There's a great discussion happening on the YA Writers subReddit right now on the topic of Monetarily Investing in Your Own Writing. This is great info for all writers, whether unpublished, indie, or traditional. How much should you spend? What kinds of swag/promo are worth it--and what isn't? Lots of writers weighing in with their experiences--check it out!
Here's my two cents, based on what I've experimented with (read the full conversation on the forum):
GOOD THINGS TO SPEND MONEY ON
- Research Trips: Okay, within reason. But honestly, if you can afford it, GO YE THEREFORE! Because the best BEST thing I ever spent money on in writing was research trips. I did one for VITRO and I did one for my current WIP, and it changes everything about the way I write--for the better. And especially if your book is set in a location you've never been to!! I can't say much on this yet (not until a certain ANNOUNCEMENT coming up in March) but I can tell you that my current WIP is 100X better because I invested in going to the location and getting all of my facts straight, and also in just drawing on the inspiration of being where the story is set. It's totally worth it. And traveling in any case is always rewarding.
- Personal Domain: As someone already suggested, go with your author name and not your book/series title. You have to think long-term here. A book/series ends, but you might keep writing. And it's pretty much impossible, after several years under one domain name, to switch everything over to a new URL. This isn't expensive! I use Wix.com to design my sites (you don't have to know coding or web design to use it; you just need a good eye for what looks professional, and you can learn a lot about that just by looking at other well-designed author websites). I pay $14.95 a month for my website/domain name. You can cut that cost by using a free host site like Blogger or Wordpress. Keep in mind that many website hosts require you to upgrade to a paid account if you want to use your custom URL. You can always just stick with the free URL (so-and-so.blogspot.com and so forth) but it's less professional and harder to find.
- Business cards: These come in handy all the time! I carry them on me ALWAYS, because you never know when you're going to meet a teacher, librarian, bookseller, or reader. They're super cheap and a great investment. I go through maybe 500 in a year. All they need to include is your name, website, and an image of your book cover. Maybe your e-mail, if you're particularly giving it to librarians/teachers. It's a networking essential, and you can't go wrong in ordering a box of them. I do use VistaPrint, because they run fantastic sales and offers, and if you sign up for their email offers, you can score big discounts.
- Bookmarks or other small swag: Tip: Get something you can mail in a flat envelope!! I made the mistake my first year by ordering a bunch of buttons. They were super cool and a huge hit at school/conferences, but they're too big to mail with just a stamp. Go with FLAT: bookmarks, thin magnets, bookplates. Also carry these to school events. I use them during Q&A sessions as prizes for kids who ask questions. It's amazingly motivating and always ensures Q&A time is lively and interactive.
- Facebook Ads: Use these wisely. They can be a huge money drain otherwise. When I have an important announcements (book release day, something like that) and I post it on my Facebook author page, I boost it at the lowest amount ($5 a day). This increases the post's visibility exponentially, earns me a buttload of new Page likes, and wins the post a ton of great interaction in likes, shares, and comments. But you HAVE to monitor the ads to see what people most respond to, and be sure to set a time and account limit on your ad--otherwise it's easy to forget about it and it will run continuously, while it drains your bank account. I usually boost a post for a week, then let it go. You can also create page ads that will run in the side column or news feed, and you can target these pretty specifically to your target demo (ex: women who like Hunger Games, Divergent, and who are between 15-25). When I run a Facebook ad, I gain between 30-50 new followers each day. Again, these are helpful, but you have to set limits!
- Media Mail: USPS's Media mail is your best friend when you ship a lot of books! It's the cheapest shipping rate there is. Don't let the postal worker talk you out of it (they always say, 'Are you sure? It'll take a week longer to arrive.') Unless you NEED that book to arrive the next day, go with media rate! (Only applies for books/movies)
- Stock images/footage: If you're going to design material to supplement your book (images, posters, book trailers, etc.) then it's worth it to by credits through iStockPhoto or a similar site. I say this simply because you need to protect yourself against any chance of lawsuits over copyright. If you're going to design something, at least do it right and be confident that you won't get sued for it. And these images are top-quality and professional. Also, check DeviantArt for resources like pngs, backgrounds, etc. There's a TON of free stuff the artists there offer in the Resources & Stock Images category (but BE SURE to check their rules on usage!! Some require you to cite the work, others don't care, some prohibit alterations, some don't want you to use it at all. ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT!)
BAD THINGS TO SPEND MONEY ON
- Bulky swag: If you can't mail it in an envelope with just a stamp, then it's going to cost you a lot more to send out, and it's probably inconvenient to carry on tours/events because it takes up so much space. The only bulky swag I order is mugs with my covers on them--and those only as gifts for people who were super influential in the book's publication (agent, editor, mom...)
- Website designer Don't get me wrong--I love designers and if you are financially able to pay one to manage your site, then please do hire one--they have to pay bills too! But if you're on a budget, don't worry. There are alternatives! I've already mentioned Wix, but other great website platforms are Blogger, Wordpress, and Weebly. They're easy to use and there are loads of authors sites you can use to get ideas (feel free to use mine--www.jessicakhoury.com)
- Book Trailers: Several people have touched on this one, so I won't go too far into it. One idea, though, is that you might run a contest that calls for readers to submit their own original trailers (Anna Banks is running a great contest like this right now). This invites readers to creatively engage with the material and they'll likely be enthusiastic in sharing their trailers with their friends--maybe more so than if it were a trailer you or someone else designed.
- Facebook Ads: Yes, I am trying to totally confuse you. But really--I listed this under both bad and good because it's important that you don't go overboard with it. It's so easy to spend several hundred dollars here without realizing it (am I speaking from experience? YES, YES I AM.) A small injection of $$ every now and then is okay, but long-term campaigns, though they might win you bookoos of page likes, aren't going to be worth it. Use in moderation, and keep a close eye on the stats and the budget to see if it's working for you or simply draining you.
- School Visits with no terms: I waive travel costs for local schools, but if I have to drive an hour or more, I charge travel costs. It's fair, it's expected, and schools do usually have a budget for it. Don't feel bad about asking for travel costs to be covered--it's the biz! Beyond that, it's up to you. Some writers have speaking fees, some don't. I go in-between: my one request for schools is that the students I meet with read my book before I come. This ensures two things: 1) sales and 2) an enthusiastic, engaged audience. Visits where the kids have read the book are always phenomenal and rewarding for everyone, myself and the students. Visits where the kids have never heard of me or my book... less so. It's harder to get their interest and discussion time can be a bit awkward. This is also helps gauge the teacher or librarian's investment in your visit: if they're willing to pay travel costs and have their kids read the book, then you know they're invested in your visit. Don't let yourself be used a free class babysitter. (this is rare; in my experience, teachers and school librarians are among the best and brightest in our society, but it can happen).
All of these items I've listed I am aiming at post-publication! Pre-pub is an entirely different matter, and honestly, the only thing I spent money on before I was published was paper and ink to print my MS on. I think anything else is unnecessary and even distracting. Your #1 goal pre-pub is to WRITE THE DAMN THING and get it sold. It's easy to get caught up in glittery novel-writing kits and software and stuff you don't actually need in order to write a novel--all of that's extraneous. You don't need to spend anything for that except time. So I guess, if there's one thing you might do, it's buy yourself time. If you can pull off a few less hours at work to write, do it. After all, this is what makes you happy, right? Then you cannot go wrong.