• Helen H. Wu

Traditional VS Self-Publishing: 4 Ultimate Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Make a Decision

Updated: Dec 6, 2018

As a children’s picture book author and illustrator, I have written, illustrated and self-published 10 picture books. Some of them have been Bestsellers on Amazon. Now I’m on my way to traditional publishing, so, I want to share my experience and thoughts on both sides.

A little bit of a heads up, my experience is mainly about children’s picture books. This genre highly relies on illustrations, and the printing quality of the physical book is very important. For other genres, such as adult novels or cooking books, it might be different.

1st Question to Ask Yourself: Do you want to publish just this one book, or want to make a career from writing?

Traditional publishing involves submission to agents, usually after many, many rejections and then (hopefully) being accepted. Then the agent will submit the manuscript to publishers with usually a number of rejections and then (hopefully) a contract is signed. The book will then go through more edits, revisions, and will eventually be published and available on bookstores. Obviously, for the traditional route, this process can take years to get published, and many never get published at all.

If you only want this single book out in the market, it makes sense that you go for self-publishing. But, if you see yourself making a career from writing, you have to know that all the rejections, revisions and the slow process are just part of this career choice. Being an author, especially an established author, is one of the very few jobs in this world that can give you this high level of creativity, independence, freedom, and respect. This slow process is an integral part for writers to horn their crafts, improve their writing skills, and build the network with editors and agents. For the traditional route, usually, a writer will work on several manuscripts at the same time. After they seal the deal for the first book, usually it’s much easier to make deals on their next books.

2nd Question to Ask Yourself: Is this book mostly for a very specific group, or for a national audience?

If you want to create a book for a very specific or limited market, such as a local market, or your family, or for a small niche market that you know exactly how to reach, then self-publishing the 100 or 500 or 1,000 copies of a book may be the best approach.

On the other hand, if a book has a national audience, it's extremely difficult to publish it effectively unless you publish it traditionally.

For example, you want to make a good night picture book featuring your child. The reason to make your child the main character of the story is that you think he or she is the cutest kid in the world, which I certainly believe so. But if you want this book to have a national audience, the first thing you need to consider is not how cute your child is, but how your book can stand out among all the other good night picture books out in the market. Sometimes, to use an unusual animal as the main character might be a better idea; sometimes, to use many kids rather than one kid might make the book more attractive to a broad audience.

Speaking of a broad audience, another issue for self-publishing it that it won't even get your book into bookstores, or libraries. Companies providing self-publishing services often proclaim that their books are "available" to Barnes & Noble. That doesn't mean that their books will be on the shelves in bookstores. It means that their books are listed in databases from which the customers can order. Since there will be thousands of titles from self-publishing companies listed in those databases, their books won't get to those stores unless someone orders them. For picture books, customers need to pay around $20 for a book you can finish in 5 minutes. That’s kind of pricy. Being on bookshelves and libraries to let parents or teachers or children feel the book first, can tremendously increase the chance they make a purchase later.

Also, educators and librarians, who introduce books to children, are using trade publications, reviews, and other traditional methods to guide their selections. Self-published authors need to have a very high level of proficiency in the publishing business to get this much attention.

3rd Question to Ask Yourself: What kind of budget you’d like to put into the book?

Very briefly, to get your book published, you need to get your book edited, designed, printed, promoted, reviewed, and distributed. A traditional publisher will do all these for you, which are difficult and expensive for an individual to do alone.

For traditional publishing, there are no upfront financial costs, and there's usually some kind of advance against royalties. You don't have to pay anyone to get a traditional publishing deal and if you are asked for money, then it is NOT a traditional publishing deal. It's likely to be a vanity publisher and you should be very careful.

For self-publishing, there is no advance, and you need to pay all the edit, design, illustration, and printing by yourself. For children’s book, the illustration is super important, and the book design and the printing quality plays a very important role in the reading experience. Then another issue comes up; Who is going to do the quality control of the book, to make sure it is professionally edited, illustrated, and designed? If you’re a first-time author, you may have little to no knowledge of what a professionally published book looks like. If you hire professionals, these professionals are actually working for you, and you are the boss to judge whether they do a good job or not. Even if you have some kind of knowledge of all the process, since you are not a professional in these areas, your judgment might not be professional. Your experience and knowledge already set a limit on how well your book can do. If you are lucky, you might still get a good book. But usually, it’s hard to compete with those traditionally published, unless you have been in traditional publishing and know each step thoroughly, or have put a high budget to hire the top editor, illustrator, designer, and art director from the industry.

4th Question to Ask Yourself: How much of an entrepreneur are you?

For a successful picture book, it needs three elements,1 ) a good story with good illustrations, 2) a good design and quality printing, and 3) good marketing and publicity.

Becoming a self-published author means you are fully responsible for your book’s success. You need to understand the editing or design process, or how sales and distribution work. Compared to traditional publishing, self-publishing can give you the chance to get into the marketing stage very soon. A successful self-publisher must have some level of proficiency and comfort with marketing. You need to show up and be familiar with how books get marketed and promoted in both online and local environments.

For traditional publishing, editors, cover designers, formatters and possibly, at least some level of marketing help is provided by the agent and publisher as part of the contract. Marketing efforts for publishing companies are usually to booksellers rather than consumers. The publishing companies usually have a sales team to take books to bookstores. Many authors say they “only want to write,” which is why they want a publisher to handle the rest of the marketing for them. Nowadays, traditional publishers also expect authors to do, at least some sort of, marketing on their end.

In short, if you only have one book, targeted to a specific group, or you have a budget and are willing to be an entrepreneur, self-publishing might be a good choice for you. If you want to make a career in writing, traditional publishing might be a better choice, even if it’s much slower. Of course, everyone’s situation and expectations are different. Feel free to comment below with any thoughts or questions you might have. I would love to share my thoughts on your situation.

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