Thursday, July 23, 2015

Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: What Illustrators Need to Know

Almost every illustrator I've talked to has been contacted at some point by self-published authors looking for artwork. The self-publishing market is growing into a force to be reckoned with, so it's important that illustrators understand what it's all about.

Many people think that self-publishing and traditional publishing are the same thing, because they both use the word "publishing." The truth is that they are totally different. Here's a basic breakdown:

  • In traditional publishing, the publisher pays for all costs and takes on all the work of producing the book.
  • In self-publishing, the author pays for all costs and takes on all the work of producing the book.

Traditional publishing is when a publishing company chooses to purchase an author's manuscript. They bring on an entire team of professionals - editors, marketers, designers, art directors and others - who transform that manuscript into a sleek, shiny product. They handle the creation of e-book versions, audiobook versions and foreign translations. They work with printers, distributors and booksellers. And - most importantly for you - the publisher, not the author, hires and works with the illustrator. The publisher pays for everything, and the author receives a small percentage of the sales.

This sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? It is. The bad news is that, for authors or illustrators, it can be very difficult to get noticed by a publisher. It's simply a very competitive market, with thousands of creatives all around the world competing for the attention of editors, art directors and agents.

Self-publishing is when the author pays to have their book printed by a printing company. Or, the author sells the book as a downloadable PDF or e-book.

Editing, proofreading, design, marketing and distribution are up to the author. If they have the money, they may choose to hire freelance editors, designers and illustrators. Or they may attempt to save money by tackling every aspect of the production themselves.

Some of the benefits to self-pub are that the author has complete control over the book, the book can be produced more quickly, and the author keeps more of the profits. The biggest drawback is that most self-pub books sell very, very few copies. They have a reputation for appearing amateur, under-edited and poorly designed. Bookstores and libraries refuse to carry them, and major book reviewers will not review them, so getting a book into the public spotlight is a major challenge for all self-pub authors.

I hope I've clarified how these two types of publishing are actually completely different processes. However, many people are still under the impression that self-publishing is an easy, instant substitute for traditional publishing. Hopefully you now understand why that isn't the case.

So where does this leave illustrators?

It's pretty safe to say that very few authors and even fewer illustrators make their living purely off of self-publishing. That doesn't mean that self-publishing is bad. As SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) puts it, self-pub "is primarily for a book that will have a limited, personal audience." Some authors may choose it because their writing is too controversial for a publishing company, or the topic is extremely niche. Many artists use self-pub to create their own comics, zines and sketchbooks to sell online, at cons or through Kickstarter. Self-pub can be one of many streams of income that artists can use to build our businesses.

The problem is, as I said before, that many people think that self-pub is a quick and easy equivalent to being traditionally published. Once you start advertising yourself online as an illustrator, you will eventually be contacted by aspiring writers who have over-inflated ideas of self-publishing's money-making potential, and under-inflated ideas of how much illustrators charge. I have worked with self-published authors who were willing to pay a professional wage. But I've also turned down authors who were apparently hoping I'd work for very low pay or even for free. This is just something that happens a lot on the internet.

Now that you understand how self-publishing works, you can make a more informed decision about which commissions to take on. If you found this blog post helpful, please share it around so more authors and illustrators can read it!

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  1. Another very useful and well presented article. Awesome sauce, thank you for posting it. :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!


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