Self Publishing--What You Should Know
Adapted and compiled by Chris Eboch (RA, New Mexico) and Holly Thompson (RA, Japan, Tokyo)
These days SCBWI Regional Advisors throughout the world are frequently asked about self-publishing. Since finding a publisher can be a long and arduous process, authors and illustrators often find themselves tempted to self-publish their books. The following answers have been adapted by responses from SCBWI regional advisors to the general question of self-publishing.
To begin with:
If you are considering self-publishing as an option, start by educating yourself about the entire process of children’s book publishing. The Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books by Harold Underdown does a great job of covering all aspects of the North American children’s book business, including submitting and marketing your work. His extensive website The Purple Crayon (www.underdown.org
) has a section devoted to self-publishing with links to relevant articles and helpful interviews. In addition, Members of SCBWI can access, via the main SCBWI site (www.scbwi.org
), a publication titled “The Self-Publishing Option.” Start at the For Our Members page, then click on SCBWI publications and scroll down to Publishing Alternatives.
Useful books and web sites about self-publishing Besides Underdown’s book, you should seek out and read several books on self-publishing before going that route. Comb the internet for information. Dan Poynter is an educator in the field of self- publishing and the author of The Self-Publishing Manual and other publications. Poynter’s website ParaPublishing
) has helpful information. Also, since self- published authors will need to market their own books, a visit to John Kremer’s site (www.bookmarket.com
) can be helpful. Kremer offers seminars on book marketing and is the author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Book. Aeonix Publishing (www.aeonix.com
) has a site with links to printers and information about book printing. Cypress House (www.cypresshouse.com
) is a publishing house with good information as well as a detailed list of services. There's also a page of books for writers with some resources.
Small presses and self publishing:
Some people start their own "publishing company" in order to self- publish. An example is Tortuga Press, begun by California-based Matthew Gollub (see the interview with Gollub in Carp Tales Spring 2007). Have a look at his site and his interview to get an idea of how Tortuga Press came about. Publishers Marketing Association (PMA), the Independent Book Publishers Association (www.pma-online.org
) represents small presses, and they have a long list of benefits available to PMA members only—including listing member books on their website, plus their own seminars and awards. Small Publishers Association of North America (www.spannet.org
) is similar to PMA, but smaller. Their site has many articles on book planning, publicity and internet marketing.
Many self-published works tend to suffer from a lack of careful revision and thorough editing. One way for self-publishing authors to be carefully edited is to hire a writing coach or consultant. SCBWI members can find a list of editors and manuscript consultants by visiting the main SCBWI site (www.scbwi.org
) and going to Publications then the Getting Started section in the full listing of publications. Visit Esther Hershenhorn’s site (www.estherhershenhorn.com
) for an example of a qualified writing coach.
Opinions about self-publishing and print on demand Finally, these opinions about self-publishing and print on demand were gathered from comments made by various regional advisors, especially Margaret Speaker Yuan, SCBWI Regional Advisor of San Francisco East/ North Bay and president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association.
Some self-publishing companies charge authors a lot of money, while others don't ask for money up front. Publish America, a print-on- demand company, words everything to make it sound like you don't "self- publish" with them. Yet they accept almost any manuscript, and while you don't pay up front for printing, they take ALL RIGHTS. That means if a traditional publisher gets interested down the road, Publish America gets the money. Traditional publishers are not impressed by companies like Publish America and AuthorHouse, so having a book with one of them does not look good in a cover or query letter.
Most people are unhappy with self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD). The author has to do the marketing, often winding up with boxes of books in the garage. Marketing, storage, shipping and returns can be expensive and time-consuming. In many places, bookstores generally will not stock self-published or POD books. These publishers may offer marketing (for a price), but they miss two of the biggest ways books are sold—through book reviews and at trade shows. Traditional review sources such as Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, Book Links do not review self-published or POD books.
In addition, the quality of self-published/POD books is often low. The covers are often badly designed, and they don't guarantee color control. The back cover copy is often poorly written, as is the sales material. The company does little or no editing or poor-quality editing. Many of the best traditionally published books on the market have been heavily influenced by the editor's input, and self-published/ POD books generally miss out on this experienced editorial advice.
Before considering publishing with one of these self-publishing or POD houses, get a sample book from the publisher. Study the cover stock (paper), the cover design, the back cover, the paper inside, the internal layout. Does the book look just as professional as the ones you see in the library and bookstore? Take the sample book to your local bookstore and ask what the booksellers think about it. Ask if they stock any books from that publisher.
If you just want to write books for your family, POD can be a relatively quick and easy way to get a few dozen copies to share. But authors should not expect commercial success. Wendi Gratz, a former bookstore buyer and currently a sales rep for Random House, says, "There are huge success stories, but one reason those successes get so much press is because they are so very rare. I've been a bookseller for fifteen years. In that time I've probably seen hundreds of self- published books. Only one was really terrific. That's right - one. If you decide to self-publish a general interest book and you expect to sell it through bookstores, you are starting with a huge strike against you. Booksellers are very reluctant to carry self-published books. There are a couple of reasons for this.
"The first one is a 'first impression' issue. The vast majority of self-published books are just awful, so when someone calls and tells me they have a self-published book that they want me to carry, my first reaction is to start paving the way for a gentle rejection.
[Even if your book is good,] when you self-publish you are immediately associated with a lot of people who have NO IDEA what they are doing.
It's already hard to get your book in bookstores—trying to sell a self- published book to us is giving yourself one more hurdle to jump.
"The second issue is the one of marketing. Even when the quality of a self-published book is just fine, I'm still going to be reluctant to buy it because there is NO marketing behind it. Most of the trade journals refuse to consider self-published books for review and without trade reviews it's really hard to get consumer media (regular newspapers and magazines) to review the books. Without any media attention, there's nobody coming into the store asking to buy the book. The self-published authors who do have the time and the skills necessary for self-promotion are often selling the books themselves, so even if they manage to get the word out to potential customers, those customers are buying from the author instead of from my store!
"The one huge, very important exception to all of this is books of regional interest. These are usually self-published. We (and most other bookstores) carry them and they do just fine. We can put them in a local interest section of the store where browsers will find them and the lack of publicity doesn't hurt so much. Customer expectations for these books also aren't as high as for general interest titles.
"So unless you're prepared to market AND sell the book yourself you're better off going the extremely slow and frustrating route of traditional publishing."
In conclusion, while self-publishing may be the right way to go for some writers and illustrators, and while some people are satisfied with the results, this option is full of risk. Authors and illustrators should also understand that self-publishing isn't SCBWI's mission. SCBWI is set up to assist people interested in traditional publishing for many reasons. As a result, regional advisors throughout the world will generally urge you to exercise caution and do a great deal of research before committing to a self-publishing or POD company.