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