The True Cost of Independent Publishing (and How to Do It Free)

When publishing is a button, pretty much the only thing you really need to buy for access to that button is a computer, and chances are you don’t even really need a great one at that.

I published my first book, a self-titled debut collection no longer available, in 2007 during my first full year studying writing at USC. Back then, I had a Hewlett-Packard laptop, and I wrote the entire collection and laid it out in Microsoft Word. I used Photoshop for the cover.

I’d already had experience publishing by then; for the three years before, I’d been assistant editor of two nursing journals. I’d used programs like Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign. Working knowledge of those two programs was not just helpful but integral to making that book back then.

That’s no longer true, because publishing has changed so much. Honestly, I can’t imagine why anyone would want a PDF for digital publishing, which means several of those programs are no longer useful (a PDF is arguably necessary for CreateSpace, which I think is the best POD service available).

So you want to publish. What do you need?

You need a computer. That’s probably the most expensive thing you’ll need and the one you can’t get around, but I’d wager you already have one, because you’re already reading this on it. I’d wager chances are the computer you have can handle just about everything I’m going to recommend throwing at it. Now, admittedly, if you’re on a computer that’s more than a few years old, some of the programs might be slow. Photoshop, for example. But slow doesn’t mean “unable to run.”

You’ll first need word processing, and Microsoft Word is the most popular program by far. Up until just a year or so ago, it’s the only program I used. In fact, Microsoft’s Office Suite was all I used. It came with Excel and Powerpoint, which I used for my MBA. It was useful and nearly universal, and it was reasonably priced. Chances are you won’t find anyone anywhere who can’t open a .doc file (that’s what Microsoft Word saves a document as).

You can get it at Amazon for about $100.

Seems to include Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. It’s not a bad deal.

More than you want to spend?

If you have a Mac, Apple sells its Pages word processor for far less. $30. Of course, you’ll have to buy Numbers and Keynote (Apple’s Excel and Powerpoint, respectively), for the same suite you’d get from Microsoft Office, but let’s be honest: for publishing most things, you’ll never need more than a Word Processor to start with.

The other alternative? Apache’s Open Office suite. It’s free. It includes an open-source suite, and it looks like it works on both PC and Mac. Now, using open-source software, you’re trading in the security of knowing a company like Apple or Microsoft supports it; if you need help with Open Office, chances are you’ll have to ask other, more advanced users.

Still, it’s free.

Interestingly, you don’t need all that. You can simply use a text editor. This Lifehacker post on Text Editors is old but still mostly relevant, I think. Pretty much any plain text editor, nowadays. Used to be word processing was great because it allowed you to apply styles and italics and et cetera to a manuscript, but now we’re not making a manuscript. We’re building an ebook, and when we use italics, we have to code them.


After you’ve written your novel (or story. Or poem) in whatever word processing program you chose, you’ll want to save it as an html file. That’s usually labeled as “Save as webpage” or something like that. But doing so will give you either an .html file or a folder that includes an .html file, and that’s pretty much all you need.

When I worked on a PC, I used Notepad++ here. It’s free. You open your html file using Notepad++, and then you edit the code itself. You apply html tags to italicize or embolden or whatnot.

Since I’ve switched to a Mac, I tend to use DreamWeaver at this step, for a simple reason; there’s a specific command that makes DreamWeaver take out all the extraneous code Microsoft Word puts in.

Adobe’s DreamWeaver is basically web design software. It’s part of Adobe’s Creative Suite. It’s expensive. Something like two grand, maybe more.

If I weren’t using DreamWeaver, I’d use Text Wrangler. I still sometimes do, even. It’s free. It allows code editing capabilities for Mac.


After I’ve finished the html file of a book, I set it aside to find a photo.

You can use a site like They sell stock art images, and they’re not very expensive.

Me, I go to Flickr. And I go to advanced search, and search only for images licensed under creative commons and labeled for commercial reuse and modification. Basically, that means I can use someone’s picture and alter it in any way I want so long as I credit the photographer in the book. Going to Flickr and using creative commons images is free.

After I’ve found my image (or, sometimes, several), I go to Photoshop. I used to use Photoshop when I was on a PC, too. It’s a terrific, robust program. It’s also expensive. It’s part of that Creative Suite I just mentioned.

A good alternative program, though, is GIMP (that’s Gnu Image Manipulation Program). It’s free and, like Open Office, open-source. The interface isn’t quite as streamlined or intuitive as Photoshop’s, but it’s robust and it’s what I’d be using if I weren’t using Photoshop.

Ebook Building

So I’ve got my html file. And I’ve got my .jpg of my cover.

If you’re on a PC, this part’s easy. You can do no better than MobiPocket Creator. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and it creates a PRC you can upload directly to Amazon. It’s perfect, really. There’s nothing better.

It’s so perfect, in fact, I refuse not to use it, even though there’s no version available for Mac. What I ended up doing was using Parallels, a program that enables one to run Windows programs on a Mac. I run a virtual Windows 7 machine solely to use Mobipocket Creator.

Now you have a PRC. You can also download Calibre, which in addition to being fantastic ebook management software is also a perfect way to convert that PRC you just created into an ePub.

Now you have a PRC and an ePub. You can sign up for a free KDP account to upload your files to Amazon and sell them there, or a free PubIt account to upload your ePub to Barnes & Noble.


And that’s it.

So you see, it can cost either a lot or a little. And truth be told, while my current rig is a Macbook Pro with 8gb of RAM that runs a Windows virtual machine and has Adobe CS5 (as well as Final Draft and several other programs), I genuinely believe I could do exactly what I’m doing to exactly the same quality using that old HP I brought with me to Los Angeles and USC. Some of the programs are now a bit more sophisticated, and my skill in using them has certainly developed, but at the same time, that development and sophistication came mainly with time, not money.

So now you see you can do it.

Should you?

Well, that’s a whole other can of worms. I can’t answer that question for you; it’s one you need to address yourself.


  1. Have you considered Markdown? It’s a form of annotation that lets you convert text to HTML preserving Headers, italics, bold text and other basic formatting. Some writing programs such as Scrivener let you write in Markdown, then handle the text to HTML conversion, though Scrivener will output directly to mobi and epub formats.

  2. Thank you for this post, it was very informative! I’ve been wondering about all this talk of “coding” the book and whatnot, and as a sometime web designer, I’d hoped to be able to take that job on myself. This has given me a lot of pointers in that direction. Thank you!

    Also, did you do the cover for your book, The Prodigal Hour? Very nice!

Comments are closed.