How to Self-Publish on a Low (or Non-Existent) Budget

Updated: Oct 29

If you talk to any author who has self-published a book, they will likely all tell you the same thing: it's not an easy path. Unlike with traditional publishing, when you choose to self-publish a book you take on all the costs of getting that book ready to go to market. And those costs can be substantial.


In this post, I'm going to talk through how you can self-publish on a low budget, and even options for self-publishing for free (though I do not personally recommend this).


Before I get started on the good stuff though, I'm sure you're wondering, "well, Jess, how much did you spend to publish your book?" A lot. I spent a lot. And while I'd be happy to go through my costs in detail in a different post, that's not what this post is about.


From my research (including general market research and being nosey to other self-published authors) the average spend for self-publishing a book is between $250-$2,000. That's a huge range, and honestly, an intimidating number.


So, let's get into your options for keeping it low cost. This is a long post, just a heads up.


*Disclaimer* These options assume you have access to a computer and the internet.


Getting a Good Cover

Your cover is one of the more important aspects of your book. Despite the adage to never judge a book by its cover, that doesn't actually work with books. Readers absolutely judge books by their covers, and if you have a bad cover or one that doesn't fit your genre, people won't even pick up your book to read the blurb.


While it's extremely easy to spend tons of money on a custom designed cover, you don't have to in order to still get a cover that fits both your book and your market.


Low Budget Option: Find a premade cover that fits your story. These are covers that designers make in advance and sell cheaper than custom covers. What you can change on the cover will depend on who you buy it from, but finding a premade is a great alternative to getting a custom cover made. Premades typically range from $50-$250. You can find them by searching your favorite designers, or by joining Facebook groups for premade cover sale groups.


No Budget Option: Get a free Canva membership and make your own cover. Free Canva elements, fonts, and images are licensed for commercial use. If you choose to go this route, please please please do your market research. Your cover should not be just what you like, it needs to fit your genre. Go to one o the categories on Amazon your book will fit in and look at what covers are available there.


If you go the free route, or even the premade route, you may want to invest in a cover re-design later on. That's okay!


Editing Your Manuscript

Slightly more important than your cover is the actual content of your book itself. It's no secret that editing is expensive, and even though most freelance editors offer payment plans, it can still be out of reach for some indie authors.


While I do recommend taking the time and saving to invest in a good editor before publishing, I recognize that this isn't an option for some for whatever reason. So let's talk about your other options.


This boils down to a lot of time and a lot of eyes. You're going to want to take your time to self-edit and get several other people to look at your book and offer feedback.


Self-editing methods can vary, but I do recommend doing some research on methods so you can find one that works for you. I do self-edits before I send my book off to my editor, so I'll tell you how I do it.


First, read through the book once. No judgement, no changing things. Just read and take notes in a separate document about ideas that spark that you want to change. Once you're all the way through, go back and make those changes. Do this process as many times as you want until you're happy with it.


Then, start from the end. This will pull you out of the story and force you to look at the individual paragraphs as a collective unit. Doing this will help you find word choices, confusing sentences, or gaps that you need to address. Do the same thing, take your notes in a separate document and then go back and fix them. Repeat as many times as you want.


My next step is to turn on the Microsoft Word text-to-speech and make it read my story from beginning to end in that weird robotic voice. This will take some time if you're like me and have auditory processing issues and the attention span of a fruit fly. But again, listen without judgement, take notes separately on sticky parts or things you want to change. Then, go back and fix it. Repeat as desired.


Once you're happy that you've fixed all you can, we're gonna get other people to look at it and give their feedback! At this stage, these are called beta readers (alpha readers read your first draft as you're writing it typically). Beta readers can vary, so let's talk about them more.


You might be able to find beta readers willing to read your book and provide feedback for free or in exchange for a copy of the finished book. However, some will require payment. How you find them is the same, though. Put out a call on your social media saying you're looking for beta readers! Go on writing communities, like groups on Facebook or Discord, and ask for beta readers.


Once you have some volunteers, you need to tell them what you're looking for feedback on. Do you want them to look for plot issues, pacing, character development, world building, dialogue? All of it? Something else? Be specific with your beta readers, this will get you the most productive feedback.


A last tip about beta readers. Just like regular readers, opinions may vary. You do not have to take every single piece of feedback. But you do need to evaluate each piece of feedback objectively and disregard your author defensiveness "no, this is my baby and she's perfect." No she's not, let your beta readers help. But if their feedback does not make sense for your story, there's no rule you have to take it!


I highly recommend having a couple rounds of beta reading with different groups of readers if possible, especially if you're not hiring a professional freelance editor. Do one round looking for big picture issues, like plot, and then a second round where you request the beta readers look for spelling, grammar, and sentence level issues.


Formatting Your Book

How your book is laid out is less critical than the content, but still very important to consider. This part will be less intensive than the editing, so just bare with me!


Low Budget Option: If you have a Mac or access to a Mac or the Mac Cloud, I highly recommend paying for Vellum. This is a formatting tool where you upload your writing (I do not recommend writing directly in Vellum) and then you can play with formatting for both print and ebook options. Currently, Vellum costs $250 for a lifetime license and automatic updates included. It is an upfront investment, but once you have it, it is yours to use.


No Budget Option: You can format both ebook and print books in Microsoft Word. There are a ton of tutorial videos out on Youtube showing you how to do this. You can also use Reedsy's free ebook formatting tool if you're only planning to do ebooks.


If you're working on a low budget, or no budget, keep it simple and clean! Fancy formatting is great if you can do it, and readers love it for pictures, but it doesn't change the reading experience. But what will change the reading experience is if you don't try to format at all.


Distributing Your Book

Okay, your book is ready to go. Now, how the heck do you get it to readers? We have a few options, most of which don't cost anything!


Instead of splitting this up into low budget and no budget, I'm going to split it into ebook and print distributions.


Ebook Distribution: KDP and Draft2Digital. These are going to be your friends. Both are free to upload your book to. KDP will get you on Amazon, and Draft2Digital will get you everywhere else, including libraries! And, bonus, you don't need your own ISBN for ebooks, so you don't have to worry about that cost. Check here for KDP ebook uploading instructions and here for Draft2Digital ebook uploading instructions.


If you've been researching this for any amount of time, I'm sure you'll see people say to go direct with your ebook to places like Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play. You can do that. It's free to upload to those places too, it just takes a lot more time and honestly only makes a few cents difference in royalties. I prefer to just go through Draft2Digital for it.


Now, I know what you're thinking. "But Jess, Ingram Spark offers ebook distribution too. Why aren't you talking about them?" Because. They do the EXACT SAME THING as Draft2Digital but charge you money. I promise, I did extensive research. It's the same thing. Just use D2D. Save your money.


Print Distribution: Similarly to ebooks, KDP is going to get your print book directly to Amazon. KDP does paperbacks and case laminate hardcovers (no dust jacket). And if you're only planning to sell your print book through Amazon, you can stop right here. But, if you want to sell your print book elsewhere, let's keep going.


Ingram Spark is the most popular option, and it's because it offers dust jackets for hardcovers, and it distributes to over 400 retail partners, including Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, and independent bookstores. The downside to Ingram Spark, it costs $49 to upload a title, and if you ever have to change anything, it costs $25 to revise your title. Ingram does run discount codes periodically, but for authors who put out a lot of books, this is going to add up.


Draft2Digital has a print beta program that they're running that would allow you to distribute like Ingram Spark with no title upload or revision fee. However, like I said, this is a beta program, so there's still kinks being worked out with quality, consistency, and distribution.


Personally, I joined the Alliance of Independent Authors for $89 a year, and it gives you 5 free upload/revision codes to use on Ingram per month. If you publish more than 2 books a year, this pays for itself.


Check out my post on self-publishing platforms for more info on each of these platforms and the features they provide!


Marketing

Marketing is probably the easiest thing to do for free, and the easiest thing to spend tons of money on.


Social media is currently the best way to market your book, and that's free. At least, it's free in terms of set-up costs. It takes a lot of time and energy costs though. I could go on all day about this, but I'll keep it short. Stick to a few (one or two) social media platforms to focus on. And then take it slow. Build your platform and connect with readers.


You can also spend money on social media ads, but if you're on a low or no budget, this is probably not going to be the best use of your cash. Focus on building genuine engagement and being consistent.


Another free way to market is by building your newsletter. Offer something to get people to subscribe (like a prequel, or snippet from your book, or a character interview, anything really). Check out my post on newsletters to get more info on setting them up and what to put in them.


If you are going to spend money on marketing, I would highly recommend focusing it on paid promotions (like paid newsletters), or sending out ARCs.


If you made it through all of this, kudos to you! I hope this was helpful. I try to collect and aggregate all the information from my own research and give back to the community. This knowledge is out there, but it can get overwhelming trying to find it all!


Have other ideas for posts? Let me know!