Why authors self-publish and how much it really costs

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to publish a book and have people actually read it, you needed a publisher on board. But with the rise of the e-reader and Amazon’s self-publishing platform (among others), the floodgates opened for millions of people to become authors. Many aspiring authors don’t even consider traditional publishing models these days, opting straight for self-publishing as it’s quick, accessible, and potentially free. But what are the benefits, and is it really free?

The benefits of self-publishing

It should go without saying that the benefits of any method of publishing depend on the author and their goals. However, there are typically four reasons why an author would benefit from self-publishing:

  1. Accessibility: The bar for entry to traditional publishers is very high, and an estimated 99% of book submissions to publishers are rejected. Not to mention that for big publishers, you need to land an agent first. With self-publishing, the only barrier to entry is having access to a laptop and the internet. So if you want to self-publish, you can.
  2. Speed: With the traditional publishing route, you have to spend time writing a book proposal, submitting to agents, waiting to hear back from them, waiting for them to pitch to publishers, waiting to hear back from them, and if you’re accepted—going through lengthy in-house processes. This can take years. With self-publishing, you can get your book out there in just a few months.
  3. Control: With a publisher, your relinquish control over many aspects of the process. You don’t get to choose your own cover or editor. You have to adhere to the publisher’s requirements in terms of content and style, or the book will be edited to meet these standards. If your book is controversial, self-publishing allows you to publish whatever you like (as long as it’s not slanderous or plagiarised, as these will wind you up in trouble later).
  4. Earnings: Publishers take a hefty chunk of the profits—giving you 5% to 10% in royalties while the rest covers their costs for staff, printing, distribution, profit, etc. By contrast, self-publishing leaves you with most of the income—around 70% with Amazon KDP depending on the format and length.

In short, there’s a reason why most authors choose to self-publish these days and why there are more self-published books than traditionally published ones. It’s because getting a publisher is incredibly difficult, while self-publishing is open to anyone.

(The caveat is that none of this means self-publishing is better than traditional publishing. On the contrary, traditional publishing has a ton of benefits that might make it preferable to an author, which you can find out in our previous blog.)

The cost of self-publishing

On the surface, it looks like self-publishing is free, and technically—it is. It doesn’t cost anything to self-publish on platforms such as Amazon KDP. But if you want to publish a book that is professional, high-quality, and valuable, then self-publishing isn’t really free.

Indeed, the authors who invest no money in their books often get very little in return. Why? Because these books often have an amateur cover, untidy layout, weak title, unstructured content, unclear message, vague audience, mediocre writing style, poor marketing, and so on. Why? Because most authors have limited knowledge of the publishing industry to inform these decisions.

If you want readers to find your book, buy your book, and love your book, then you need to invest in professionals who know how to make that happen. People who understand what makes a good book, what sells, and what sucks. But hiring these people costs money—sometimes a lot of money—and you have to pay them up-front. You can’t wait till the book starts making sales. 

You may also have to pay for marketing, because getting people to read your book among the millions of books is arguably the biggest challenge, especially when you’re competing against traditional publishers and their marketing clout. This means having an ongoing ad budget. 

The verdict

There are many pros of self-publishing, not least that anyone can do it. So for most authors, it will be the best way to publish. However, if you want to offer the world a book that is professional and valuable, you need experts who know what makes a good book, and you have to pay them up-front. This means that self-publishing is free, but self-publishing a brilliant book isn’t. As they say, you gotta speculate to accumulate.

If you need help getting your nonfiction book up to scratch or figuring out the process of self-publishing, we can help, so feel free to get in touch.