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.

Some writers turn to self-publishing out of frustration with this system.

Self-publishing is when the author pays to have their book printed by a printing company. Or, the author assembles the book as a PDF and sells it in e-book form.

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.

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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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