Why making money self-publishing your novel is so hard

You don’t publish a novel to make money. You publish a novel because you have something you want to say.
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Deciding how to publish your novel ultimately boils down to why you set out to write a novel in the first place. If there is a sense of immediacy and you want to release your work to audiences sooner rather than later, self-publishing is a good option. It could take 10, 20, 30 attempts before you even find a publisher to greenlight your manuscript. That’s likely a solid year with your manuscript sitting on the shelf, waiting for someone to give it their blessing.

I chose to self-publish because I felt my book was topical and of the moment. And it also didn’t seem that my personal story was one that publishers seemed to care for or felt a need to promote.

But self-publishing is a ton of work and will almost ensure you will make next-to-no money on your novel.

Here’s usually why it’s so difficult to make money by self-publishing your novel … in 5 minutes.

What a publisher will do

When you self publish a novel, you are completing the following on your own (or hiring someone else to do for you):

  • Marketing
  • Cover design
  • Promotion
  • Line Editing
  • Copyediting
  • Proofreading
  • Reviews
  • Formatting
  • Starting a website

On the flip side, if a publisher accepts your manuscript, you will do the following and likely hire no one:

  • Marketing
  • Review and execute the notes on your manuscript
  • Go on a book tour and/or show up for author signings when they tell you to

Marketing your book as a self publisher

A look at what a review on Kirkus Reviews will cost you. The “traditional review” is basically 2 paragraphs summarizing what your novel is about, with a final sentence offering something of a modest review as to whether it’s by-and-large a quality work.

Most readers don’t buy the book, they buy the author who wrote it. So if you’re a natural self-promoter, self-publishing should feel like rolling out of bed. If you’re like me and you’d rather just talk about your story and not yourself, you’re going to need to do the following to generate book sales:

Creating positive book reviews

You will not get your book sold unless it has at minimum 15-20 positive reviews, likely on Amazon. The bad news is that getting your book reviewed can feel like a bit of a racket. Many websites will charge upwards of $500-$700 simply to review your book. Kirkus Reviews is largely the most visible one.

You can try and run Amazon ads, but this will be very costly and again, it’s ill-advised to advertise a book that has very few reviews.

Is NetGalley any good?

The word galley is a good term self-published authors should get to know. A galley is a review copy of your novel reserved for reviewers. NetGalley is a site that gives anyone from journalists to librarians the ability to download your book for free and potentially review it and/or stock it on their shelves.

A self-publisher will need to pay about $400 to start a NetGalley account. NetGalley is one of the best ways to get your book exposure from readers within the industry. That said, you could get 100-200 people to download your book, but there is still no guarantee a review will result. The good news is you’ll get the contact information of the reviewer and will be able to follow up with them.

Generating social media buzz for your book

Larger publishers have a fair amount of social media followers, although many of them have low engagement rates. So for authors with zero social media following or who aren’t into marketing on social platforms, using a publisher’s social media account is a decent way to justify their cut of your book’s revenue.

The alternative is for you to direct message people who often post with #bookstagrammer or a similar hashtag and ask if they’d like a review copy.

Using Goodreads to promote a novel

Goodreads offers you the chance to give your book away to audiences, which will set you back about $120. It will likely result in a few reviews, positive or negative, and is another way of placing your book in front of a very large audience. You can pay four times more ($599) for premium placement on GoodReads. In my experience, you should see plenty of exposure from placing your book in the more “standard” promotional position.

Think about promoting your audiobook first

Sample of what your audiobook will look like on Audible.

Your audiobook will give you the most revenue per sale, while also giving you a cut of every person who signs up for Audible after listening to your book. You will also get unlimited codes to share that can be redeemed to download your audiobook for free (basically an audio version of your galley).

I also recommend the Audiobook Boom newsletter, which for $12 is a no-brainer to promote your Audible audiobook. Your mileage may vary, but I received a number of reviews through this newsletter alone.

Why you likely won’t make money off your self-published book

It cost zero dollars to publish your book to Amazon. But when factoring in design, editing, and marketing costs to create a self-published novel that appears professional, expect to be in a hole of about $5,000 the moment you approve your book on Amazon.

Assume you price your novel at a standard $14.99 for print and Kindle. You can expect to make anywhere from $4 to $11 for your novel (the latter is the 70% you’ll get from a Kindle sale) with this price. This means you’d need to sell 1,250 print novels or 454 Kindle “copies” just to break even. Have you ever sold 500 or 1000 of anything? You’ll need to shift from author to small business owner to start generating revenue, which is a different switch for an author.

What it costs to make a book cover

A freelancer that works for a well-known creative agency would likely be in the $2,000 to $4,000 range for a book cover design. A book cover that doesn’t look like it’s designed by your friend, will be in the $500 to $1,000 range on a site like 99designs.

Consider what a book editor and proofreader will cost

Autocrit is a solid, relatively low-cost program for those looking to supplement some of their editing costs.

You will need a line edit to review your initial manuscript. A line edit will review your book and offer a chapter by chapter critique. A copyedit is a review of what should be close to the final version of your manuscript.

Finally, you will need a proofread, which solely looks for grammatical and spelling errors. Depending on the length of your book, you should budget $1,000 to $2,000 for each of these three (or more) steps.

Final Minute

So these are the reasons why finding a book publisher can be preferable to self-publishing—sure you are losing a large cut of the revenue, but you are also reducing the upfront costs of making the book to almost zero.

But there is a difference between writing a good novel and writing a profitable one. Great Gatsby. Catcher in the Rye. A Time to Kill. Dune. These are titles that, beyond being classics, have largely one thing in common—they were initially overlooked or completely ignored by publishers.

I couldn’t be more proud of the book I authored and I honestly wouldn’t have published it in a different way. I also have less than 10 reviews on Amazon. But I have the peace of mind that I told a story I believed in and put it out into the world at a time when I felt it was needed, for whoever found it useful. If you feel a publisher might hinder your story from being released when and how you want it to be, and don’t mind putting the time and money in, self-publishing might not be profitable for you, but it will feel very rewarding.

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