February 7, 2013

Self-Publishing: Prioritizing Fast, Cheap, and Good

Blank book graphic with text: Rule of Business: Fast Cheap Good--Pick Two

All writers, especially those who self-publish, have to decide: Are we writing and publishing just for ourselves? Or are we writing and publishing to get customers (readers)?

If we’re doing it for ourselves, things like editing and those nice covers we talked about last time don’t matter. Those who write for themselves can self-publish with zero expectations of anyone else discovering or enjoying their work.

Maybe they just want to see their name on Amazon. Maybe they simply want to print a couple for friends and family. Maybe they figure, “what the heck, let’s see if anyone else cares.”

If We Expect Customers, We Must Expect to Invest in Our Business

Those are all fine reasons for self-publishing our work without worrying about editing or cover art or formatting, etc. But as soon as we expect people to hand over their money, we have to convince them we’ll make it worth their while and then fulfill that promise.

In short, we have to reach customers and keep them happy, just like any other business. And like most businesses, self-publishing businesses can struggle to get off the ground.

Whether we’re opening a restaurant or self-publishing our work, we have to be willing to invest in our business. Wanting to sell books rather than restaurant meals doesn’t make the laws of business not apply to us. Others who start businesses either save or find investors or barter for services. We should expect to do the same.

Have We Been Spoiled by the Ease of Self-Publishing?

If we look at the history of self-publishing, we have it easy now. Until the last few years, someone who wanted to self-publish their book would have to invest in print copies and have almost zero chance of ever selling their book in a store.

A friend of my brother’s went this route over ten years ago. He paid to have a professional design, printed up a thousand copies (now that’s expensive), and drove across the state from store to store, asking them to stock his book.

He was lucky. Because it was a non-fiction book that met a need, all that work actually led to success. If not for that fact, virtually no amount of effort would have been enough.

Now we don’t have to invest in print or rack up miles to sell our book in an online store. Have we become spoiled by ebooks, print on demand, and Amazon? Do we expect that because those printing and stocking aspects now cost nothing, that we should be able to self-publish without any upfront money?

What If We Have the Will but No Money?

I know the money issue is a tough one for many of us. Taurean Watkins and I have had many conversations in the comments here about will versus money, and I feel for his situation. My family still hasn’t recovered from the job loss I wrote about a year ago today. So I don’t bring this up to be heartless by any means.

Instead, I want us to share ideas about how we can treat our writing as business even when we’re hurting for funds. These will take compromise on our part. There’s a business saying: “Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick Two.”

  • If we want something Fast and Cheap, it probably won’t be good. If we’re impatient and just want to start making money, this is a valid option. But we’d need to compromise on quality (possibly with the goal of updating to a better cover, editing, or formatting later, after money comes in).
  • If we want something Fast and Good, it probably won’t be cheap. If we’re impatient and demand quality, this is a valid option. But we’d need to compromise on cost. In other words, this is the “money is no object” option.
  • If we want something Cheap and Good, it probably won’t be fast. If we demand quality and cheap prices, this is a valid option. But we’d need to compromise by being patient, as this choice would require extra time and effort.

I’ve already stated that the first option—compromising on quality—is a valid option, depending on our goals. There are risks with that method. All those “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” truisms are well-known for a reason. But if we had money for only one thing—like editing—I think compromising on book cover quality wouldn’t be the end of the world.

However, I want to look closer at that last option. If we’re willing to be patient and put in extra effort, we might be able to cheaply launch our writing business with good products. Here are some ideas for how we can use time and/or effort to reach that goal:

  • Collect several excellent critique partners and/or beta readers to help with editing.
  • Search for freelance editors who give discounts on “clean” manuscripts (and then ask for a sample edit to ensure your manuscript is as clean as you believe).
  • Watch for contests with manuscript edits as prizes (occasionally offered by agents and editors, as well as by multi-published authors).
  • Learn PhotoShop and make our own covers.
  • Learn about typesetting, interior design, and ebook formats to create our own files.
  • Trade our services with those of skilled friends.
  • Ask for favors, like friends & family discounts, from our skilled friends.
  • Contact emerging talent (high school art students, etc.) who might work for less money.
  • Contact skilled people who might enjoy supporting an author (high school English teacher, etc.).
  • Exchange services for “advertising,” like a promotional blog post.
  • Beg friends and family to invest in our success.
  • Utilize Kickstarter to raise funds (CreateSpace’s five free paperback copies to NaNoWriMo winners could be used as incentives).

Of course, querying and pitching in an attempt to gain a traditional publisher is one way to avoid all this hassle. But due to changing market conditions, genre trends, etc., the traditional publishing route is essentially that same “cheap and good, but not fast” situation.

No matter how we decide to publish, we still need to prioritize among these choices. So far, I’m definitely not on the “fast” path. *smile*

Do you have additional ideas for how we can save money when starting up our writing business? Are you writing/publishing for yourself or to gain readers? Do you think self-published authors are spoiled now and expect something for nothing? When and how would you be willing to compromise on quality? How do you prioritize “fast, cheap, good”?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Jennette Marie Powell

I’ve chosen the Cheap & Good route for my business. I’m blessed to have many years experience as a graphic artist, then as a web developer, so formatting, print book design, and cover art are easy for me. But they still take time, and I barter these services to writer friends for beta reads and editing, which takes more time too. But so far it’s working for me.

Melinda S. Collins

Hi Jami, GREAT topic! Well-timed and extremely informational. 😉 I actually can’t think of any other ideas that’ll help authors save money with this process. It’s definitely time consuming and costly, but as we’ve pointed out, it’s a business, especially if we’re seeking a readership. I think another good idea for authors who are going to attach self-publishing is to create an actual business plan for themselves. I’m a huge advocate of business plans. Coming from the corporate world, I’ve seen it proven time and time again as a valuable road map to success. And business plans don’t have to outline what’s going to *right now* – instead they can outline a ten-year SMART goal plan, then we can take the larger goals and break them down into smaller, obtainable goals… like learning PhotoShop, making network connections with freelance editors and graphic designers and the like. If I were to decide on self-publishing, that’d be my first step in the journey, and I’d totally barter a month’s worth of babysitting for my sister-in-law in exchange for an awesome cover (she’s a graphic artist). But until then, I’m going to enjoy my niece/nephew free nights and keep trucking along the traditional publishing dream track. 🙂 I don’t necessarily think that self-published authors are necessarily spoiled. I think that because it’s non-traditional and you’re doing the entire process on your own, that it’s hard to get *good* and *right* information on the how’s and why’s of the self-publishing process. So maybe not…  — Read More »


The more work I produce the more I’m having to go outside my beta readers and favors from super talented friends. I’ve been lucky, but there’s only so much I can barter or beg.

I plan on paying for editing for my next book and I already pay for formatting on my longer novels, as well as cover work. Admittedly I get a great deal from a friend in the business.

It’s hard though, because I agree that you have to invest in your business to make a profit but releasing books is a risky business still. There is no guarantee of success or sales.


[…] Self-Publishing: Prioritizing Fast, Cheap and Good by Jami Gold […]

Melissa Maygrove

You are so full of wisdom!
Great post. 🙂


Hi Jami,

I was very fortunate because my critique partner, was not only a copy editor, but she has been doing graphic design, so I have been fortunate to have the best of both worlds.

Most self published authors should also remember that since the rise in self published e-books there are graphic artists who will charge you more than what you are willing to pay for what you think is reasonable for their services. One designer I was consulting for a bulk of 4 e-book covers only was going to charge me $1500 for just 4 e-book covers. My friend said that since I was only asking for the e-book covers it should not be that expensive and I went looking around for another service.

Thanks for letting me comment.

Gene Lempp

Fast, Good, and Cheap is a great way of looking at this subject. Sadly, I’ve tried to do all three combined with the end result of less hair and pounding headache of frustration. Personally, I think the Fast aspect was the worst for me – I like to know where I’m going, choose words for precision (much like I speak) and fast is not friendly to that style of writing. Thanks to this post and one by Jane Friedman, I’ll be focusing on Good and Cheap moving forward. Excellent money-saving suggestions. The hardest part for me has been in finding a critique partner and to some extent beta readers that are not family. Yes, I love my “family,” but I also know that their opinions are tempered. I am definitely writing to gain readers. While writing is a fun activity, I see it as a business and would one day like it to be my full time paid occupation. In a way, this thought was an obstacle for a long time, mainly due to be a perfectionist professionally. Nothing is ever perfect (the hardest lesson to learn) and allowing the idea that it can proved a detriment. Fortunately, I have many friends that have taught me a different thought *smile* Has self-publishing spoiled some authors? Yes, without a doubt. It has also made some cagey and driven others to throw aside basic logic and ethics – all of which saddens me because of the impact it has on how the…  — Read More »

Rinelle Grey

I’m going the cheap good route too. Only option for me at the moment! I did pay for editing, since it’s the one thing I needed help with. I have people who could comment on the grammar/sentence structure for me, but paying someone to look at the overall story has been really helpful. I shopped around though, added editors to my twitter/facebook pages, and managed to catch one on a deal, and another on a starting offer. Despite this, the editing stage has taken WAY longer than I thought it would.

I’m lucky to already have photoshop for my day job, and a sister who’s an excellent graphic artist, so that one was cheap and fast for me. Hopefully still good though!

I’m up to formatting now. Trying to learn it myself, since I don’t know anyone who does it, and I’m unwilling to pay for it, since it seems like it should be easy. The trickiest bit I’m finding is finding good information on how to do it.


“Collect several excellent critique partners and/or beta readers to help with editing.” So, so would love to hear how/where others are garnering critique partners/beta readers!


As you already know, I’m publishing just for myself and not to make money. I simply want the satisfaction of seeing a physical book in front of me, all neat and pretty (so I have high demands on the loveliness of the cover). But at the same time, I do want to share my published books with my friends too. 🙂

Not a very useful comment, I’m afraid, haha.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

As you know I’m not looking to self-publish. I’m going another route, but I have loads of friends who are passionate about SP. Some of them are trying very hard to do things right, get their stories out there, make a name for themselves. Still others are using SP as a way to get a book that has been rejected over and over again and isn’t really ready for reader’s eyes out on hypothetical shelves. In this way, I definitely think that self-publishing is getting too easy. I know you’re discussing the money aspect of SP, and I think this post is necessary in its wisdom, but I also think that the ease of publishing ones own work these days is diluting the sea of truly talented authors. I have a friend that reads daily. She blows through three novels a week. Pretty impressinve, but over the last year she’s complained that it’s harder and harder to find really good books online. She says she’ll read ten/twenty samples a week, trying to find something worth while and might choose one or two books out of that grouping. She sees grammatical errors, illogical plots, weak characters. She said it’s frustrating and a little disheartening. Granted, everything’s subjective. She’s a hard reader to please, but I wonder if the ease of self-publication and the resulting issues with some of those under-edited books will, overtime, turn some die-hard readers away. It’s something to think about. I’ve been away for a while, trying to…  — Read More »

Sylvia O'Connor
Sylvia O'Connor

Dear Jami, In the race between the hare and the tortoise, I hope this tortoise wins. It’s been slow as I seek quality in my writing. I don’t think it’s striving for perfectionism that’s holding me back exactly, so much as trying to reach a level of quality that evades me. This January, I decided not to write another word of the non-fiction book I’ve been working on, until I have an organized plan and direction. Searching the web for tips and helps on how to do that is what brought me to your website. Self publishing is not my goal. So how do I get from a large stack of writings and interviews and infinite decisions to be made, to a readable, publishable book? This eleven year old project began with beginner writing classes and then as many writing courses as I could: fiction, non-fiction, memoir writing, poetry, playwriting, etc. Then I wrote and wrote, like a scratched CD plays, the same themes and stories repeating, different, but not improving. One writer said, “Don’t worry, you’re doing études. Writing like learning to play an instrument requires practice.” To me it’s been a slow, slow, slow, but exciting slog! Études later I’m considering professional help. It’s like moving from building a dog house in the back yard to building a house. I don’t know what to do now, or how to do it. I don’t want to write more without knowing where I’m going. Someone recently mentioned that I need…  — Read More »


[…] Gold: Self-Publishing: Prioritizing Fast, Cheap, and Good. Excerpt: “All writers, especially those who self-publish, have to decide: Are we writing and […]

Taurean Watkins

Hi again, Jami. Just wanted to say thanks for hearing me out. I am getting ideas of what I can do. I’m still overwhelmed, but I’ll be okay. I’ve faced this frustration before and survived, it’s just hard not knowing what to do.

I think I would’ve the DIY thing last year if I hadn’t been rattled about the “Professional first impression” thing. When you’ve been conditioned to ALWAYS be on your A game, it’s hard to in effect, lower your expectations. Just because I had to make concessions as the writer, doesn’t mean it will not matter to the readers I want to have.

I don’t consider myself a perfectionist like you do, Jami. Like I said, I personally couldn’t avoid the long revision process my last book needed, but I get the danger of not moving on, okay?

Sure, I personally want the highest quality possible, but blame some of my intensity on this issue comes in part from all the market guides and podcasts I use as resources that preach fiercely about needing nice cover and freelance editors.

So if seemed overly obsessed about presentation, know it’s NOT all coming solely from me.

Still, thanks for hearing me out.

I hope if nothing else more writers reading this post and comments will realize just because some writers can’t afford a certain level of quality, it doesn’t always mean we’re trying to screw readers over with sloppy books all around.


When you need to save money, I also find it helpful to allow yourself to screw up. Case in point: If you want to learn to design your own covers. Your first few, in the very least, will be off the mark. I’m learning (rather quickly, considering how few covers I’ve done) how to produce covers that make my fans go “Ooo!” even if they make other people go “Ulgh!” Because frankly, your covers need to attract your target audience. (I personally also want it to appeal to me.) And then there’s nothing wrong with changing the cover every so often, if that’s what you want to do. For example, I love having color bars behind the text, and I ideally want both readable in the thumbnail. I also want the story title before the author name (I get so annoyed by covers wherein I have to puzzle out which line is the title, which is the series, and which is the author name.) But I’m well aware that those things are personal preferences that some folks dislike. That’s okay. It’s okay for a cover to flunk for folks who aren’t in your target audience—and it’s okay for a cover to flunk for folks in your target audience. You can always try again. Unless you make a complete @$$ of yourself, folks are unlikely to remember your screwups for long—and frankly, folks in general are unlikely to remember your explicit screwups, regardless. (James Frey is a major example. I’ve also…  — Read More »

Laurie Evans

This is one of the things I fear the most about self-publishing: a bad cover. I want an excellent cover, and I know I’ll have to pay someone to make one for me. I have no experience with graphics. I feel like it’s something I should invest in, since I have no desire to learn how to make covers. I think the learning curve (for me) is too steep, I’d rather spend the time writing. For now, I’m making notes of covers I like, and keeping a list of cover artists that appeal to me. Won’t hurt to do some initial research at this point.

I’ve seen some really questionable covers on indie books lately. Some of them are a real turn-off.

Julie Musil

Jami, my biggest fear is putting something out there that wasn’t quality…or ready. Sometimes I feel that fear holding me back, and sometimes I think I’m smart to take things slow. Who knows? No matter what, I’m enjoying this crazy ride. Thanks for the awesome post.


[…] written several posts about how we have to figure out our goals. Do we want to be famous? How can we prioritize fast, cheap, and good? How important are bookstores to us? I touch on the subject a lot because we can’t figure out […]


[…] That said, we’ve talked a lot here about the difficulties of putting out a product we can be proud of, and I know not everyone can afford a professional cover or editing. At the very least, we can use multiple beta readers and brainstorm other ways to save money. […]

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