Self-publishing with a very small budget

In my last post I spoke about how I spend about $1500 average on each book. That includes editing, proofreading and formatting and the cover. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes less. The biggest variable is the cover. Some covers I can make, others I leave to someone else. I find it easier to spend more money because I am far more secure that I’ll be able to recoup the cost. The pre-orders for Blue Diamond Sky have been extremely encouraging, allowing me to recoup my costs if not this month certainly next month, even if I spent–how much!?–on the cover. I’ve also recently added a developmental editor to my go-to team. But I started out a one-woman band.

The cost per book has climbed gradually since I first started self-publishing in 2011. My first books cost virtually nothing. This post will be about how I did that.

The ballpark $1500 amount is divided into three components:

  1. Editing
  2. Cover design
  3. Formatting

I’m going to show you how you can save money on these and still have a decent product.


The first books I published had already been edited. They were novellas and short stories that had been published elsewhere. Never assume that an editor–even a very good one–picks up all flaws, but if you’ve had the rights to an old novella returned to you after a year or so, you probably have enough distance from the work to read it through carefully and publish it. What if your work hasn’t been published?

Beg, steal and borrow.

You will probably know that I am a big proponent of spending some time (like, a few years) in a writing workshop learning the ropes. This is free. Your fellow writers will give advice, and some of it will be BS and some of it will be great. Grab the people who are great by the horns and form your own little sub-group. Read and comment on each other’s work, and then, when you’re happy with it, swap a proofread with a meticulous different writer. It’s important that this isn’t all done by the same person who has already seen the book before, for the same reason you suck at proofreading your own work.

There we go! Instant editor.

No, it won’t be perfect, but if you’ve done your homework and learned your craft, the result will be acceptable, for now. The downside of course is choosing your editing partners and the time you have to invest in looking at their manuscript while they look at yours. There are all sorts of potential difficulties with this method, but it is a way to catch mistakes before they get published.

Once you feel you’ll want to pay for editing (and to be honest, you probably should do this sooner rather than later), you’ll find a wide range in pricing. Decent editing will costs you a few hundred dollars, and a bad editor is worse than no editor.

Red Adept Editing is an example of a reputable editing company used by many self-published writers.

Cover design

It is so easy to completely overboard with cost for cover design. Some artists quote thousands, and no, you don’t have to spend that much for an effective cover.

A couple of things are very important about your cover:

  1. A cover needs to convey genre and tone more than accuracy
  2. Covers that depict scenes from the book are usually bad and don’t work
  3. Simple is better. Keep the lettering readable at thumbnail format.

I asked the question about cheap cover design in the Writer’s Cafe on the Kindleboards (if you self-publish, this is your go-to advice think tank, so go and join already).

The consensus was:

  1. Your cover is always going to cost something, but it need not cost much.
  2. If you have no graphic skills and don’t know where to start, buy a premade cover. Remember the first point about covers. It’s about genre and feel, not about accuracy. On a premade cover site, the designer selling the cover will put your name and title on the cover, and that’s all the changes you’ll get. Don’t bug them for more. It’s a premade cover. Get a custom-designed one later.
  3. If you have some graphic skills, you can buy an image from stockphoto sites. A little-known fact is that these sites also sell artwork. Look for example at all the neat stuff I got when searching “fantasy landscape” at Dreamstime.
    Get some nice fonts from Typography is as important–if not more important–than the image. It can make or break your cover. Don’t use the fonts that came with your computer, don’t use any colours other than white, at least when you start. If you feel iffy about text and fonts, you can find layout designers on
    But seriously, if you really don’t know what you’re doing, get a premade cover. They can be had for under $50 and won’t look too terrible.

Some premade cover sites:

Some resources for DIY options:

But, as someone on the Kindleboards said, book cover design is more about the designer than the tools. Read up on book cover design tips by designer Derek Murphy (at the time of writing this post, the ebook is only $1).

One of the most important things to remember about self-publishing is that upgrading a cover is easy and can be done later.

Formatting is not hard, but it’s fiddly and time-consuming. You can do the DIY route and buy Guido Henkel’s Zen guide to formatting.


Get a free account at Draft2Digital and let them upload your books to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and a host of small sites. Upload a Word file. Download MOBI (for Amazon) and EPUB files. Upload those files to whatever sites you want to go direct. Done.


Polgarus Studio in Tasmania formats your ebook for $60-70. They also do print formatting.

Concluding remarks

There you go. I’ve mentioned some services and instructions. There are a lot more once you start to get a feel for what you should be searching. If any of these services are full or don’t offer what you want, it might pay to ask them where else you can get a service they recommend.

Most important is that in this case, Google is probably not your friend, because it will bring up a whole host of expensive vanity press options.

Once you start making a bit of money and want to invest it back into your book (as you should), decent services can be had for (current as of May 2016):

  • Line editing + proofreading: $400 – $700. Look for a service that does both
  • Custom cover design: $100 – $800. Less for photo-manipulation, more for custom art.
  • Formatting: $60-100 for ebook, more for print.

If you’re a beginning author outsourcing all these three things, you should not need to pay more than that. If you are, examine the reason why and whether you find it beneficial, in other words, whether it’s justified by your sales.

A couple of easy check points for DIY cover design

What’s with the dagger? Well, you’ll probably recognise this from the book covers I’m in the process of designing. This is the original image.

There are some major changes coming for this blog. I am in the process of setting up an author website with a more visible static component. Rather than having to repeat myself in posts every so often, those posts will be accessible through separate menus, a feature that’s currently clunky on this blog. This site is not going away, but will be managed and crossposted from another site.

Anyway. Book cover design.

A lot of self-publishing authors are having a go at designing their own book covers. Yes, I know people say that you should have it done professionally, and yatida, but if you have a lot of shorter works, that quickly becomes very expensive. At 99c per short story, you have to sell a lot of stories to recoup the cost.

If you’re reasonably handy with graphic programs, you might try to make something yourself.

So what should a cover do?

It’s got to be attractive, it’s got to represent the genre, and it’s got to look at least semi-professional. I want to say a word or two about that last item.

As to representing the genre, have a look at covers of other books in the genre. Decide what images to use. Ask random people what genre they would associate with your proposed design. A lot of this, including attractiveness, comes with taste. This is why getting as many opinions as possible is a good idea.

In addition to this, there are a number of easy things you can do to make your cover look better:

Colour scheme: define a colour scheme for your cover with a dominant colour (e.g. sky blue) and make all or most other colours shades of this hue. This means all mixtures of your dominant colour with black or white (and this includes grey). You can use one (but not more) discordant colour in a very small proportion of the image. Consider the tone you want to convey. Given the above sky-bue theme, what emotions would you associate if the discordant colour is red, yellow or green?

Alternatively, if your cover is very colourful, and doesn’t lend itself to a colour scheme, make sure the hue and saturation of the various components of the image match. You see home-made covers where an obviously cut-out and pasted part of the image is much darker than the rest, or has much more contrast, or has the wrong hue (for example, it’s reddish where the rest of the image is blue-ish).

Lighting: related to the above, if you are copying an object, say, an image of a man, on top of another image, say, a landscape, make sure the direction and strength of light source matches between the two image components. A picture of a man taken in sunlight superimposed on a rainy/misty landscape is going to look fake and horrible. You have to fiddle with the contrast and saturation slides until the tone matches.

Cut-outs: use the most appropriate methods for removing desired sections from component images. If you’re cutting out an object that has a good number of smooth lines and curves, for crying out loud, lean how to use the path feature. Not only will it give you a smoother selection, but paths are vector-based, so they will remain smooth, even if you enlarge them. Even if you use magic wand or other pixel-based methods for selecting cut-outs (and there are good reasons for using them), make sure you use anti-aliasing, smooth edges and if necessary the feather features to make the result look less like a–well–cut-out.

Text: resist using the discordant colour as a flat fill for the text, unless your font is huge, bold and simple. This works really well for crime novels. But, if your text is going to be bright red or purple or yellow, or any colour that’s painful, keep the font really, really simple. If you can, try to avoid fonts that everyone is using. Yes, some of them are pretty, but they get old pretty quickly.

Alignment: make sure the text is properly aligned, and uses the full width of the page. If there is extra space, enlarge the text until it fills the width of space you want to use. You can either center your text or align it along either margin, but if you center one line, but keep another line right-aligned without any obvious reason (such as features in the image you don’t want to cover), it’s going to look untidy.

None of the above will guarantee that someone with a design degree won’t pick your image as home-made, but it will result in a tidier, neater cover.