Self-Publishing an eBook on a Budget

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I’ve read many articles that explain how first time self-published authors should go about preparing their inaugural work for public consumption. There are many accepted opinions on the subject, from folks with more experience than myself, but I have been hard-pressed to find much content that provides alternatives for hobbyists or people on a shoe-string budget.

Full Disclosure: I am a hobbyist author. I take it seriously, as I’m passionate about writing and enjoy sharing my creative works, but I never intend for it to replace my current career. That said, these are opinions I’ve formed through patterns of observation, so take them for what they are worth. I hope some of this advice might help others like myself who are having trouble finding a discussion targeted at an audience who isn’t trying to “make it”.

As a neophyte self-publisher, I want to avoid any common pitfalls and strive to produce the best work that I can. The easiest way (in my mind) to do this is by learning lessons from those who have gone before. Author blogs and forum sites like kboards Writers’ Cafe have been invaluable resources for me. However, there is some advice I struggled with since I wasn’t looking to make a day job out out of the whole writing thing.

Here is the part where I say things that will fly in the face of most tips you’ll read on getting started.

Don’t Hire an Editor

I know. I said it, and now there it is, on the internet. On almost every self-pub author forum post asking “What are the top tips for me because I want to be a self-published author?” the replies inevitably include “Get a professional cover design and editor”.

This is NOT bad advice. However, there are two issues I see with it consistently.

  1. No one tends to offer up the fact that professional (and even semi-pro) editing is EXPENSIVE. Like, hundreds to thousands of dollars expensive. This may not phase someone who wants to make it their livelihood, and the business person in me knows that “you have to spend money to make money”, but I don’t have that kind of excess cash to spend on a hobby.
  2. The average self-published book on Amazon supposedly sells something in the realm of 100 copies, ever. The chances you’ll make a decent return on your investment are slim.
  3. As a first time author, you have NO frame of reference for whether anyone will want to read your work, even if it’s edited to a slick polish.

I see many follow-up posts and comments saying “I spent a bunch on a pro editor, and I’m still not getting any reviews or people buying my book.” Best case most of the responses are “just keep trying!” or “now pay to market it!”, and worst case the author is told that the editing job was bad and they’ve wasted their money.

So how do you get around this?

BARTER.

As you practice your craft, you should be educating yourself on the grammatical standards of whatever language you publish in, so I’m going to assume you’re doing that. I’m also going to assume you know that first drafts are always garbage and you should do at least a re-write or two before even showing your book to anyone.

That said, beta readers are your friends. I don’t advocate focus testing your work or posting Facebook polls or any of that nonsense. A few well-chosen beta readers can combine proofreading (in lieu of expensive line editing) with tips on the strengths and weaknesses (content editing) of your book. The constructive feedback is invaluable.

I feel it’s far more economical to offer up “trading” beta reads than to just throw money at a stranger on the internet to edit your book. Plus it has the following benefits.

  1. You’re building a relationship with readers and fellow authors
  2. You’re honing your “critical eye” by beta reading their work, which can help make you a better writer
  3. You’re learning if there is actual interest in what you’ve created

There are a king’s ransom in beta reading sites online, and you can also ask friends & family (just take their feedback with a grain of salt) or a local writer’s group.

If you do choose to spend on an editor your first go around, PLEASE vet them by reputation & recommendation, and read this post on Writer Beware to educate yourself.

Don’t Blow a Ton of Cash on a Cover

Here’s the other one I’ll probably get hate mail for.

Referencing my prior point, this is the other go-to big spend that doesn’t seem to make sense for first timers. Yes, a good cover is VERY important. However, there are a few patterns I’ve noticed.

  1. High quality, original cover art is expensive. Again, hundreds of dollars I don’t have to gamble on a book that might not sell.
  2. A good cover alone can’t sell a book no one wants to read.
  3. In the world of eBooks, covers are easily changed.

Again, in perusing the big sites like Amazon and Kobo, there are books with so-so covers that have huge numbers of positive reviews, and others with fantastic looking cover art that have almost no activity.

My advice is to either barter if at all possible, or if that’s not feasible, try to find a friend who has graphic design skills. If they are paid by someone to do it as their job they will probably produce better work than you will attempting to learn Photoshop. The other option is to buy a pre-made cover from a budget site like SelfPubBookCovers for under $100. If you’re even mildly serious about this as a hobby, you can save up and then try to recoup costs in the short term. There are numerous sites to purchase these from, as well as author blogs that list the pro’s and con’s of that approach.

Here’s the take away. Listening to a few of the most popular self-publishing podcasts, you’ll hear over and over from successful authors “originally I did the cover for this book/series myself” or “I wasn’t overly happy with my original cheap cover, so I updated it”. In this brave new online world of ours, something old can be new again if you just upload a new JPEG. So my advice is stay well within your budget and hopefully use the profit from selling a few copies to go back and improve the cover later when the book can pay for itself if it gains traction. Especially if the feedback you’re getting is that “it’s a great book that could use a better cover.”

Don’t Spend Cash on Marketing Up Front

This isn’t the same as NOT marketing.

This point aligns best with conventional wisdom. You can and should market your debut novel, but don’t go blowing hundreds (or thousands) of dollars right out of the gate on it. It’s better to let it percolate for a few months and spend your time and energy sending out free copies to blogs in exchange for reviews (or writing another book!), and building your mailing list. Current trends suggest if you’re on Amazon that you should always write a series, and not spend a dime on marketing until you have a 2nd or even 3rd book to sell. I plan to write stand-alone novels predominantly, so this may not apply to me, but I still plan to utilize free marketing techniques and focus on building my mailing list until I have a larger catalog of work.

 

These are the initial pieces of advice I can offer to the hobbyist or budget author. I’ll most likely update this post as I find more tips to add, or I’m undeniably proven wrong and try to wipe the egg off my face.

Until then, I wish you the best of luck and keep writing!

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