It’s no secret that most writers are starving artists. There are few who have won the best-seller Lottery and can afford to live on their royalties alone. Most of us struggle just to afford the up-front expenses involved in being a writer. Arguably in today’s modern world of self-publishing, you can do a great many things for free, but not everything. If you want a leg-up in the publishing world, you’re going to have to drop some coin, even if you’re a small-time self-published Indy author – there will be expenses. What expenses? How much?
Well, here’s the truth of how much it really costs to be a writer.
– What’s the first thing you need to be a writer? The ability to write of course. Most of us already own a computer with a Word processor, so does that mean that one cost is already covered? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I had a desktop (technically still do), but when I moved, it wasn’t practical to drag a desktop with me so I had to buy a laptop so that I could keep writing even while we were moving and traveling. When I was in college, I had my desktop, but I couldn’t focus very well at home, so I had to buy a netbook to take to the library so I could work in a more comfortable environment. Some people buy tablets with Bluetooth keyboards, and some even write their books on their phone. Some people can’t focus at home, and some people can only write in their limited downtime, like when they’re on their breaks at work, or between classes if they’re in school and they need the ability to work on a mobile device. Most laptops, tablets, and phones, don’t come with Word processors. There are free, open-source processors, but some of us opt to pay for professional licenses. Then there are the rare few who still prefer to write by hand with pencil/pen on paper. If you’ve already got all this covered, great! If not, well, that’s expense #1.
– You just finished your manuscript, and you want to be published, but it’s pretty rough, and so you need to hire an editor. A professional editor of 80-110k words can run you an average of $600-4000. Yikes! Sure, you can find people who work for less, but, sadly, when it comes to editing, you get what you pay for.
– Maybe you can edit it yourself? Well, that’s not cheap either. You’ll at least need an editing/proofreading software and a good one too! The Word spellchecker is NOT your friend. Grammarly Pro costs around $140 for a year subscription, but there are other editing softwares as well, and pretty much all of them require a monthly or yearly subscription fee.
– Can’t afford a full edit from a professional editor? Maybe you can do the cheaper option of hiring someone just to proofread your work and comb out any particularly embarrassing spelling mistakes, typos, or punctuation issues. Fiverr is a great way to find people who work cheap, but they still don’t work for free. A manuscript of 80-110k words is still, on average, going to cost $100-450 for proofreading.
– If you’re going the self-publishing route, you’re going to need some cover-art. You might be blessed with artistic skills as well as writing skills, or maybe you’re a master of Photoshop (you might have to buy graphics software), and you can make your own cover art, but you will find that if you want to use any images for your cover that you didn’t make yourself, you will still have to pay for the commercial licensing rights. If you get caught using images you don’t own the licensing rights to, you can be sued. Don’t have any artistic talent? Well, now you’re on the hook for hiring a cover-artist. You’ll have to pay for the cover and the licensing rights. If you use a professional service for this, you’re looking at a price-tag in the thousands. You can go on DeviantArt and hire someone who works cheap, but a lot of people who work cheap aren’t the most skilled artists, and usually, the highly skilled artists want $300-1000 for a cover, and that may or may not include licensing, which sometimes costs extra.
– Your book is done, your cover-art is secured. Now it’s time to sell it, but first, you need to format your work before you can self-publish it. Aaaaand it’s a pain in the ass. Learning how to properly format your book for online self-publishing platforms is a nightmare. Sometimes each platform requires different and very specific requirements before your work can be made publicly available. You can look up tutorials and guides for how to format your manuscript online, but it takes a lot of time and patience, and not all of us can master it, and so many instead choose to turn to a professional. People who offer services to format your work for both digital and paperback publication can charge anywhere from $80-300.
– Self-published authors can make a physical book that can be sold anywhere, even in stores, but first, you’ll need an ISBN #. Amazon will give you a free ASIN # for your digital book, but if you want your physical book to be found, cataloged, and orderable to stores and libraries, you need a proper ISBN, and those can be pretty expensive depending on how many you get. A single ISBN can run you around $125, or 10 for $250.
– You’ve got your ISBN; now you can sell physical copies in a real store, right? Wrong, you need a barcode for that, and those will run you $20-30. If you publish your paperback through Amazon, you might be able to avoid paying for a bar code. Since Amazon bought out CreateSpace, they now offer free barcodes for paperbacks, but if you go through any other distributors, you’ll have to supply the barcode yourself.
– You’re almost ready to release your book to the world, but first, you want to protect your copyright. Technically, all works by an author are already legally copyrighted to the author, BUT you have to provide proof that your work is yours if anyone ever tries to dispute your rights. One way to have legally binding proof that your book is yours and that you are the author and copyright holder is to pay to have your copyright legally registered. This process costs about $50 and can take 3-6 months.
– Your book is formatted and ready to go. Self-publishing is free, right? Wrong. Self-publishing will ensure you get the most royalties for your work. More than you would get if you went through a small publishing house or a traditional publishing house, but don’t think places like Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, Kobo, etc., don’t get their cut. Some of these platforms, depending on how much you charge for your book, can take anywhere from 30% to 75%.
Congratulations, you’re a published author! It’s been a long, and expensive journey, but buckle your seatbelts, you’re expenses have only begun! The majority of being a writer has very little to do with actually writing, and more to do with marketing. Even if you get your work published through a traditional publishing house or an Indy publisher, you’ll still be expected to manage most, if not all, of your marketing, and let me tell you; it ain’t cheap. Let’s start with the basics.
– If you’re a modern writer, you’re going to need to have a presence online and one of the first places to start is by having your own website/blog where people can find out more about you and your books, like where to buy your work, news on your upcoming releases, and social media links. There are lots of free hosting options, but if you want to appear more professional, you’ll at least need an official domain name to easily help your readers find you. Domain names can be purchased for around $10-20 a year, but if you want to have your website professionally hosted (that way you don’t have intrusive and ugly off-topic advertisements all over your site/blog) hosting can cost an average of $100-200 a year.
– You’ve bought the hosting, you’ve paid for the domain, now you need that website. Oh, wait? How do I build a website again? There are free options like WordPress or Blogger or learning to code a website yourself by hand, but not all of us writers are that tech savvy. Most of us at least need a little help if we want something that looks polished and professional and so you might have to hire a website designer and how much that will run you depends on what type of official author site you want and how long it takes to make.
– Your website is ready, you’re on social media now, and you’re shouting; “Hey, buy my book!” Aaaand nobody cares. You’re new to this and maybe don’t have a ton of followers yet. How are you going to let the world know that you have a book for sale? Well, one way is to pay for advertising. There are TONS of business, sites, and individuals, who will happily take your money in exchange for shouting from their larger platforms that you’ve got a book for sale. Some of these marketing options work better than others, and the only way to figure out which ones are worth it and which ones aren’t is by trial and error. In my experience paying for advertisements through Amazon are the only advertisements that actually yield results (I’ve tried Facebook and Goodreads to lesser success). A lot of services say they have huge Twitter followings, newsletter or blog subscribers, but in my experience, most of those are bots and junk accounts or others trying to sell their work and not actual people looking to buy or be marketed to. Paying for advertisements is one of the riskier marketing options.
– So if paying for advertisements isn’t worth it, what is? Word of mouth! Word of mouth is the most effective way to market your book, but how do you get people talking about your book? Well, you can find people to read your work and give you reviews for free, but that’s not as easy as it would seem. You may give a free copy of your work to a book blogger in exchange for a review, but be prepared. You may solicit 200 bloggers, but don’t be shocked if only 2-3 reply and are interested in reading your work, especially if you’re a first-time self-published author. Once again, you’re going to have to crack open that wallet. You can pay for reviews, but that’s a pretty dishonest way to sell your book and most places like Amazon and Goodreads will delete your reviews if they find you’ve been paying for them. One of the best known and most proven methods for drumming up honest reviews is paying for a NetGalley account. NetGalley allows you to offer free ARCs to book reviewers, and most authors swear by it, but, a NetGalley author account isn’t cheap. You’re looking at $450-850 depending on which listing/subscription option you choose. BookSprout is a cheaper option to pass out ARCs, but their platform isn’t as large.
– There’s gotta be a cheaper way to get my book into people’s hands so I can get reviews! There is! The answer – give it away for free. I’ve already talked about this in a previous post, but giving your first novel away for free is one of the most effective ways to get people hooked on your work. You can host giveaways, but it’s hard to get people excited about winning a free book from a previously unknown author. A more effective way would be to use the Kindle Select Program from Amazon which lets you give your book away for free for one week every six months, or by selling on Smashwords where you can generate as many free coupon codes as you want. You can also buy physical copies of your book at cost and give them to friends and acquaintances or donate them to libraries.
– I can write all these expenses off on my taxes, right? Well, that depends. Are you a hobby writer, or a professional writer? The United States Tax Bureau defines a professional writer as someone who turns a profit and can prove that they write for a living (usually though accounting means). If you’re not a profitable writer who writes for a living, the government will NOT let you write off your writing-related expenses because it’s considered a hobby, and if you lose a bunch of money on your hobby, Uncle Sam says; that’s your problem.
I know I just made writing seem like a terrible money pit, and if you’re a first-time author, that may certainly be the case. There’s a lot of expense and very little profit to being a writer, but if you keep at it, it may eventually pay off. Keep writing. Keep releasing more books. Keep putting yourself out there. Eventually, you’ll gain an audience, and this will all get easier, cheaper, and you’ll see more returns for all your hard work and effort. Don’t give up.