Getting Your Money’s Worth: Self-Publishing on a Budget

Guest Article

by G. S. Jennsen

moneyThe rise of digital publishing has enabled authors to share their writing with the world without the need for publishers or printing presses. It literally costs nothing to self-publish your novel. You can simply upload a Word document to Amazon’s KDP service, use their Cover Creator tool, fill in the description, choose a price, and hit “Publish!”

If you are at all serious about selling books, however, I wouldn’t advise that particular course of action. If you want your book to be purchased, read, and receive positive reviews, you need to do more than pour your own blood, sweat and tears into the words—you need to pour some money into it, too.

moneyUnfortunately, most writers don’t have piles of cash sitting around; instead they have bills, kids, retirement accounts and flooded basements (or is that just me?). If you have limited funds to spend, you need to prioritize: where is your money best spent in order to maximize your book’s chances of success?

1-A • Copyediting / Proofreading

We all took twelve years of English in school for a reason: grammar matters. Even in a world of texting and internet slang, it matters. Readers are intelligent, educated people, and nothing will get you a 1-star review from a jaded reader faster than a typo on the first page.

moneyBut Word has spell-check and grammar suggestions, right? Yes, yes it does—and you should use them. Nevertheless, Word won’t catch incorrect uses of their/there, accept/except and a thousand other errors.

1-B • Cover Art

There’s a reason why “never judge a book by its cover” is a saying—because people judge books by their covers. You’ve done it, I’ve done it, we’ve all done it.

Here’s the thing: a stunningly beautiful cover is likely going to cost thousands of dollars. But a good cover costs a fraction of that amount.

moneyIf you’re going to make your own cover and plan to use a stock image you found on the internet, buy the license for it! Thousands of stock photos can be purchased on sites like Shutterstock.

Premade covers are widely available, starting at $30 and topping out at around $200. Premade covers are nice because you know exactly what you’re getting. The downside is they aren’t exclusive, so another book may have the same cover.

Custom cover design can cost anywhere from $60 to multiple thousands of dollars, but quality work generally costs $200-$1,000. Do your research, decide how much you can realistically spend, then get the best art you can for that price.

2 • E-book Formatting

moneyEarlier I suggested you shouldn’t upload your Word manuscript directly to KDP. Here’s why: Word embeds a ridiculous amount of hidden HTML in its documents that can make the resulting e-book look like a train wreck. Ideally, you should submit your e-book in .mobi or .epub format (depending on the site) or as a filtered, customized HTML file. So unless you’re comfortable working in HTML, hiring a formatter to create your e-book file is a good idea.

An e-book with random line breaks mid-sentence, no page breaks between chapters, inconsistent chapter headings, and no hyperlinked table of contents is almost as bad as—and sometimes worse than—rampant typos. Poor e-book formatting screams “amateur” and makes the reader think the author didn’t care enough to make the book look nice.

moneyConversely, readers will overlook the occasional typo if the presentation is professional and pleasing to the eye. Things like stylized chapter headings and a well-formatted table of contents improve the reading experience and thus the reader’s overall impression of the book.

3 • Line Editing / Developmental Editing

Line editing or even full developmental editing can take your book from “good” to “exceptional.” Developmental editing involves refining the overall plot, structure, and character arcs. Line editing focuses on editing individual sentences and paragraphs for flow, presentation and clarity.

moneyThese services can be costly, however, and on a tight budget they shouldn’t be your top priority. The simple truth is that spending $1,000 on developmental editing isn’t going to help you if you don’t also invest in (1) and (2), because readers will never make it past the bad cover art, poor formatting and typos to read long enough to appreciate the quality of your character arcs.

If you do invest in extensive editing, choose carefully, because on the internet anyone can sell themselves as an editor—that doesn’t mean they’re a good one.

4 • Paperback Formatting

moneyPaperback formatting falls near the end of the list, if only because many independent authors don’t do paperbacks at all. Since self-published books aren’t stocked in Barnes & Noble or other large bookstores, most of your sales will be e-books.

If you are going to offer a paperback version, however, a well-formatted one is a thing of beauty.

5 • Marketing

Why is marketing last? With very few exceptions, paid marketing doesn’t work (what sells a book is word of mouth…and Bookbub). There will be a line around the corner of people trying to sell you advertising, because it is far more likely to make them money than you. If, after you’ve invested in (1) – (4), you have money to spend, do your research before spending it.


Try to determine your budget early on. If you’re able to afford line editing, terrific—but line editing needs to happen before proofreading, which needs to happen before formatting. So realizing you can afford a decent line edit after your e-book file is ready to go is going to create a bit of a mess.

This list is not gospel, nor is it set in stone—it’s my perspective after publishing four novels and watching the successes and failures of many writers. Self-publishing can be a wonderful, rewarding and even profitable venture—but it is a business venture, and in order to be successful you need to offer the best product you can create, and one you can take pride in.

gsjennsenG. S. Jennsen is a science fiction and speculative fiction author, as well as a futurist, digital artist, geek, and gamer. She lives in Colorado with her husband and their two furry, four-legged children. She has been a corporate attorney, software developer, editor, and is now a full-time author.

Her critically acclaimed space opera trilogy Aurora Rising is available in e-book, paperback and audiobook. See all her books on her Amazon Author Page or at She regularly hangs out on Twitter and Facebook, and can also be found on Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram.

Author photograph provided by G. S. Jennsen; “Stack of Dollars” image by Petr Kratochvil found at


Making Your E-Book Beautiful: The Steps We Take

E-book Production

Behind the Scenes with Bon Bons to Yoga Pants by Katie Cross

BonBons-cover-smallSometimes it’s the smallest details that take an e-book from just ordinary to something special. Let’s walk through the production process with a recent project: Bon Bons to Yoga Pants is the fifth book I’ve produced for indie author Katie Cross, but it’s the first one in a new genre and new series for her.

When a new project is on the virtual table, the first thing we have to establish is the stylesheet. How big should your chapter headings be in relation to the body text? Will the fine print on your copyright page be centered or left-aligned? In this case, we had an existing stylesheet from Katie’s Network Series books, but those are YA Fantasy while the new series is Contemporary ChickLit, so I started with the Network Series stylesheet as a base and then modified it.

heart-rightThen, there’s the question of art assets and graphic elements, if any. Many e-books don’t use any images other than the cover itself, and choose typographic symbols to embellish titles and create scene breaks. However, when you have lovely pieces of vector art available from your print book, you may want to use them in your e-book as well (there are pros and cons to doing this, and it’s part of the conversation we have with any new client). For Bon Bons to Yoga Pants, Katie’s fabulous cover designer—Jenny Zemanek with Seedlings Online—also created an adorable heart-and-swirls divider for scene breaks and a fun title banner with dots and hearts. The chapter titles and the dedication and read-more pages needed a little something, so I clipped some dots and hearts from the title banner to come up with additional embellishment pieces that matched the book’s design concept.


heart-leftOnce we’ve got the stylesheet and graphic design elements hammered out, it’s time for the finicky and time-consuming process of creating the e-book shell, importing the manuscript chapters into it, building the integrated table of contents, and applying any necessary font formatting. I go through every line by hand, cleaning up invisible bits of code and checking to make sure everything works and looks nice. I always appreciate clients like Katie who bring me professionally edited and proofread manuscripts, and so although I’m not hired as a proofreader, if the manuscript is already pretty clean I will flag anything I do happen to spot (it’s not my place to judge, but I can’t do this if the manuscript is a hot mess). Katie’s excellent print typesetter, Chris Bell with Atthis Arts, also catches things, so at some point in the process we end up exchanging lists of corrections. One of the reasons I love doing e-book production for Katie is the team of professionals she has surrounded herself with; at one point, I’d flagged “weigh in” as possibly needing a hyphen, and after a quick consultation with editor Catherine Payne of Quill Pen Editorial, Katie was able to get back to me and confirm that we were going with “weigh-in” anywhere it served as a noun rather than a verb. Clear, speedy communication keeps the whole team happy and the project flowing smoothly.

heart-rightAfter the manuscript content of the book is complete, the project is close to being wrapped up, but we still need to finish up the front matter and back matter. Since I’d already worked with Katie on four other books prior to Bon Bons to Yoga Pants, I had her “about the author” content on file and a pretty good idea of what else she’d want, but since it’s the first book in a new series and a different genre for her, we still needed to chat about the positioning and content of a few elements (e.g., “Other Books” in her Network Series is at the beginning, but “Read More” in the new series is at the end and laid out in a different way).

When the book itself is all done and looks perfect to the reader’s eye, there are still some invisible tweaks needed. Semantics tell the e-reading device where the reader should begin the book, among other things; Katie decided that she wanted Bon Bons to Yoga Pants to open at the Author’s Note up front, rather than the first page of the story. Metadata is embedded information, such as the “description” element (the e-book equivalent of a back cover blurb). These details go unseen and are not at all sexy, but when the book opens automatically to the right place, and appears in the reader’s e-book library with the correct information filled in, that’s a good thing.

heart-leftThe last step is to create different editions depending on the author’s needs. For Bon Bons to Yoga Pants, it was just the usual: a mobi format for Kindle and a Smashwords edition to comply with their licensing requirement, since it was being rushed straight to publication at the request of Katie’s Wattpad fans. But we can do any number of editions, if desired—an Advance Reader Copy? A launch team edition with a special note from the author included? All you have to do is ask.


Curious about this book?
Bon Bons to Yoga Pants is available wherever e-books are sold.

Got a manuscript of your own to publish?
Contact us and let’s get started…

Please note that all decorative elements on this page are from the book and are used with permission.
Many thanks to Katie Cross for allowing me to share the production process for her book.

Setting Semantics

E-book Production

a tip for those doing it alone

checkboxIf you’re making your own e-books or using a meatgrinder service, don’t forget about semantics.

Semantics are basically instructions to the e-reading device: “This page is the title page, this other page has the copyright information, there’s a dedication page here, and this one down there has your table of contents.”

checkboxThe e-book will function without semantics altogether, and some of those details are just a way of adding subtle polish, but there’s one that makes an immediate difference to a reader’s first impression of your book — the text reference (where the book should “open” on first reading).

When you load an e-book to your reading device and open it for the first time, what makes the better impression? A glimpse of the oh-so-sexy copyright page (which often happens to be the first page up after the cover)? Or the first page of the actual content, so you can dive right in and start reading?

checkboxSadly, I see a lot of books that don’t take advantage of this chance to make an awesome impression. Don’t let yours be one of them—make a deliberate choice about where your book should open for the first time. Do a little Googling to learn how, or ask a professional e-book formatter for help.

Need help? Troubleshooting and consulting services are available.

Check box graphic created by E-books Done Right.