The 4-year journey to publish Powerless (and how much it cost)

As the release of Powerless approaches (eek! Please pre-order!), I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes look at what went into producing this book.

If you’re considering self-publishing a book, note that you do not need to do everything I did. I’ll note after each step which ones I think are essential and which ones aren’t.

You also don’t need take as long as I did – one of the reasons that my book took so long from conception to print (almost four years) was because I originally wanted to get traditionally published, and spent over 18 months in the query trenches before deciding to start the self-publishing process. I also took long breaks between each round of drafting, revisions and feedback – partly because I wanted to come back to the book with fresh eyes, partly because I was working on other projects during the gaps, and partly because of … life (it happens). 

In hindsight, I think I could have finalised the text in 12-18 months, which still would have left time for mental breaks between each round of revisions. For the publishing process, I could have produced the book in two or three months, but I think six months is a good amount of time because it leaves space for when things go wrong (see cover design for more about this) as well as marketing. 

Finally, you don’t need to spend as much as I did. It’s possible to learn all the skills to self-publish a book yourself, and to do it for very little cost. I took the approach of outsourcing the process – I hired editors, an illustrator and designers, because:

  1. I wanted to get the best possible result (if I did my own cover, it would have been laughable)
  2. I thought it would be more valuable for me to spend the time I had outside my day job writing other books, instead of learning the skills to produce everything myself

With those disclaimers out of the way, here’s how I published Powerless!

Step 1: Write the goddamn book!

This might seem like a silly place to start, but you can’t publish a book until you’ve written said book.

For Powerless, I spent October 2019 using Save the Cat, Story Engineering and Take Off Your Pants to develop an outline. Then I wrote the first draft (68,000 words) in November and December – about 54,000 words I did in November for Nanowrimo, at which point I had a break for nearly two weeks and then finished it before the end of the year.

Would I recommend this step? Uh, yeah. If you want to publish a book, this part is kind of important.

Cost: This step can be free, though in the interest of transparency, I spent AUD49.50 on the books, and AUD12 on a 4thewords subscription. 

(A note on costs: My expenses were in a range of currencies – USD, AUD, EUR and GBP, depending on where I was living at the time and who I was working with. I’ve converted everything to AUD using current exchange rates (about AUD1.5 to USD1) to make things easier to follow.)

Step 2: Revisions

Technically ‘revisions’ could cover everything you do to turn your book from a first draft into something ready to print and distribute. For me, that process included my own reviews, working with beta readers, and working with editors. So for ease, I’ll cover my initial revisions here and will then move on to when I started getting external feedback.

After leaving Powerless in a drawer for four months, I re-read it and realised I really liked the story. Yay! (This is always a good sign.)

There was definitely room for improvement, though. My goal was to put the relationship between Hanna and her sister Maria at the heart of the story, but that didn’t really come through in the first draft. The main reason for this is because the sisters are separated at around the 20-25% mark of the story, so Maria isn’t around for a lot of it.

I addressed this by adding flashbacks throughout, which I felt was the missing piece. I also added a couple of chapters to the beginning of the book, and reworked some chapters in the middle that I felt were lagging. Once I made these changes, I sent the book to beta readers.

Would I recommend this step? Yes. Even if your first draft is amazing, you can improve.

Cost: Free!

Step 3: Beta readers

I asked three friends to read the book, and gave them a list of questions to help structure their feedback (though also said they could just send me a brain dump with their thoughts). 

Of the friends I chose, one is an editor and author, one is a fellow aspiring writer, and one is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience. I reached out to the writer friends because I thought they could give me feedback on the story, characters, world building, etc. – all the writing things. And I reached out to the doctoral candidate because there is some made-up science in the book that I wanted to feel believable.

They each had the book for 2-3 weeks and came back to me – each person sent an email/a document outlining their overall thoughts, and they also sent back the book itself with comments throughout. I also had follow-up calls with two of them. 

I went through the feedback and took note of what made sense to me (pretty much everything did). If I didn’t agree with something, I waited to see if someone else commented on it. If more than one person brought something up, I changed it. My favourite part of this process was merging the three documents that had all of their comments and seeing where the comments clustered – if there was a place where all three of them had written ‘oh no!’, then I knew I’d done something right.

Would I recommend this step? Definitely! If you don’t have anyone who might be an appropriate beta reader, though, this step could be replaced with a manuscript critique (or a couple). I think it’s important to get feedback, but there are different options for getting that feedback.

Cost: Free! I’ll send everyone a book once it’s ready, so there’s 3 books and postage to consider here.

Step 4: Manuscript critiques

In the end, I had four manuscript critiques for Powerless. These were:

  • 2020: Editor critique of the first 50 pages. This was done at the same time as my beta reads, and the goal here was both to get feedback, but also to see if I wanted to work with this editor on the whole book.
  • 2021: Critique of the entire book by a book coach. I happened to have a friend who was doing a book coaching certification, and for one of her assessments, she needed to write an editorial letter on a manuscript of around 80,000 words, so I got a free critique.
  • 2022: Critique of the first 50 pages. In early 2022 I entered Powerless in a bunch of competitions for unpublished books, and one of these had the option to get a critique for an extra fee.
  • 2022: Editor critique of the entire book, plus line editing. I booked this in when I decided to self-publish.

Okay, so what is a manuscript critique? A manuscript critique is where someone (usually an editor) reads your book and then writes a report on it. In this report, they outline what you did well and areas for improvement. The cost and level of detail may vary, so here’s what I got:

Powerless manuscript critique comparison table.

Powerless manuscript critique comparison

So the gist of what you get here (feedback on the book and areas for improvement) is similar to what you can get with a beta read. The main difference is that here you’re getting the feedback of a professional, whereas most beta readers will give you feedback as readers. Both of these are valuable.

When it comes to cost, this can vary significantly. From what I’ve seen, what I paid for the first critique was fairly standard (though this would be proportionately higher for the entire book), while the last one was very expensive. So let’s look at why!

For the final critique, I reached out to NY Book Editors to get Powerless edited. I’d been familiar with this company for years, and what I liked about them was that they only worked with editors with a background in traditional publishing. As someone who wanted the validation of a traditional publishing house, getting feedback from someone with this background was very important to me.

I wasn’t sure what level of editing they would think was appropriate for Powerless, so I submitted a sample for a sample edit. Based on this, the editor recommended a manuscript critique, with the following options:

  1. A 5+ page manuscript critique with a one-hour follow-up call – AUD3,378
  2. A 7+ page critique with a one-hour follow-up call, with margin comments throughout the book – AUD4,462
  3. Option 2 + a 20-page line edit – AUD5,064

I went for option 2, with the price being slightly higher because I’ve included the AUD248 trial edit you have to get at the beginning so the editor can assess your work.

My experience with my editor was good – he gave insightful feedback and a lot of encouragement. In fact, he thought I should self-publish, which was a good sign! He was also very generous with his time, and stayed on the follow-up call with me for over two hours as I went through the manuscript and asked questions about different comments he’d left throughout. And this is one of the things I wanted from a traditional publisher – the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone who knew what they were talking about.

Do I think the service was worth the cost, though? No. I’m glad I did it, but shortly afterwards I discovered Reedsy’s freelance marketplace, where there are a lot of editors with traditional publishing backgrounds offering their services. 

This meant I could have gone straight to the copyedit stage of the process with an editor with a similar background, thereby getting the same reassurance without the price tag. 

Would I recommend this step? If you don’t have beta readers who can provide good feedback (or if you don’t feel confident after addressing your beta reader feedback), then this can be a good option. In my case, next time I plan to focus on beta reader feedback (possibly with multiple rounds), and go straight to copyedits when I’m comfortable with the book.

Cost: Varies significantly based on the experience and reputation of your editor

Step 5: Copyedits/Line edits

Copyedits and line edits both focus on the language of your book. They both assume that the macro issues (structure, character, world building, etc.) are solid, which means it’s time to drill down into spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, etc.

Some editors will use these terms interchangeably, while some will separate them. Usually, line edits are a step higher than copyedits, looking at paragraph and sentence structure and flow, while copyedits get more into the nitty gritty.

My editor, Sara, covered both when she did my edits.

Sara is a friend and former colleague from Grammar Factory, so I was familiar with her work and attention to detail. When I decided to self-publish Powerless, I reached out on the off chance that she had some capacity, and she had a January window which fit my timeline perfectly!

She charges per hour and was generous enough to both cap her rate and the hours she expected to spend on the edit, with a total rate of AUD1,500 for the copyedit. This was absolutely worth it – she made over 4,500 changes to the final manuscript, catching so many things I never would have noticed. She also gave me the final confidence boost I needed to go to print.

Would I recommend this step? Yes – this one is non-negotiable. I don’t care how much you read or what marks you got for English in school – you need a second set of eyes on your work.

Cost: Varies depending on the editor’s experience and reputation. I paid AUD1,500.

Step 6: Internal layout & eBook design

After reviewing the copyedits, I handed my Word document to my internal layout designer to turn it into a book! This is when the content of your book is reformatted for print – in my case, to be printed as a paperback and hardcover.

Many indie authors take care of this step themselves, and I did consider it. I knew the layout of my book wasn’t going to be complex – I mainly needed chapter titles and text. 

But, doing it myself would have involved learning to use a new software, and I would have always worried about whether it looked like a ‘real’ book. I had other priorities – while all of this was happening, I was drafting two other books, working on the marketing for Powerless, and doing my day job. When I got home from work at the end of the day, I didn’t want to choose between writing and designing the pages for Powerless – I wanted to be free to focus on my writing. This meant outsourcing the page design.

I found my designer, Jessica, on Reedsy and she was incredible. My goal for my layout design was for it to look professional (like a ‘real’ book), and Jessica went above and beyond when it came to suggesting unique touches, like the DNA ornamentation on the chapter title pages (which I love!) and molecule symbols for scene separators.

Would I recommend this step? Yes. This is one of the things you can learn to do yourself (I’ve heard Vellum is a good tool for this), but it’s very time consuming, and I wanted to focus on my writing instead. 

Cost: Varies depending on the designer’s experience and reputation. I paid AUD900 for my designer to do the paperback, hardcover and eBook versions of the book.

Step 7: Proofread

The proofread is the final language check. While this can be done while your book is still a Word document, I wanted to get it done after the pages had been laid out.

There were two reasons for this. First, if anything goes wrong when the text is imported into InDesign, this gives us a chance to catch it before the book gets uploaded to Amazon, etc.. 

The second reason was that, because Sara was doing my proofread as well as the copyedit, I wanted the content to be in a different format so that it would feel like she was looking at something new. That would help ensure that she caught most (hopefully all!) remaining issues.

Sara charged AUD800 for the proofread, and not only looked at the language but also highlighted any unusual word breaks at the end of lines, which was very helpful.

Would I recommend this step? Yes, absolutely. I can see why some people might skip it, if they had a very thorough copyedit (like I did), but I feel like these language checks are essential – I don’t want any errors that will drag people out of the story, and I know my attention to detail isn’t good enough to catch these errors myself.

Cost: Varies depending on the designer’s experience and reputation. I paid AUD800.

Step 8: Cover design

In an ideal world, I would have done my cover earlier in the process. As soon as copyedits had been booked in (because copyedits mean the content is almost ready to go).

The reason for this is because you can’t really market your book without a cover. You can do a little – I started telling people about the book informally – but we are visual creatures, and having a beautiful image of a book is more likely to get attention than a line of text.

The challenge I had was, while I knew a few cover designers, I didn’t know any illustrators. And the comparison titles I was using to brief my cover designer all had illustrated artwork.

So I started looking for an illustrator. I went on Reedsy and found two illustrators who worked in YA sci-fi and fantasy. I went on Instagram and Deviantart and searched for fan art for properties I liked. I also reached out to a former colleague who had been doing a character design course when we last spoke, so I assumed he’d have some illustration skills.

The colleague asked if we could touch base in a few weeks due to some things happening in his personal and work life, so we set up a time for mid-January and he confirmed he was happy to work on the book!

I shared our working process in my cover reveal video on YouTube, which got us to the gorgeous visual we have now with Hanna’s hands holding a beaker and a gun, with a DNA chain around her wrists and images of Sudovia and a lab in the background.

While this process was largely good and I’m very happy with the final design, it took much longer than expected. The timeline we originally discussed was mid-January to the end of February, and we didn’t finalise everything until May (one month before my launch date 😬).

Here’s how it worked:

  • December – Reach out via email and share briefing document
  • January – Kick-off call in mid-January, add some more details to the brief on the designer’s request, share the book with him. First round of concepts provided by the end of the month and we both agreed on the one we liked.
  • February – Chose colour scheme and typography. The designer provided an illustrated version, but his style was quite different to the reference covers I’d provided, so we decided to go with the photographic version (this was originally just a mockup to choose the concept and layout) instead. 
  • March – Did the full paperback layout (front, back and spine) followed by the hardover layout. I ordered some paperback copies from my distributor (IngramSpark).
  • April – My copies arrived and I thought they were a bit dark, so discussed brightening them up with my designer. I sent him a copy of the book which he got in late April.
  • May – Made final tweaks to the cover (changing title formatting and brightening some elements) and uploaded new files to distributor.

Why did it take so long?

First, my designer was unfortunately going through a difficult time. In this period, he lost a family member, lost his job, and started a new one. This meant there were some times where I didn’t hear from him for a week or two. 

The second part was that my designer is an excellent designer, but he isn’t an experienced book cover designer. This meant there was a lot of back and forth on some areas, which added more time. We tried 12 different title fonts before settling on the final one (only to change it again after seeing the physical proofs). The dust jacket template provided by IngramSpark was a bit confusing, and I had about a week of back-and-forth with them trying to clarify the dimensions. And then the printed copies were darker than expected, which was hard to predict based on how the cover looked on screen (and he didn’t have the print experience to predict this).

The final piece was just related to the printed version, which was that I’m in Australia while he’s in Hungary, so it took two weeks for the book I sent him (Express!) to reach him.

Looking at the dates in our massive email thread (over 120 emails!), I estimate that these things cost us 8-10 weeks, or about two months.

Because of this, I’d still like to work with this designer for Powerless 2 (title TBC) so the covers have the same look and feel, but for future books I’d probably work with someone who is experienced in book cover design.

Having said all of that, he very generously offered to do the cover for free, so I saved significantly here. Based on my past experience publishing non-fiction books, I was used to custom cover design prices around AUD1,000 (note that you can get template covers for much cheaper – as little as AUD100). The quotes I got for this project were significantly higher due to the illustration component, ranging from AUD5,000 to AUD15,000.

Would I recommend this step? Unless you’re a professional designer, yes. People judge books by their covers all the time. Given my experience, though, I’d look for a designer who is experienced in book cover design, as it was quite stressful seeing the timelines blow out.

Cost: Anywhere from AUD500 to AUD15,000. 

Step 9: eBook, POD and distribution

Okay, time for a vocab lesson!

  • eBook: An electronic version of a book, like you can read on a kindle, Nook or mobile app.
  • POD: Print on demand, a printing system where a distributor has digital copies of a book’s pages and cover and prints them as they are ordered. This means you don’t need to pay to print 5,000 books, or to get a warehouse to store those books in.
  • Distribution: How your books get to readers. Traditionally, this was via bricks-and-mortar bookstores and libraries. Today, most people buy through sites like Amazon and Booktopia, as well as online versions of retail stores like the Barnes & Noble or Waterstones websites.

These might sound like they’re all different steps, but it all happens in one step. Basically, now that your book has been designed, you upload the files to a retailer (like Amazon) and readers can buy your book directly from them.

If you don’t have a designer who can do .epub files (the format for most eReaders), some distributors can convert the files for your printed book for you.

Once I had my pages, cover and eBook designed, I used two services for distribution – Amazon and IngramSpark.

IngramSpark is an aggregator, which means you can upload your books once, and they will feed them out to tens of thousands of retailers. So, if you use IngramSpark, your book is available for order at Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Booktopia and more. I had used them in the past for client books at Grammar Factory, so I knew what I was getting into.

What was new was Amazon. IngramSpark covers Amazon as well, but I wanted to upload my files to Amazon directly. First, if I listed my book on Amazon directly, I could run ads on Amazon, which was part of my marketing strategy.

Second, Amazon is the world’s largest book retailer, and the majority of most indie authors’ sales come from Amazon (especially for eBoos). Because of this, I thought it was valuable to be able to see my sales data in real time.

While IngramSpark is convenient, you lose the functionality that is available by publishing directly to certain platforms, and given Amazon’s size, it made sense to exclude them from my IngramSpark distribution plans.

The challenge was, IngramSpark allows you to distribute print books before they go on sale (as pre-orders), while Amazon only allows this for eBooks. Because of this, while I would have liked to use Amazon for both print and eBook sales on that platform, I only used Amazon for the eBook (so the print and hardcover versions of the book you can see on Amazon are distributed by IngramSpark.

The process for both is fairly simple:

  1. Sign up for an account
  2. Complete a form with all the book details (title, author name, description, keywords, pricing, etc.)
  3. Upload your artwork (print files for cover and pages, and .epub file for the eBook)

The process with Amazon was very fast – the eBook appeared on the website a couple of days after I uploaded the files. 

IngramSpark was a bit slower – after I uploaded my print files, it took 7 days for them to be approved. Then I could enable distribution, and it can take up to 6 weeks before the book appears on all websites (it still isn’t appearing on some sites, and it’s been almost two months at the time of writing). In some cases, it will appear, but the information will be incomplete (my paperback didn’t have cover images on Amazon for weeks, and the hardcover version still doesn’t).

Would I recommend this step? Yes – put your books where people can find them.

Cost: Amazon was free, IngramSpark was USD49 (AUD74) per upload (I could do the paperback and eBook as a single upload, and the hardcover was a separate one, so that’s USD98 (AUD147) all up). Note that since I did my uploads, IngramSpark has removed their upload fee

Step 10: Marketing

Now that the book is available for pre-order, it’s time to market it! I’m going to do a separate post on my marketing campaign and costs, simply because it’s hard to know what I would/wouldn’t recommend when I haven’t seen results yet.

At a high level, marketing covers:

  • Self-generated content
  • Influencer outreach
  • Reviews
  • Advertising

For the first two points, there is no cost but there is a high investment of time. It takes time to write a blog post like this, or to film a video for my YouTube channel. It takes time to reach out to 300 influencers to see if they’d like to review my book or interview me.

The self-generated content is where I’m expecting the lowest ROI, but I enjoy doing it. I also can see longer term benefits to doing this sort of content – while it may not measurably help with book sales, I’m building a library of content my readers can return to. When they’re waiting in the lull between the release of one book and the next, they’ll have blog posts and videos to consume. Hopefully they won’t forget about me because of this 😅

For the influencer outreach, the gamble here is how many people will actually want to do something with me. Most of my messages have gone unanswered, but I have a handful (mostly on Instagram) who will be talking about Powerless during launch week. The goal is to get in front of potential readers I couldn’t have reached on my own. Instead of shouting into the void, I’m shouting (well, speaking nicely) to someone’s podcast audience or YouTube audience or Instagram followers.

The final two pieces – reviews and advertising – are the ones where there is a monetary cost, though there’s less of a time investment. At the time of writing, it’s looking like I’ll spend AUD5,000 on these expenses. Yes, it’s a lot, but I feel like it’s also the best chance of me getting in front of readers as an unknown author. (Originally, I’d planned to spend AUD10,000, but it’s hard to justify that number when I’ve spent so much on other parts of the process, and when I’m not sure how well the ads will perform.)

Will it be worth it? Only time will tell!

Other: Competitions

This isn’t technically a self-publishing step, but it is another expense related to Powerless, so I think it’s worth including for the sake of transparency.

Originally I’d hoped to get Powerless traditionally published, and after about six months of unsuccessful querying, I started entering it into competitions for unpublished books in the hope that it might win something and draw the attention of an agent or editor.

The good news? I won something! Powerless won the Killer Nashville Claymore Award for the best unpublished novel in the YA category, and it was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Dante Rossetti book awards. 

This didn’t get me any traditional publishing interest (though I did use it as an excuse to send out another round of queries), but the confidence boost was nice. All in all, I spent AUD590 on competition entries. For Killer Nashville, I decided to go to the conference for the awards ceremony, which added another AUD2,200 for flights from Europe, accommodation and the conference ticket.

Would I recommend this step? No. I’m glad I did it, but this expense doesn’t hold much value on the self-publishing side of things (it’s nice to say I won an award, but I’m not sure how many of my readers would actually care). I’m not sure how much weight it holds on the traditional publishing side of things either.

Cost: AUD2,800 (competitions, plus the Killer Nashville conference, flights and accommodation).

The final verdict

At the time of writing, my total budget for Powerless is about AUD21,000 (USD14,000). The breakdown is:

  • Editing: AUD8,000
  • Cover design: Free
  • Internal layout design: AUD900
  • eBook, POD, distribution: AUD147
  • Printing and postage: AUD374
  • Marketing: AUD8,850 (this includes more than just advertising, so I’ll break it down in an article on marketing costs and results)
  • Competitions: AUD2,800

Yes, it’s a lot 😅

Would I spent it all again? No, there are clear areas where I could make savings.

First, I’d cut the manuscript critiques. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like I can get this sort of feedback from beta readers, so there isn’t much value in having this as another expense (in my case, it was nearly AUD6,000!). 

For Powerless, though, I’m not upset about the extra money spent here. I really wanted the perspective of someone with a traditional publishing background. Someone who knew what was expected of that world who could tell me if my book was up to scratch. And I got that. I don’t think I’ll need it again, though.

I’d also cut the competitions, which would bring my total savings to AUD8,600 (and make my total cost AUD12,400). Having said that, I’m unlikely to get a free cover design again, so there would be some added expense for my next book.

With those expenses removed, the largest chunk of my book’s budget is the marketing costs, which are definitely a bit of a gamble. I’m not going to know what worked and what didn’t until the book comes out and I see how many people buy it. But I wanted to give my book the best chance of success, which is why I’m planning to spend that much. 

This isn’t to say that anyone else should spend this much on their debut. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can spend this much. I’ve been saving for years to take a couple of years off to travel and write, and haven’t had the opportunity to do so, yet. This means all of this money is coming from those savings – I’m not going into debt for this book, or am I using money that should be covering the mortgage and other bills.

I also have the security of a corporate job. If this book flops, it would be sad, but it wouldn’t financially ruin me – I have a regular salary coming in. I’m also paying tax on that salary, which means I will be able to claim a lot of these expenses as a tax deduction at the end of the financial year. 

So that’s everything I spent on Powerless! 

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