To self-publish or not to self-publish? For many aspiring children’s book authors, that is the question. In fact, as a children’s book author myself, it’s one of the questions I receive most frequently. While there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to publishing, I believe that fully understanding your options can help you decide.
In this article, I'll break down the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing so that you can make an informed decision about which option is the best for you.
How Traditional Publishing Works
First, let’s chat a bit about traditional publishing. Typically, in order to get a book deal from a traditional publishing company, you would submit a book proposal and wait for the publisher to send you their response. If you finally get a publisher to say yes, congratulations! If not, don’t be discouraged. Although you may think your book is the best book ever written (don’t we all!), rejections are common for a variety of reasons and in many cases, it’s just not a good fit for the publisher.
Once you have a book deal, your publishing company will be in charge of hiring and paying all of the people who will bring your book to life, from editors to illustrators to cover designers and more. As a traditionally published author, you will not pay anything for your book to be published. Once your book is published, the publisher will own the rights to your book and you will receive a royalty for every book sold. On average royalty rates are between 5% to 15%.
How Self-Publishing Works
Self-publishing works a bit differently. While traditional publishers manage and cover the costs of the entire publishing process, from editing to illustrations to cover design and typesetting, as a self-publisher you will be responsible for doing all of the work yourself. Now, this absolutely does not mean that you will have to draw your own illustrations, edit your own book, or design your own cover. In fact, unless you are a professional, I highly discourage you from even thinking of doing any of those things on your own. Instead, if you plan to self-publish your children’s book, you will hire your own illustrator, editor, cover designer, etc. Freelance websites such as Upwork.com or Freelancer.com make it incredibly easy to find professionals who specialize in all of the above and cater to all budgets.
If the thought of having to hire your own freelancers sounds overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask other authors for recommendations.
Once your book is published, you will own the rights to your book and you will earn a royalty for every book sold. The percentage will depend on where you sell your book.
6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Deciding if You Should Self-Publish Your Children's Book
Now that you understand the primary differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, here are six questions to help you get clear on which publishing path to take:
1. Do you want full creative control over your book?
When you are traditionally published, the publisher is the boss and will make all of the decisions about your book. They will have their own vision for your book that may or may not match what you envisioned while writing it. You won’t have much say in the creative process and you may be asked to make changes to your book, from the plot to the way the characters look, to the title. If you don’t mind having someone else make decisions about your book, this may not be a deal breaker for you.
On the contrary, as a self-publisher, you’re the boss. You control every aspect of your book. You get to choose your own illustrator instead of having a traditional publisher select one for you. You get to maintain control of your creative vision without a traditional publisher having control over your story, title, illustrations, and cover design.
Want your book cover to use a specific font and be a specific color? Tell your cover designer exactly what you want.
Want a specific style of whimsical illustration similar to one of your favorite books you read as a child? Hire an illustrator that draws in that style.
One of the major reasons I decided to self-publish my own children’s books is because I wanted full creative control of my content and my characters.
I knew what I wanted to publish, I knew who my audience was, and I knew that the market was hungry for more diverse characters so instead of searching for someone else to publish me, I published myself.
2. Is your book time-sensitive?
Traditionally publishing a book usually takes 18-24 months. During that time period, if someone else publishes a book very similar to yours, you could lose your book deal. The timeline for self-publishing, on the other hand, is largely determined by you.
Once you have finished writing your book and your illustrations, typesetting, and cover design are done, the actual process of publishing only takes a few minutes and your book will be listed online a few days later. For context, I typically provide a timeline of 4 months from the date I begin working with a children’s author’s finished manuscript until the date that their book is self-published.
That’s significantly faster than traditional publishing.
If you want to get your book in the hands of readers as quickly as possible, self-publishing is the method for you.
3. Do you already have an audience?
Are you a popular professional in your industry? Are you a micro-influencer? Are you Instagram famous?
In today’s social media driven society, many people have used digital platforms to grow an audience of fans online. If you already have any sort of influence or a following, self-publishing could be a good option for you because you won’t have to work as hard to sell your book.
Imagine if a popular mom blogger who focuses on potty training techniques released a children’s book about potty training. She would have a preexisting audience ready and waiting to purchase her book. So, that’s something to consider when deciding whether or not to self-publish. You don’t need to have a large social media following ahead of time—I certainly didn’t. However, if you do, you will have an advantage when it comes to both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many traditional publishers now look at your social media following and level of influence when reviewing your proposal, so that could give you a leg up when trying to get a book deal.
4. Do you need your book to be in bookstores?
Traditional publishers will handle the retail distribution of your book. As a self-published author, contrary to popular belief, it’s not impossible to get your books into bookstores. My books are in bookstores all around the world so I know for a fact that it’s possible.
The caveat? It’s not automatic. You may have to reach out to bookstores directly and market your books to them in order to get a coveted spot on their shelves.
Sometimes this is a deal breaker for aspiring children’s authors who dream of their books being in major bookstores around the world. If you’re feeling a bit discouraged about the extra work, I have one question for you: When was the last time you purchased a book from a physical bookstore? Sometimes when I ask this, people realize that they haven’t actually visited a bookstore in years. If you tend to purchase your books online (as many people do), self-publishing makes it easy to sell your books to people all around the world, and being in major bookstores may not be as much of a deal breaker as you originally thought.
5. Can you afford to self-publish?
Self-publishing a book, especially a children’s book, requires an investment of time and money. Whereas a novel would not typically require illustrations, beautifully illustrated picture books come at a cost that you will have to pay upfront. Illustrations range greatly in price, depending on the illustrator, and the cost to produce a picture book will vary for that reason.
Having said that, I would plan to budget a minimum of $5000-$7000 to bring your children’s book to life.
Looking at the lower end of my estimate, let me break that down a bit: in a standard 32-page picture book, a $5000 budget would roughly be the equivalent of 16 typeset two-page spread illustrations at $250 each ($4000), plus $500 for an editor, and $500 for a cover design.
Now this is just an example, there are no hard and fast rules for how much it costs to produce a professional, nicely illustrated children’s book and many factors play a role in the price. In your search for freelancers, you will find illustrators that charge less than $250 per page and ones that charge triple that. The same goes for editors or cover designers. The power of self-publishing, however, is that you can set your budget and find freelancers who can work within those means. Be sensible. If you know you have a budget of $5000, don’t try to hire the popular award-winning illustrator that charges $5000 per page. You can’t publish a book with only one page, no matter how nicely it’s drawn!
If you can’t currently afford to cover the costs of self-publishing, consider a crowdfunding campaign to get an injection of cash that you can put towards your publishing endeavor. Or, simply devise a strategy to save until you get the amount of money you need to publish your book.
If none of these options work and you won’t have or be able to raise the money to self-publish your book, traditional publishing will be a better route for you since it does not require an upfront investment of money.
6. Do you have the time to invest in self-publishing?
When you finished writing your book, you probably thought the hard work was done. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the journey has only just begun.
Getting your book into print will take time, especially as you do the research necessary to find an illustrator, make sure you have proper contracts in place, find an editor, and go through the publishing process. Once your book is published, you will want to take time to market your book, do book readings, and connect with your readers. If you want to self-publish but want someone else to do the work of finding and hiring freelancers for you, you may benefit from working with a publishing agency or reputable self-publishing service that can do the hard work for you.
If you just want to write your book and have it traditionally published without any further time commitment on your part in terms of marketing and promotion, you may be surprised to know that many traditional publishers will expect you to get out and do a lot of work to promote your own book. Whichever option you choose, a children’s book that isn’t marketed will see very few sales so if you plan to publish without marketing, I don’t suggest you self-publish unless you enjoy wasting money or your book is just a passion project you don’t plan to sell many copies of.
Whether you choose to self-publish or pursue a book deal with a traditional publisher, I encourage you not to get stuck in a state of indecision. There is no right or wrong answer here, simply choose the option that suits you and your book the best. Once your book is published and in the hands of adoring little readers, trust me, they won’t know the difference!