Another day, another piece of writing on self-publishing that makes me want to *headdesk.* So I’m going to put this post here and, in the future, simply point to it when yet another one of those articles pops up.
Truth: There is no “real cost” to self-publishing, just as there is no “real cost” to trade publishing. Anyone who tells you there is intends to sell you something, validate their own choices, or is simply unaware a range of options exist.
What is the “real cost” of feeding a family of four for a week? What is the “real cost” of a college education? What is the “real cost” of owning a home, taking a vacation, adopting a pet, raising a child, buying a car, having someone do your taxes, finding the perfect gown for an event?
The answer to all those is, “It depends.”
And too often, someone comes along to assert “It depends” must be followed by “the quality of work you want.”
That someone is wrong.
Writers new to self-publishing often take a Google-tour of sites claiming to give them “real” information. And some writers, thinking they’re being helpful while defending their choice to not self-publish, have written compelling pieces that place the cost of putting out a single novel somewhere between ten and sixty thousand dollars.
Those are not helpful articles. New writers who stumble onto them and believe them are likely to either give up entirely or become an easy target for scammers. Heck, after reading an author dropped thirty thousand dollars to self-publish “properly,” who wouldn’t believe an Author Solutions package of ten grand sounds like a fantastic deal?
(And if you’re not familiar with Author Solutions and the support it receives from major publishers and imprints, start here and here.)
In most cases, cost is assumed to be the same as quality when one of two factors come into play. In the first instance, cost matters if money is considered to be a measure of personal worth (see “Protestant Ethic”). In the second, cost is used as a proxy for quality when one isn’t accustomed to or comfortable with cost comparisons and negotiations.
I once paid nearly $2000 for a gown. People at the reception in Washington D.C. complimented it. I once paid $65 for a gown. Never in my life had I received so many compliments, and this from a Beverly Hills crowd.
So if you’re a new writer, here’s the deal: You do not need to pay what large trade publishers pay to get professional results because—and this doesn’t get mentioned often, for some odd reason—you are not paying to retain employees, warehouse product, or maintain expensive office space. And frankly, you’re not paying for exclusivity. You are paying a contractor to provide you a professional service.* You are paying for that service one time. Period.
How do you find professionals who deliver great results at the price point you’re looking to pay? Use the same method that used to be touted to writers in search of a compatible agent: check the books you like. Well-produced indie titles will list their publication team—cover artist, designer, copyeditor, etc.—in the front matter and/or the acknowledgements. Best of all, ebooks usually contain a live link to the professional’s website. In very little time, you can create a targeted list of professionals whose work you like alongside the approximate cost of their services. Easy-peasy.
If you’re an established trade writer thinking you should say something about self-publishing, here’s the deal: Read up on successful self-publishing members within your own professional organization. SFWA recently opened its membership to self-published writers who meet the same income standards as trade-published writers, and many long-standing SFWA members fully embraced self-publishing long before. Just a small bit of reading and discussion will reveal that the professional experience and focus of those who primarily self-publish differs from those who might self-publish a small project or two on the side. They can give you actual numbers, based on multiple projects. And if you have a question about self-publishing, it’s easy to ask.
For some, custom artwork provided by a Certain Name is critical to seeing their final product as “professional.” Those folks will pay a premium for it. For others, it’s essential to pay Certain Name for a developmental edit to shape their story for reasons of craft and/or confidence. Those folks, too, will pay a premium. But premium is a choice, and should not be presented as a necessity. Telling new writers—and established writers uncertain if they should step into self-publishing—that they must spend a pile of money to be professional and spend every moment on insurmountable tasks associated with publishing is a swift and efficient way to put a lid on the number of writers who’d otherwise be able to engage with enthusiastic readers.
In fact, it’s kinda mean.
It isn’t realistic. It isn’t “harsh truth.” It is a narrow band of experience, based on a different business model, that’s erroneously touted as universal.
I’d much rather see us reach out with accurate and up-to-date information on the range of costs associated with self-publishing. That’s the way to realistically and immediately support diversity, to give fellow writers the knowledge needed to take advantage of options and avoid scammers, and to expand the readership for everyone.
So at the end of the day, the truth is pretty straightforward.
The real cost of self-publishing is what you pay, after researching your options, to get the results you want.
(Next week I’ll put together a post in response to the “You can’t become a better writer unless editors reject you repeatedly” post I can point to whenever that meme pops up.)
*I’ve heard the argument that paying below Big 5 rates for artistic and editorial services harms professionals accustomed to making their living at their trade. While not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, I do find it a tad offensive when directed at the one professional in the publishing business who has forever been told they shouldn’t expect to make a living in the biz.