April 2, 2015

Self-Publishing: Prioritizing Fast, Cheap, and Good

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

I just finished up a huge revision and my brain is mush. Thank you to Kathryn, Susan, Jennifer, and Mary for filling in with guest posts while I was deep into not showering or sleeping. *smile*

However, that mushy brain means that I’m in no shape to write one of my epic posts. So today I’m sharing a rerun that’s still very relevant.

Since this post originally ran two years ago, I’ve published a short story and will be releasing three novels this year. Once I decided to indie publish, I had to decide how I wanted to accomplish all of that. Would I prioritize fast, cheap, or good?

Hint: I’m a perfectionist, so “good” was at the top of the pile, and I’m still not on the “fast” path. *smile*


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’ve talked about before 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.

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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Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

You’ve brought up something that I’ve been wondering about recently. I don’t know what my budget is going to be like (other than probably not a lot) and I’m unsure as to what type of editing is absolutely essential. There’s so many different kinds and I’ll admit, I’m not very clear on the distinction between most of them. I know for certain that I want a developmental edit, but beyond that I’m confused. I want cheap and good so I need to keep it to essential edits only except I don’t know which they are!

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Hi Jami, I’m still struggling with this issue, and maybe in a future post you can talk more about the process behind short stories and book-length fiction you’re publishing, and how you made (professional) compromises in the editing you hired, tips on how to better I know you did a post on this awhile back, but maybe you could revisit it and update it to reflect your experience I know since you do freenlance editing yourself that helps you discern what you needed, but for us non-freelance editors who have limited or no experience working with editors, it may not be as clear cut. I know you’ve suggsted in our back and forth on the original post Devianart’s a great resource for working out a deal to use existing artwork or commisson from artists that match our book’s style, perhaps you could ask around for authors you know how to negoiate and create a contract to comission custom artwork, or purchasing the right to use an artist’s existing artwork. Since you often have to pay for cover design upfront, perhaps a post on speific stratagies writers can use to either trade skills in exchange for would make this more tangible for authors to brainstorm and work through. I also think a post on the nuance of the word “Patience” is in order. Not everyone’s idea of “patience” is the same. Something I learned the hard way in the original post of this topic. For some patience means “however long it…  — Read More »


Some writers write fairly clean first drafts. Mine are. I’m mainly prone to omitted transitions and the types of typos common to dyslexics, and that’s part of why I’m comfortable posting first drafts on Wattpad. (I don’t do it for everything, but I do have a “first draft Fridays” thing that I run. On purpose. Sometimes posting the first draft without even reading back over it, after.) I’m not formally diagnosed, but I definitely have dyscalculia, and I believe I’m outright dyslexic…and I’m good enough at editing that it’s much of my day job as a freelancer. Not because I set out to become an editor, but because I, as a newbie freelance writer years ago, had clients who noticed I had skills I didn’t even realize I had, clients that paid me to use them and thereby showed me what I could do. I don’t say this to brag. I say all this to point out: a dyslexic can work as a line editor and can post first drafts for public consumption. Getting to this point has taken me years of learning and applying proper grammar, writing skills, word emotion, logical construction—there is a lot to it. I’m fortunate, in that I learn quickly and naturally tend to spot ways that things connect. (It gets awkward, sometimes, when I comment on something that’s neon flashing sign to me and everyone else in the room stares blankly and hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about.) But I’m still dyslexic. 🙂…  — Read More »


Note: I’m not suggesting that folks use betas/fans/skill swaps for EVERYTHING. I’m just pointing out that it’s one possibility if you’re struggling to get started or have the connections to do it. 🙂

Christina Hawthorne

Jami, I applaud your tackling a sensitive subject, a subject all the more difficult for someone who’s talent is one aspect of publishing that many writers want to dodge or justify receiving for free. Financial limitations are icky, as you well know, but I’m not going to dive into mine here. Just know that I’m an excellent mapmaker and wouldn’t want to give my work away for free, either. Any avenue I take will not include me turning out a quality product if it’s me doing the editing. I can’t escape that fact. When I was much younger (post dinosaurs, mostly) I was an English disaster, barely scraping by with a C or occasional B. For whatever reason, it didn’t click (at least it wasn’t math…yikes!). On the other hand, I was highly imaginative and often in trouble for day dreaming. In those days having the opportunity to expressive yourself creatively via writing wasn’t in the lesson plan. That all changed in HS when I was given the opportunity to write. The next year, my junior, I found myself in advanced English and wondering what happened. It wasn’t until the 90s that I returned to school to seek my college degree. At one point the instructor requested that I stop at her office. I was terrified, fearing I was found out, that my work was not befitting a college student. Instead, she praised my writing—especially my use of complex sentence structure—while noting a couple of minor (elementary) issues. What happened…  — Read More »

Julie Musil

Jami, I’m definitely not in the “fast” zone at all. But I’m patient. And the nice thing is that making the investment is hardest (but still not really hard) with the first book. Then you can use proceeds from that book to fund the second book, and so on. I’d much rather take my time and put out a fully edited book with a great cover than to put something out in a hurry. Digital shelves are forever. I want to be proud of what’s out there.


I don’t want to be TOO fast, but I do want to get my stuff out there this year. I have drafts finished of three novels and three novellas – two of those I wrote in March. Finding beta readers has been my issue, but I finally signed up on Scribophile and the Critique Circle, and have my first chapter on each site now. Hopefully I won’t end up hiding under the covers for a week after the critiques start coming in…

I have a tentative business plan. I’m going to do what you did, starting a small press of my own. My niece is a fantastic artist, so hopefully I can get her to do my cover art (she said yes, but she hasn’t read the book yet, and she’s headed for college). My nephew is amazing with computers and money and business type things – my brother-in-law said that looking into forming a corporation would make a good summer project for him. If he can learn to format the books for Smashwords and other ebooks, and my niece can do the artwork, I will give them each a portion of the company so they can profit from it. Not that I think it will pay for their college, but you know… 🙂 Maybe someday they will get a little bit coming in!

Justine Sebastian
Justine Sebastian

Great (re)post! I missed it the first go ’round, so I am glad to catch it now. 🙂 First off: Reading your post has made my day because finally someone realizes that an author can do more than write. You rock for that! THANK YOU for saying that an author learning to use PS is an option, as well as learning how to do their own formatting. I find so often that the sentiment is “a writer can only write, end of”. The first time I came across it I remember jerking by head back and saying, “Really?” That sort of thing is so discouraging to authors just starting out who have zero budget (see also: me. lol) to get pummeled (oh, yes, it is everywhere) by this kind of attitude. I’ve seen it go so far as, “If you cannot pay for XYZ then you don’t need to be writing a book right now.” Oh. Hell no. While I readily admit that some writers REALLY DO need to stick solely with writing because there are covers out there that make me cringe (PS is like anything else: some people just aren’t that great with it–and that is okay), that is not ALWAYS the case. I’ve been using PS for over a decade now and I really do know what I am doing, so to come across something that tells me (and those like me) that the only thing I’m/we’re good for is writing is honestly an insult. The same…  — Read More »


[…] I had plenty of possibilities to choose from, however. Going back to my post about the need to pick two choices from the list of fast, cheap, and good, the more potential editors we have to choose from, the more likely we’ll be able to find an […]

Kristen Steele

Just as relevant as it was two years ago! This is a great line: If We Expect Customers, We Must Expect to Invest in Our Business. Absolutely! And your business is your books! Editing, proofing, copy design, etc.- it’s all necessary!

Evolet Yvaine

I think my only issue with professional editing is at what point do you get one? How many passes of my own should I make before giving it to a professional?

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