FAQ - Self-Publishing
My Experience Self-Publishing Picture Books
I’ve had a number of people ask about self-publishing children’s picture books and interest in exploring it for their own projects. Happy to share a bit about what I’ve learned in my experience (I’ve self-published one children’s picture book before and am in the process of self-publishing my second with a hybrid publisher). There is so much to learn about the publishing world so keep in mind that this is only based my limited experience. I encourage you to do further research (I’ve included additional resources at the end). I hope this is helpful!
I'm an illustrator and graphic designer by trade. I initially wrote and illustrated my first picture book, Neela Goes to San Francisco, for my niece as a one-off gift. Fast forward a couple years later and I decided I wanted to share it with more kids so I reworked it a bit and started looking into publishing. After doing some research, I quickly learned that the children's book industry is incredibly saturated and competitive. Many publishers do not take unsolicited submissions (meaning they require you to have an agent to submit). There are some publishers that do allow submissions without an agent. If you find a publisher that is a good fit for your book and they allow individuals to submit, it can take awhile (maybe 3-6 months) to hear from them if they are interested. And if they aren't interested they may not ever reply because they get so many submissions. For me, I knew I wanted to get my book out into the world but wasn’t interested in finding an agent at the time. I also felt I had some of the skills (definitely not all!) that it takes to make a physical book like illustration, design, production file setup, printer experience. So I gave self-publishing a shot knowing that I’d have to do a lot of learning along the way (cue constantly searching on the Internet for how to do EVERYTHING).
If you decide to self-publish, give yourself some grace and keep in mind that you are going to make mistakes. But by doing so, you will learn a TON along the way. For me, going through it and figuring it out was the best way for me to learn about publishing. I learned a lot through the process of my first book and am applying all those things to my second book.
Overview of Steps to Consider:
This is a rough overview of the steps you will want to research and consider when making a book. Consider what parts you can do yourself and what parts you will need assistance for. If you are self-publishing, depending on your background, you may be able to complete many parts on your own. Even if that’s the case, you will likely need to hire people for at least some steps:
Nitty-Gritty-Important-Things-That-I-Don’t-Know-How-to-Categorize: Obtaining an ISBN, Filing for copyright, Filing with the Library of Congress
Right now there are three publishing methods that I am aware of: Self Publishing, Hybrid Publishing (a mix between self and traditional) and Traditional Publishing These are some of the key differences that I’ve identified that may help you make a decision on how you want to publish.
(NOTE: I am working with a hybrid publisher for my second book. The things I know about this method are based only on this one in-process experience and may not fully apply to all hybrid publishers.)
Creative Freedom: How much control you have over your project?
Self Publishing: You have the final say and creative control on what your book is in terms of concept, writing, illustration, design etc. You can also work within your own timeline and adjust as needed. The downside is you don’t have industry expertise to guide you meaning A LOT of research time on your end.
Hybrid Publishing: You retain creative control but have some industry guidance. You probably retain some control of timeline but also have to stick to something.
Traditional Publishing: You have to pitch your idea over and over again in a very competitive industry. If you get selected and sign on with a publisher, you must be very open to make changes based on their feedback. Generally feedback is great because you will be making your book as good as possible by revising but you also might have to give in to changes that don’t align with your creative vision. You would probably be on a strict timeline. The benefit is you have strong industry expertise to guide you.
Access to Experts: How much expert help do you have access to for all the steps?
Self Publishing: You have to seek out and hire any experts that you need. For example, you may or may not want to work with a freelance editor. Or if you aren’t illustrating and designing your book, you will need to hire someone and negotiate a contract. Consider this for each step in the process listed above.
Hybrid Publishing: Many of them will help you find experts for each step of the process whether they are in-house or people they will help you hire. They likely have connections with printers, as well, and may help manage the printing process.
Traditional Publishing: They have expertise and connections for many of the steps in the process including rigorous editing. They would likely find an illustrator, have book designers, provide proofreading, printer connections and more.
Nitty Gritty: How much work will you have to put in for all the smaller pieces of the puzzle?
Self Publishing: You will have to research and obtain some of the nitty gritty elements of making a book – obtaining an ISBN and barcode, filing with Library of Congress etc.
Hybrid Publishing: They will likely handle these steps or at least walk you through it.
Traditional Publishing: They will handle these steps.
Costs/Payment: How do elements of the process get funded and do you get any payment up front?
Self Publishing: You have to fund everything including but not limited to experts (illustrator, designer, proofreader etc), printing, shipping, storage, marketing, distribution. No one will be paying for your time upfront. If there are some steps in the process that you can do, then you don’t have to pay anyone to do it but have to commit time to those elements.
Hybrid Publishing: You have to fund everything above PLUS pay the hybrid publisher for their services. No one will be paying for your time.
Traditional Publishing: As far as I know, they pay for mostly everything above. The author may have to pay for some of their own marketing, such as book tours (that varies case by case). Generally you are paid an advance as well as a percent royalty on sales.
Marketing: How do you make people and store buyers aware of the book?
Self Publishing: You have to research and put together a marketing plan. The reach of your book depends on how much time and money you put towards this.
Hybrid Publishing: They provide guidance in putting together a marketing plan. You are still responsible for executing that plan so need to be willing to invest time and money.
Traditional Publishing: They will handle creating a marketing plan and use their industry connections to get your book in front of a lot of people. They cover many of the costs but you may need to pay for some of your own marketing efforts.
Distribution and Fulfillment: How does your book get on shelves and in hands?
This is a big one if you want to sell your book widely (more than locally) and in stores! Bookstores, even Indie bookstores, usually do not wholesale books directly from individuals because it’s inefficient to order from one person and cut them a check when they can order a bunch of titles from one large distributor who will then turn around and pay everyone as needed. I had no idea about this until I started trying to get my first book into stores. So far I have not found a way for a self-published author to get into these distribution channels unless they do print on demand (I’m not interested in this because I want high quality control with printing). I know this is a giant bummer and one of the biggest barriers for the success of self-published authors. Just keep in mind that bookstores are in a tough position right now given how the industry has been going the last decade.
Self Publishing: You figure out all of the places you are going to sell your book (online, in stores etc.) and figure out how to get them in there. You will likely be storing all your books a home (hello cardboard box furniture!) or finding a storage facility to hold them. When books sell to an individual or store, you will package and ship it out. You will have to take time to package/ship and cover packaging costs and sometimes shipping costs depending on what your terms are.
Hybrid Publishing: Some are able to get you into major distribution channels (like Ingram and Baker & Taylor), which is important if you want to sell your book widely and in stores. They will also set you up with warehousing and fulfillment, meaning they will store and ship out book orders as they come in. This is a giant perk to me and a big part of why I am trying a hybrid publisher for my second book. You do have to pay for upfront setup and service fees. But you don’t have to put in as much time and . . . goodbye cardboard furniture!
Traditional Publishing: They handle all of this and you don’t have to lose any sleep over it.
Money and Time
For me, self-publishing a children’s picture book has NOT been a significant or reliable source of income. It’s costly and time-consuming to make the books and takes additional time and money to market and get the book out into the world. Why do I do it? I have a passion for reading, storytelling through art, am a strong believer in the importance of diverse representation and strongly believe in the positive influence that reading can have on kids. It also ended up opening some doors to new opportunities for my business. For all of those reasons, the substantial time and financial commitments have been valuable to me in non-monetary ways. Do some soul-searching on why you want to make a children’s picture book and that might help you understand if and how you want to do it.
I’ve done Kickstarter campaigns for both of my books to fund the initial printing cost. These have been great in helping me understand how many books to order (the more books you order the less it costs per book to print), gaining some buzz around the book and of course, fronting the initial print costs. That being said, creating a successful campaign, managing the campaign while it’s running and then executing on it is very time consuming. I had a strong level of confidence going into the Kickstarter that if it got funded, I could execute and deliver what I promised to the backers. If you decide to do a Kickstarter, read up on their website about how to run a successful campaign and make sure you understand all of the fees, reward costs, shipping costs, packaging costs involved to make sure you are budgeting for everything.
Ask Yourself Questions
The best way to decide how you want to publish is to ask yourself a lot of questions: Why do you want to make this book? What are you goals for it (reach, monetary goals, non-monetary goals)? What parts of the process can you do on your own and what do you need help with from others? How much time and money are you able/willing to put towards this book? Is making books something you want to pursue as a career or is this a one-time thing? Be specific when you answer these questions and it will guide you to which direction you should go.
I hope this helps you figure out what you want to do with your book idea. Putting a book out in the world has not been easy but it’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. Hearing a child’s reaction to a book you’ve made is golden – their excitement because the character in the book has resemblance to them or hearing about how much they connected to the story or how it gave them a window into a new world. Hearing them giggle and discover new things in the illustrations. Golden.
Check out the resources below for further reading. And best wishes to you, whatever you decide to do.
“Publishing Options for Art Brands,” from February 13 Creative
February 13 Creative works with artists to help them build their art brands and businesses. They do monthly discussions on different topics that may be valuable to artists. This one was about book publishing and exploring both self-publishing and traditional publishing. I was a guest to talk about my first self-publishing experience along with Katie Daisy who has traditionally published. It costs $5 to watch (the small fee goes to F13). Beyond this video discussion, F13 is a fantastic company to consult with if you are an artist and want to dive deeper with them on building and evolving your business.
There are a number of resources on Jane Friedman’s site that I’ve found helpful including a Blog with a lot of articles that discuss self-publishing, traditional publishing and book marketing.
“Illustrating Children's Books: Creating Pictures for Publication” by Martin Salisbury
I found this book helpful especially for character development. This author has a number of other books around this topic as well.
“The Surprisingly Complex Principles of a Successful Picture Book” by Melissa Manlove
So, You’ve Written a Children’s Book…Now What? by Ariel Richardson
Article about submitting proposals to publishers. It’s worth doing more research on this topic around finding publishers with the right fit for your book, what kinds of books editors are looking for, the process of submitting and what to include in proposals.