Working Out Your Budget and Earnings as a Self-Publisher

Sophie Playle

Trying to figure out how much you’re likely to earn as a self-published author is tricky. Unless you’re publishing solely for the pleasure of sending your words out into the world, it’s likely that you’ll want to earn an income from your writing.

Of course, rather than shoving your book onto Amazon, holding out your hand and shouting ‘Monies, please!’ you’ll want to do everything you can to create a sellable book: write a good story, get it professionally edited, hire a designer to create a beautiful cover, gather reviews, and so on.

It’s no secret: publishing a book that has the potential for good levels of sales usually requires a little investment. However, it’s good to think about how much of an investment is wise so you don’t spend beyond your potential earnings.

How much can you earn as a self-published author?

How much you could earn as a self-published author, of course, depends on a lot of things. There’s no blanket answer. It’s not useful to talk about averages because everyone’s experience is different, and the anomalies will skew the results anyway. However, there is a lot of potential to be had …

The media is awash with self-publishing success stories: Amanda Hocking, who made millions from her self-published novels before being snapped up by a traditional publisher; E. L. James, who started out self-publishing and now is rich beyond her wildest dreams; Andy Weir, who self-published The Martian before it was bought by a major publishing house and turned into a Hollywood blockbuster; and so on.

But these stories are by far exceptions to the rule. Hundreds of thousands of people self-publish, and there are only a handful of mega-success stories that catch the attention of the press.

Don’t let their success lull you into thinking self-publishing is an easy get-rich-quick scheme.

It really isn’t.

The reality is: if you have a well-presented book, a potential readership for that book and a marketing plan, you can expect your book to sell. In her book Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing (discontinued), the wonderfully insightful Catherine Ryan Howard proposes the following ‘scale of success’ when it comes to book sales.

Copies sold per month:

100+  Your book is selling

300+  Your book is selling well

500+  Your book is selling very well

1000+ Your book is selling amazingly well

2500+ Your book is selling ridiculously well

5000+ Your book is selling better than most traditionally published books

10000+ HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?! Tell us now!

So those are some rough benchmark figures. How much you earn from selling that many copies depends on the price you set for your book. That’s a different topic of conversation, though, as the price you set will affect the royalty you receive and the amount your book will sell.

How much should you invest in your self-published book?

Firstly, let me say this: you probably will need to invest some money in your self-published book if you want it to sell. By self-publishing, you’re assuming the role of publisher … And publishers are businesses. So to be a successful publisher, you must be a successful business. And it’s almost impossible to create a successful business with absolutely no investment.

But I also know many authors won’t have a huge amount of capital to invest in their book. Without a guarantee of how much your book will sell, it feels pretty risky to invest any money into your self-publishing venture.

The first step is to assure yourself that you have a sellable book. That way, you can be sure that your investment will be well spent. You’ll also need a solid marketing plan (marketing doesn’t necessarily require a huge monetary investment, especially if you can get your head around using social media and content marketing). At the root of everything, though, you need a quality product.

If you want to spent the minimum possible on creating your book, you should invest in editing and cover design.

Everybody needs to be edited. Everyone is blind to the errors in their own work. Publishing an unedited book removes a crucial level of quality control. In the end, it means you’re not putting your best work out there, which is disrespectful to your reader and a shame for you, who has worked so hard.

Editing is worth the investment if you want to publish a quality novel. However, you do need to think carefully about the type of editing your book needs, and how much you’re able to invest. Remember: you can off-set your budget against your projected sales figures.

Different types of editing cost different amounts, and editors offer their services at many different price points. You’ll need to do a little research into finding the most suitable option for you and your book. A new editor might cost a little less, but be careful about hiring unqualified individuals. (See: Everything You Need to Know About Finding and Hiring a Freelance Book Editor.)

A good cover design is also crucial. Potential readers judge books on a variety of elements – reviews, blurb, sample pages – and one of the quickest ways to judge a book is by its cover, despite the saying. In the self-publishing world, a good quality cover design is a great indicator that an author has put thought and effort into creating a decent book.

More than that, most readers don’t look at who has published the book they’re thinking about buying, but a bad cover is an instant indication of poor quality, whoever the publisher.

There are many very reasonably priced cover design services out there. Look for covers you admire (especially in your chosen genre) and see if you can find out who designed them. Personally, I highly recommend Design for Writers and Author Packages (especially for fantasy and sci-fi).

To sum up …

I’ve not offered monetary figures in this post as I don’t think it would be genuinely useful. However, I hope I’ve given you some things to consider when you come to drafting your self-publishing budget and earnings targets. All in all:

  • If you have a well-written book (quality product), with a potential readership (market) and a marketing plan (implementation), then you can expect your self-published book to sell.
  • In order to create a quality product, you should (at the very least) invest in editing and cover design.
  • Work out how many books you’d need to sell in order to recuperate your investment, and make this your first earnings goal.
  • Feel smug in the knowledge that you’ve written and published a quality book, allowing you to market with confidence.

If you approach self-publishing with an analytical, business mindset (and keep your head firmly out of the clouds) you’re much, much more likely to sell more books and generate some well-deserved earnings.

Don’t just publish something and see if it sells. Publish something genuinely great, and readers will be eager to buy.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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