How much does it REALLY cost to write a book? (And do I need extra wagon wheels?)

Well, the short answer to “how much does writing a book cost?” is that it depends on who you ask.

But who to ask isn’t an easy question, because most of the people you’d think of to ask won’t give you a good answer.

See, just about everyone in the self-publishing industry has money absolutely backwards. They think the goal of writing a book is to SAVE money, not to MAKE it. So the answer they’ll give you on the cost of a book project is “as little as possible.”

There’s a lot of material out there on how to write a book on a budget, how to save money writing a book, where to find cheap editors and designers, how to get free marketing for your book, and on and on. There are Facebook groups with TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE IN THEM talking about how to find editors they can pay NOT EVEN PENNIES for massive amounts of work, because the expert or guru or bestselling author who hosts the group teaches all these people they need to spend as little money as possible on editing. (Sorry not sorry, that REALLY grinds my gears.)

Here’s what most of these “experts” teach:

  • Try to lose as little money as possible by spending the bare minimum on your book — that way if it flops, you won’t lose your shirt!
  • Time is money, so write the book as fast as possible!
  • Cut every corner you can — a penny saved is a penny earned!
  • DIY EVERYTHING — self-edit! learn cover design! pick your own keywords! master Amazon ads!
  • If you must hire help, get the cheapest you can — start with Upwork or Fiverr, don’t let so-called “premium” editors and designers gouge you with higher prices!

I think that advice is a bunch of crap.

The whole strategy of saving money when writing a book is based on a faulty premise: that you won’t make much money from the book in the first place!

Heaven forbid that any author actually look at their book as a potential success.

Yes, most books don’t sell a lot of copies. Yes, most genres that can only rely on book sales for revenue (all fiction genres, plus most memoirs and creative nonfiction) have to work harder to make money than the few that can generate revenue without sales (business books, mostly). Yes, even writing a business book is no guarantee of income.

But guess what? NOTHING is a guarantee of income. That’s called life.

If the people who founded Uber and AirBnb and Netflix had waited until they KNEW there would be a huge ROI for those companies before starting them, we’d still be calling taxis and staying at overpriced hotels and going to Blockbuster Video today, and those founders would probably be broke.

My dad didn’t take two years off of a fast-track finance career to work for his church because he knew it would look good on his resume, he did it because it was the right thing for him to do. He didn’t KNOW he would be offered his literal dream job after that, by a company who admired and respected his dedication to his faith. He’d have done it whether that job ever materialized or not.

One of my early editing clients, Noah Rasheta, didn’t write a book teaching Buddhism to secular readers because he KNEW it would attract the attention of a major publisher. He did it because he wanted to help people who felt overwhelmed and unsettled by everyday Western life.

These people didn’t wait to know if their efforts would work out ahead of time, they just did something awesome because it WAS awesome.

Nothing is guaranteed. No one is coming to save you.

But that’s not the bad news, it’s the good news. It means you get to save yourself.

In other words, it means you get to beat the numbers.

What does that mean?

Dan Pearce, the blogger behind Single Dad Laughing, once wrote something (okay, he wrote a lot of things, he ran that blog for like a decade) that went like this: when you see a really skewed statistic, aim to be the person on the other side of the numbers. The stat he used to demonstrate this was of how like 99% of people won’t stop to help when they see a car pulled over on the highway. Well, one day Dan saw someone pulled over on the highway, decided to be part of the 1% or whatever the actual number was who DID stop, and ended up with a really heartwarming story to share. (I’d link the post here, but sadly Dan deleted his blog a while back. 😞 )

So the state of the self-publishing industry isn’t a reason to cut every corner you can and write your book as cheaply as possible, it’s a reason to write the best goddamn book you can.

If you’re going to write a book for your business, don’t resign yourself to being one of the faceless mass of authors who don’t make money. (That’s the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Instead? Dig in your damn heels and bloody well MAKE yourself one of the badass, glorious few who DO make money. (That’s the BEST kind.)

And if you think that’s outside of your control, think again.

Because I’m telling you straight up: you damn well can write a book that makes you money and grows your business.

And the best way to write a book that makes money is to spend money to make it a good book.

Here’s where the extra wagon wheels come in.

Remember when you played Oregon Trail as a kid? (Or last weekend with your kids…or at like 2:00 AM the other night when you missed being a kid…no judgement, I’ve totally done it too.)

There are two prevailing strategies for playing Oregon Trail. The first one is fairly complicated: play as a farmer or a teacher, develop a REALLY elaborate strategy of basic purchases, elaborate trading tactics, and frequent hunting and resting days, and basically hack your way to surviving the trail on a shoestring.

The second way is a lot simpler: just play as the banker.

In case you didn’t have a childhood don’t know what I’m talking about, the difference here is that the farmer and teacher start out with REALLY low budgets at the beginning of the game, so they have to be really careful with their spending just to get enough oxen, wagon parts, food, and clothing to survive the trail. Farmers struggle the entire game and often don’t make it all the way to Oregon.

The banker, meanwhile, starts out with more money than they could possibly need, even to outfit a family of five for a six-month trip across the frontier. Nothing really bad ever happens to a banker on the trail except by tough luck.

But here’s the catch: the banker gets no extra points for making it to Oregon, while the farmer and teacher have their point totals tripled.

Oregon Trail rewards players for making the game harder for themselves. By starting out with less money, spending it uber-carefully, putting in a ton of time and effort finding hacks and tricks to save more of it, and having a much tougher journey to Oregon as a result, players get a massive point multiplier. There’s no reward for taking it easy or having a more comfortable journey.

So these two strategies lead to two very different game experiences. The farmer/teacher strategy is more challenging, more complex, and riskier, but has a higher potential reward. The banker strategy is easier, simpler, and safer, but its reward is lower. (Naturally, these paths attract two very different types of players.)

Writing a book is definitely a journey comparable to taking the Oregon Trail in some ways (inspiring short-term challenge to improve your life in the long term? hell yes!). But here’s the main difference: authorship doesn’t reward you for playing as the farmer.

Real life isn’t a game where you get extra points for spending the least amount of money. There are no points or bonuses or multipliers in real life. You don’t get any reward for making things way harder for yourself than they need to be — in fact, you usually suffer when you do that (and only have yourself to blame).

Here’s what happens when you try to write a business book without investing money in it:

  • When you focus on playing defense (trying not to lose money) instead of offense (planning to make money), you approach the whole process in fear and scarcity, which makes you forget about the book’s quality, strategy, and goals.
  • When you rush, you make mistakes that take more time (and often more money) to correct on the back end than if you’d taken the time to get them right the first time.
  • When you cut corners, you end up with lower quality. Low quality means low ROI.
  • When you try to DIY everything, you either rise to the level of your own incompetence (which leads to crappy results) or find yourself completely out of your depth and having to pay for help anyway (or both).
  • When you hire the cheapest help, you get what you pay for — and usually have to hire pricier help to fix what the cheap help screwed up.

Put all this together and here’s what you get: a cheap book written to save you money equals a crappy book that doesn’t make you any money.

Or in Oregon Trail terms, your book will get this message:

Nobody’s going to pay you triple the money for your services because you spent less to create the book that’s supposed to highlight those services. In fact, the opposite is much more likely to be true — they’ll pay YOU less, if they want pay you at all, because your cheap book made you and your services look cheap. (And I don’t mean cheap as in “a great deal on a new mattress,” I mean cheap as in “gas station sushi.”)

Here’s the point: if you’re going to play the game of writing a business book, play as the banker.

Not just for the obvious reasons, like having enough money to pay for really good help, having an actual book marketing fund, and not having to DIY things you’re not trained for or remotely interested in.

But also for a more subtle reason: having a book journey that doesn’t suck to go on.

Being the banker in Oregon Trail doesn’t just mean that you’ve got enough money to buy extra oxen and hire ferries to cross rivers. It means that you don’t have to worry about whether you’ll even get to Oregon, what kind of shape you’ll be in when you arrive, or how stressful playing the game will be.

And while I don’t want to stretch the Oregon Trail analogy too far (who am I kidding, I TOTALLY do), writing a book on meager rations at a grueling pace is a great way to die of exhaustion and never get to Oregon IN REAL LIFE. (In other words, not finish the book at all, or at best finish a version you’re so frustrated with and ashamed of you never publish or promote it.)

I won’t lie and say that writing a great business book won’t be a challenge. But I will say this: if you’re not enjoying writing your book, you’re missing something crucial. If we work together, I’m going to push you, but I’m also going to laugh with you and make sure you’re having fun. Without joy, we’re doing book writing wrong.

What does that have to do with money? Well, I’m not cheap. Neither are the other book coaches and mentors I know who actually give their clients enough personal attention to ensure they write great books that will lead to reliable business growth. Neither are the editors and designers who really care about making your book look and sound good. Neither are the book marketers who teach anything beyond “hit Amazon bestseller in a random category and hope for the best.”

Do you have to pay top dollar to write and publish a business book? No. But whatever you pay, you will get what you pay for.

Okay, so I haven’t exactly answered the question I started with yet: how much does writing a business book really cost? What does “playing the banker” really look like for a business author?

I’m going to answer that question with a question: how much money do you want the book to make you in its first few years out?

However much that number is, prepare to spend between 10% and 30% of that amount on creating and publishing the book.

So if you want a book to add $200,000 to your business in its first couple years after publication, plan on spending between $20,000 and $60,000 getting that book out into the world. If you only care about adding a few thousand dollars to your business, then feel free to only spend a few hundred on the book. Up to you.

This math isn’t exact. That’s why I’m giving you such a wide range of potential pricing. Every book project is different. So is every author. The perfect investment for you might be on the low side or the high side of the 10%-30% range, depending on what you need, who you know, how prepared you are, and a dozen other factors. You may even find it shifting during the project, if you find that you need more coaching than you thought or you want to invest more in a particular marketing campaign. That’s totally fine.

But if you find yourself spending less than about 10% of the amount you want to add to your business within 2–3 years of your book coming out, you’re probably either not getting good enough help or trying to do too much yourself. And if you find yourself spending more than about 30%, you’re probably either paying too many people for too many services or putting too much distance between yourself and the project.

Whatever the amount ends up being, playing as the banker means you can and should treat this money as an investment — one that will get you between a 3x and a 10x return within a couple years if you manage it right and use it to create a high-quality asset.

Now, what if you aren’t in position to play as a banker yet? What if your budget is closer to the farmer or teacher level?

Most experts would just say to borrow the money here. And if you’re comfortable doing that, fine. Getting a small business loan to fund a high-quality book project might be a good plan for you.

But I’m also a bit old-fashioned about debt, in that I don’t think anyone should use debt as a tool unless they don’t REALLY need it — that is, they know they can pay it back whether the book project is a success or not. (This also goes with my philosophy that if your biz is still in survival mode, just don’t write a book yet.)

If debt leverage isn’t a good option for you but writing a book still is, another potential solution is to write a less financially ambitious book. If you’re not trying to use the book to grow your business by a large amount right off the bat, you can get away with spending less money on it. Still get the best help you can afford! Especially with editing and cover design. But if the book is more of a passion project, an audience-building tool, or has more of a non-financial goal associated with it, having a lower budget isn’t as big a deal.

I actually did this myself when I wrote Don’t Write A Crappy Book! in 2018. Why? Because my main goal with that book wasn’t to make a bunch of money. Instead, I wanted to do what all my clients were doing: write and publish a book about my business. At that point, it made no sense to me to continue to coach authors if I wasn’t an author myself. So I still paid for the best editing I could afford for that book, but otherwise I had a very low budget — I got my cover design donated, covered the interior layout and publishing back end in trade, and didn’t spend anything to speak of on marketing.

To this day (~18 months later), I don’t believe that book has directly led to my booking any new clients or getting more than a couple hundred dollars in book sales. But I still see the book as a success, because it gave me credibility, experience, and perspective I didn’t have before, which is already helping me help the clients I’ve booked since then (through other avenues) write better books.

Writing a less ambitious book isn’t a bad plan. But let’s be real, you probably want a book to grow your business as much as possible. So for most of you, what I think is an even better solution than lowering your financial goals is to take another page out of the Oregon Trail book: start later.

One interesting feature of the game was that you could decide when to start your journey. In the first edition of the game, you could choose which month of the year, which would determine the weather you’d run into. In later editions, you could also choose the year itself — earlier years had harder terrain but more wildlife to hunt, while later years had more frequent towns but more crowded trails.

For writing a book, the decision to start later can be a very valuable one. Simply taking a couple years to build up a more stable, secure business (which can both support a higher book budget and more reliably use a book to bring in more money) can be the difference between a successful and enjoyable book journey and an unsuccessful and stressful one. So if you feel like a farmer now, don’t let yourself feel pressured to write the book now. Instead, take the time to build yourself up to a banker’s budget. Then your trail to writing a lucrative book will be that much smoother.

If all these Oregon Trail references gave you as big a nerdgasm as they gave me, or if you’re ready to start playing as the banker on writing your book, I invite you to jump on a free Six-Figure Book Strategy Session with me! We’ll talk about how to make sure your book doesn’t catch cholera or drown fording a river, what getting to Oregon looks like for you, and when will be the right time to start. I can’t wait to be your trail guide. Click right here to book your free session!

_ _ _

Check out my book Don’t Write A Crappy Book!, a comprehensive guide to writing and publishing mistakes business authors don’t know they’re making — and how to avoid them!