Self-Publishing on a Shoestring

When you first enter the world of indie-publishing, things can get confusing, fast. The learning curve is steep. And now that companies have realized how lucrative it can be, self-publishing and vanity imprints are springing up like wild mushrooms, working hard to convince people to spend between $1,000 and $25,000 with them, to publish their book.

That's a huge chunk of change for most people.

What if you, like most of us, don't have an extra grand or two of couch-cushion change? And the thought of turning into a financial vampire and draining your bank accounts or cashing out your retirement fund, just to chase a dream, gives you the heebie-jeebies?

I'm a big believer in not spending more than you absolutely have to, to publish your book. Especially when you're starting out. You never know if the book is going to take off or completely bomb. And the more you spend in up-front costs, the more sales you'll need to turn a profit.

When I looked into indie-publishing, I kept an eye towards being frugal. I had no idea my book would become an Amazon bestseller, and be downloaded over 150,000 times. All I knew was that I needed to find a happy medium between going broke and putting out a professional product.

So, I published my first book for a grand total of... want to guess?

I'll give you a hint: Not $25,000.

Not $1,000.

Not even $500.

I published Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead for a grand total of $125. Yes, my hopeful indie author, it is possible to publish a book for next to nothing.

Back in 2008, I was writing for an ABC show that was cancelled. It was a bad time to be an unemployed writer and mom. The economy was horrible. By 2011, my unemployment had run out and I was desperate. Forget writing jobs, I couldn't even find a job as an office temp, despite decades of experience.

But I had a book manuscript I had been working on.

I quickly realized that if I took it the traditional route, I would be looking at years of submitting and submitting and hoping before I ever saw a penny. Unfortunately, I couldn't fry up hopes and dreams and serve them to my kid for dinner. I tried, but they kept floating off the plate. Hopes and dreams are the original empty calorie meal. All fluff, no substance.

In June 2011, I was scheduled to moderate an e-publishing panel for the Writer's Guild. So, I talked myself into self-publishing my book, in the spirit of research. If nothing else, it would give me insight into the indie-publishing world, and help me figure out the most useful questions to ask the panelists.

I labeled it 'My Big Experiment', and jumped in with both feet. I had no idea if the book was going to sell or not. But I desperately needed it to. So it had to be as professional an endeavor as I could afford, with the $150 I had in my checking account.

I contacted friends who were English majors and told them my story. They liked my pitch and agreed to proofread and edit the book, for free, in exchange for being mentioned.

One of the moms at my daughter's preschool was an illustrator who worked for traditional publishing houses. Unfortunately, she was way too expensive. And when I tried to do my own cover, it looked amateurish. So I started researching and found a whole world of artists and cover designers who specialized in creating low-cost covers for indie authors.

Then I downloaded free formatting and marketing guides from Smashwords and learned how to format and market e-books, on my own.

Finally, I went on the different distribution sites and saw that e-book distribution was free. Even for paperback books, CreateSpace would distribute to Amazon for free, while expanded distribution only cost $25.

The price was definitely affordable. So, once I had all the research done, it was time to get to work.

I got the editing notes from my friends and finished re-writing and polishing the manuscript.

Then, I hired a low-cost cover designer and downloaded stock art for her to use. It cost me $75 for stock art and $25 for the cover designer.

As soon as everything was done, I uploaded the book.

Between $25 for expanded distribution, $75 for art and $25 for the cover designer, it cost a total of $125.00 to publish my first book during the summer of 2011. Like most debut books, it got off to a slow start. But by 2012, it had hit #11 in Amazon's overall store and #1 on the genre bestseller list. Now, in 2013, the book is still on the genre bestseller lists. For an initial investment of $125, Tillie's brought back a return in the mid-five figure range.

Was going the indie route worth it? Absolutely. Self-publishing launched me on a new career path, paid my bills and supported my daughter. And when I tore the meniscus in my knee and got really sick, it paid all the medical costs. This 'Big Experiment' of mine wound up saving my life.

But what if you don't have $125? What is the absolute least amount of money you can spend to self-publish a professional-looking e-book?

Are you ready for the answer?

You may want to sit down for this.

The answer is...

Five dollars.

Five dollars?

Yes. Seriously. Five dollars. I've done it. And I'll tell you how you can do it, in the next column.

In future columns, I'll show you how to use e-publishing to enrich your life and ways to find low-cost, amazing cover designers, formatters, editors and artists. I'll help you navigate the often-confusing maze of indie-publishing, so you can come out the other side, without going broke in the process.