The Economics of Self-Publishing an E-Book: Part 1

How To

Earlier this year, I told you about how I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the editing, design, and book tour for my self-published ebook, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo.

I published the book last month, and it spent a few days at number one…in Amazon’s “ebooks about Japan” category.

Still, not bad, and the book is selling steadily. I guess my fourth grade teacher was right: people do want to know what I did on my summer vacation.

If you’ve been thinking about self-publishing an ebook, here’s a guide to the economics. I’m not going to tell you how to write a book—that’s your job, author.

But I want to give an overview of what happens after that, from the moment you write the last word and have a well-deserved beverage to the day you receive your first royalty payment.

This week, let’s look at the expense side: what it costs to produce a high-quality ebook that can compete with the big publishers.

Next week, the fun part: getting paid. We’ll look at how to get your book into the major stores, whether to use a middleman, how to price your book, and how much you’ll make in royalties on each book sale.

For more detail, I highly recommend the book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch.

Hire a typo hitman (or woman)

Self-publishing an ebook is cheap compared to mainstream publishing. The major ebook stores charge you nothing to list your book. But that doesn’t mean making an ebook is free.

The two biggest expenses for a typical ebook are copy editing and cover design.

My book is about 250 pages, and I paid a copy editor $1500 to edit it. That’s a midrange price; you don’t need to pay more, and it’s risky to pay much less (I found trustworthy quotes as low as $1200).

The longer the book, the more it costs to copy-edit. Duh.

Fifteen hundred bucks is a lot of money (paid for by my Kickstarter backers, of course—thank you!).

Is copy editing really necessary? Can’t I just rely on friendly volunteers? Let’s look at the facts.

Before I sent my manuscript to the copy editor, I had several friends and family members read it and point out typos, grammatical errors, continuity errors, inconsistent spelling of Japanese words, and so on.

They found dozens of errors. By the time I sent it to the copy editor, I figured the manuscript was in excellent shape.

The copy editor sent it back with over 500 unequivocal errors flagged, including plenty of big, stupid ones. Kawasaki describes a nearly identical experience in his book.

The moral: if your book is a vanity project and you just want to see your name come up in an Amazon search, sure, skip copy editing.

If you want to actually sell books and avoid having readers fling their Kindles aside after slogging through two pages of your error-ridden prose (and leave you a one-star review), hire a professional.

You can find a copy editor through the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Cover me

I also hired a professional cover designer. Readers are more likely to click on a good cover, and there are a lot of bad covers, so it’s not hard to stand out.

The design cost $300 and included several prototype designs to choose from, and back-and-forth edits with the designer. (“Can you make the octopus scarier?” “Sure.”) I hired CL Smith.

Another good place to shop for a book cover is 99Designs, where freelance designers compete for your contract.

Recently, Amazon introduced a tool called Cover Designer which lets you build a cover using free stock photos, backgrounds, and templates.

I’ve tried it, and it’s pretty good—not as good as the results you’ll get from hiring a professional designer, but possibly good enough for your book.

Since it’s free, by all means give it a try. (To try it, sign up for Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program and add a book; you don’t have to have your manuscript ready in order to play with Cover Designer.)

Inside job

Finally, there’s the small matter of the stuff inside the book.

Most of the major ebook stores will let you simply upload a Microsoft Word document, but it’s not a great idea.

Unless your surname is Gates, you’re probably not as consistent with your use of formatting styles as an ebook requires, and, as a result, your ebook will look funny: weird spacing, clunky title page, and so on.

You have several options for making your words look as good as they sound.

Design it yourself. Amazon publishes a free guide, Building Your Book for Kindle, that explains how to format your book well in Word, including building a table of contents (often missing from published books, infuriatingly).

For the most part, the book’s advice applies not just to Amazon, but to other stores such as Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and Kobo.

Use an aggregator such as BookBaby or Smashwords. These services (which I’ll discuss more next week) will format your manuscript for a fee (BookBaby) or a cut of your royalties (Smashwords).

The results range from decent to excellent, depending on how good your formatting is when you deliver the manuscript.

Hire a book designer. For $200 (for a medium-length novel), 52 Novels will produce pristine EPUB and Kindle-format files from your manuscript. Extra-long books and nonfiction books cost more.

The bill

Assuming a 250-page novel, the total cost of producing a pro-quality ebook from your finished manuscript is $1200 to $2000.

Next week we’ll put your book up for sale and figure out how many books you have to sell to make a profit.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at His new book, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo, is available now. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.



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