Traditional Publishing versus Self-Publishing

By Tanja Bauerle – written for “The Journey”- SCBWI-AZ Newszine

I wrote a story. Now what?

The first question that comes to mind when I hear that an author is looking for an illustrator is: What are your publishing plans for your manuscript? There are two basic routes that you can look at. Those are the traditional publishing avenues or self-publishing. You are probably thinking what all that means.  I’ll give you a quick overview into both fields, but there is so much more info out there that I will also give you some resource links that you might be interested in looking into.

Traditional Publishing:

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of publishers in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Their job is to acquire manuscripts, edit and publish them and then market and sell the end product.  This is the preferred way to publish a manuscript. As an author you are not required to submit illustrations with the manuscript. In fact, publishers generally prefer to read the manuscript on its own without any illustrations at all. The manuscript must be strong enough by itself without the distractions of pictures. Also, the publisher wants to make their own decisions regarding the illustrator that will eventually illustrate the book. Personal preference, marketing, and art direction are only a few of the factors that play into the selection process of an illustrator.

Be prepared when going this route that you most likely have little or no say what will happen with the book visually. The publishers have a team of experts that know what needs to be done in order to bring the story to life. The author’s idea of what the book should look like is secondary.

The main thing to consider is that traditional publishing really is the best solution to get your book to the world. There are many quality checks in place from the editor to the art director that you do not have when self-publishing. Your end product will be the most professional and polished book you can attain, plus you have a huge marketing and distribution engine that will get the book out there.

From a cost perspective to the author, traditional publishing should not cost anything. If your manuscript is good enough to get a contract with a publishing house, you can expect an advance against future royalties to start. Once enough books have been sold to cover the advance, then royalties will follow. Of course this is only a simplistic overview. There is so much more to all of this from contracts to editing to marketing, but I could write for days to cover the basics.


In a nutshell this means that the author publishes the book completely independently of publishing houses. In a nutshell, this means a huge financial investment and well as time commitment by the author. Here is a list of some of the benefits of self-publishing followed by a list of definite draw backs.

Pros to self-publishing:

  • CONTROL: Authors have complete control of what is published. Everything from the visuals, the manuscript, the marketing and distribution is purely dependant on the author.
  • THE ABILITY TO GET PUBLISHED: Anyone can get a book published. One does not need to send the manuscript to hundreds of publishers in hopes of one day getting that elusive acceptance letter.

Cons to self-publishing:

  • CONTROL: Authors have complete control of what is published. Unfortunately, that is not always a good thing. Authors are often very attached to their written word and as a result might not be willing to make needed edits. They may not want to “butcher” their baby, which often can lead to sub-standard work.
  • COST: The cost of getting the book to market falls entirely onto the shoulders of the author. Publishing a book is very expensive and the printing of the actual book is only a drop in the bucket. Paying for an illustrator to create the illustrations can range from $8,000-$12,000 plus most established illustrators will also expect a royalty. Once you have the illustrations you will need to pay a designer to layout the book and make sure that it is in a format that a printer can handle. These are only a few of the costs that will be incurred, so you can easily see how quickly this becomes a very expensive endeavor.
  • LOW QUALITY: Oftentimes, due to the costs involved, hiring a professional illustrator might be out of the question. Most professional illustrators may also shy away from self-publishing scenarios leaving the author to having to settle with an inexperienced artist that may produce sub-standard work. Furthermore, the low quality can also pertain to badly designed books, and inferior printing runs which cost less than high end printing. As a result, there is a danger that self-publishing can produce inferior books.
  • DISTRIBUTION: Getting your book to market is a huge job. The key is to have a distributor handle distribution of your book. Unfortunately, many distributors and retail establishments choose not to carry self-published books due to the assumption that these are sub-standard.  Without a good distribution network your audience will not be able to access your book which means you will have reduced sales.
  • MARKETING: This is a huge element that is often overlooked by self-publishers. If people don’t know about your book they won’t be able to buy it. Reviews, endorsements, awards, book signings, school and library visits, are just a few of the things that the author will be responsible for to let the world know about their book. This is extremely time-consuming and over-whelming to only one person.

It might appear that based on the above that I am not a supporter of self-publishing. That is not the case. I just want to point out that there are very many things to consider when looking at the route of self-publishing. The reason that there are many inferior self-published books out there is that people don’t realize all that is involved with this avenue. The quality still needs to be there, even if it is a self-published piece.

A huge resource and a must have for anyone wanting to learn more about Children’s Publishing is a book that comes out every year that lists all the publishers and their requirements and contact info. It’s called: “Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market”.  There is also a really good section in the book that talks about the process of submitting manuscripts and the do’s and don’ts associated with the process.

One good recommendation would be to connect with other children’s’ writers in your area and have them critique your manuscript. It is really good to get the input from others who are not so close to your manuscript. Often you’ll come away with great input about character development, voice, plot, etc. You can look at for possible critique groups.

I hope that this has at least helped a little with shedding some light on the world of children’s publishing.

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