Yes, you can self-publish a book for nothing. But along the way, there will be add-on options that cost money, and most writers won't be able to resist at least a few of them.

This email is the first of an occasional series on the costs of publishing, how to avoid unnecessary expenses, and why some costs may be worth incurring.

Publishing for free

If you have access to a computer, you can publish a book with no expense other than your time and labor. I've done it myself. If you have Microsoft Word (which you can use online for free), you can type your manuscript, upload it to a self-publishing platform like IngramSpark or Draft2Digital or Kindle Direct Publishing, choose templates for the interior and cover, and boom. The software will do the rest, and within days your book will be available for sale at the outlets you choose.

Your time and labor investment will include

  • Writing and editing the book
  • Browsing and choosing which publisher to use and creating an account
  • Filling in the metadata* for each format you want (ebook, paperback, hardcover)
  • Tweaking the supplied templates to get an interior and cover that you like**

How is this possible?

It's easy to understand how an online publisher can make an ebook available for sale and make money by taking a cut whenever someone buys it. But how can they afford to print and ship physical paperback and hardcover books on your behalf while you pay nothing? The answer is the miracle of print-on-demand (POD) technology. With POD printing, the publisher risks very little because a book is printed only after someone orders and pays for it.
A print-on-demand vending machine in a bookstore
Learn more: How the Espresso Book Machine has revolutionized publishing.
POD technology is a modern alternative to the traditional "print runs" of hundreds or thousands of books that used to be required in publishing. While it's more expensive per book to print one at a time, the savings in risk and warehousing are significant.

You pay nothing in advance. Instead, each time someone buys your book, the publisher keeps enough to cover production costs and their fee, and you get the rest.

And that is how literally millions of writers become authors every year.

Optional expenses worth considering

I'll write in more detail about each of these options in future, because there are pros and cons. A writer publishing a memoir just for themself and their loved ones has different goals and priorities from someone writing a sci-fi thriller. But in general, these expenses will create a better book and add marketing value:
  • Professional developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading
  • A custom cover design
  • Purchased ISBNs (book product numbers) as opposed to free ones
  • (For printed books) sample copies shipped to you for a quality check and proofreading, as well as copies for your shelf, which you can usually buy for a reduced rate.
Learn more: Listen to "Book Formats and Distribution," a podcast for beginners from The Self-Publishing Advice Podcast.
* "Metadata" can sound intimidating, but it's simply the hidden information you provide during the publishing process that helps shoppers locate your book online. It includes items like the book title and subtitle, keywords, categories, and longer descriptions of the work. I'll write more about metadata another time.

** I don't want to minimize these costs. Fussing online can run to hours and hours over several days, weeks, or months, depending on your standards and stamina. That said, I heard one author claim recently that after one or two books, she could upload a finished book in about a half hour. And of course, you can always pay someone else to do it - another optional expense.

Assumed Business Name Certificate, Duckweed Books

Nearly scammed!

Remember when I told you I filed an application for a DBA (Doing Business As) alias for Duckweed Books, and that it turned out to involve more expense than anticipated? Well, imagine how I felt getting a bill from Labor Compliance last week demanding $125 for mandatory posters to be displayed in the "workplace"! I googled around and found confirmation at the Department of Labor that these posters are indeed required "whether you have 1 employee or 1,000." The penalty for noncompliance: a $7,000 fine.

Heart sinking, I started a new search to find out whether I counted as an employee or not, but something prompted me to add the word "scam" to the search. Bingo! This time I learned that (a) the DOL provides the required posters for free, and (b) scams are common. I looked again at the letter I received. In the fine print were the words "Non-government publisher of blah-blah-blah to assist employers blah-blah."

Who needs this kind of grief?! But just as I was resolving not to renew my Duckweed Books DBA next year, my snazzy certificate arrived in the mail. I'm a sucker for certificates - I think I'll frame it. And no, I will not be sending away for  workplace posters.
Questions? Feedback?

YOUR book news

Let me know if you published a book (indie or traditional) in the last three months. I'll give you a shout-out in the next newsletter. 


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Thanks for reading! 

*If you scrolled all the way down here to find the notes, I'm sorry. Notes are in the khaki-colored boxes.
Read Previous Newsletters Here

At my Facebook page Writer, Editor, Helper you can comment on this newsletter, ask questions, and get to know other readers. I hope to see you there!
In Future Newsletters
  • Mistakes: I Make Them So You Don't Have To
  • Some Good Tools for Writing a Book
  • Metadata, Your New Best Friend
  • Working with a Cover Designer

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