You have a wonderful story, and it’s written at last. What should you do with it now? You want to get it off your hard drive and out into the world… but how?
Maybe you're thinking you should self-publish... but then, you've heard that it's hard work. Or maybe you're considering sending it out to a publishing company - but have heard there’s so much frustration if you go that route.
Should you self-publish? Or traditionally publish? This may be the hardest question we face as writers today.
Self-publishing has grown tremendously and is starting to find its sea legs in today's stormy publishing world. 31% of Amazon's Kindle sales come from indie books, self-published by their authors or tiny (sometimes single-author) publishing companies. 40% of ebook payouts are going to indie authors. “Kindle millions” might be a myth, but maybe you should try to cash in on some of those megabucks? [stats from Publishers Weekly]
These five questions will help you make the choice, based on my experience navigating the joys and frustrations of self-publishing nearly 20 books for kids and adults, and helping others get their books out into the world.
There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions. But if you find yourself answering NO to most of them, a traditional publisher will probably offer a more comfortable route to a final book.
1. Do you have a clear idea of where your book’s illustrations will come from?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the illustrations yourself or hiring an illustrator. The important thing is knowing that if you self-publish, you’ll have to either lay out the book yourself or pay someone with these skills to do it for you.
If you are unclear on what’s involved, or fear you don’t have the technical skills or budget to create great illustrations, a traditional publisher might be the way to go.
2. Do you know who your book’s audience is?
Actually, this is a trick question. You’ll need to say YES, no matter whether you end up self-publishing or submitting to traditional publishers.
Publishing companies don’t want to receive books “for all children ages 2-12 who like toys.” They want books that are pitched for specific audiences. (Editors at publishing houses also welcome writers who can read instructions like, “We are not actively seeking alphabet books, board books, coloring books, activity books, or books with audiotapes or CD-ROMs.” Don’t send books they don’t want!)
3. Do you want to publish something out of the ordinary?
Traditional publishers are, by and large, looking for traditional manuscripts. For a picture book, for example, it will have to conform to the 32-page, 500-700 word format.
My book Elijah and the Priests of Baal is one of my favourite books; I think it’s one of my best, too. I fell in love with the Biblical story in the Book of Kings, and wrote it in a short way that’s appealing to young readers. I connected with a great illustrator in Macedonia who created lush, beautiful paintings to go with the story.
Even though the book is illustrated, it’s definitely not a baby book. It has far too many words for a traditional publisher to consider it. It’s aimed at kids ages 8-12, not the typical audience for a picture book. Knowing that, I didn’t even bother submitting it; I just went the self-publishing route to get it out into the world.
If your book is a little out of the ordinary, it may still have a market – but very few editors at publishing companies will be willing to take a chance on it.
If you really WANT to submit your book to a publisher, read these 15 formatting tips to meet editors’ expectations. You don’t want your story rejected for being “too special” – for standing out too much in the slush pile.
4. Do you want control over the production timeline and final release date?
This is a double-edged sword. If you self-publish, you’ll be in control, but you’ll also be the only person to blame if things are delayed.
With a traditional publisher, you have absolutely no control. Even after you’ve signed a contract and received an advance, the publisher could can your book on a whim, meaning it never sees the light of day. (Your contract will probably specify that rights revert back to you after some period of time, so you can eventually publish your book elsewhere – or self-publish – later on.)
5. Do you have a plan for how you will market your book?
Actually, you’ll have to do some of the marketing yourself even with a traditional publisher these days. But a lot more of the work lies on your plate if you self-publish. Unless you have a large platform already, and a few different ways to get the word out about your book, it will sink like a stone.
When you self-publish, getting the book “out the door” is the starting point, not the finish line.
The good news is that lots of indie authors have shown us creative ways they’re making this work. But if you’re not prepared to put in this kind of effort, long after the book is written and illustrated, then you should definitely consider a more traditional publishing model.
Whatever happens, don’t let other people decide what’s best for you and your book. I know I get a lot of pressure from friends who say something I’ve written is “too good” to self-publish, like indie authors only put out garbage. Others tell me not to waste time submitting to editors – it just takes forever, and they’re so heartless and rude.
You should also know that in today's book market, self- vs traditional publishing isn't the only choice anymore.
"Hybrid" publishers give you some of the perks of a traditional publisher, but ask you to pay part of the cost of publishing. Some of these deals are scams - I'd say MANY are - but some are legit and worth pursuing. (The best way to find a legit hybrid publisher is word of mouth from someone who's actually sold books and made money that way.)
SCBWI's Harold Underdown offers a helpful list of other publishing options that you might not have considered - and the most important questions you should ask before choosing any of them.
One factor that definitely shouldn’t make the decision for you is money. While traditional publishing does still offer you an advance up front, for most books, this is all the money you’ll see – unless the book becomes a bestseller. Many indie authors find that they make more money overall with the higher royalties of self-publishing (at least in ebooks).
But don’t let that stop you from considering a traditional publisher.
These 5 questions aren’t meant to be an exhaustive list of the perks or minuses of either route. But using these five questions as a guide, you’ll be able to figure out what kind of author you are and go from there. May the road to publication – either road – be a smooth and successful one!