Short answer: Yes and No.
Duh, that’s not an answer.
I agree, so…
In this article we’ll look at where you can self publish your book, and what goes into self-publishing. Then we’ll see if you can really publish a book for free.
If you decide to go the route of traditional publishing, there are zero costs upfront. Thus, if you go this route you can actually publish a book for free.
But… (always a but)
You should realize that it’s very difficult to land a traditional publishing contract, as an unknown author. And you will still need to invest the time (or even possible costs) of establishing your author platform.
Where can you self-publish?
Offline. When you self publish offline you’ll need to have a certain number of books printed, i.e. you need to order physical stock. Often the minimum quantity is 2,000 copies. You then need to sell the books you have, and in order to do this, you’re going to need to market, sell and deliver the books.
You may have read the many stories of aspiring indie authors who have a garage full of books. Or the author who says, “my mom has a copy of my book.”
Why do you think this happens?
Read on for the answer.
If you choose to use one of the self publishing houses (known as vanity publishers), they have different self-publishing packages available. The cost of these can vary between $399 to $5,000. Going this route, you will need to pay this fee, plus the cost of your physical books. With some packages a small quantity of books are included in the price.
Either way, you’re looking at a sizable sum of money.
Online. Self-publishing online does have “free” options. You have the option of publishing either an ebook or paper (physical) book, or both (my recommendation). The top three options for online self-publishing are:
- Kindle ebook
- Smashwords ebook, and
- KDP Print (paper book).
NOTE: I use the term online publisher, but you will also see these sites referred to as online resellers, or online aggregators.
There are other options, but if you publish your book at these three online publishers you can reach tremendous success.
There are no upfront costs to upload your book to any of the above online publishers. You upload your files (Word and PDF) to the site, and depending on which format you chose, it will be available for sale within hours (e.g. Kindle).There are no upfront costs to upload your book to online publishers. Click To Tweet
The online publishers take a small percentage of the retail price, but you still receive a good portion of the retail price you set. For example, Kindle pays up to 70% of your ebook’s retail price.In practical terms, getting your book live on the World Wide Web is free. Click To Tweet
What goes into self-publishing?
Writing. You will need to write your book. Duh. Even though there is no money for the writing (if you do it yourself), it does take time to write a quality book.
Editing. A book that has not been edited screams amateur. It shows poor quality, but more than that it shows that the author does not respect his/her reader.
If a book is not edited, it can result in bad reviews, and that can be bad for sales.A book that has not been edited screams amateur. Click To Tweet
You should always have your book edited. Period.
Formatting. It is possible to do this yourself, and thus there will be no cost. Keep in mind that doing it yourself will take some time. If you don’t have the time, you will need to outsource this task.
Cover. A book is judged by its cover. Think of the many buyers scanning the multitude of books at Amazon – if your cover doesn’t catch your prospective customer’s eye, it’s a lost sale. Although not the only criteria, the cover design can affect the decision to buy.Your book’s cover design can affect the decision to buy. Click To Tweet
Johanna Penn, at The Creative Penn offers this advice: “Your book cover is one of the most important aspects of marketing your book. However much time you spend on getting people to your book sales page, they won’t download a sample or buy the book if the cover isn’t enticing.” 
If you decide to go the DIY route, Writer’s Digest offers 10 Tips for Effective Book Covers.
Derek Murphy, a book cover designer at Creative Indie Covers, shares this caution, “But here’s the thing, dictating the terms of your book cover design is the worst publishing mistake you can make. The cover isn’t a place to be creative. The cover is packaging. It’s an online advertisement.” 
As you can see, your book’s cover design is important. Not a decision you should take lightly. If you don’t have graphic design skills, I would highly recommend outsourcing the design of your book’s cover. A badly designed book cover can cost you a lot more than the few dollars for a professional cover design.
An integral part of your cover design is the title of your book, and can play an equally important part in the success of selling your book. “Your title sets the tone, hints at the genre or style of book, and draws the reader in. It’s your very first opportunity to “market” your book and make someone want to read it.” An integral part of your cover design is the title of your book. Click To Tweet
Promotion. This is something that can be done by yourself for free (and usually is done by indie authors themselves, especially when starting out). If you already have followers, this can be something that’s easier than if you’re starting from scratch. If you don’t have followers, you may consider investing in online training, on how to build your author platform, and book promotion (or you can buy a few books, at the very least).
“Self-publishers—especially nonfiction authors—give themselves the best chance of success by focusing on how they will market the book before they write it. Why? How your book addresses the basic question of the readers you hope to sell it to will be crucial in how well it’s received in the market.” 
In an article at Written Word Media, they stress the importance of email marketing as, “the most effective way to drive sales of your new titles, since you can control the message and know that you are hitting an audience that cares about your work.” 
Unless you have an established platform, and a couple thousand followers, book promotion will take time. And if time is in short supply, then it’s, “if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the money”. That is, it’s something that can be outsourced.
After looking at your options of where to self-publish, and the basics of what goes into self-publishing, let’s now see if free publishing is possible…
Can you publish a book for free?
Editing. You want to create a professional, quality product, and you don’t want to fall into the poor quality self-published books group. Although editing can be expensive, with some research time, you can find editing services that are affordable. For example, look for students who are studying language or journalism; going this route can save you a bucket of moola. Just check, and make sure they can offer a quality service. See Resources below.
If there is only one cost you incur in self publishing your book, make it editing (proofreading at the very least).
Formatting. If you have the time (and budget) to invest in learning the methods to format your book according to the requirements of the online publishers, then you can easily do this yourself. You can format your book in Word, and then submit your Word file for the Kindle ebooks, and to Smashwords. You can submit your Word file to KDP Print (for your paper book).
To improve your income possibility, I highly recommend self-publishing your book in these 3 types: Kindle (ebook), Smashwords (various ebook formats), and KDP Print (paper book). This way your book will be available to a much wider audience… why leave money on the table, right?
If you don’t have the time (or wish) to do this yourself, then you will need to budget for the outsourcing of this task.
To really cover your market, you can also offer your book as an audiobook. If you have a good-sounding voice, you can do this completely for free. If you have a voice like mine, you will need to pay to have your book recorded. I was able to find a really good quality recording artist at Fiverr (naturally the length of my book cost more than $5, but it was a good deal for the quality I received).
Cover. After editing, this is an important investment you should make. If you don’t have graphic design skills, rather outsource this to a professional book cover designer (be sure to check the portfolio of the graphic designer before ordering your cover). A professional cover design can make a difference between sales and no sales.
Apart from the graphic design of the cover, your title and sub-title (if you have a sub-title) is very important. Also the type and size of the typeface(s) is important. Consider the small size of the thumbnail images at Amazon. If you have an awesome title (and average cover design), it can catch your prospective customer’s eye, and result in a sale.
“Next to an arresting, professional-looking cover design, it’s the title of your book that’s most likely to grab a reader’s attention and convince her pick it up and buy it” 
Promotion/Marketing. If you have the time, you can do this yourself (e.g. building your author platform through social media).
“Author platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently. But by far the easiest explanation is: an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” 
Even if you’re doing it yourself, you can still consider paid advertising. This is what one indie author says: “When starting a business – and this author thing really is a business these days – you generally need either time or money to make things happen early on. Some people spend a lot of time pimping their book creatively – quotations, giveaways, contests, etc. – on social media, and some people buy ads.”
If time is in short supply, you can consider outsourcing your promotion/marketing, or parts of it.
What if you don’t have the skills, time or the money?
It’s possible that you may not have the necessary skills, or the time go the DIY route. And money may be tight.
Can you still self-publish your book for free?
Yes, it’s possible, but you may be forfeiting a big chunk of your book sales income.
For example, a company like Light Switch Press offers to do everything you need for your book, for free:
- Cover design
- Formatting, and
- Distribution (print and ebook).
The downside of using a service like this is that you get “a 30% royalty monthly of all units sold through our distribution partners.”  In other words, you make 30% of each book sold.
You will also be able to “buy your book at our author cost – below wholesale.” 
If you really don’t have the skills, time or money, it may be useful to go this route as a start on your self-publishing journey.
Do your research, so that you don’t throw money down the drain.
Having looked at the basics of self-publishing your book, we can now ask the question: Is it possible to publish a book for free?
Yes. If you have the skills (and
time) for formatting, graphic design, and promotion, then you can do it for
free (sort of). I say sort of because I believe the one task you should budget
for is editing.
No. If you don’t have the necessary skills (and/or time, or wish) to do the tasks needed, then these will have to be outsourced, and this will need to be budgeted for.
At Completely Novel, they offer the following: “It’s important to be realistic and remember that even if your book is a masterpiece, there is a lot of noise and competition in the current book market and it takes real perseverance to make your book successful. However, if you have self-published your book, success will taste all the sweeter when it comes. So, stay focused and positive but be prepared for hard work… and don’t quit your day job just yet!” 
To help you identify all the tasks required to self-publish your book, grab your free copy of The Ultimate Self-Publishing Checklist.
 Book Cover Design, http://www.thecreativepenn.com/bookcoverdesign/
 Why do you want a book cover, anyway? http://www.creativindiecovers.com/
 Marketing Your Book, http://www.thebookdesigner.com/marketing-your-book/
 10 Trends in Publishing Every Indie Author Needs to Know, https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/2016/01/25/10-trends-publishing-indie-author-needs-know/
 How Important Is Your Book Title? http://www.rachellegardner.com/how-important-is-your-book-title/
 The Indie Authors’ Guide to Book Titles http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/66583-the-indie-authors-guide-to-book-titles.html
 How to Self-Publish
 A Definition of Author Platform
Editing Checklist for Self- and Peer Editing