Writing a book has been my dream since I was five. I have never strayed from that dream, but in my late teens and early 20s, I started to see that writing and publishing a book were only for the lucky. Even superstar writers like J.K. Rowling had to endure years of rejections before finally getting her break. Would it even be possible for someone like me to see my name in print?
Do you feel the same way? Do you wish you could make your dream of writing a book come true but do not even know where to start? I get it! I was in that same spot until I decided to make my own writing dreams come true with self-publishing.
In this guide, I walk you through my self-publishing process, break down the cost of self-publishing, talk about finding and hiring an illustrator, and how much money I make through my self-published books.
My Self-Publishing Story – It’s a Long One
My book idea, How to Sell Your Sister for Fun and Profit hit me like a ton of bricks when I was eight months pregnant with my second daughter (December 2014). I stuck it in my nightstand drawer, and there is lived for many months.
During the time, I researched book publishers, agents, the submission process and so on. When I was 14, I wrote a children’s book titled Where Is My Underwear? – A rhyming, talking-animal, type book of a little hare who lost his underwear. My family members all praised it, but it was quite bad. In that time, I sent out polished cover letters and submissions to any publisher or agent that would accept them. As you can imagine, nothing resulted from that.
This is the time that I was also reading a lot of children’s books and noticing some trends. There were a lot of children’s books being published by celebrities – most of them not very impressive. Also, there were a lot of children’s books being published to meet STEM and diversity demands – both amazing things, but my book did not fit in.
I stumbled upon a free webinar of dad saying he self-published his books and made a lot of money. He published Minecraft stories and Ninja Farts series. My thought was, “Wow, if he can sell his crappy-looking books, then maybe there is a chance for me.” If you think the same thing about me, then cheers to you! I have no doubt there are many that can write and self-publish better than I can, and I would love to see them succeed.
When My Books Started Taking Shape
This led me to interviewing illustrators and finally jumping in with both feet to get How to Sell Your Sister for Fun and Profit created. You would think that would be enough projects to take on, but I was very excited at this new discovery and had so many ideas swarming in my head. I also ordered illustrations for another book, Doggie Diner, and the cover for my first Blondie McGhee book. All different illustrators found through Upwork (Upwork stinks for freelance writing income, but is a treasure chest for finding talented illustrators).
I made so many poor decisions during this time (I’ll save that for another post). My sister book motivated me to write my first Blondie book, which was about 10,000 words. I had the idea for the series when I was pregnant with my first in 2012 (obviously being pregnant gives me a lot of ideas – haha!). I was tired of never taking action on my ideas and dreams, and so I just wrote it.
For the Blondie book, I ordered black and white sketches for the inside, paid an editor, and hired someone to read it for an audio version of it. When both books were listed for sale on Amazon, and I was able to hold my books in my hand, it was an unreal feeling. Yes, I had spent a lot of money for something that wasn’t guaranteed, but I had also made my dream come true.
I no longer had to think about the “what-ifs” or dream ab
out seeing my book in print. It was here. I made it happen through a non-conventional way. Honestly, I give all the glory to God because I am still in shock that anyone would actually read my book. Holding my books was just an amazing feeling, and whatever your passion in life is, I hope you accomplish it so you can feel the same incredible experience.
My Self-Publishing Results
I knew self-publishing wasn’t a guaranteed way to make money. I knew it was a risk. So, I asked myself, how many books do you have to sell to feel like it was worth it. My legitimate answer to this question was nine books. Not nine books a day or month, but if I could sell nine Blondie books, I would be happy.
Thankfully, my low expectations were far surpassed. I sold about 30-40 books a month through Amazon until a few months later. With these consistent sales, I knew just my family and friends weren’t buying the books. I then sold over 150 paperbacks in October, which blew my mind. Then in November, I sold over 400 paperbacks – again, mind blown. Then December that year, I sold over 750 paperbacks (I had three Blondie books out at this time, but most of the sales were for the first one).
Those numbers are for my Blondie books. How to Sell Your Sister so
ld about 40-50 books that first year, most from people I knew or from doing boutiques. It was not the success I wanted it to be, but I am so happy I wrote it. My two older girls know the book is about them. My dentist is a huge fan and has it on display in his office. I wrote the book for myself and my kids, and I am excited that it serves as a tangible reminder to pursue their dreams. I am also thankful that sister book gave me the confidence to pursue my passion for writing early chapter book series.
What does the future hold for me? I have several more books coming out this year. I love what I do and will keep writing as long as I have readers. I also have a lot of adult cozy mystery book ideas I want to pursue, so I am hoping to hop into the adult genre under a pen name this year.
Benefits of Self-Publishing
Many people will assume that self-published authors are ones that nobody else wants. This is not always the case. I don’t think my sister book would have been picked up because of the limited appeal (or if it was, they might change the characters to a boy and a girl to broaden the appeal). My Blondie series and new series I am publishing soon, State Sleuths, might have been picked up. So why didn’t I bother sending manuscripts in? Don’t I want to be a “real published author?”
I chose the self-published path for so many different reasons, and I do not regret it for a second. Here is why I love self-publishing so much:
Have More Control
If a publisher wanted to publish my sister book that they would have illustrated the book off of a picture of my two girls? Definitely not. When a traditional publisher produces your book, they have the final say on illustration choice, cover choice, title, words, marketing plan, etc.
To Earn More Money
Authors generally get an advance, anywhere from $500 to $8,000. Of course, the big authors will get a sizable advance. This advance isn’t a free pay day. Authors must earn this money back through royalty sales before they can make an additional profit off of their book. If the book doesn’t sell that many copies, though, the author doesn’t have to pay back the advance.
Average royalties on books are slim. You can expect will get 3.5-6% royalties on picture books (because royalties are split with the illustrator) and 7-10% royalty on novels. Depending on your contract, this is either the royalty off of retail price, or net price (the price after all of the discounts and publisher’s expenses).
So, if your picture book is marketed at $10.99, that means you can expect to earn .38 to .66 off of each book sold. If your novel is $6.99, you can expect to earn .49 to .70 off each sale. You will earn more off of eBook sales, and hopefully your contract would include fair international sales too.
I didn’t want to wait over a year to see the physical manifestation of my book. Some authors even wait two years! I am able to dictate how many books I put out a year and how many books I want in my series. Prolific writers are profitable ones. I published three Blondie McGhee books my first year, and that was my most profitable year. In just December 2016, I sold over 750 paperbacks.
-Less Marketing: The more you market your book, the better your sales will be. However, I just don’t have the time to invest in a lot of marketing. With traditional publishing, they would want you to be promoting your book constantly, through social media, interviews, author visits, etc. There is a reason why I don’t do MLM companies. I don’t like to push people to buy things. With self-publishing, I was able to market at a comfortable level the first few years and still be profitable. Now I am ready to spend more time and effort on my books, so I am excited to see the business grow.
Maybe it is because I am cheap, but I do not spend a lot of money on books for my kids. If you look at new releases, most come out in hardcover first and cost over $10 per book. For example, this cute book, President of Poplar Lane just came out February 12th. You can buy this 288-page book for $16.99 in hardcover or $9.99 for Kindle. What a turn off! The pricing is so high, and the author is not getting much of my money if I do buy it.
I like that at $6.99, someone can buy my book and get free shipping on top of that. I also love that I make just over $2 per book, but if I needed to price it even more competitively, I still have some wiggle room.
Your Book Remains Your Property
A traditional publisher will only print a certain number of books. Most books do not even make it into paperback. If your book doesn’t sell well or age well, then good luck seeing any money on it a year or two later. As a self-publisher, I can update my covers and re-release the book if it stops selling. I can add fun bonus material whenever I want. I can even combine the first five books into one book – which I did.
How Much Do I Earn Off My Books?
When I set out to write books for kids, I didn’t expect to earn much. No, it doesn’t pay a lot, but it has earned me over $11,000 since starting.
For a full-colored children’s book, the printing costs are more. This means I have to set my How to Sell Your Sister paperback to $9.45 to earn $2.02 from it. If I order copies in bulk and sell them myself, I can earn more per copy.
For my Blondie series, I try to price them as competitively as possible. At a list price of $6.99, they are priced about the same as other books in the genre. If the book is sold on Amazon, then I earn a 60% royalty and make $2.04 per book. If the book is distributed through expanded distribution, i.e. bookstores, online retailers, or libraries purchase them, I only make 40% royalty for a whooping $0.65 per book.
When my eBooks are new, I set them to $2.99 in price. You must set your price to $2.99 to receive 70% royalty from Amazon. If you set your price point for less than $2.99, you will earn 35%. At $2.99, I earn $2.06 off of each eBook.
Kindle Unlimited is a service offered to Prime customers. For $9.99 a month, they can read as many books in the program as their heart desires. The pay to authors is quite low, but many self-published authors like sticking with the program because it gives their book a larger market. More customers are willing to take a chance on your book if they feel like they are reading it for free (which is how most KU customers see the program because that is how it is marketed, despite the monthly fee).
Kindle Unlimited royalties change often, but generally, 1,000 pages read would earn an author $4.60. eBooks are about 186 words per page, meaning they are counted as more pages than a typical print book. For a standard-sized novel, two customers reading their book could earn them $4.60, and if the book is listed for $1.99 for the Kindle edition, then they are making more through the KU program.
For my shorter children’s books, the KU program doesn’t earn me a lot of money. In the past 90 days, I have had 12,457 page reads (and sold 506 books, a combination of eBooks and paperback). I earned about $57 through those page reads, whereas I earned the same amount through 29 paperback sales.
I will continue with the KU program for many different reasons. I am a fan of the program myself, and I write books because I want them to be read and enjoyed. I don’t just write them to make money off of them. My books average from 80 to 90 pages in eBook size, which means, that in the past 90 days, 140 of my books were consumed by readers through KU.
That is pretty cool, right? Want to hear something even cooler. All of those page reads did not come from the United States. Over 4,000 pages were read in India. Over 3,500 in the UK (fun fact, my paperbacks sell well in the UK, where I have done zero marketing), and over 1,000 in Australia. As Amazon publishing gets bigger, so does my reach.
How Much Does It Cost to Self-Publish?
There are so many price variations to consider when self-publishing. I have spent $100 on a book and $2,800 on a book. Here are some of the cost factors:
Price varies widely for this. For my Blondie book, I paid $10-15 per black and white sketch for the inside cover. For How to Sell Your Sister for Fun and Profit, I paid $2,800 for everything (all images and the cost to have my book created in English, Spanish, and Italian).
Covers can cost $100-600, depending on how complicated the cover is. You can hire this through Upwork or go through 99Designs.
Expect to pay $3-7 per page, depending on what type of editing is being done. In-depth editing costs more, but is more thorough. Some editors will charge more for helping fix plot issues along with grammar mistakes. You want to hire an editor who is experienced in editing books, rather than hiring someone who is just good at grammar.
Amazon offers templates so you can format yourself. You can also pay someone to do the work for you and ensure that everything looks professionally done. The cost ranges anywhere from $49 to a few hundred dollars, depending on the book.
ISBNs are free through Amazon publishing, but if you want to create your own ISBN so that it looks like you are the publisher rather than Amazon, then you can purchase your own ISBN. Each product will need a unique ISBN. This means that one published book will need an ISBN for the print version and eBook version. Authors in the U.S. can buy an ISBN from Bowker for about $125 or a 10 pack for $295 (100 and 1,000 packs also available). Authors in the UK can purchase an ISBN from Nielsen for £89.00 per ISBN or packs of 10, 100, and 1,000 for a discount. For authors not in the U.S. or UK, try the ISBN International Agency for assistance.
Hardcover and Board Book Printing
Createspace, which was an extension of Amazon, is no longer used. Now you do your Kindle(eBook) and paperback publishing through Amazon. They offer on-demand paperback printing. If you want your book in hardcover or board book, then I suggest getting a free quote from LuLu or PrintNinja.
Getting reviews is a good thing, but you cannot nor should you pay for reviews. However, you should provide complimentary copies for individuals who are interested in being your beta readers. Sending out eBook versions to readers is free. However, sending out physical copies will cost you about $5 a book with the cost of publishing and shipping.
I paid $50 for an audio version of How to Sell Your Sister and $100 for an audio version of Blondie McGhee. Both of the voiceover artists were on Upwork. What I didn’t realize is that when you purchase the audio version it is a raw version of audio, not a polished clip. My husband had to edit the audio to remove background noise, take out mistakes, and add in corrected words (like the pronunciation of Eneriz and dachshund).
Book Trailers and Promo Images
I have not done this, but many authors create fun videos for their book promotion strategy. You can create a book trailer video and promo images yourself through free tools. Hiring it out can save you time and look more professional. Research what other authors have done and get quotes from Fiverr and Upwork.
If you want your book to have its own website, then expect to pay about $300-400 for the domain name, hosting, and design/layout if you DIY. Expect to pay more if you hire a professional.
Advertising prices vary widely depending on your platform. Advertising through Amazon is affordable, and you can set your daily budget. You can also advertise on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and on individual websites.
This was an optional thing I did for my sister book. I actually got the books translated for free by chance. The first illustrator I was going to work with was Italian. I asked her for the price quote and if there was an extra charge for Italian translation. When she got back to me, I had already decided on the other illustrator, and she told me she loved the story so much that she translated it into Italian for free.
The illustrator that I hired was a native Spanish speaker, and she included the translation for free too. I just had to pay a little extra for her to add the translated typography to the different pages. Expect to pay $0.10 to $0.25 per word for translated copy. For a children’s book, this is affordable, but it can be pricy for a longer book. You want someone fluent in the language so that they are not just translating the words, but also translating the meaning.
I don’t do this whole list for all of my books. These are just things that you might want to do to help promote and sell your book. Before spending a dollar on your book, figure out how you are going to market it, and then get a price quote for everything involved. I did not realize how much it would cost me to create my book. Things add up quickly.
Finding and Hiring Illustrators
Getting illustrations done for your book is one of the most exciting aspects. However, when you stink at all things art, it can be quite a task to find the right illustrator that can make the vision in your head come alive.
That is the first step. You need to have a clear vision of what you want your book to look like. When I first started interviewing illustrators on Upwork for How to Sell Your Sister, I would ask the artists to do a test drawing off a picture of my daughters. The results that came back were all over the place. All of the illustrators were talented, but they didn’t match my taste in style.
This is when I started to look at other picture books to find a style I did want. I really wanted my illustrations to look similar to the style found in How to Babysit a Grandma and How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth. This allowed me to be clearer in what I wanted the artist to do and helped match me with an amazing illustrator in Europe.
I did the same process for my Blondie McGhee series. I researched what the popular chapter books for girls in the 7 to 10 age range looked like. I really liked how the Cupcake Diaries series had a clean look to it, and I created my cover based off of that. I sent a few sample covers to the illustrator, along with the description that I wanted the character to be in a yellow trench coat with blonde pigtails and glasses. I wanted Blondie to look like a fourth-grade version of myself, which seems a little vain now.
Once you have an idea of what you want your book to look like, start researching illustrators. Look at portfolios and get quotes. I found great illustrators both on and off Upwork and talked with over a dozen people before deciding who to hire. I also asked illustrators how much they would charge for a sample drawing to see if we were a good fit. Most quoted me at $20-30, and this allowed me to better see if they were a good fit for my book without fully committing.
Through traditional publishing, illustrators can earn a royalty per book sold after their advance is earned back. I did not want to enter into that kind of contract. Not only does it cost more money, but it is a headache to keep track of. I strongly recommend you pay a one-time fee for illustrations and that there are no-strings attached, like how many books you can sell or limits to how you can use the illustrations.
You do need some type of contract agreement about how much is paid, when it is paid, and deadlines. I think it is wise to include in your contract defined rights for images and usage for both author and illustrator. Expect to pay a portion of your fee before any work is done. This protects the illustrator.
If you use Upwork, it is easy to set up milestone payments. I like using Upwork because the third-party platform protects both parties. If you make a payment upfront and the illustrator never delivers the work, you can easily get your money back. Paying an illustrator through PayPal might offer similar protections, but do your research first.
Word Count and Age Ranges for Children’s Books
It is important to know what type of book you want to write and to stick in the guidelines. Yes, of course, some books break these guidelines. The Harry Potter series is way too long for its genre. The first book is considered middle grade and over 70,000 word, the fourth book is over 190,000 words, and the sixth book is over 257,000 words. Rowling is definitely one of the few who can get away with this rule breaking and still be successful.
Most of us should stick within the popular perimeters, unless we have already established our fan base. You don’t want your premier children’s book to be longer than what your audience is used to because you will scare them away. Even when I listen to audiobooks, I tend to put off the eight-hour books and go for the five-hour ones.
Here are the guidelines I tweaked from the publishing industry:
- Board Books: For ages newborn to 3, 100-300 words
- Picture Books: For 5 and under, 400-800 words, popular books are about 32-pages
- Early Readers: 5+ years old, 2,000 to 5,000 words
- Early Chapter Books: 6-9 years old, 5,000 to 13,000 words
- Chapter Books: 7-10 years old, 15,000 to 25,000 words
- Middle Grade (MG): 8-12 years old, 30,000 to 50,000 words
- Young Adult (YA): 12-18 years old, 50,000 to 79,000 words
The publishing industry standards didn’t have early chapter books listed as their own category. This is a huge market and where my Blondie books fall under. I discovered this market of books through research and experience with my own daughter. The traditional chapter book, like Charlotte’s Web (over 30,000 words) was too long for my daughter, but beginning readers were too easy. I noticed a lot of short chapter books that had more spacing between the words and pictures in the books labeled early chapter books at the library.
Another missing section is a category marketed just towards tweens. Many parents do not want their 13-year-olds reading books that are written for a 17-year-old. The reading level or book length are not the problem, it is the subject matter. Keep this in mind when you are writing. If your target audience is supposed to be 13 or 14, then they are worrying about fitting in, not drugs, sex, and parties. Yes, there are many 13- and 14-year-olds that are into a more mature scene. However, majority of your audience are more interested in reading a character’s embarrassing pant-ripping while forced to run stairs in P.E. scene than a drug trip scene.