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.


Self-publishing: when to get an editor

Editing is not a magic box

Since this month is my anniversary in the jungles of Smashwords and Amazon KDP, I’m posting a few things about what I’ve learnt. A few days ago, I wrote this post, and apparently, some of my thoughts are controversial. Hmmm, there are two key elements to my feelings about hiring help in self-publishing. One, that if you spend money, you have to be certain that what you get is beneficial, and is what your work needs, and two, that if you spend money, you have to make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons.

Editing falls squarely in those categories.

Now, I’d be the last person to argue that a skilled editor won’t improve your work, but, as I said in the post a few days ago, editing can enhance, but not save, your work.

In self-publishing-land, there are all sorts of claims about editors:
– That you must absolutely get one
– That they can be found for as little as $200
– That they magically fix everything that’s wrong with a book

All these claims, even the first, are false.

So… if a couple of independent people look at a book, and say that ‘it needs editing’, what they really mean, and what they’re far too polite to say is: this author needs to learn to write.

Such author ‘desperately in need of an editor’ cannot be saved by an editor, and any editor with half a sense of pride should refuse the job and tell the author kindly to go and do some writing courses and join a crit group, or some such.

But, this author finds a steal of an editor for $200, who goes through the manuscript and fixes typos and punctuation, and then claims the work has been ‘professionally edited’. And gets really angry when the ‘this needs editing’ claims don’t go away.

Think about it. You do not need any qualifications to call yourself an editor. There are degrees you can get that include editing. Large publishing houses choose editors with such degrees, or people who have a proven track record of experience, preferably both. These people are professionals, and they will not work for $200. You might be able to get a student for $200, but as soon as this person gets a reputation for being good, they’ll want to charge more. For $200, you can get a glorified crit from a fellow writer. Or from someone who will give the manuscript a cursory look, rubber-stamp it and collect the money.

If you pay peanuts, it is quite likely that you will get monkeys.

And moreover…

A well-written and well-plotted piece of fiction will likely be improved by editing, but will be both readable and enjoyable with a light proof-read from a nitpicky writerly friend. If you can afford a couple of thousand $$$ for a good editor, go for it, but because your work will be readable, there is no flying hurry to do this.

A poorly-written piece of fiction will not be saved no matter how much money you spend on editing.

I have invited a real professional editor to write a guest post on what to look out for when you choose an editor for your books.


Patty Jansen is a sometimes backyard editor with no editorial credentials except a handful of courses, six years of workshop experience and two issues of ASIM, and no greater editorial aspirations. She very much prefers to write fiction over editing.
Patty is a member of SFWA and has sold fiction to Redstone SF, the Grantville Gazette and was a winner of the Writers of the Future contest. She has a story forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Update on ASIM #53

I’m editing issue 53 of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, which will be out at the end of the year.

I have so far accepted four stories, so there is a bit more to go. Three are slush pool stories, and one is a story I sourced from another workshop (yes, I do this, on occasion). Three are science fiction, one, a short piece, soft SF, the other two, longer stories, are hard SF, one with crime elements. We slush blind, but somehow I managed to pick four stories that were written by women.

OK, what does all this mean? Well, obviously I’m looking for more stories. What sort of stories?

– They must absolutely be well-written
– We’re listening to our subscribers who are telling us that they want less horror. We are not a horror market, although we have occasionally published horror and probably will continue to do so on occasion. Midnight Echo is an excellent market for horror in Australia. ASIM set out to publish light-hearted stories. If your story has horror elements, we want the funny side. See ‘Dig Up The Vote’ in issue 47.
– I’m no great fan of demons and angels and devils
– I’d like to see some good-ol’ adventure fantasy
– To me, light-hearted does not mean slap-stick

I stress this is just me, and I’m not speaking for the editors of issues 52 or 54.

How to make an accepted author happy

The flipside of yesterday’s post:

Once an editor has accepted a writer’s story, the editor can make the writer happy by:

– Editing the story. Duh–you’d say, but there are many places where stories are published as-is, typos and all. That’s embarrassing for all parties.
– Consulting with the author about the edits above
– Not requesting entire story rewrites (if the story didn’t fit the editor’s expectation it shouldn’t have been accepted)
– Giving the author a rough time frame for publishing
– Making sure the author gets paid as promised
– Advertising the published work

Anything else?

a different approach

Let’s get back to writing.

You may know the situation: you have a story that’s not quite working. You show it to some people, and get a couple of very different responses. You may have submitted it somewhere, and one or two people, including most likely, the editor of the magazine where the story was rejected, say that the story is too long and you should cut some aspect.

OK, you’ve done that, but now the story is soul-less. Because what you’ve cut was an element of worldbuilding, and the story has become white-roomy and bland. Yes, the plot may move more quickly, but there is nothing special about the story anymore.

Yes, I’ve just done all this. I had a story that was about 9000 words, cut it and cut it and cut until it was 5500 words, and am now left with a story that’s complete but bland.

In cutting, in listening to the ‘cut this’ as standard response to something the reader found boring, I probably made a mistake. I shouldn’t cut it. I should expand it. I should spend time working the worldbuilding elements into the story in such a way that the characters engage with them. There is a lot more in this story than a one-horse plot, but for it to come out it needs more words, not fewer. This is not a short story. It’s a novella.

Recognise this feeling?