000 subscribers worth it? Think about these things before you make impulsive decisions. And keep in mind, while giveaways are a fantastic way to drive traffic to your site, you’ll also gain a percentage of freebie hunters.

Book Fairs

Book fairs are a great way to sell more books. Often the cost is anywhere from $0 – $15 to participate in a book fair. Book fairs help you sell your books to your target audience, and typically the organizer of a book fair will compile a list of 10-100 books in a specific genre. All participants will send emails to their email list, telling them about the book fair and then sit back and wait for the sales to come in.

Here’s an example.

Advertising

Honestly, if you don’t know too much about advertising I recommend taking a course so you can get the most bang for your book. There’s nothing like shooting in the dark and being unable to figure out what you’re doing.

Currently, I’m enrolled in Ads for Authors by Mark Dawson and it was like seeing all the lights come on with my advertising. It’s a relief knowing what keywords to use, how to pull reporting, optimize ads and recommended budget spend.

There are several sites where you can advertise including Facebook, Amazon, and Bookbub, but the cost can add up. Watch your budget. Is this something you need to do?

Promotional Sites

Promotional sites like Robin Reads, Freebooksey etc. are excellent for getting a boost in book sales as well as a hike in sales rank. However, it’s difficult to measure your return on investment unless you focus on longevity. Your $50-$100 is probably better spent on advertising.

Software and other tools

Email Marketing

Depending on what email marketing provider you’re using, and how many subscriber on your list, pricing can range from free to hundreds of dollars. I currently use MailerLite to keep costs down, especially because my list is 10k. If you’re list building, the cost of your email marketing provider is certainly something to consider.

Instafreebie and/or Bookfunnel

Both of these site provide a safe and convenient way to deliver ebooks to your audience for free or to your advanced review team. I use Bookfunnel to send advanced review copies to my review team and Instafreebie to provide free sample to readers. Instafreebie is better for list building while Bookfunnel has the edge on delivery. There are times when I’ve used tools which costs around $35/month. This is something else to consider. Are you getting enough bang for your buck?

Grammarly or ProWritingAid

Self-editing is a popular term and something I highly recommend. Both Grammarly and ProWritingAid provide you with the software you need to catch some mistakes before passing your book along to your editor for professional editing. I’ve used both but prefer ProWritingAid for now because it also tells me what words I’ve repeated too much in a chapter, when I dive into passive voice, and other styling issues.

Grammarly costs $30/month unless you are willing to pay a year in advance.
ProWritingAid starts at $50/year depending on the license you need and how many years you’re paying for at once.

What does this look like from a yearly point of view? Well, if you’re a serious author who’s publishing 3 books a year, your expense budget could look somewhat like this:

Covers: $750
Editing: $3000
Advertising: $2400
Book Launch: $3000
Email Marketing: $600
Other Software: $230
Total: $9,980

Obviously you want to ensure you’re making back more than what you’re putting out. A business can only run in the red for so long. Before you roll into a ball and sit in the closet and cry with a bottle of whiskey, here are some tips for managing your budget as an author and working on gaining a positive ROI.

Make a budget – understanding what you are willing to spend is important, and knowing what’s involved keeps you from being surprised when unexpected costs come up.

Track your budget – when you keep track of your dollars you’ll understand where they are spent, how they help your budget, and where to cut back. If you’re spending hundreds of dollars growing your email list, and you aren’t seeing growth, it’s time to cut back or change tactics.

Focus on book marketing. If you don’t have a plan for book marketing, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Learn more about getting a Book Marketing Plan here.

Spill the beans, can you afford to be an author? Are you making a positive return on investment with your books?

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