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How to Publish Successfully on a Budget

SPF Blog

“You don’t need to have a 100-person company to develop that idea.”

That’s a quote from Larry Page, the guy who co-founded Google. You might have heard of it. You might also think, “That’s easy for you to say.” His company offered a great service and is now so powerful it seems as if it were destined to succeed. No doubt, Page and his peers had advantages in life too. Education. Money. Connections.

However, many successful entrepreneurs don’t start out that way. They begin with a budget so small they seemingly have no chance against their bigger competitors. Steve Jobs once said that IBM was spending 100 times more on R&D than Apple when it started. Yet we all know who won that fight. As an author you might face similar challenges and feel helplessly daunted in the shadow of industry giants. After all, how can you outwork bestselling authors with six-figure advertising budgets and 100,000-person mailing lists. With a low-paying day job and little free time, you can’t. At least, that’s what you might believe.

The statistics tell a different story.

According to the Cato Institute, a Washington DC think tank, 80% of US millionaires are the first person in their family to hit a seven-figure net worth. It might seem unlikely given the prevalence of clichés like “the rich get richer” and “you’ve got to spend money to make money” but being a self-made millionaire is far more common than being born into it. Those who have wealth often lose it, and those who lack it frequently end up on top. The trend isn’t universal but it’s often the case, even in publishing.

So don’t be discouraged if you can’t throw hundreds of dollars into Facebook advertising or spend $2,000 on custom artwork from day one. As today’s blog post will demonstrate, you can succeed by bootstrapping your career on a small budget. You just need to learn how.

Prioritize Quality

One of the first things you should consider when you have a limited war chest is where to funnel your gold. Logically, you can’t have it all. Luckily, you don’t need it all when you first start writing commercially. For example, many authors would love to hire a publicist who can create early buzz for their upcoming books. But to make the effort worth it, you actually need a solid book and reviews, otherwise no readers who hear about you will convert into buyers.

That’s why, at the beginning, you should keep it simple. If you only have a few hundred dollars, focus on two things: an editor and a cover designer – the best you can afford. These don’t need to be super-expensive. You can get decent freelancers on Fiverr, Reedsy or 99Designs. Working with a limited budget, you won’t necessarily find world-class professionals, but they will help you create a good product without which your author career will never get off the ground.

It’s better to start with what you can afford than to put your career on hold for years for the sake of launching a “perfect” novel. LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman once summed up the situation perfectly when he said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Upskill and Trade

Upskilling simply means learning how to do new things, the benefits of which are two-fold. Not only will extra abilities help you to supplement your royalty income in the early stages of your author business, but they will help you form strong relationships with other writers who will keep you sane and provide more opportunities.

This idea might not fit your original dream of writing books and making millions, but it can help you get to that stage. Say you have an eagle eye for typos. Have you considered proofreading for other authors? Maybe you’re a spreadsheet wizard. Could you learn to analyse Amazon campaigns and help other authors turn a profit. It doesn’t matter what you do – the point is that you can use any skill you have as a bartering tool to keep your costs low.

Either you could get other authors to pay you and then invest that money in your own books, or you could trade your skills with someone else so you both get what you need without having to pay. You could edit another author’s work and they could design your covers. Pitching yourself to fellow writers after you’ve built rapport requires a mindset shift, but it has worked for lots of bestselling authors who once struggled to stump up the cash they needed to get started.

Work in Hungry Genres

Imagine there are two writers, both with equal skill, knowledge, work ethic and connections. Their one difference is genre. One publishes steampunk zombie novels and the other writes contemporary romance. Which one will make more money? Well, of course, there’s no way to tell for certain. Publishing isn’t an exact science and “zompunk” might become the next big thing. But stats indicate that there are far more contemporary romance readers, so the romance writer should have an easier time.

Think of it in terms of basic maths: if both authors are identical, both books take four months to write and cost $1,000 to produce, but there are 20 times more romance readers, the launches should go as follows:

(Sales figures are arbitrary for explanation.)

Zompunk Novel

$2 royalty x 250 readers willing to pay for the book = $500 total royalty

Contemporary Romance Novel

$2 royalty x 5000 readers willing to pay for the book = $10,000 total royalty

The zompunk author in the smaller niche faces a potential $500 loss whereas the romance author in the bigger one can look forward to a $9,000 profit. Sure, the adage “there are riches in the niches” is sometimes true, but only when the niches include avid buyers. If you can’t find a sub-genre that has lots of underserved readers then you might be better off catering to more popular reader groups until you can afford to work on quirky projects without worrying about cashflow.

Create a backlist

Working smart is a good strategy for established authors. Cash-rich but time-poor, they can outsource time-consuming chores to focus only on tasks that require their involvement. Likewise, those with huge backlists can sometimes boost their income more by sinking a fortune into ads than writing a new novel. If those are possibilities for you then great, but it’s not the case for most authors.

In the early stages of your career, working smart doesn’t always make a huge difference to your bottom line. You first need to work hard to get going, primarily by creating a backlist. Mal Cooper discussed the extreme production schedule she upheld to launch her business recently on The Self Publishing Show. And the whole 20BooksTo50K movement is based on Michael Anderle’s discovery that he could make $50,000 a year if he quickly produced 20 books. It’s a proven path you can try.

Everything becomes easier with a backlist because each book launch builds on the momentum of previous ones, cross selling titles and offering readers more in-roads to your fanbase. Nobody said bootstrapping would be easy, but there are plenty of indie authors who have proven it’s possible to grind your way onto the bestseller list.

Scale Up

Comparisonitis can be crippling when you compare yourself to someone far ahead in your career. Writers post in Facebook groups all the time saying they’ve had a $200,000 year. Then they reveal that they spent $90,000 to achieve it. It’s demoralising when you know that you don’t have that sort of money to invest and you can’t imagine ever being in that position. For many people, $90,000 is a life-changing sum. However, you can get there if you know how.

The great thing about self-publishing is that it has low entry barriers and massive scaling potential. If you can run an ad for $2 a day that generates 300% profit you can quickly outpace someone who has been spending $100 a day for 20% profit just by scaling. Doing it incrementally will give you enough time to receive your royalty payments which you can then reinvest without touching any savings or taking out loans. These paid ads, in turn, can build rapid momentum and leave you running an author empire you would not have thought possible just a few months ago. Always remember that, no matter your starting budget, you could be one breakthrough away from a six-figure income.

Follow all of these tips and you will vastly improve your chances of publishing successfully on a budget. And if at first you struggle, know that you can always try again with a second pen name. As Henry Ford for once put it, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.