Publishing 101: What Is the Cost of Self-Publishing a Book?

Reading the Chronicles of Avilesor by Sara A. Noe at a coffee shop


Self-publishing, also known as independent (indie) publishing, has come a long way over the last decade. It’s completely disrupted the traditional publishing industry in both positive and negative ways.

My original plan was to publish the first novel in my fantasy series, the Chronicles of Avilésor, by partnering with an agent and finding a traditional publishing house. However, as I learned more about the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing, I realized that maintaining the rights to my work was extremely important to me. I self-published my first novel in 2018 and learned many important lessons along the way.

In this article, I’ll discuss the various potential costs that indie authors will need to factor into their budget if they want to self-publish a book that’s high enough quality to compete with traditionally published titles.

Can You Self-Publish a Book for Free?

The short answer is yes. The better question is, SHOULD you self-publish for free?

Amazon’s self-publishing company is called Kindle Direct Publishing, better known as KDP, and it transformed the publishing marketplace by making it easy and free for anyone to publish a book and sell it on Amazon. Other self-publishing companies like IngramSpark, Barnes & Noble Press, Draft2Digital, et cetera offer similar publishing avenues for indie authors.

(I initially started with B&N Press before switching to IngramSpark. Read my head-to-head review of the two self-publishing companies and their pros/cons here.)

However, by removing the quality controls imposed by traditional publishing houses, that opened the door for anyone to publish anything… even unedited books riddled with typos, grammatical errors, weak plots, and amateur covers, and those low-quality books flooded the market. Because of this, being an indie author means you’re immediately fighting the bad rap that comes with it. When you tell people that you self-published, many of them make instant assumptions about the quality of your book.

This is why I pose the question: “Should you self-publish for free?” Because if you don’t invest in some necessary upfront costs for your book, I can guarantee that:

  1. It won’t be as as professional as it could (and should) be
  2. You will lose some of your publishing and/or distribution rights if you’re not paying attention to the fine print

Most Common Self-Publishing Costs for Indie Authors

If you have the right skills and experience, you can avoid some of these costs by doing the work yourself, but others are unavoidable if you’re truly serious about being an author who publishes a high-quality book worth reading.


ISBN is an acronym for International Standard Book Number. Basically, an ISBN is the 13-digital commercial identifier number that publishers, retailers, distributors, bookstores, libraries, et cetera rely on to find and order books.

If a self-publishing company offers you a free ISBN (and most of them do), understand that there’s a hidden caveat. By using that free ISBN, you are relinquishing your role as the publisher of the book. You still own the creative rights to your work, but you (or your DBA) will not be listed as the publisher. If you self-published through KDP, for example, then KDP would be the publisher. These free ISBNs also can’t be transferred if you end up switching to a different publishing company.

However, if you purchase your own ISBN through Bowker, which is the official ISBN agency for publishers located in the United States and its territories, then you will own ALL of the publishing rights for your book. You can also transfer these ISBNs between companies if needed. (You might be thinking, I won’t need to worry about changing companies… But I didn’t think that I would be making a switch when I first started, either. It happens.)

***I do not have any direct affiliation with Bowker. I don’t earn any commission or credit if you decide you want to buy an ISBN.***

If you want to learn more about ISBNs and how they impact you as a self-published author, read my earlier post of facts and hacks that new indie authors should know.

2. Editing

I always, at a bare minimum, strongly advocate for aspiring authors to hire a professional editor. Even if you’ve read through your manuscript a hundred times, and even if you’ve had beta readers and English teachers and family members read it, I guarantee that partnering with a professional line editor will make your book so much better.

In my case, I have a pretty thorough grasp of the English language… or so I thought. So, I was surprised (and initially a little humbled) to see how many mark-ups my line editor made. But, as I went through edit by edit, I was amazed by some of the obscure grammatical rules she knew that I didn’t. She was so thorough that she even caught some detail discrepancies between books in the series. And she was also able to advise me on formatting suggestions so my book would match the style that traditional publishing houses are producing.

In other words, hiring a line editor is 1,000% worth the cost. Even with a line editor, a few typos might slip through. However, that number is WAY less than the typos that come without a professional editor. Trust me… it’s very obvious if a book hasn’t been properly edited.

This self-publishing cost will vary depending on the editor you choose to partner with for your book. Some freelancers charge an hourly rate. Others charge based on the number of chapters or words. The rate also varies depending on what kind of editing you need. Are you looking for a quick proofread? A copy edit? Or a thorough line edit?

If you’re hunting for a reputable freelance editor, I highly recommend my line editor Nikki Mentges with NAM Editorial. I’ve worked with her on all three books published so far in my series, and I’m always impressed by her thoroughness and attention to detail. Other authors I’ve recommended her to have also been very happy with her feedback. Nikki charges per word count (which I prefer over an hourly rate so I can calculate exactly how much I’ll owe regardless of if she gets through the manuscript faster or slower than anticipated), and she offers different prices for different editing services.

3. Cover Design

As an artist with Photoshop experience, I enjoy creating my own book covers for my novels. But if you don’t have any graphic design experience, hiring a cover designer is probably a good idea.

We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.” However… if you hope to sell your books, you absolutely need to have a good cover. Cheesy stock images, poorly chosen fonts, issues with scaling and layout, bad artwork, etc. scream AMATEUR to potential readers who will scroll right past your book to find one that looks more professional and higher quality.

Maps of Phantom Heights and Saros Manor in Blood of the Enemy by Sara A. Noe in the Chronicles of Avilesor

4. Artwork, Maps, & Other Graphics

I had a lot of fun designing my fantasy world, a small Midwest town, and the floor plan layout that were published in my third novel. But then again, I also have a degree in landscape architecture and an art background. If art is your thing, then you can save costs by making your own graphics (if applicable).

But hiring a freelance artist to create supplemental materials for your book might be a worthwhile investment if you want to elevate your novel to the next level with maps, character sketches, interior art designs, and more. These materials might be published in the book itself, or you could use them separately for inserts, bookmarks, et cetera.

5. Interior Layout

This is part of the process that catches a lot of new authors by surprise. The exterior design is obviously important, but while the interior layout isn’t as flashy, it’s still a critical part of the process. If your interior is done well, readers probably won’t notice. But if it’s done poorly… they will definitely judge the quality of your book.

Some authors are savvy enough to format the interior themselves and meet all of the uploading criteria for page numbers, margins, headings, table of contents, copyright information, etc.

But if you aren’t, there’s no shame in hiring someone who can do this for you. Even if you do have the computer skills to handle the interior layout, be aware that it’s a time-consuming task, so you might want to consider hiring a freelancer just for the convenience.

Self-publishing ebook formatting interior design of Blood of the Enemy in the Chronicles of Avilesor series by Sara A. Noe

6. Ebook Formatting

I recommend publishing an ebook version of your novel. I like to offer my readers a hardcover, paperback, and ebook option, although a lot of authors just do a paperback and ebook.

Ebooks need to be saved as an epub file, which means they need to be formatted properly. There are some software options that will automatically convert your file for you… but I would be extremely cautious about using them because they’re prone to missing errors that you might not even realize are in your file.

In my case, I acknowledged that although I had the skills to handle my own covers and interior layout for the print versions of my books, formatting the ebook file was outside of my skillset. I thought I could figure it out myself, but I quickly became overwhelmed.

I chose to hire Polgarus Studio, an Australia-based company that has formatted over 7,500 books. Here is what they say about their process on their website:

Every book we format is done by hand, first converting your manuscript to HTML, then manually cleaning it up to make sure there are no hidden problems (and believe us, Word likes to hide all sorts of junk in your manuscript!) At this stage we also take the time to fix common issues like tabs or spaces at the start of paragraphs (these are converted to automatic indents), multiple spaces, ensure ellipses display on the one line, etc. Once we have a clean, problem-free file, only then do we convert it into the format(s) that you want.

When I was researching my ebook formatting options, I found Polgarus Studio’s prices to be comfortably in the middle of the road. They weren’t the cheapest, but they also weren’t the most expensive that I’d seen, and their process listed above put me at ease because I knew I wasn’t paying someone to simply run my file through software (which I could have done myself) and say, “Ta da! All done. Now pay me.”

For me, hiring a small business to format my ebook was a worthwhile cost that saved me a LOT of time, research, and frustration.

Are Vanity Presses an Affordable Option for Self-Publishing?

I talked about this topic in another post, so I won’t go into a deep dive here. But my short answer is no.

Vanity presses, also known as subsidy publishers or vanity publishers, have a well-earned reputation of being scammers that prey on author’s egos (hence the name “vanity” press) and target people who are desperate to see their books published by any means necessary.

I’ve spoken to people who have either utilized or worked for a vanity press, and their stories confirmed what I’d already suspected (even though some of the authors I spoke with didn’t realize they’d been duped). In short, most vanity presses will:

  • Overcharge authors by thousands of dollars by upselling unnecessary services
  • Promise to market your book for you (but actually do very little to promote it)
  • Engage in shady practices such as “editing packages” that include a limited number of edits before charging you to fix the next “batch” of errors
  • Not editing at all, leaving your book full of typos and errors

Some people like the convenience of sending their manuscript off to a vanity press and leaving all of the tedious tasks up to them. I’ve found this to be the case with authors who really just want their book out in the world and aren’t committed to tracking sales or worrying too much about quality.

It can be a tempting offer… but I caution aspiring new authors when it comes to vanity presses. I’ve seen authors end up in court suing their publisher for contract violations, and I’ve read a book that was “edited” by a vanity press and yet full of blatant typos and punctuation errors that a middle-schooler could have caught.

In short, the majority of vanity presses overcharge authors without following through on what they promise in their expensive packages, so be wary, read reviews, and do a LOT of research if you’re considering using one to publish your book.

Summary: Pros & Cons of Self-Publishing a Book for Free

The primary difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing is the cost for the author. If you publish through a traditional publishing house, then the publisher will absorb those costs. However, the author loses their creative rights and the majority of the profits from sales.

If you publish the book yourself, then you’ll keep your rights and more of the profits, but that’s because you’re doing all of the work and taking on the risk yourself. It’s possible to self-publish a book for free. But it’s important to understand that you’ll risk sacrificing the overall quality of your book, not to mention losing publishing rights if that’s something that’s important to you.

I highly recommend researching the process and assessing your skills, knowledge, and comfort level with some of the aspects involved with publishing so you can find ways to cut corners where you’re able to without sacrificing the quality of your book. In some cases, as long as you’re upfront and communicate clearly about your needs and expectations, you can work out payment plans with the freelancers you hire rather than paying one lump sum, so if you’re on a tight budget, explore your options.

Your investment in your book’s quality will define what kind of indie author you want to be.

Ghost Realm candle by Old Soul Artisan

Related Articles on Publishing & Marketing

If this is your first time on my website, you might find value in other articles I’ve written about book publishing and my journey as an indie author:

Self-Publishing a Book: 8 Facts & Hacks You REALLY Need to Know
Pros & Cons: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Are Vanity Presses a Reliable Option for Authors?
Self-Publishing 101: How to Purchase & Register an ISBN
Author’s Review: Polgarus Studio Ebook Formatting Service
Author’s 20 Tips for a Successful Book Signing
Author’s Advice: 15 Tips to Write a Compelling Fiction Book Blurb That Sells
NetGalley Review | Author’s Experience Joining a NetGalley Co-Op
Tips for New Authors: How to Overcome 5 Common Fears
Author’s Perspective: Why I Rarely Do Bookstore Signings
GREAT News! IngramSpark Is Revising Their Fee Policy
3 Ways Indie Authors Can Make Extra Money with Their Website
How to Make Money: 7 Extra Revenue Streams for Indie Authors
IngramSpark Self-Publishing: Process, Royalties, Review, & Advice
Self-Publishing Review: Barnes & Noble Press vs. IngramSpark
3 Reasons Why I Self-Published

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I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first three novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series have received awards from Literary Titan.

After some time working as a freelance writer, I was shocked by how many website articles are actually written by paid "ghost writers" but published under the byline of a different author. It was a jolt seeing my articles presented as if they were written by a high-profile CEO or an industry expert with decades of experience. I'll be honest; it felt slimy and dishonest. I had none of the credentials readers assumed the author of the article actually had. Ghost writing is a perfectly legal, astonishingly common practice, and now, AI has entered the playing field to further muddy the waters. It's hard to trust who (or what) actually wrote the content you'll read online these days.

That's not the case here at On The Cobblestone Road. I do not and never will pay a ghost writer, then slap my name on their work as if I'd written it. This website is 100% authentic. No outsourcing. No ghost writing. No AI-generated content. It's just me... as it should be.

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