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.
Some writers turn to self-publishing out of frustration with this system.
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.
As SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) puts it, self-publishing "is primarily for a book that will have a limited, personal audience." Many artists use self-publishing to create their own comics, zines and sketchbooks to sell online and at shows. Self-publishing can be one of many streams of income that artists can use to build our businesses.
It's pretty safe to say that very few authors and even fewer illustrators make their living purely off of self-publishing. However, many people are still under the impression that self-publishing is an easy, instant substitute for traditional publishing. 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. Don't be surprised if they offer you very low rates for your work, or even ask you to work for free. (Please don't work for free.)
Now that you understand how self-publishing works, you can make a more informed decision about which commissions to take on.
- The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children by SCBWI - essential reading for anyone interested in children's books, whether published or self-published.
- The Purple Crayon - by editor Harold Underdown, this whole site is filled with information about traditional and self-publishing
- The Cost of a Good Book - by traditionally and self-published author Brian McClellen, breaks down the costs that a publishing company might spend on producing a book. Interesting discussion in the comment section.
- Self-Published Authors: How to Contact an Illustrator - by me, explains to self-pub authors how they can go about emailing an illustrator about a project.
- How to Get Your Children's Book Illustrated - by Joie Brown, written for self-pub authors who are looking to hire an illustrator for the first time.
- Don't Work for Pure Royalties - by me, explaining why working for free on the promise of future royalties is a bad idea.