On Not Doing It All Yourself

Whether you self publish your writing or plan to seek a traditional publishing contract, there are related tasks you can pay someone else to do. Often the people you could hire have more experience and can produce a better result than you, such as when you pay a graphic designer to create a book cover or a professional developmental editor to review your plot.

Yet most of us struggle with the idea of paying for services we can, at least in theory, do ourselves.


Here are three reasons that come to mind:

  • Your time is “free”
  • It’s too hard to train someone
  • You’re not earning enough

Let’s talk about each one.

Why Pay Someone When I Can Do The Task For Free?

The problem with this question is that it contains an assumption: that your time is free. It’s not, even if you are earning zero right now at your writing.

At the very least, if you have another job or profession, your time is worth what you currently earn calculated by the hour. So if your annual salary is $70,000, you earn about $35 an hour if you work 40 hours a week. If someone else can do a writing-related task for less than that, you’re coming out ahead, assuming you have the resources to pay.

Even if you pay someone the exact hourly amount you take home, odds are you’ll come out ahead.

First, an expert can work faster and produce better results. For example, as I wrote about in Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover, I recently designed two covers myself for nonfiction books. My guess is that each one took me at least 10 hours, while I bet a professional could have created them in 1-2 hours. So even if the hourly rate were equal, I overpaid for those covers.

Second, if you are earning at least some money at your writing, whatever you pay someone else generally is tax deductible, but the time you devote is not. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s say I earn $1,000 in royalties on those two books and earn the salary in the example above at my other work. I spent $700 (20 hours X $35) to design the covers, but I can’t deduct that as an expense because my time was “free.” So I’ll still pay taxes on $1,000.

If I had instead paid a cover designer $200, I not only would have freed up 20 hours of my time, my profit would be $800 ($1,000-$200), and that’s what I’m paying tax on, not the whole $1,000. (Obviously, this is a general example. I’m not a tax attorney or accountant, and if you need specific tax advice, you should talk to a professional.)

Third, by spending your time on something that’s not your area of expertise, you incur what businesses call “opportunity costs.” If instead of spending 20 hours on covers I’d spent it finishing the second non-fiction book, that would be out there potentially earning royalties right now. Instead, I’m still making last revisions.

Okay, I better move on soon, because I’ve convinced myself that designing those two covers really wasn’t the best move and I’ve lost 20 hours.

If you find yourself in the same position, though, and you no doubt will at some point, don’t worry too much about it. With any endeavor there will be missteps and money or time you wish you had spent differently. I think of it as “tuition”—money or time that’s required to learn a new area, a concept I borrowed from Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad Poor Dad fame.

It Takes Too Long To Train Someone.

This is the objection that applied most often in my solo law practice because there was a steep learning curve with a lot of the work I needed help with. In the beginning, training a new lawyer or an assistant would have taken more of my time than it saved. But I was being shortsighted. Even if it had taken me four or five or ten times as long to train someone, once they were trained, my time would have been freed to do tasks that only I could do, or that I could do best.

The many hours I spent learning all my clients’ different billing programs, for instance, could have been devoted to legal work that paid me by the hour or to finishing my novels more quickly. In other words, it would have been well worth it over the long haul to spend some time training.

In writing, the case for outsourcing is even stronger. if you self-publish, it’s almost certain you could be paying someone to do something that you aren’t that skilled at. Most writers are not also graphic designers, they don’t know how to convert word processing files to Kindle files, they don’t have web design experience, and they aren’t usually terrific editors of their own work.

Also, when you outsource work, you get the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. The graphic designer may propose a wonderful concept that never crossed your mind because you are so immersed in your story. Recently, my virtual assistant typed in some edits for me that I’d handwritten on a manuscript. She spotted a few awkward sentences I’d read right past because I knew what I meant. When she flagged them, though, I realized she was right.

I’m Not Making Enough At Writing To Justify Paying Someone.

Even if you are earning money at your first profession or job, it can be hard to justify to yourself paying someone to help with your novel if your fiction writing isn’t generating a lot of income.

But no matter how little or how much your fiction earns right now, time and money can always be exchanged for one another. As I talked about in Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full-Time, by paying someone to do anything that you could do yourself, you are literally buying time.

Also, when it comes to financial goals such as paying your bills, saving for retirement, or paying down debt, the overall dollars matter, not where they come from. So if I can pay someone $200 to do a writing-related task and that allows me to spend time doing something that earns me $300, hiring someone makes financial sense regardless whether I earned that $300 through royalties, practicing law, or selling vintage Barbies on eBay.

Another way to think of this is that lots of people spend money on hobbies and leisure activities, most of which don’t have the potential to earn them any money. Supplies and equipment are needed for activities as diverse as building model airplanes, kayaking, and playing golf. Even birdwatching requires purchasing binoculars. In contrast, whether or not your writing earns you money now, it has the potential to do so.

Finally, think about why you’re writing and how long you’re willing to devote to the business side of it. If you want to sell books, it will take time to find your market (whether you intend to do that on your own or through a publisher).

Also, to establish yourself, you will need more than one book. In fact you’ll probably need at least four or five. The faster you can write those books, the better for your career, assuming your quality remains good. So paying someone else to do things so that you can write more in the long run will almost certainly earn you more and help you get your career off the ground.

I hope these points persuaded you at least to consider some tasks you could pay someone else to handle, assuming you have even a small amount of funds to do so. Next week I’ll talk about how to decide which tasks make the most sense to outsource. (There’s no one-size-fits all answer. What’s best for you to do yourself will vary from writer-to-writer.)

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly