The Self-Publishing Series Part Three: Five of Your Burning Questions, Answered

We talk to authors who are considering self-publishing their work every day. There’s no cookie-cutter model for what the process will look like, but most people have similar concerns. Here are some answers to the top five questions we get from authors about the self-publishing journey.

1. How much does it cost?

I’d love to give you a number here, but I can’t; books are so diverse that there’s no meaningful ballpark cost. But I can tell you some things that will give you an idea of costs. There are two parts to the pricing structure for a book. The first is the up-front creative costs. That’s anything you’d pay to your editors, your designers, your publicist, et cetera. Your editorial agency will give you a bid based on the word count of your manuscript, the services needed (layout and proofing? cover design? publicity package? e-book formatting?), and the general structure of your work (books with complicated sidebars, subheadings, and graphic elements are going to cost more to lay out than a straight text block of fiction). The creative cost is an out-of-pocket expense that the author is responsible for up front, and it’s not insignificant. But you, savvy author, know that it’s critical to polish your work to a level on par with traditional publishers. The second part of the self-pub financial structure is the per-unit royalty you’ll be paid on each copy sold. This varies by platform, but I’m going to give you an example to illustrate how you could estimate this. CreateSpace, an Amazon self-publishing platform that our clients often use, has a handy calculator for crunching these numbers. For example, for a six-by-nine-inch, 208-page book priced at $14.95, you’ll take home $5.63 from each copy sold on Amazon.com. If you sell 1,000 copies, you’ll have made $5,630, which, depending on how much your creative costs are, will either recoup or offset your up-front outlay.

2. How long does the process take?

Self-publishing can be as fast as uploading your finished Word document to a site that will auto-design it for you and make it available for purchase online. But if you’re working with a professional editorial and design agency to do a developmental edit, copyedit, design, and proofread on your book, you can expect the entire process to take from four to five months. Long manuscripts (more than 120,000 words for fiction, and more than 80,000 words for nonfiction) may take up to an additional month, and books that require complex designs (usually nonfiction) could add another couple of weeks to the process as well. Does that sound long? For the sake of comparison, it’s about a third of the time a traditional publishing house schedules to accomplish the same.

3. I had a designer friend do the layout for my book, and now I want it professionally proofread. Can you do that?

There are certainly independent professionals out there who could do this for you, but we don’t like to do things piecemeal that way. There’s good reason to have the same team work on your book from start to finish. It starts with the style sheet. Cue: heavens opening and godly light pouring down. The exalted style sheet begins in the hands of the copyeditor, who is the first to apply a sentence-level consistency to your work. As she edits, she records her grammatical choices and your authorial idiosyncrasies on the separate style sheet document. Say you like using comma splices for pacing and effect—though it’s not by-the-book correct to do so, this will be recorded on the style sheet so future editors will make the same allowance. If you want to make sure that vocabulary words are always bolded in your curriculum guide, that note will be made on the style sheet, so the designer and the proofreader will know to keep eyes peeled for that formatting oddity as well. In the cases where we take over a file at the last stage of a long and complicated process, this crucial information is not passed along. This creates more work for everyone involved, as the proofreader will invariably try to correct your comma splices and other stylistic things you’ve settled on at an earlier stage. On top of that, taking over someone else’s files can be a nightmare for the inheriting designer, since the way in which design files are set up is so important. It may look fine to you on the page, but the inside view from the designer’s perspective can be quite alarming. Our design manager once described peeking inside another designer’s file to me as, “It’s like you’re in a nursery full of sleeping babies, but there are no railings on any of the cribs. Everything seems fine, for now, but things could easily get out of control.” In short, it’s best to have an integrated team managing your book from the beginning. Let us build the crib around your baby.

4. How much creative control will I have?

For many authors, one of the greatest things about self-publishing is that you don’t have someone else dictating your cover design or insisting you nix a beloved character entirely. Oh, we’ll not hesitate to give you our professional opinion on that whole chapter that should be cut. You’ll get similar editorial feedback to what you would find with a traditional publisher; we won’t let you fall flat on your face, or we wouldn’t be doing our job. In the self-publishing model, though, your editors and designers are your trusted advisors, there to help you make your book better—but at the end of the day, it’s your book. Creative control is rightfully yours.

5. What are the odds that my book will be successful?

This all depends on how you define success. Would producing a finished book that meets an exceptionally high standard of quality, one that you could proudly share with friends and colleagues, be success? Would you need to make back the up-front costs you spent in order to consider your book a success? Would you need to become the next Amanda Hocking? Get picked up by a traditional publisher? Working with an editorial agency will certainly help you achieve the first goal. It doesn’t have to be Girl Friday; just make sure you’re hiring reputable partners. Recouping your creative costs is going to depend largely on the strength of your marketing platform and willingness to promote your book. Working with an agency to develop a smart marketing strategy will give you the best shot at getting your book out there in a big way. The more books you sell, the more you prove you have an audience with your marketing efforts, and the better chance you’ll have of attracting a traditional publisher. Oh, and Amanda Hocking told me to tell you, “Luck favors the prepared.”